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.