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New play highlights the power of imagery

Michelle Polak

Dora Award-winning actress, creator, teacher and director Michelle Polak will mark her 25nd anniversary with Theatre Gargantua by playing the role of Roula in the world premiere of Reflector, which runs from Nov. 2-18 at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto.

Reflector is an image-rich, highly physical piece, which is loosely inspired by the world’s reaction to the photo of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy whose stirring image created an incredible outcry. Reflector explores the power of imagery, as a means of communication and inciting people to action. Reflector uses Theatre Gargantua’s trademark physical style and multi-disciplinary approach to present the story.

Polak’s character, Roula, has a specific condition called hyperthymesia. “It is a condition that very few people have. Approximately around puberty, they have an autobiographical memory of every date, every hour, and they review it in exact detail,” explains Polak.

“What unites all the characters is that they have all had a shocking response to this one photograph. When that photo of Alan Kurdi hit the news, as artists, we responded, and as a world, we responded. So in Reflector, we were looking at this idea of the hopefulness around how this one image did change the world and mobilized a movement.”

The fictionalized characters all find themselves in the office of a neuroscientist who is studying the brain and how it works. Each character has a different response to the photograph.

“When I go on stage, it is a heart gift,” she says. “I will give all of myself for the 90 minutes and if people respond and take something from it, then I know I have done my job. I think we are living at a time right now where we can choose what lens (to) look through. If we continuously gaze through the lens of darkness and despair, that is all we will see. For the most part, humans are wonderful.

“The news is pushing all of the horror, but there are beautiful stories of heroism and random acts of kindness, and if one photograph can change the world and mobilize us to bring our best selves forth … that is extremely hopeful.”

Polak attended Hebrew school, but became a non-believer because she couldn’t believe that God would kill babies during the Holocaust.

Three years ago, she came across Shir Libeynu, a modern Jewish congregation led by Rabbi Aviva Goldberg, who is queer, as is Polak.

“I found myself able to question and to find rich meaning in the parts of Judaism that resonate and discard the parts that don’t resonate and still feel welcomed,” she said.

“I am being led by a very strong, powerful thinker – a woman who leads with inclusivity.… In some places, homosexuality is forbidden, so I didn’t know if I had a place in this religion. The religion is about debating and questioning and that is how being Jewish affects my work.”

Through this experience, she began researching her Jewish history. Polak’s Dutch grandfather was an Auschwitz survivor, but many of her family members were wiped out during the Holocaust and those who survived were left wandering, looking for a home. Polak says she couldn’t watch another group of displaced people, like the Syrians, without responding immediately through her art and her political activism.

For Polak, who has graced stages in Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, and is a mother of two and step-mother to three, Reflector’s message hit home. She is a founding parent of The Globe Community School, which focuses on social justice, environmentalism and activism. The school privately mobilized and sponsored a family of 10 from Syria.

Reflector was conceived and directed by Jacquie P.A. Thomas and written by Michael Spence.