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Funny side of life, death and taking a leap of faith

ON STAGE What: 7 Stories Where: Metro Studio, 1411 Quadra St. When: Opens Friday, continues Saturday (2 p.m., 7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (2 p.m.) Tickets: $18, $15 (McPherson box office, tel. 250 386-6121) In Victoria, Liza Balkan gets to be top dog.

ON STAGE

What: 7 Stories

Where: Metro Studio,

1411 Quadra St.

When: Opens Friday, continues Saturday (2 p.m., 7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (2 p.m.)

Tickets: $18, $15 (McPherson box office, tel. 250 386-6121)

In Victoria, Liza Balkan gets to be top dog.

Finally.

The Toronto actor, playwright and director is in town to oversee 7 Stories, a 1989 Morris Panych play being staged by Canadian College of Performing Arts students.

This Jessie-Award-winning black comedy is about a bowler-hatted man who's contemplating jumping from a seventh-storey ledge to his death. As director, Balkan is literally running the show.

It's a switch from January 2000, when she travelled to Victoria to play the title role in A.R. Gurney's play Sylvia for the Belfry Theatre. The character of Sylvia is a dog who waddles on all fours, scratches and sniffs.

That wasn't so bad. However, Balkan recalls battling with another dog during rehearsals -- a real one -- for doggie dominance. She prepared for Sylvia by studying the movements of Chokydar, a chocolate Lab owned by fellow cast member Rod Beattie. Chokydar was useful in showing Balkan how to "fetch" and the like.

"It's true," she said. "There were times when Chokydar would come in and do the scene, then we'd learn to do the scene."

However, the dog ultimately became jealous of Balkan, perhaps viewing her as a rival for his master's attention. And if there was going to be one alpha dog, it was going to be Chokydar.

"Our relationship actually changed," she said. "It was very weird."

7 Stories -- previously staged by the University of Victoria's theatre department in 1997 -- is a strange existential romp.

The bowler-hatted would-be suicide artist is interrupted by people who come to chat: a paranoid psychiatrist, a religious fanatic, a party host who sets fires to expel unwanted guests.

A key challenge, says Balkan, is having all the action take place on a window ledge -- an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin proposition that requires inventive blocking.

She got tips on directing the show from none other than Panych himself. Both worked the Stratford Festival last summer -- Panych with his adaptation of Moby Dick, and Balkan helping direct Euripides's The Trojan Women and Shakespeare's All's Well That End's Well.

The Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning director has also spoken to arts college students about life beyond theatre school. After graduating from New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Balkan did it all -- everything from humble school tours to "off-off-off-Broadway" plays. Later, she put her early dance training to use, performing with national tours of West Side Story and Cats.

Balkan stresses the need to be flexible in earning a living in theatre. For instance, her mid-career gigs included doing the voice-over for Sailor Mercury in the animated TV series, Sailor Moon. She has even taken role-playing jobs in the corporate sector, teaching businessmen how to deal with difficult customers and helping fledgling doctors "deal with patients as though they're human beings and not just an illness."

Recently, Balkan directed a "guerrilla opera" production. Opera on the Rocks is a fringe-style show about hockey, Internet dating and sex. It was performed in a downtown Toronto pub amid patrons who swigged beer and munched french fries.

Her next venture is a semi-autobiographical play. In 2000, Balkan witnessed the fatal beating of Otto Vass in Toronto. She testified about watching the beating of the father of five from her apartment window across the street. Four Toronto police officers were later found not guilty of manslaughter.

Balkan is using her memories and court transcripts to create a theatre piece. A half-hour segment of this work-in-progress will debut at a Toronto festival in February. It's just one more example of how one must be resourceful and open-minded to survive as a Canadian theatre artist, she said.

"The courtroom is itself a form of theatre -- and the way in which the defence lawyers questioned me. There were many theatrical overtones."

achamberlain@tc.canwest.com

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