Dec 26, 2008

Linky Goodness


It's been a long time. Too long.

Between family drama and... more family drama, it's been a challenging time. The holidays always tend to throw a wrench into things too. For now, some linky goodness -thoughts on a few things that have been sitting on online tabs now for ages, and deserve a line or two.

First, and most recently, Harold Pinter has died. Pinter was one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century, and, for many of us drama students, was our first introduction to truly disturbing characters. Disturbing, because they said so little, but conveyed so much. Silence, in Pinter's hands, became a weapon, a shield, an absolute zero, to be placed within any and every concept of one's choosing. From his written work, he seemed to love actors -and he trusted them. I workshopped scenes for Old Times during my time living in London, England, reading the part of Anna. I'll never forget the whirlwind of possibilities that swirled around a perfect eye of stillness within Pinter's writing. It was after that experience that I began to realize just how much Pinter changed the course of modern drama. Grazie, Harold.

Switching gears, this article from the Guardian examines the changing role of theatre writing and criticism in the internet age. Fascinating, challenging, compelling. Being a person who cares deeply about the intersections between culture and technology, I am still flummoxed at the level of ignorance displayed by those in ... let's just say other, arts-related areas, who ought to be more concerned about reaching new and younger audiences. Internet reporting is going to become the cornerstone in arts reportage, and yet there still exists this strange attitude (is it endemic to the Canadian persona?) that online reporting isn't somehow as relevant or "real" as print or broadcasting. Well, I guess it depends who you're marketing to, and writing for. Rule #1 of writing: know your audience. But to quote the article's author, Andrew Dickson (bold mine):
it's important for editors to commission robustly independent reviews; but it's also important for us to encourage differing opinions, and allow people to tell us about things we've missed, whether the price of tickets or the horrors of restricted-view seats. Yes, we should support specialist voices and encourage experienced judgment, but we shouldn't allow theatre critics to become isolated from what's happening in other art forms or the wider world. Yes, we should care about the written word and encourage it to flourish – but we must also experiment with other ways of reaching audiences too, whether it's via video, social networking, Twitter, or whatever else is waiting round the corner. Yes, we should cover shows when they open, but we shouldn't shackle ourselves to a diary decided in advance by PR companies, as if every performance after press night wasn't worth bothering with.
While we're on Twitter, a fascinating article from the New York Times about the mini version of blogging; I have a theory Twittering could be the next big trend in arts criticism and writing. Can you imagine reading Twitters on the latest theatre shows, concerts, films, even television? And then gathering up a bunch of Twitters on the same? Talk about a conversation-starter (or two). The possibilities are endless.

So is print really dying? Or is it -like radio -just re-defining itself and its audience? Here's a good piece on how employees of Denver's newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, are using the internet to try to save their paper. Interesting, how it takes a crisis to provoke a marriage -it's usually the other way around, but in these times, everything is gone topsy-turvy. I still wonder what print writers -specifically arts journalists -think the whole online/print/economic situation might ultimately mean for them (us). I ran into a major Toronto critic who works in both print and radio earlier this month; she said her outlets are "going the way of the doh-doh bird" and encouraged me to continue pursuing online opportunities. Who knows, she said, "I could be working for you someday." It was the weirdest compliment ever, and, come to think of it, quite Pinter-esque.

Dec 3, 2008

Drama Is...

There's certainly plenty of great drama out there lately.

If you're in London, there's the Tony Award-winningAugust: Osage County. New York has the recently extended one-man show Taking Over, while Chicago has Lynn Nottage's Ruined. If you're in Toronto, there's no shortage of goodness either, with the disturbingly brilliant Festen running into next week, and Frank McGuinness' timely (timeless?) Someone Who'll Watch Over Me opening this Saturday.

But oh, the best drama for us Canucks right now is in our own Parliament. The drama! The speeches! The fist-shaking fury! It would all be very entertaining, if it weren't also real. Ouch. The best part is the level of engagement it's provoked among average Canadians; considering our last election saw some of the worst voter turnout rates in electoral history, being a part of something so starkly different in terms of mood and passion is... refreshing. The downside is the deep cracks in unity the Ottawa drama is revealing to all of us. Forget the "one" part; we're just simply "not the same." Or so we're being told.

Objectively interesting as it all may be, the cause of national unity isn't helped by our politicians giving deeply dramatic, occasionally hysterical Bernhard-meets-Kean performances. Makes the fuss over the use of a real skull in an RSC version of Hamlet seem tame by comparison. Then again, I can think of a few people who feel as if their own skulls have been bashed around, watching the frantic arm-flapping of Canadian politicians over the last week. I can only hope there's a great playwright (or two) watching, listening, and writing. We're going to need someone to make sense of this for us, and I can't think of any other way to see it, other than a dramatic presentation in the theatre. If Frost/Nixon taught me anything, it's that human behaviour is often at its most desperate and revealing when put through the fire of politics. Stay tuned for it: Harper Hears A Hoard, on tour soon.

Nov 29, 2008

Staging War

I came across a fascinating piece on the art of staging warfare yesterday. Written by British freelance journalist and indie theatre director Imogen Russell Williams, the piece explores the whys and wherefores of staging war onstage, noting, quite rightly I think, that most theatre directors revert to some kind of cinematic equivalent in depicting fights. In reading her description of shadow play and slow-motion moves, I couldn't help but think of the innumerable productions I've sat through where both were utilized, along with pyrotechnics. To quote Williams:
Bang! Flash! Up goes a huge pile of money in undulating smoke. We're supposed to find it impressive that such crashes, bangs and wallops can be achieved even though we're in a theatre, not a cinema. But it's probably the uniting factor in bad stage warfare that director and production team are determined to pull off the cinematically spectacular even though they're making a play, not a film.
This explains (at least partly) why I didn't like Black Watch, part of Luminato this past summer. Or why so many productions of Shakespeare (and one of Marlowe) in Stratford have been disappointing; lost in the wonder of great acting, design, and staging, I've found myself jolted out of the spell by ridiculous, over-the-top fight/warfare scenes.

Note to theatre directors: try talking with some of this city's awesome puppeteers. Work with them. They're super-creative. Incorporating puppetry is just what The National Theatre in England has done with War Horse. Williams says this production changed her mind about the depiction of war onstage, and from what I've read, the piece seems genuinely moving, and thought-provoking. Puppets aren't just for kids, and never have been.

Nov 27, 2008

Link Love

A few gorgeous tidbits of theatre-rama from around the web today:

Gerald Schoenfeld, Chairman of the American Shubert Organization, has died. He was responsible for bringing many of the big shows (like Cats, Phantom, and A Chorus Line to Broadway. His obituary from the New York Times is here (you'll have to register, but I guarantee you, it's worth it). Schoenfeld was an interesting figure; while he had a lot of detractors, no one in the industry would deny his importance within the theatre world. Rocco Landesman, President of rival Jujamcyn Theatres, credits Schoenfeld with saving commercial theatre. He may not have been popular in not-for-profit circles -"There’s no profit like not-for-profit," he used to say -but reading his obit, I can't help but think that his approach is such a good model for theatre, all theatre, anywhere. From the big things to the small things, Schoenfeld never left any detail to chance, and he fought for his productions. He also gave a lot of people jobs and consistent work. And, to quote the article, "Mr. Schoenfeld argued tirelessly that the theater was an economic engine for the city and deserved greater help from City Hall." Now there's something we can get behind.

CBC Arts Online reports that British Columbia arts groups are buckling down in light of this week's B.C. Ballet layoffs. They're also thinking more about marketing -which probably makes sense for all arts groups right now, really. For example:
Ballet Victoria, a smaller ballet company than Ballet BC with just 10 dancers, is very aware of the need to attract new audiences.

Artistic director Paul Destrooper said he always programs unusual works that might attract audiences that don't normally come to the ballet.

"We draw in the audience with a bit of a surprise. I always build my season with one big ballet that will draw a crowd that might not necessarily see classical ballet, and then when they see the level of the dancers and the choreography they're drawn to other works," he said.
That's just how it's done.

Over at the Guardian, Christine Bacon, the Director of Actors For Human Rights with UK-based theatre company iceandfire, rebuts the notion that theatre can't respond with appropriate swiftness to current events. Not only is theatre able to do this with the required fast action, but, she argues, it should. And it doesn't depend on funding, either:
Because we use a rolling cast of actors who donate their time and have no technical requirements, we can provide a "rapid response" event for whichever organisation asks us to turn up. We normally perform in churches, village halls, pubs and lecture rooms – anywhere we're invited, really – eliminating the usually prohibitive cost of hiring a theatre space. This method allows us to act as messengers; rushing the urgent news to audiences who need to hear it now – not, in two year's time, when the Arts Council funding has come through. It's the economy and portability of the concept that really allows us to deal directly with some of the most pertinent issues of the day...

It reminded me of Kelly Nestruck's columns from earlier this year about the lack of current events being portrayed on Canadian stages lately (if anyone can find that link, post it please). Theatre is Territory has opened up the discussion about politics and theatre because of the article. Hopefully it generates a good discussion. Theatre can be, and is, many things to many people, and I believe there's room for all of us -to learn, to grow, and to expand.

Off to see Soulpepper's A Christmas Carol tonight; I've not seen their production, or indeed, any production of Dickens' classic tale, onstage, ever. Friday's booked for Canstage's It's A Wonderful Life, the staging of which I find greatly intriguing; it's set as a radio play, which hits a personal/professional interest-button. But thematically, both are more than just jovial feel-good tales. As Richard Ouzounian wrote, no two works could be more relevant in this economically harsh festive season.

Nov 26, 2008

Lovely Peggy

Amidst a day filled with news of job loss, bombings, and gloomy predictions, I found myself meditating over the final scene in Radio Play. Dancer Peggy Baker and actor Michael Healey sit together, on a raised table, their faces nearly touching, their hands joined. It's the end of a beautiful, poetic journey, and a powerful symbol of connection.

Though I'm not well-versed in modern dance, I found myself entirely entranced with the movement-meets-theatre piece. It asks nothing more than turning off that part of your brain that constantly seeks to understand, to make sense of, to explain. As Marcel Duchamp said, "This desire to understand everything fills me with horror." Like art, there's something resoundingly primal about dance -particularly modern dance. One either reacts by shutting down at its confounding nature, or opens up entirely to its instinctual roots. I found myself willingly knocking down my walls of intense rationalism watching Radio Play, frequently relating to the trials and frustrations faced by Marnie (played by Peggy Baker); the changing nature of her relationship with Angus (played by Healey) was equally compelling, and was expressed with brushes of subtlety and grace.

I also found myself connecting some of the issues Radio Play raises -namely the idea around how artists make a living -with yesterday's layoff of the members of the B.C. Ballet. There is still a predominant attitude, at least in certain circles, that working as an artist doesn't constitute "real art." I'd argue that a dancer is every bit as vital to the economy as a Magna employee. And after seeing a piece like Radio Play, I'm more convinced than ever of the importance and vitality of culture in harsh times. It's only by turning that needling, analytical voice off, and allowing a few subconscious realizations, that one finds any sense of clarity. If you're in or around Toronto, run -there are only three more performances.

Nov 25, 2008

More Than Ever

The Rape of Europa is a stunning documentary. It traces the systematic looting and destruction of personal property by the Nazis during World War Two. It also explores the extensive efforts of those across Europe to protect some of the world's greatest masterpieces. I couldn't help but feel, in watching it, a strange connection with those who helped to pack the entire contents of the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Uffizi; I'd have done the exact same thing -if I'd been lucky enough to escape the trains going to Bergen-Belsen, that is. The film shows just how much the Nazis understood the importance of art; they were thieves, yes, but they were smart thieves. They comprehended the ways in which culture could shape and manipulative society as a whole.

So with a mix of hope and resignation I read this morning's latest news about the Canadian Portrait Gallery; apparently those involved with getting the gallery an actual, real building are going back to Plan A -to use the existing former U.S. embassy in Ottawa. It makes financial sense, and, it's just sitting there: why not use it? Still, I feel like hauling Mr. Harper away from High School Musical and forcing him to watch The Rape of Europa. I'm not implying one's better than the other -they are clearly different beasts -but I think it might be worth a couple hours of our PM's time. The scenes of jubilant Florentines crying and madly applauding as the trucks containing their city's art return is very moving. I wonder if he'd understand the larger truth of that scene.

Equally, I wonder what Canadian mayors would make of London mayor Boris Johnson's recent proposal outlining strategies for the arts. Could we see any of them doing such a thing? Hmm. Of course there are very pressing concerns right now, but I think a bit of balance is in order right now, considering the hysterical nature of the times. Guardian writer Charlotte Higgins' recent post on the cultural initiatives of "Bojo" is very interesting, and this line struck me, hard (italics mine):
I also agree with the authors of the report when they write the following: "It is often presumed that young people will only like art that they can immediately relate to. Working-class students may be steered towards popular culture like hip-hop, new media and film, on the basis that they will find older art forms like opera or ballet irrelevant. This approach patronises young people and limits their horizons. With proper support and encouragement, arts organisations can play a big role in opening young people's minds, and deepening their appreciation of culture from any time or place." It's about time someone put that thought in black and white.
In light of that, I decided to send the link, with highlighted quote, along to a number of leaders of arts organizations. Happily, I've received numerous positive responses, too, among them a hearty "hear, hear!" from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a heartfelt 'thank-you' from the Theatre Centre, and this, from Marilyn Field, the head of DAREarts:
I'm not a blogger on internet writer / reader BUT I must address this (or you for me) since our 13 year experience working with 'at risk' kids aged 9 to 14 from Canada's cities, small towns and rural areas has been that our young people are IMMEDIATELY INSPIRED by opera, ballet, Shakespeare, etc. The criteria is NOT working through their popular culture BUT RATHER presenting them with EXCELLENCE. Seeing my inner city, at risk, 14 year old students lining up after an Esprit Orchestra concert to get autographs of composer R. Murray Schaefer was my first revelation that if we give our kids excellence, they will identify with it and want it more in their lives.
Art matters to people -even, or especially, in these harsh economic times. No matter what form the hardship has taken, humanity has endured, and an expression of that triumph is the place that art and culture are given in our society.

Now open the damn Portrait Gallery already. Sheesh.

Nov 20, 2008

Soulpepper Loves The Magyars

Miklos Laszlo, Ferenc Molnar, Laszlo Marton. What’s up with Soulpepper and the Hungarians? Is it the drama? The comedy? Perhaps the strange sense of isolation some (me) argue the country has from its European brethen?

Whatever the case, Albert Schultz & Co. seem quite enamoured with my kinsman’s theatre artists. Marton, a Soulpepper favourite, will be returning to Toronto to direct Molnar’s The Guardsmen, a play about deception, fidelity and the sometimes-complicated world of male-female relationships. It runs late August through the fall.

Parfumerie
, by Miklos Laszlo, was used as the basis for both the musical She Loves Me and the film You've Got Mail. It will be performed November through late December, providing a fascinating contrast to much of the city's annual December fare.

I don’t have a lineage of theatre artists I hail from –or at least none that I am aware of –but I vividly (and fondly) remember my first taste of theatre. It was at the Stratford Festival, where I sat, an enthralled grade-school kid, through the ramblingly surreal Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, one of Stoppard’s great works. Up until then, my life had mainly been coloured through the lens of music. My father’s position as a musician was the catalyst for my first forays into culture; operas and symphonies were just the norm for me growing up. I still love music, but theatre, more than any other art form, has been what’s inspired me, called me back, and seduced me time and time again over the years.

It will be interesting to note the musicality of translation in the Laszlo and Molnar works, as well as the ways in which director Marton will utilize actual music in the latter. His productions of Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters were notable for the ways they used their scores to highlight the most tender, inexpressible moments. While markedly different, what each work shares is an interestingly harmony of high and low notes. The dark subtext of each provides a satisfyingly nasty edge. It’s like eating a rich goulash with a huge dollop of sour cream: all smooth and creamy on the top, with a rich, meaty interior. Comedy with drama, that leaves you full and nourished by the end.

Kind of reminds me of Soulpepper's production of The Odd Couple this past season, actually. You think it’s a comedy, but… think again. That, to me, is the magic of doing works like The Guardsman and Parfumerie. Forget the Hungarian Suicide Song; this is the real thing.

Nov 19, 2008

Thank You, Clive

Clive Barnes, the venerable theatre and dance critic for the New York Post, has passed away.

I had the opportunity to meet Barnes in 1995 when I traveled to New York City for a much-praised production of Hamlet that featured Ralph Fiennes as the melancholy Prince. We met at Cafe Un Deux Trois, just beside the Belasco Theatre, and he regaled my friend and I with his great tales one splendid evening. He was, to quote fellow theatre critic John Simon, "charming, witty and learned." Just so.

Barnes was a big personal inspiration, and he will be very missed.

Nov 18, 2008

Confusion Reigns

I don't know what to make of this.

My first feeling is that $100,000 could be so much better-spent inviting Canadian groups to present their works overseas. It would certainly go farther. Artists, last I checked, could barely afford their rent, let alone fancy hotels or European jaunts.

However, my second instinct says Canada's Governor-General is a really good ambassador to sell Canada's cultural industry abroad. It's part of her function, and it's good to have a smart, accomlished, classy figure like Michaelle Jean as the public face of this country internationally.

In stark contrast to those who feel that $100,000 is too much money to be wasting in these economic times, I point you to a certain politician's platform on the arts, and his stance on the importance of promoting them amidst harsh economic times.
Not only is arts education indispensable for success in a rapidly changing, high skill, information economy, but studies show that arts education raises test scores in other subject areas as well.
As Russell Smith pointed out last week, it's precisely in such times that people turn to the arts. The 50,000+ who lined up in the cold to get a peek at the new Art Gallery of Ontario this past weekend are proof positive that art matters to people -all people, not just some of them.

Oh, and it makes a whack of dough too. I'm just not sure Mme. Jean's overseas visit is the best way to use our resources right now. Considering the Conservatives are all about fiscal prudence, it seems like a bit of a waste not to consult the arts community about what they want first. Surely they could be of help in advising on matters like cultural diplomacy? Hmmm. Considering the resourcefulness of this country's artists, it seems like a pity they weren't consulted.

Nov 12, 2008

If You Want Something Done...

Over at the wonderful theatre blog cleverly titled Tynan's Anger, the idea of the intersection between art and commerce is examined, specifically through the lens of theatrical production. Ethan, the blog's author, writes:
If you're in theater, even using the term "commodity" in referring to theater will make you cringe. Yet, the fact that this cringe is nearly universal is a unique thing to theater, in terms of business and even in terms of the arts.
Maybe this is the problem the arts in Canada have: people who stomp about decrying the wasteful spending of their tax dollars see artists turning away from commercial models, from things like Dirty Dancing, Jersey Boys, and The Sound of Music. Sure, on one level, it's apples and oranges comparing those sorts of shows to, say, something from Passe Muraille or the Tarragon or even Soulpepper, but still, those inside the arts community -not all, mind, but some -turn up their noses, and, to quote Jeremy Kushnier (who's in Jersey Boys), regard musicals as the dirty cousin of the stage. Hello, unity?

Without getting into an argument about what constitutes either culture or commodity, I have to say, I'm a bit surprised at the amount of shock coming from artists over the cancellation of the National Portrait Gallery. Is it really that surprising? Culture is not on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's priority list. Right or wrong, like it or lump it, it isn't there. Period. That isn't going to change.

Ergo, the onus is on us to promote our work in unorthodox, inventive ways. This is an opportunity. It means more than ever, arts companies -including theatre companies, of course -need to be more aggressive than ever to get the word out there -about who they are, what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. To quote an arts journalist friend who has covered this issue extensively, most voters who object to public funding of arts projects have a/ little to no idea of funding structures, and b/ are unaware that funding is less than half of the total operating budget of any project or company.

What does this mean? See above.

To quote Ethan again, "most theater people are introverts" -but it's time we came out of our collective safety shell of our familiar community and started courting those people coming out of the Royal Alex. Call me naive, but I think it's worth a shot, particularly since culture isn't about to be promoted by our own government anytime soon. Just as I refuse to bitch and whine about the arts' collective victimization in this country, I refuse to believe all hope is lost. It isn't. Let's go.

Nov 7, 2008

Alice Speaks



If you're interested, I shared my personal thoughts on the election over at my Myspace blog. Allons-y.

Nov 5, 2008

Nov 3, 2008

Politics. Economy. Art.

One of my favourite pastimes is pouring over the weekend papers amidst steaming cups of tea, with Go or Michael Enright on in the background, nibbling away on bits of toast, egg, bacon or waffles. It was with great interest and more than a little sadness that I read the story of Zakariya Zubeidi in Saturday’s edition of The Globe and Mail:
It was the hardest decision of Zakariya Zubeidi's life. Slightly more than a year ago, the powerful commander of Jenin's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, one of Israel's most-wanted for plotting shooting attacks and suicide bombings, walked into a Palestinian security office and handed in his gun.

At 32, he had concluded bitterly that his fight had failed. And he had another ambition: to deter this poverty-stricken camp's children away from the path of violence by rebuilding a children's theatre destroyed in the last intifada.

Offered, along with other gunmen, a rare amnesty from Israel, he spent time in a Palestinian jail and swore to remain unarmed. On his release, he pledged to dedicate his time to the Freedom Theatre's workshops and performances, trying to recreate his own boyhood experiences in drama thanks to the work of a Jewish-Israeli peace activist.

But today his past has caught up with him, illustrating the difficulty of starting a new life after one of violence. The theatre, now thriving under the direction of the original founder's son, does not want him there for fear that he will scare off much-needed foreign donors in the theatre's quest to expand.

I wonder if anyone in the Canadian theatre world could imagine this happening. We all understand the importance of keeping benefactors happy, and resorting to sometimes-questionable measures to keep its members happy. Juliano Mer Khamis' has a point about fearing Zubeidi's association with the theatre; it may truly harm their reputation, their chances of fundraising, and indeed, their physical safety. Still, to isolate someone whose whole being seems so entirely bound up with theatre feels... horribly sad. Isn't part of art's purpose to enlighten? Even re-reading it now, the story puts the role and significance of theatre –and its relationship to politics -in a whole new light.

At a time when artists need to stick together, cultivate community and spread awareness, it’s heartbreaking to see possibilities being ripped asunder by politics and nationalism. I don’t know what kind of a suggestion to offer here, but I’m so grateful to the Globe for publishing this story. Yet another example of how art impacts life, and life impacts art.

In that vein, it was with great interest that I read Mark Vallen’s blog this morning about the impact the global recession could have on the livelihoods and outputs of visual artists. While it's tempting to tut-tut at art’s role in harsh economic times, it's equally apt to suppose that (to twist a phrase) “art is the mother of necessity.” History would seem to bear out the fact that harsh economic reality tends to yield some wonderful stuff –and that stuff, whether it takes the form of painting, sculpture, performance, writing or otherwise, is a reflection, examination, and exploration of the economic reality we all face.

Hardship knows no bounds; conversely, its unbound nature allows its expression in many creative outlets. And there's something reassuring about that.

Nov 2, 2008

Beauty & Possibility


beauty, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

Taking a break from preparing for a busy Monday, I reviewed photos taken recently. Thanks to a friend, and much practise, I've learned to master my digital SLR (I was an old-school manual film SLR devotee for decades, you see), but I must admit, despite the technical know-how and configuring, sometimes the best things happen accidentally. Whether it's in photos, art -or even in new connections and fresh opportunities - happy accidents have a lasting impact.

More than ever, I'm becoming convinced accidents are some kind of cosmic grace. Hmm.

Oh, by the way... I've since brought the cyclamen (pictured) inside, and though it took a while to adjust, it's doing rather nicely in its new home.

Nov 1, 2008

Isn't It Ironic... No Really, It Is.


I think even Russell Smith would agree that there was a more than a fair share of irony at work this week in Ottawa. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his new cabinet posed before a huge work of art, done by one of Canada's best and most recognized artists, Norval Morrisseau. I don't doubt the appreciation some Conservatives (or politicians of other parties) might have for the work, but to have Harper sitting in the front row, grinning beside Governor-General Michaelle Jean, was quite funny.

You might recall Harper's mid-election statement referring to artists and their "galas", saying it "doesn't resonate with ordinary Canadians" and equating culture with elitism. Hmm. Adding to the irony (or just plain absurdity) is 1/ the fact that Morrisseau was a native artist (and, uh, you may recall the Conservatives' stance on the Kelowna Accord); 2/ the title of said painting is called Androgyny (and most people are aware of the Conservatives' stand on gay marriage, right?). I don't mean to draw lines where there may indeed be none -but all this gives one (or at least me) food for thought.

I'm happy to see this painting being so prominently displayed for all Canadians to enjoy, and frankly, I'm glad Mme. Jean brought it to Rideau Hall. I'm even more proud to see the most recently voted-in government standing before it. I hope they turned around afterwards and had a good look. Art isn't merely decorative. In Norval Morrisseau's case, it was his life.

Oct 31, 2008

Today is Halloween. It's a day when everyone embraces theatre, and the world of artifice. Oh, and eats heaps of candy.

In speaking recently with Marshall Pynkoski, the Artistic Director of Opera Atelier, I was reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote -and I'm paraphrasing here -that there is nothing more telling about a person than a mask. Marshall said that when people come to see an Atelier production, they're constantly being reminded that they're watching a piece of theatre. To use a Mozartean example, no one suspends their disbelief over a magic flute. And he noted that kids have a much easier time in accepting the fantastic, make-believe world of opera than do adults who come to the art form later in life. It reminded me of all the times I went to the then-O'Keefe in my long dresses. No wonder being a princess for Halloween wasn't a big deal.

Alas, no outfits this year -unless you count frazzled journalist. Ministry puts it best.

Oct 30, 2008

Not Anon... But Awesome


Here's a note my friend Thom Marriott imported from his own, very-fine blog, to Facebook. It's worth a read (or two):

In a major cabinet shuffle this morning, Stephen Harper announced sweeping changes to his inner circle and introduced many new faces to some very important positions. The major news is undoubtedly the inclusion of 10 women, representing 26% of the cabinet seats. This is a long overdue move by any sitting government, and the Conservatives should be lauded for this move in the right direction toward equality in parliament. However, I have concerned myself with one specific move - one which actually demotes a woman from a major to minor portfolio.

Josee Verner, MP from Louis-Saint-Laurent, was demoted this morning from her post as Minister of Canadian Heritage, Minister on the Status of Women and Minister responsible for Official Languages to Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Minister for la Francophonie (two minor cabinet posts). This is a fantastic move on the part of the government. Ms. Verner has been an embarrassment in her post of Heritage minister, cutting programs without the ability to defend those cuts and failing to fight for her portfolio and its programs with the same verve that is expected of other ministers in their positions in Industry, Environment or Finance. I will grant that she was overburdened by leading three portfolios, but that simply emphasizes the lack of commitment to arts and culture by this Conservative government. Stephen Harper and Josee Verner have played that portfolio to their grassroots supporters, following the pro-free-market stance of Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in England. However, the English Conservatives have not held power in England since the retirement of Thatcher, and Ed Vaizey, the shadow cultural minister for the Brit Tories, is now pushing for more government funding of the arts, exclaiming that politics has no place in arts funding.

“Government money is pump-priming money,” he says. “Success breeds success. The irony is, if you double the grant to an arts body, you probably end up doubling the amount of private giving to it as well, because people say, ‘I want to invest in something that has the backing of the government.’

Today, Mr. Harper made a change to the landscape of arts in politics. James Moore, the youngest cabinet minister (he’s 32), has been named to the Heritage post and I must admit that it concerns me. Mr. Moore holds college diplomas in economics and business administration and a university degree in political science. He was first elected an MP at 24, quickly becoming Deputy Foreign Affairs Critic, Deputy National Revenue Critic, Senior Transport Critic, and Vice-Chair of the Commons Transport Committee. After re-election in 2004, Mr. Moore served as Official Opposition Transportation Critic, as well as Amateur Sport Critic in Harper’s shadow cabinet. After the Conservatives took power in 2006, James Moore was appointed to Parliamentary Secretary to both the Minister of Public Works and Government Services and the Minister for the Pacific Gateway and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics. By the time the most recent election rolled around, James had again shifted - this time to Secretary of State for the 2010 Olympics.

James Moore is obviously a hard worker and well liked within the Conservative Party. In his first term, he was named “the best up-and-coming MP” four years in a row by fellow MPs and staffers. His resume is impressive and his education is extensive. However, where are the qualifications to understand the portfolio that he has just been handed? What is his knowledge of the arts industry and its needs? In this time of uncertain economics, do we really have time to wait while a former transport critic learns the ropes of an underfunded portfolio? Will this MP take the time to fight for the support that is so desperately needed in the arts and culture industry, or is he already looking to the next rung on the ladder?

A change in leadership at Heritage Canada is a good thing, and I hope that James Moore is the right person for the job. If so, I leave him with this advice...

Listen.

Listen to the artists that strive to eke out an existence with meaning; with purpose.
Listen to the songs, the poems, and the plays that attempt to define our identity as a nation.
Listen to the heartbeat of a nation longing for a culture to call our own.
Listen to us and our cultural industry will thrive and be the envy of the world.
So much is possible from the office you now occupy, Mr. Moore. All you have to do is listen.

Oct 21, 2008

A Sunday Afternoon


Study, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

Post-brunch Sunday, I found myself a hop, skip, and a jump from the downtown park that is the originating point of the 2008 Toronto Zombie Walk. Though I'm not a fan of the film genre, I thought it would be a great experience, to "shoot" zombies in perhaps the most humane way possible. It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon, cool but bright, and full of great, friendly, community-minded people. There were families, older participants, young ones (some really young -a zombie princess was spotted) and even pets.

Every imaginable variation on the zombie theme was represented -a veritable A to Z of undead-types (chefs, gypsies, cheerleaders, doctors, even clever references to other film characters) -and even though some of the makeup and special effects were a bit gruesome, there was a spirit of fun and freedom sitting at the heart of the experience.

And theatre.

I hadn't seen this much spontaneous play-acting and consciously-minded inhabiting-of-character in ages; every zombie was play-acting their particular story, every participant trying to get across their specific brand of un-dead horror. It was clever. It was cool. It was creative. It was also a golden marketing moment that I don't think most smaller arts companies (at least in Toronto) would think of utilizing. Pity. The Toronto Zombie Walk, which attracted more than 2,000 participants this Sunday alone, embodies the all of qualities inherent to every good artistic community, alive, dead, or zombified. If you can, get down to the next one -there are several walks organized in various cities. Bring your camera, your curiosity, and... your braaaainnns.

Oct 18, 2008

Leaves


Leaves, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

Years ago, I decided to explore the one art I hadn't yet tried: drawing.

After drama, music, dance and photography, learning the basics of good drawing is a logical step, after all. I tend to be one of those people who strongly believes in a balanced diet of exposure to all things; art is, for me, a big, madly delicious buffet of experiences and expressions. A little bit of this, a scoop of that... Jill of all trades, master of none, but happy. Once you find the right dish, you never run out of ways to improve it, or want to stop experimenting with the ways in which it matches up with other tastes.

I'm more conscious of my visual side lately, noting the beauty of theatrical design in various productions I've attended; the costumes, lighting, props, and set all started out as ideas first done in drawing. My own initial work with pencil, charcoal, conte, and watercolour years ago lead to one of my great passions: oil painting. I painted with mad passion for years, and found much solace and calm through my work with brushes, palette, and a bare canvas. At times it was my greatest comfort, at others an utter torment -but it was always there.

Alas, life being cyclical, I've moved away from painting and back to my earlier love of photography. Looking through recent shots, I was struck by their painterly qualities. Amazing, how some arts naturally integrate themselves within artistic expression and form. Does this mean I'll be doing any free-form features in my arts writing? Doubtful. But it does mean I might trust in my subconscious instincts a bit more, without trying to fit into a mold of how I think I "ought" to sound. Writing is, for me, a careful balance of research, reason, observation, and experience; that doesn't, however, mean it should lack passion or personality.

In that vein, the next Play Anon interview will hopefully be published this week. I recently met with a painter who thinks the Canada Council should be abolished; before you get your shoulders up, take a deep breath. He dislikes government -period. It was one of the most enlightening conversations about art that I've ever had. I hope you'll enjoy it. Stay tuned.

Now get outside and enjoy the splendor of autumn. Take your camera, your pencil, your paintbrush.

Oct 10, 2008

Red


Red, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

... this is why artists do it.

Oct 8, 2008

Bipsy, Balls, Weill & Northrop

I didn't realize how much I enjoyed puppet theatre until I saw Famous Puppet Death Scenes, put on by Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop, last year. It was bizarre, it was gross, it was moving. It had moments of extreme insight, and others that wallowed in the most deliciously macabre humour. I couldn't stop thinking about it, and some of the powerful images it presented. Puppets may just be "blocks of wood", as Old Trout puppeteer Judd Palmer told me last week, but what they convey in the hands of such skilled masters is something far past the corporeal. To quote my first PlayAnon interviewee, they're "show(ing) us who we really are." Quite an achivement for mere blocks of wood. Run, don't walk, to see one of the best pieces of ... well, whatever you want call it. The pseudo-kiddie skit "Das Bipsy and Mumu Puppenspiel" is worth the price of admission alone.

The Young Centre, where you'll find the Old Trouts' puppet show, just came off a successful run of shows in their first-ever cabaret series, sponsored by Canwest. With roughly 150 artists ranging from gospel (Jackie Richardson) to world sounds (Waleed Abdulhamid) to classy jazz (Patricia O'Callaghan) and much more, the Canwest Cabaret Series, was, by all accounts, a smashing success. I was able to take in the Cabaret's Kurt Weill Songbook Saturday night, pre-Nuit Blanche-ing, and I must say, it had some of the best performances of Weill I've ever seen. Peppered with a range of interpretations and styles (including beautifully lyrical readings by Mike Ross and Sarah Slean, sexy, classic renditions by O'Callaghan, and decidedly scatty, quirky performances by Mary Margaret O'Hara), the Kurt Weill Songbook was a great example of an important idea: bringing supposedly "high" and/or "obscure" art to the masses -as in, to the ordinary grubs (us, that is) who happen to love it. Just days before, German songstress Ute Lemper had captivated a sold-out crowd at Roy Thomson Hall with her Dietrich-esque readings of Weill, and while the dressy crowd surely ate it up, the audiences assembled Saturday at the Young Centre were definitely more casual -in jeans, sipping beers, chatting with others at the numerous little tables set up in the Bailie Theatre so as to give a club-like feel. It was intimate, casual, and smart.

Monday night I attended the evening of skits and sketches put on by national political theatre group The Wrecking Ball. Made up entirely of pieces written only in the past week, and having had only one rehearsal, the show was part of a national effort to bring attention to the arts cuts that have so coloured the lives of Canadian artists these past few months. Along with clever work by Rick Roberts and Pierre Brault, the evening also featured work by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, whom Kelly Nestruck, the Globe's Theatre Critic, rightly says is "swiftly turning into Canada's David Hare." Dead on. My favourite, however, was Teresa Pavlinek's tale of two ordinary people who share a bus ride, along with stationery, and eventually, their dreams and ambitions. Called "The Road to Ordinary", it was perhaps the least partisan piece of the evening, but for me, it was also the most moving, notable for the subtle ways in which Pavlinek showed how culture has the power to change lives. Great acting too, from Ieva Lucs and Hardee T. Lineham. Best Speech of the Evening Award went to Michael Healey, who reminded the packed Tarragon that, despite what we may think of him, Prime Minister Harper is a patriot too. It was brave, good, and ballsy. Kudos, Michael.

The last word goes to Northrop Frye, again, taken from The Educated Imagination. I like this one, because, based on the artists I've spoken with, including my next PlayAnon interviewee, artists of various disciplines in this country didn't really speak to one another until the arts cuts were made public. What a way to foster discussion. Still, there's a long way to go in terms of cultivating those connections. So, without further adue, Mr. Frye's thoughts...

... just as it's easy to confuse thinking with the habitual associations of language, so it's easy to confuse thinking with thinking in words. I've even heard it said that thought is inner speech, though how you'd apply that statement to what Beethoven was doing when he was thinking about his ninth symphony, I don't know. But the study of other arts, such as painting and music, has many values for literary training apart from their value as subjects in themselves. Everything man does that's worth doing is some kind of construction, and the imagination is the constructive power of the mind set free to work on pure construction, construction for its own sake. The units don't have to be words; they can be numbers or tones or colours or bricks or pieces of marble. It's hardly possible to understand what the imagination is doing with words without seeing how it operates with some of these other units.

Oct 7, 2008

Joy Is For Everyone

Walking up Bay Street at 10pm Saturday night, I couldn't help but look around in wonder. The streets were jammed, and there was a palpable excitement in the air. It was the third annual Nuit Blanche, and Toronto was staying up late to catch the "all-night art thing." Whether visual or performance, everyone was curious about experiencing... something. The flashing pixellations in the windows of City Hall were like a beacon for the thousands walking up Bay street, past the lineups of others curious about finding out about being part of a live art installation.

Waiting to meet a friend in the chaotic, crowded madness of Nathan Phillips Square, I had to wonder: "Wow, are we all elite?" Stephen Harper's sad, sadly hilarious idea about art being a "niche" meant only for elite people at galas seemed really removed from the reality surrounding me Saturday night.

And after wandering around the city all night, and taking in the smiling excitement, open experimentation, child-like curiosity, and outright wonder that such an event produces, I can only reiterate my own position: culture isn't partisan. Like good food, we all consume culture. We all have our tastes, sure, we all have our favourites, we all have the things that work better for us than others. But we still share the passion, curiosity, wonder, and delight. Art isn't made by, much less for, outsiders. It's about us, for us, by us. Hallelujah.

In that spirit, I'm excited about the spate of openings coming to Toronto this week and next. Tonight the magnificent Famous Puppet Death Scenes returns to the Young Centre; I saw this wonderful show, by Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop, last year, and in all frankness, it changed my life. It changed the life of my 905-dwelling friend, too. Never having been to the Young Centre, much less to puppet theatre, she was so enamoured, enthralled, and inspired, that she's planning on returning with a gaggle of 905 buddies this year, to introduce them to the wonders of Old Trouts, puppets, the YC, and the Distillery District. Ordinary? Whatever.

The next fortnight also sees the openings of Scratch, a new play by newcomer Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, whose mother, journalist Caroline Corbeil, died of cancer. The play is based those experiences, though it has comic elements. With my own mother starting a second round of chemotherapy this week, there's a special significance to the work for me. Something about the scenario of a young woman writing and sharing her life and vulnerabilities that I find very brave. Sometimes art helps us make sense of our own lives through sharing experiences. Carrying on the big-up-tha-women theme, Nightwood Theatre launches its fall season with an adaptation of the Helen Humphreys novel Wild Dogs; from the sounds of it, the work is challenging, disturbing, unusual. Good. I like that.

Speaking of challenging, Canstage opens their season next week with Frost/Nixon, a play about the famous interviews between Richard Nixon and David Frost in the 70s. Having already played to great acclaim in Vancouver, I'm looking forward to seeing this Ted Dykstra-directed work, with its timely themes and, from what I've heard, excellent performances. Soulpepper, a company Dykstra helped co-found eleven years ago, offers the Toronto premiere production of A Raisin In The Sun next week too, and never having seen it live, I'm looking forward to it immensely.

Amidst all this, I'll remember the mascots, who were probably my favourite Nuit Blanche installation. It was silly, stripped-down, basic theatre in its most absurd and joy-full state. Called I Promise It Will Always Be This Way, and performed beneath the blazing lights of Lamport Stadium, with Yoko Ono's enormous IMAGINE PEACE billboard illuminated in the background, the sight of various furry mascots dancing, jumping, and instigating cheers made for pure, unfiltered joy. I looked around at my fellow Torontonians, between snapping shots and dodging the bouncing beach balls tossed into the crowd; everyone was smiling. Isn't that the point?

Sep 27, 2008

Populism, Elitism, 905ism


A few days ago I posted Play Anon's first official interview. Owing to its length, I decided to publish in two pieces. I interviews Malcolm (in the middle) x, a Toronto theatre personage. In the first half, we discussed artist mobilization, politics, and subsidies for various industries.

The first half ended with Malcolm sharing his view that the $45 million being cut from arts programs is a "drop in the bucket", when compared to the subsidies other industries in Canada receive. With that, we pick up the thread for the interview's second half.

Enjoy.


x: What forty-five million dollars, what it does, in terms of promoting Canadian culture, is huge. Mr. Harper lies -he lies when he says it isn’t ideological. It is ideological. They’re cutting it, and they’re on-record all over the place, cause they can’t keep their mouths shut; they’ve said constantly, “We don’t like the kind of art some of these people are doing. We think it’s against family values. I don’t believe the government has any place in that arena.” But if we are a civilized society, we have to allow all the voices: Muslims, Muslim extremists, Christians, Christian extremists, homosexuals, homosexual artists -if, that is, we’re going to live in the kind of society we say we like. Artists should be talking to citizens and going door-to-door. They should say, “I’ll tell you what I do for you. This is what I do for you: I tell you who you are. I hold a mirror up to you. This is who we are. I’m the guy or gal saying, ‘Isn’t it horrible the way we treat each other? And we do it in a way that makes people cry and makes people laugh.’”

me What about people who say, "Well, I don’t go to those things, that’s something I never do"...?

x: Well then you lose that argument with that one person, but go door-to-door until you bump into a certain percentage who say, “Yeah, I do think it’s important.” Then vote. Vote for the party that is going to support art. Name me a great society, a great country, that didn’t have great artists. Name one. And do you think it’s accidental? You think it’s a trickle-down economy?

me: Well, to promote a country for something like its sports alone seems limiting. It’s like saying, “I’m going to go to France for the great skiers, or Australia for the great swimmers.” Even in the States, it’s the culture that is really their biggest export.

x: No, American, market-driven entertainment is their biggest export…

me: … oh, well now we might get into an argument about what art is…

x: … but we should. That’s what Stephen Harper’s questioning.

me: He talked about art as being related to populism.

x: Populism is what appeals to a broad spectrum of the population; there’s this is mind-numbing pap that sells. It’s consumerism –it’s not populist. I think it’s consumerist. I think there’s a big difference between the two actually… but I do think blogging’s being used in a very positive way. So long as it leads to open dialogue, which the jury’s out on, artists actually don’t get hoodwinked but start debating interesting arguments, including a criticism of mainstream art.

me: And yet Harper insists that most people aren’t interested in the arts.

x: Ah, this “people aren’t interested” thing –you say that long enough, they won’t be. Which is why artists need to go door-to-door. I mean, okay, people went down (to the Theatre Centre) and saw Naomi Klein. Big fucking deal! Preaching to the converted. “We’ve read your books, we think you’re fantastic!” –what good is that going to do you? More like, “Excuse me, how many people here are going to go door-to-door with the politician of their choice and tell people why they should vote for arts-friendly policies?” (puts hands up) How many people? Or will you just feel comfortable venting your anger and calling Stephen Harper names?

me: Claire Hopkinson mentioned something interesting. She said to go out, get involved, go to all-candidates events, and she also said, “Go to the 905 areas that are going to determine this election.” And there was this ripple of laughter, and I wondered at that: was it because people knew they should’ve been engaging the 905 all along, marketing to them, telling them what they’re about and why they should care, or was it laughter in that tut-tut way, as in, ‘those ignorant 905ers’… ‘cause there is that attitude.

x: It’s sad that a great number of people feel that way. But why should the 905ers care about you if you don’t care about them? Why should you turn up your nose at them? “They’re ignorant” –what does that mean, “they”? There are people living out in the 905 region that care deeply about the arts, you’re just not talking to them enough.

me: There are the ones who don’t know, they genuinely don’t know, either about the arts in the 416, or about how the funding system works. I’m still learning. I’ve taken friends down to TPM and The Young Centre and such, and they’re all so grateful, they say, “I wouldn’t have known this was on, or that this even existed”. They love it. I think MK Piatkowski’s right when she says artists do a shitty job marketing themselves. I think artists need to start reaching out past the 416.

x: Well how many artists are posting on Conservative blogs or comment boards? Thoughtful people? How many? We’re only going to our own blogs… talk about polarity! They’re all the same people, saying the same things to each other, agreeing… but how many people are going out and reading Conservative blogs? Or out-of-the-way ones? There’s this one, Old Ladies For Dion or something like that. It’s made by a bunch of older women that really believe that Harper is destroying our country, and the only shot we have is the Liberal choice. So they have their own blog. How many artists have gone onto that blog? Or go neo con. Google it: “neo con blogs”. Instead of just provoking people, go passionate. Have people attacking you for your position and start a conversation that way.

me: I was involved in a conversation with an artist on Myspace who thinks the Canada Council should be abolished; he thinks artists should fend for themselves, with no funding.

x: So he’s a market economy artist. And that’s a good argument to have, it’s important. We should be engaged with other artists in these discussions. It would be fantastic to read artists who take other artists seriously. Then you can start a dialogue.

me: But there are so many who accuse arts, and artists, of being elite. Even some other artists throw that accusation out.

x: But what do you mean, “elite”? You go to an industrial bowling alley –it’s elite. Only industrial people go there. “Those are our crowd, we’ve got our own thing”.

me: So it’s a community…

x: Oh yeah! What percentage of our population actually goes to the theatre? It’s very small, but by the same token as the bowling alley, is that a reason not to have it? What it gives birth to is important. There are problems when people in theatre don’t reflect the society they’re living in.

me: People hear and see certain things getting funding and they say, “oh that’s idiotic, that’s just garbage”… but then you’re always going to get bad apples in any taxation system.

x: One of the PC candidates in Kingston, I think, said, when First Nations people wanted to come and speak at a meeting, “Are you sober?” She’s making an assumption, saying, implicitly, that all natives are drunks. Then another candidate said regarding grants to the arts, “Well they’re all freeloaders” –this is the perception that we as artists have to change, because in fact, we are leaders in an increasingly growing area, which is self-employment. Mr. Harper himself is getting a leg among us, with self-employed women especially… He’s recognizing that self-employment is increasingly becoming a major share of income earned in this country. Artists are leaders in this, in how to survive and how to prosper. They’re leaders. I’ve been doing this for many years. I own a house, I have mortgages and loans… am I a freeloader? I don’t think I am. I am certainly not getting a pension when I retire.

me: Well not everyone has the freedom to.

x: No, I know. Mine’ll be “Freedom 88”, at Paul’s Funeral Home.

__________________

The second PlayAnon interview should be up within the next fortnight (as in, two weeks). Between then and now, I'm hoping to attend a number of various arts cuts events and engage in more dialogue with members of all political stripes. Stay tuned!

Credits: The cartoon used above came from this rather hilarious article. Irony? Hmm.

Kudos: Malcolm (in the middle) x. Thank you for your time and your insights.

Sep 26, 2008

"A blue one who can't accept the green one"


Before posting the second half of my interview with Malcolm (in the middle) x, I wanted to address the issue of "ordinary" vs "elite", and the way culture is being used as a divisive wedge issue during this election.

I was raised by a single mother in the suburbs. As a kid, my mom would take me (in the wood-paneled station wagon) down to the then-O'Keefe Centre, where, for two or three hours, she'd marvel at the sounds of Verdi, Puccini, Mozart et al, and I'd try to figure out what the heck was going on. I'd fall asleep in the car on the way home, but come the next morning, I would ask her a million questions about what I'd seen the night before, at the opera. One of my favourite memories is seeing Carmen for the first time; I couldn't stop singing the songs (with my own words) once I'd heard Bizet's crazily-beautiful music. There was never a debate about whether it was "doing me good" or if I, as a child, was engaging in "elite" activity; my mom was sharing something with me that she loved. Period.

Once the Toronto Symphony Orchestra moved into the then-newly-built Roy Thompson Hall, there was yet another occasion to get into the station wagon (okay, by then it was a Crown Victoria). My mom had worried that I wouldn't be able to see in the TSO's old digs, Massey Hall. I remember looking over the balcony onto the actual stage during my first visit, entranced. The first time I heard Beethoven in a live setting, I thought I'd been hit over the head -but in a really, really good way. Saturday afternoons our house was filled with the sounds of the Met, live on Radio Two. When the Treasures of Tutankhamen visited the ROM from Cairo in the late 70s, we waited in the long line that snaked down University Avenue, eating popsicles and drawing. Again, it wasn't so much a case of, "this is good for you", but was something she was interested in and something she wanted to share with her child.

Does this mean we didn't do so-called "normal" things? Not at all. We still went to movies (and, with the advent of the new-VCR technology, rented them), watched The Flintstones and Three's Company, ate KD, played board games, and jumped rope. I got a kid's baking book which I loved, took piano lessons, went bowling, and rode my bike to the library. We went to church (it happened to be very music-oriented) and ordered pizza Friday nights. Video games and MuchMusic came along, and kids like me thought they were the coolest things ever.

My love for theatre probably began a friend of my mum's who was a regular attendee (and subsequent supporter) of the Stratford Festival. I remember wonderful summer weekends filled with the sounds of Gilbert and Sullivan at the Avon Theatre. One of my favourite memories is setting Doug Chamberlain in The Gondoliers, and Nicholas Pennell in... well, any and everything. It may have been Nicholas who got me interested in seeing Shakespeare, in fact. I remember loving his voice, and his warm onstage presence. Years later, I'd learn that he'd chosen to stay in Canada, with the Festival. It struck me as sort of cool. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was the first heady piece of theatre I was exposed to, and my mum was worried I'd be bored. But I clearly recall being entranced by the language -its rhythm, its cleverness, its flow -and the wonderful performances. I couldn't have been more than 10.

There are so many other things I could mention, but, in the interests of brevity, I'll just say this: "ordinary" means many different things to many different people. My single mother raised me to culture -to love it, to live it, to share it. "Ordinary", for me as a kid, meant a lot of driving, a lot of sleeping in the backseat, and sitting through a bunch of stuff I didn't understand. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. Culture is not something that divides, but something that connects. It's not for a "niche"; it's for everyone. I'm ordinary, I'm Canadian, and I'm eternally grateful.

Sep 24, 2008

First Interview: "Believe it or not, we do have a soul, and believe it or not, the soul is important."

Frequently, I've worked around artists of all stripes, but I realized that when it comes to funding, I’m ignorant to a lot of the issues they face.

I believed there was a real “entitlement” attitude, and a “free handouts” system for most artists. Why should they get funding when others have to work? But it bothered me when I began to talk to people, and ask questions.

As I got to know more, I realized most people (like me) have no idea about how arts funding works or the impact the arts makes in a number of sectors within the fabric of Canadian society. My stance was founded on ignorance about how the systems works and how a lot of artists –people I’d only interviewed or known professionally –lived. I started this blog to open dialogues with people on all sides, and to engage in an intelligent online conversation about art and the role of the artist in 21st century Canada.

So, in that spirit, here’s my first Play Anon interview.

Malcolm (in the middle) x is a Toronto theatre personage.

We recently met in a midtown Toronto coffee shop to toss around ideas around funding, entitlement, the “economics of culture”, and the importance of political involvement.

Because it was rather lengthy, I’m going to be posting the interview in two chapters. Today’s chapter focuses on party let-downs, the relationship of business and the arts, and why the heck art matters –and more importantly, why Malcolm (in the middle) x thinks culture should be publicly funded.

Enjoy.

_____________________________

me: So what’s your take on all this?

x: If you ask people what the most important issues are, they’d say wait times in hospitals, they’d say lack of work, or gas prices, a whole bunch of things, but they wouldn’t say what Harper’s done to the arts. And yet, we are citizens. We are part of the process of being citizens. It’s our job to tell our fellow citizens why they should care about this. It’s not our job to talk to just each other and then bitchslap Stephen Harper. We’re just preaching to the converted doing that. What we have to do is get involved in the electoral process more seriously.

me: Did you see the article on Jim Fleck last week?

x: Yes, I did, I thought it was really good. Jim is essentially saying the same thing: you have to become part of the electoral process. What I also liked was that he used that “we” –the rich-individual “we” –and said they and the parties have got to care more about the arts, cause it’s essential. The Governor-General’s husband… (Jean-Daniel Lafond) .. did you see that article? He said the same sort of thing.

I have friends that are feeling simply depressed, who’d like to get involved in the political process; they go knocking door-to-door. It’s something I’ve done with my MP, go and say, “vote for this person”. My MP is Jack Layton. I have, on several occasions, belonged to the NDP party, I’ve been a dues-paying member, and twice now I’ve not renewed because I’ve been so disappointed by them as a party over issues where they don’t listen to their own rank and file when they got elected. …Recently I joined, to help somebody I know get elected. When there was a nomination meeting, I got emails from the NDP reminding me it’s next Tuesday, in the evening. I sent an email going, “I’m a non-traditional worker, I don’t work 9 to 5, and there’s a lot of people that don’t, so what’s the alternative for this community?” “Well, there is none.” “How do I get to vote? I’m happy to vote by proxy.” “Oh, we don’t allow proxy boxes. I emailed someone and said, “Look, people work nightshifts… how do they vote?”…

me: …plus there are people who work in the arts who support the NDP…

x: …yeah, and they just didn’t have an answer, so… that’s disappointing. A lot of people that I know… I’m hearing a real depression, because they don’t know who to campaign for. I know that Dion came out the other day with an announcement for culture, that he’ll jack up the payments for the Canada Council to where they were before -so it’s not really new funding -but anyway, I was very disappointed in Layton's stance about Elizabeth May and the Green Party, so I sent an email. Two days before, I received a phone call from the party saying, "Will you put up a sign on your lawn for Jack?" I said yes, but I added that I need to know what his policy on arts funding is, cause I haven’t heard a thing. They said, “Oh, there will be an announcement in the next couple of days”, which I haven’t yet heard. Then he tried to stop her from being on the debate, so I sent an email saying, “I will not campaign for you, and I will talk to all my fellow artists about how you’re behaving exactly like Stephen Harper." I guess they must’ve received a lot of emails like that, cause they did a backpeddle on the issue, but I have yet to see any major announcement on the arts from the NDP.

me: There’s none, but the arts is so beyond partisanship, it’s something everybody goes to, not just something NDP supporters go to.

x: It‘s something all the parties are silent on. There’s not a peep from them, because they think, and they’re probably right, that people don’t’ care. But people only care if the party says “we care: if you vote for us, then you vote for this, and this, and this… “

me: So you think it’s up to artists to raise people’s consciousnesses?

x: Absolutely, it’s up to artists to do their job, to go and say to their fellow citizens, “this is why you should care.

me: … but not be so partisan about it, because frankly, I don’t think calling Harper a Philistine helps, it neuters us. I’m in an area where there’s a lot of PC signs on lawns, and I know they don’t’ know what Theatre Passse Muralle is, or the Young Centre, but they like Harper, and they understand the language of finance.

x: There’s a bit of a problem with Mr. Fleck’s view, though. He’s stressing the importance of culture financially. And I’m saddened by the fact that artists… arts councils, theatres, etc. -have bought in that argument so fully over the last fifteen years. There was a very gradual shift in focus: “You gotta show people that we’re business-people too”. That’s not why arts exist.

me: … but it’s a language many Tories and their supporters understand…

x: So fight that fight when you get there. When you start defining yourself by market economy values… well, that’s exactly what Stephen Harper is saying.

me: I agree, but I’m saying for voters unaware of culture and its importance…

x: … so go to those voters then and say, “Listen, this is why you should vote for the arts”.

me: How do you persuade them?

x: You have to be passionate. You have to be relentless. How many artists do you know who are going up to their candidates of choice and saying “I want to go door-to-door with you”, and “I want to raise the issue of the arts door-to-door with you”? How many do you think have done that? None! They’re so content to sit, to groan and moan, “Oh, Harper’s gonna get elected anyway, what’s the point?’ I mean... “vote him out of office”… ? How?! Until you get on your feet and go out and knock on doors and be willing to have doors slam in your face –“you bunch of lazy artists”, "you fucking wastrels” –you’re not willing to fight the fight.

I don’t believe in insulting anyone. Getting up and saying ‘I think this policy is wrong’ –is that fighting? Some might call it insulting, but really, this is wrong, this is a stupid policy. Some might call it insulting, but the emphasis is, the arts matters because it does pump money in to the economy, and it does lead to forward-thinking minds. It is important for us, because believe it or not, we do have a soul, and believe it or not, the soul is important. Believe it or not, the arts are important for defining who we are as a people, what makes us different from others. And if you’re going to talk to people, you have to make that your passionate argument. You have to say, “Imagine a world without a song. Imagine a world without a painting. Imagine a world without opinions.”

me: But then the argument comes back: “Nobody subsidized me. Nobody subsidized my work. Nobody subsidized my job.”

x: Ask them, which industry are you in? The auto sector... nobody subsidized you? The aeronautic industry... do you work for Bombardier? Nobody subsidized you? You work in farming... nobody subsidized you? You work for Hydro... nobody subsidized you? Every industry in this country has been subsidized, as it is in the States. And that’s the big lie down there: “We don’t believe in government bailout of industry”. Well… the financial industry is being subsidized. What do you think it is when you’re paying exorbitant, up-and-down yo-yo gas prices? Who do you think you’re subsidizing? But you go “no, that’s the business world…” The money that was cut by the Conservatives in budgets for artists leaving Canada to promote themselves, to work abroad -forty-five million dollars -is a drop in the bucket, relative to the amount of dollars that are thrown at other industries.
Drop. In. The. Bucket.

______________________

The second half of my interview with Malcolm (in the middle) x will be posted this week; we cover funding and ideologies, questions around defining art, and the importance of reaching out to the 905 region.

Please feel free to send your comments and questions. This blog has been created to foster discussion and debate, not simply as a means of preaching to the converted -another issue Malcolm (in the middle) x and I discussed at length.

Your voice -on whatever side you lean towards -really matters.