Sébastien Heins
As BROTHERHOOD - THE HIP HOPERA is slated to be staged in the city followed by performances in Bangalore, we speak to Jamaican-Canadian performer Sébastien Heins about his acclaimed one-man show - a different kind of high-energy musical, which has its roots in theatre school.

 By Deepa Punjani

Deepa Punjani (DP): There's a story spanning several years, going back and forth in your show, and you turned to Hip Hop to give it a form. Did the two ideas emerge together or did form follow content?

Sébastien Heins (SH): The content followed the form (rather). I listened to, danced to, and mimed while Hip Hop music was playing to unlock key story elements, like car crashes, the flights of angels, and the way characters move. To give a metaphor, my imagination was the plane, the story was the sky, and Hip Hop was the jet fuel.

DP: This is a story about family, about two brothers...what led you to it?

SH: In theatre school we were tasked with creating a 15-minute solo show. As a jumping off point, we had to come up with a burning question we wanted to explore. My burning question was ''What if I had had a brother?'' As an only child, this question unlocked tonnes of thoughts and feelings in me about family, loneliness, camaraderie, and love. That one question made me ask 50 more questions after that, about brothers and family, and how much we mean to each other.

DP: Hip Hop is a distinctive genre – a cultural movement that was nonetheless shaped by black politics and activism. Do these elements feature in your show?

SH: The show exists in our world, despite being fantastical and surreal in many moments, so it doesn't shut itself out from issues I often think about. In the show, my thoughts about black celebrity, black incarceration, and media coverage of black people comes out. That said, they're aren't the sole focus in the show. They're brushstrokes on a bigger canvas.

DP: What were your early thoughts when you started working on the piece?

SH: Part of the theatre school assignment that I refer to earlier was to create something that brings us pleasure as performers in every moment we're performing our one-person piece. I think my pleasure and love for hip hop and intense physical storytelling was a litmus test when deciding ''Is this what I want to do with my 15 minutes?'' It's kind of a funny parallel to Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame idea. If you had 15 minutes of fame, what would you do with it?

DP: You mentioned in one of your interviews that you would like to take the show to Jamaica. Has that happened?

SH: Almost every year, we've been approached about taking the show to the Caribbean and to Jamaica, but a viable path hasn't been found yet. Touring isn't cheap, and the show is at a place that when we put it out, we want to put our designers and team as envisioned, which is more technically demanding, and thus more expensive.

DP: Solo performances are challenging and physical theatre is demanding. How do you cope?

SH: I thrive! I've had injuries mid-performance, doubts, and personal shame, but it's the act of doing the show that frees me. Sometimes the world of a performer gets very dark, and I need to sing, dance, shout, laugh, and fight in order to brighten it. In those challenging moments, I remember that great Roosevelt quote, ''It is not the critic who counts...the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.'' That idea gives me a lot of strength.

DP: Do you improvise in your shows?

SH: Yes. More than my director, Karin, wants me to! I improvise to keep things alive for me and the audience. New lines might come out. New levels of depth naturally occur when I don't 100% stick to my script in certain scenes. Some scenes actually land better when I try to forget what I'm gonna say next.

DP: What has been the most special thing about this performance for you?

SH: I think the thing I'll remember the most about BROTHERHOOD when I'm an old man are the moments of flight in the show. There are moments when I feel like I'm flying on stage, and the audience is flying right next to me. It's a powerful feeling that always stirs me.

DP: The United Solo festival in NYC at which your show featured brought you fame. What has been your journey since the 'Best Emerging Artist' award?

SH: While I wouldn't say United Solo brought me fame, I'd say it gave me the credibility and the foot in the door I needed to be taken seriously as a recent graduate of theatre school. Since that time I've had incredible opportunities to make art I care about, with teams I love to work with, like the immersive company 'Outside the March Theatre Co'., with whom I've worked on groundbreaking productions that have won incredibly generous recognition. I continue to be curious about film, virtual reality, and new storytelling models for theatre, and I embark on new projects that reflect that. One of my biggest dreams was to work at the Stratford Festival, a North American mecca for classical theatre, a dream which came true. I'll be heading there to perform in the 2017 season right after our shows in Bangalore! I guess my journey has been ''to emerge,'' to question what I'm doing, to work with people I admire, work on my craft, and make great things for great audiences all over the world - which it feels like I'm doing right now.

DP: You have a solo festival of your own in Halifax - 'Soloicious' since 2012. What kind of solo plays do you find exciting to invite?

SH: When I was curating the festival, I was excited about exceptional local dancers, actors, and musicians, and also putting the spotlight on ''non-performers'' like chefs, photographers, and installation artists, and watching them make a dish, describe a photograph, or string a puppet. Watching our lineups was like experiencing an unexpected playlist. It's exciting to celebrate the craft of people we don't consider ''performers.'' I liked 'Soloicious' because it captured the moments of magic that many people don't notice. I like celebrating the best in other people.

Deepa Punjani is the Editor of this website.

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