Feb 28, 2011

Stormy Pacific

For all its sheen, there's something awfully disquieting about South Pacific. The beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, about the shenanigans of a group of U.S. army men stationed in the south seas, features some super-famous tunes (including "Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair", and "Some Enchanted Evening"), but some genuinely uncomfortable moments that, in the Bartlett Sher-directed version currently back in Toronto after last summer's run, don't get smoothed over, but underlined. I love this. Few things are more annoying than a musical production that isn't conscious of its own dated attitudes or troubling subtexts. Sher doesn't want cute, shiny, and lovable; he's more interested in difficult, ugly, and awkward. Those dark places are where the humanity of the piece reside, silent, lurking, and treacherous.

The Tony Award-winning production (running at the Toronto Centre For The Arts through April 10th) features top-notch performances and choreography, but it's in the show's design, and particularly, its direction, where one really notices the troubling underbelly lurking within James Michener's tales. The alarmingly leanings of earnest Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Aaron Ramey) for the young native Liat (Sumie Maeda) gives the gorgeous "Younger Than Springtime" a much darker undertone. Her ambitious mother, Bloody Mary (Jodi Kimura), lurks around the two young lovers after their first initial tryst, singing "Happy Talk" as more of a desperate sales pitch than a romantic lullaby, stalking and wildly gesturing at the stunned Cable and pushing her pie-eyed daughter toward him: "If you don't have a dream / you got to have a dream! / How you gonna make a dream come true?" But whose dream is it? And how much compromise does it take to make that dream a reality? What's the price? Sher's production doesn't provide any easy answers.

Equally, the dark undercurrent of racism that snakes through Sher's production gives it an edge against the saccharine moments, that, once they occur, seem at once beautifully poetic and confusingly florid; the powerful ballad "You've Got To Be Taught" is delivered as two black airmen stand on one side of the stage, and two white cohorts on the other. It isn't hard to recall the words of transplanted Frenchman Emile De Becque (David Pittsinger) talking about why he left France -the ostensible reason he gives is "freedom" -but the fact he has no problem having a black servant becomes all the more troubling. Suddenly he and his nurse love-interest Nellie Forbush don't seem so different after all. Their "Some Enchanted Evening" ballad is indeed, enchanting, but you can't quite forget that they're working through the same difficult issues around race, hypocrisy, and Western privilege.

By the musical's end, love conquers all, though we sense a long road ahead for the couple. Playing a role as complicated -and as fraught with historical baggage -as Nellie isn't a walk in the park, even with that beautiful, catchy music. American soprano Carmen Cusack captures the frustrations, fears, and outright confusion of a women at an emotional crossroads: trust a man her logical mind says "no" to, or trust her heart, which says just the opposite.

Carmen and I recently exchanged ideas about the challenges of playing Nellie, of singing Rodgers and Hammerstein with opera singers, and what South Pacific might tell a newer generation.


What's the biggest challenge to playing Nellie?


The challenge with Nellie is going through her emotional ride every night without exhausting myself too much. She laughs, sings, dances and cries, she is tormented at various points and to genuinely give that to an audience, my body has to endure her journey. So keeping myself strong and healthy to maintain 8 shows a week is the main goal.

How much did past interpretations of the role affect your own (or did they)? It must be challenging, knowing so many people are walking in with an image of Mitzi Gaynor in their heads.

I can't say that any particular interpretation of Nellie affected mine. I looked at the script and saw a woman that I could relate to on certain levels and then just watched a bunch of old 1940s films and came up with something that worked for me. Although, I will say that Mary Martin's spunky, sort of tom-boy feel was inspirational.

Your leading men in this touring show (David Pittsinger and Jason Howard) come from operatic backgrounds. Does that change the way you approach the music, vocally? How much has your own style and approach influenced them?

The music is written so well that there really aren’t any adjustments vocally to be made. The songs come into the scenes and are a perfect flow of the conversation. Rodgers and Hammerstein certainly knew what they were doing. I am lucky to have had several years of opera training behind me so I can blend with my operatic costars. As for my style influencing them.... you'd have to ask them.

One of the hardest things about playing Nellie is the accent -it must be dangerously easy to fall into Hee-Haw rhythms. How conscious are you about this when you're onstage?

I don't really think too much about that. As soon as the wig and costume goes on the accent comes. I just try to keep it subtle.

The music from this is so famous and so beloved; how hard is it to stay in character onstage, and not totally swept up by that music?

Not hard at all! It's the music that helps put me into character and places me on that tropical paradise and keeps me there for those three hours. It's an awesome ride!

South Pacific has a timeless, and yet timely quality to it. What sorts of things do you think it says to a 21st century audience, one that hasn't lived through civil rights or World War Two?


How much we've learned and yet how much there still is to learn.

Photo credits:
Top photo, David Pittsinger as Emile de Becque and Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Middle photo Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush. Photo by Peter Coombs.
Bottom photo Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush and the Nurses of South Pacific. Photo by Peter Coombs.

Feb 26, 2011

Push The Button


Amidst the ritz and glitz of the Oscars tomorrow night, I'll be thinking back to my favorite movie-going moments. When I was a real cinophile -and I was, believe it or not (my degree in Film isn't for naught) - I'd make a point of going out to see each and every film nominated in nearly every category, with writing, design, and editing being favorites. I remember leaping out of my skin with joy with Eiko Ishioka won for her beautiful, sexy costumes for Dracula; I loved those outfits so much I bought the accompanying film book, complete with sketches. When I saw Sleepy Hollow, the first thing I noted afterwards was its incredible art direction; I predicted then it would win in that category, and sure enough, Rick Heinrichs (art director) and Peter Young (set decorator) were awarded well-earned little shiny golden men.

Last year when I saw A Single Man, I was so moved, I literally couldn't bring into words the beautiful combination of dialogue, cinematography, and music I experienced while watching it, but I was sure Colin Firth richly deserved an Oscar for it. I was also sure he wouldn't win.

The nuts-and-bolts aspect of filmmaking has always fascinated me, if somewhat intimidated; it takes a lot of skill to write a compelling story and flowing dialogue, come up with a perfect visual palette, and put those pieces together just so in order to tell a good story. As the superstar hype and fabu-celeb idolatry has become entrenched in the last decade or so (hello internet, I love you, but...), my interest in films and the art of making them has somewhat waned, and these days I'm more likely to watch documentaries or classic films than contemporary fare. That's not to say I think the stuff out now is crap - I'd love to see True Grit, The Fighter, and especially The King's Speech -but the hype puts me off. Maybe it's the move to middle age, working in the entertainment industry, or a cynicism that's gradually entrenched itself into my perspective. Maybe it's too much BBC and not enough Cookie Monster.




The Hollywood we'll see tomorrow night on the red carpet -in all its floor draper, shoulder-baring, spray-tanned, primped-up glory -isn't the reality, and everyone knows that, and no one cares. And really, it doesn't matter anyway. What matters is celebrating the image we're being sold. On a personal level, that parade of glitz and glam wasn't why I fell in love with movies. The dance of light, shadow, colour, and texture with words, sounds, tones, and finally, silence is, and will always be, magical.

Feb 24, 2011

I Will... Follow.

One of the most delightful evenings in theater in recent memory began with a chat about Spider Man: Turn The Dark Off. My companion had seen the much-gossiped-about Broadway show in December, and ... she had a few opinions. I haven't seen the show, and in all fairness, it hasn't technically opened, so I'll refrain from commenting, but I will say that our conversation ended with the lights going down, and there beginning a show that couldn't have been more different in terms of its technical demands.

The Fantasticks doesn't have any high-flying stunts or special effects. At one point, a painted wooden moon is hung by hand and later flipped, to become a coppery, painted sun; in another moment, a quasi-Spanish would-be kidnapper makes a dramatic leap off of a less-than-perilous (try three inch) perch. And in a piece of absolute stage hilarity, we witness a grand (if joint-challenged) stage actor making a slow exit... out of a wooden box. As I said, hardly high-tech. But it's these small moments that makes the show so special.

The Fantasticks emanates joy. That simple quality is frequently the hardest thing to try to get right in musical theater, especially without looking like you worked for it; as Michael Cohl et al might tell you, you can go through millions trying to make things look effortless, but that one quality - joy -can remain frustratingly elusive. Simplicity -or the illusion of it -can be a powerful element to making an audience believe in the magic of live theater. Toronto company Soulpepper Theatre are currently staging a gorgeous, elegantly simple production that plays up the meta-theatrical elements of the 1960 piece while simultaneously reveling in the joyful heart that beats, quietly and consistently, at its center.

The work, with book and lyric by Tom Jones (not that Tom Jones) and music by Harvey Schmidt, is the world's longest-running musical, with an off-Broadway run of 42 years (or 17,162 performances). It's loosely based on Edmond Rostand's first play and concerns two lovelorn teens and their dueling fathers. Now, you may be scratching your head (as I admittedly did) and saying, "But how can this be so successful? I don't know the music!" Ah, but you do. Try to remember the kind of September / when life was slow / and oh-so-mellow... and if you remember / then follow...

See? You do so know it. The Fantasticks has become so ubiquitous culturally that it's almost taken for granted. Almost. In director Joseph Ziegler's careful, capable hands, no small detail is overlooked, no moment overplayed, no pause too long. Everything in the Soulpepper production (running through March 24th) feels simple and effortless. It undoubtedly isn't -musical theater is always hard -but we, the audience don't see that. Result? Joy. But you knew that.

Krystin Pellerin, perhaps best-known in Canada for her role as the tough-as-nails cop Leslie Bennett on CBC TV's Republic of Doyle, plays the young, wide-eyed Luisa in The Fantasticks, with the kind of exuberant zeal that you can't take your eyes off of. Along with her impressive theater CV, Krystin has done a raft of film and TV work -and, as I found out, has one hell of a good singing voice. The Newfoundland native and I recently exchanged ideas about love, voice, and the joy of being a Fantastick.


What was your first thought when you were approached to play Luisa?

I was thrilled when (Soulpepper Artistic Director/actor) Albert (Schultz) and Joe (Ziegler) asked me to play Luisa. I was a huge fan of the musical and I couldn't wait to be a part of it. I was immediately on-board. One of the biggest challenges for me was balancing all the different elements in my mind and in my body.

Initially it felt quite daunting but luckily (musical director) Paul Sportelli and (choreographer) Tim French were there to help us all along and explain how to live within the convention. I learned that I need to keep three brains at work through out the show for singing, acting and dancing and that at different times in the show I need to negotiate how to spend my energy and thought in order to fulfill all the elements involved.

Playing Luisa, one could easily fall into a pastiche of "cute young singing girl" or an ironic winkyness; what did you feel was important to emphasize in terms of making her sincere?

I felt it was important to connect with Luisa's sense of wonder and determination and her elation that comes with being in love at 16. She also experiences great heartbreak and confusion in her growing up with El Gallo (Albert Schultz). These are all feelings that I was able to identify with and it helped me to stay anchored in the role.

Was there any one role you drew from in approaching this role?

I'm also playing Emily in Our Town this season so she has been in my mind through out the whole process. Her and Luisa sort of co-exist in my brain. I feel that there are a lot of similarities between them. They live in completely different worlds obviously but they are both strong young bright passionate women who learn that what they had longed for most was right in front of them the whole time. They both experience a rough awakening: Luisa, when she is shown the world and abandoned by El Gallo, and Emily when she is allowed to return to her life for one ordinary day. Luisa and Emily inform and complement each other a great deal I think.

I haven't heard you sing before - what's that like?

It feels wonderful to be singing again. Luisa is a big sing but the amount of growth that I experienced in rehearsal was amazing and Paul Sportelli was such a huge support to me.

I would love to do more, absolutely :)

How does your stage history with Jeff Lillico (who plays Matt, Luisa's love) influence your interpretation?

Jeff and I will also be playing opposite each other in Our Town and that will be our third time playing lovers together. I feel like we know each other really well in a very specific way. We're usually on the same page when it comes to scenes, we can talk things out very easily and get to the bottom of it a little quicker maybe because we've worked together so much. I'm finding that our stage history allows us to play more freely. I feel at ease with him and I think that helps the performance.

When you go from TV and back to the stage, is there a certain amount of nervousness, or nervous anticipation, at performing live in front of people again?

I was really excited to shift from playing a cop to playing a princess. It's a complete reversal of roles and media and I think it's the best thing I could have done. There are a normal amount of nerves that come with performing live again but I think it's invigorating and I think it's important to come back 'home'.

I am loving the bouncing back and forth right now. I feel like I am being stretched and I think a lot of good comes from being out of your comfort zone.

Photo credits:
Production photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Krystin Pellerin photo by Sandy Nicholson

Feb 22, 2011

Brighter

As spring approaches, I always think about Ireland a little more than usual. I moved from Dublin in the spring, and every time there's a whiff of spring in the air I remember the crocuses that were merrily breaking through the ground when I left Ireland. Standing in stark contrast to all that spring gaiety was Ballymun.

Through the 70s, 80s and 90s, the area one travels through to get to (and from) the airport in Dublin was dominated by seven low-level apartment buildings and became infamous for its drug-related activities, particularly when Dublin suffered a serious heroin epidemic in the 1970s and 80s. To quote Design Research Group's thorough feature:
They were a well intentioned attempt to relocate people from the inner-city of Dublin to more modern high rise accommodation on the then outskirts of the city. The symbolism of the names of each block, Pearse, MacDonagh, Clarke, Connolly, Ceannt, Plunkett and MacDermott, each a leader of the 1916 Rising was indicative of efforts to re-imagine an identity for the Irish state during the late 1960s. Their very modernity was such that it embodied a shift away from the rural towards the urban.
Owing to a complete lack of infrastructure (including roads, services, and even access to basic goods), the site quickly suffered a kind of ghettoization, with the apartment blocks becoming the epicenter of the spiral downward. People may know the line about seeing 'seven towers' (and no way out) but they don't necessarily know the place, much less its history or people. Author Lynn Connelly worked to set that right in 2006, when she published The Mun, which portrays its residents in a far different light than the drug-filled media reports that dominated Irish press for so long.

In 2004, demolition on the infamous apartment block began, its residents relocated to housing as part of the area's regeneration. There have been plenty of good developments, including a Civic Centre, a theatre, residents' groups, and of course, new housing. But the Ballymun renaissance hasn't included everyone, alas.

Genius Dublin artist Maser, who's been doing his special brand of pop-meets-graffiti around the city for over a decade, offered his own colourful contribution to Ballymun, just before demolition began. I used to see Maser's early work when I'd wander around Dublin, old Minolta in-hand; looking back on it, the graffiti-meets-billboard approach incorporates so many elements of art I love: colour, texture, playfulness, and subtext.



This was done as part of the They Are Us project in 2010 and is dedicated to Rachel Peavoy. The Ballymun flat resident was found on January 11th, 2010 in her apartment. She'd died of hypothermia. An inquest into her death revealed that Dublin City Council had turned her heating off and refused to turn restore it to the flats despite the cold winter.

Next time I'm in Ireland, I'm not just driving through Ballymun. I'm going to stop for a while.

Photo credits:
Top photo by World News.
Demolition photo by Barry Delaney.

Feb 21, 2011

Good Enough For Me

I love news. I'm that woman who watches the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera, CNBC et al for fun. But that doesn't mean I don't love a bit of the absurd. In fact, I find, as I get older, my appetite for it is increasing.

All forms of absurdity work - old-school, new-school, tragically chic, mainstream-esque -but sometimes, it's the simple stuff I like most. I'm especially entranced by children's programming; it feels like producers working in that realm are given free reign with their imaginations, drawing in elements from the real world and transforming them into things little minds will enjoy without questioning or rationale... or the need for sensationalist press.

And so, outside of violent revolutions, political manoeuvrings, cuts to public broadcasting, and an earthquake, I present... Cookie Monster.



Recommended to be viewed on a day off, in early evening, sipping a glass of shiraz. With the news on mute.

Feb 15, 2011

Showing And Knowing



There's a strange expectation that you must be stupid if you flip burgers, make lattes, or, in my case, answer (and make) phone calls. This sharp divide -between what I love and what I do -used to bother me a great deal.

When I arrived in Dublin many years ago, I took a series of "joejobs" and found myself spiralling into a great fierce tornado of depression. In hindsight, I think I hadn't worked out separating one's self from the source of one's income. You're not necessarily what you do, as this short points out, though for us souls who want the opportunity to do professionally what we love most, the joejob tornado can sometimes be hard to sidestep.

I don't know what accomplished filmmaker Shaun O'Connor was thinking when he wrote and directed this delightful work, but it feels awfully familiar. There's a knowing wink directed at people who are both too quick to judge, and who see that judgment coming a mile away. I used to react badly; now, I try not to react at all.

Demonstrating the finer points of my well-read self to people in the joejob environment isn't a priority anyway; booksmarts are great, but they're limited -and limiting. Too many potentially interesting conversations and possibly great connections get cut off because one hasn't read the latest Eggers or Bezmogis or any of the books on the New York Times Bestseller List. But maybe that person likes graphic novels, or comics. Maybe they draw. Maybe they dance. Maybe they own a small business. Maybe they sell vegetables off the back of a truck. Everyone has a story.

Everyone has a feisty, scissor-wielding hairdresser in them too.

Special thanks to the James Joyce Centre Dublin for posting Mr. O'Connor's work on their Facebook page.

Feb 14, 2011

Battle Royale

After seeing Oleanna for the first time, it's a challenge to try to describe its effects in any meaningful way. Has it changed the way I view women, men, academia, relationships, privilege, and language? Yes. But finding the words to describe it... well, I'm at a loss. And the play? It's infuriating, exhilerating, inspiring, difficult, breath-taking and exasperating. It's also important.

David Mamet's 1992 work is a two-hander that takes place in the office of a university professor. It offers us three different scenes, each with student Carol and teacher John. The first Act finds Carol coming to John for help with the course he's teaching; from there, it moves into decidedly greyer areas that explore notions of power, privilege, position, and persuasion. As with so many of Mamet's works, the language is deadly, sharp, occasionally sadistic, if always mesmerizing.

Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto opened their 13th season with Oleanna recently. Yowls about 'that isn't Canadian!' aside (really? in 2011? "World-class city", remember!), it's important to note that the award-winning troupe's last Mamet production (of Glengarry Glen Ross) was so successful, it was remounted, and then extended to keep up with audience demand. The show was a tour-de-force of acting, production, and direction, all singing in a sweet symphonic harmony of cuss words, tossed papers, and overturned desks. Now, with Oleanna (running at the Young Centre through March 5th), they've yet again given Toronto audiences both a performance treat as well as a production that matches the nasty bite of Mamet's monster of controversy. Brav-f*cking-oh, as the snappish playwright might write.

A big part of the production's appeal, along with designer Teresa Przybylski's fascinatingly crooked set and director Laszlo Marton's masterful direction, is the acting. Soulpepper co-founder Diego Matamoros plays John, with equal parts pity, fury, ignoble entitlement and patronizing candour. Actor Sarah Wilson brings fistfuls of fortitude, attitude, and deep, wide-eyed passion to her role as Carol.

Their onstage exchanges are quietly disturbing and brilliantly explosive, building from small hand grenades to a full-on Dresden-style bombing. You'll leave the theatre devastated -which is exactly as it should be.

Sarah and I recently exchanged ideas about Carol, the play, and the power struggle therein. It's fascinating to read her insights, even if you haven't seen (or heard, or read) Oleanna; the ideas about privilege, language, high educaton, confidence, and expectations around female behaviour are especially thought-provoking not just within the context of higher education, but the worlds of finance, law, development, media, and even (gulp) the arts.

How did you think of Oleanna prior to your being offered the role?

I'd read Oleanna in theatre school, but I think it was in a flurry of play-reading, because all I really remembered was that it was controversial, that there was a great female part, and that there was a fight. So, not much history, but not much baggage either.

Your role in Oleanna is so different from the other roles I've seen you do. Is it exhausting to play? or energizing? A bit of both?

I find this play requires a lot of energy, but it's about focus, not athleticism. I remember rehearsing Act 1 and just praying that we'd move the heck on to Act II. I mean, we'd be doing it all day, so that was certainly part of it, but Act III, once Carol has a cause and responsibility, can absolutely be energizing in a way that I don't think Act 1 ever will be.

What sorts of things did Laszlo tell you to keep in mind in terms of approaching Carol? What sorts of things did you think were important?

In Act 1 (the first meeting), Laszlo was very clear that he didn't want Carol to be self-pitying about not understanding the work. That she thinks that her inability to understand the course is his failure as a teacher, not hers as a student, since she's done all the work he told her to do. It makes the communication gap between them much larger, since they're now starting from different places: he thinks she's failing as a studen, she thinks he's failing as a teacher.

In parts of Act III, he'd tell me to be "sharp as hell." That she doesn't need to be gentle. Any time I softened at particular points, wanting, I suppose, to make it sting less for John, he'd tell me not to...she doesn't have to be nice, she's right. And she's got a responsibility to her group, which is a far greater thing than either of their feelings. It's interesting, because I wonder if something people react to about Carol is that she's not sweet. She's rarely charming, she's not flirtatious...she just doesn't act the way she's 'supposed' to, in a way that might make her opinions more palatable. What if, as she told him that her group suffers like this every day, she cried? Would that make him understand? Why?

And we would talk about how she's not evil, she's not at all villainous... she's right. Which was of course, extremely important to me. She says, "I don't want revenge, I want understanding", and I believe her. I understand her. Hell, I love her. I just wanted to make sure that I understood her, so I could do my best to act well.

There's an obvious structure of Him-Talking-A-Lot that goes to Her-Talking-A-Lot. How much do you think this unseen "group" she alludes to plays a role in her moving into pseudo-confidence and articulateness? How much of it is genuine?

Carol's speech does change dramatically from Act 1 to Act III, and I think that's largely due to confidence. Confidence transforms a person. You look different, people see you differently, you sound different...once she finds the language to describe what it is that angers her so deeply, what she feels is so unjust, she uses it. In Act I, she wasn't able to name it. It was foggy, and then, it was not. There are still words she doesn't know, of course, because she's new to this. She doesn't know the word 'indictment', and she's not ashamed to say so, which I think shows real confidence.

Again, it's interesting to wonder what the difference would be if she said (like I very well might), "Sorry, sorry, can you tell me what indictment means? Sorry." I don't think I'd call what she has pseudo-confidence. I think it's genuine. She's doing her very best at this language game with a man who's been playing it a lot longer than her.

As far as her group, it's an interesting question. We talked a lot in rehearsal about how really, in the end, they're both losers within these systems that provides some with privilege at the expense of others. The school is a system, patriarchy is a system, and her group may very well be another one, although I don't think they're a bunch of crazed students trying to take down John and any similar colleagues. I think they're a group which shares the same hope and rage, and is trying to make the world better. Maybe she's being used, maybe not. Maybe every system must be flawed. But I think as far as her confidence, it's genuine.

Why do you think Carol has so much anger toward the Professor?

There's a quote I came across that says, "Some people are born on third base and spend all their lives thinking they hit a triple." Being from a lower economic class than most of her students, and certainly of John, Carol is aware he's been handed things which she has worked very hard for. That's all fine, and very possibly inescapable, but it's infuriating that he doesn't know it.

To be able to say that higher education is a joke is a privilege. He's so blase about rules and how stupid rules are because he's the one that gets to make them up whenever he damn well pleases, and ignore them whenever they don't suit him. If you are not quite so economically or geographically lucky, you have to bust your ass to follow these rules, and then to be told they're worthless... that makes you a chump. Every time he puts down higher education, he's calling her, and everyone like her, a sucker.

Carol's not a kid who was taken to the museum on weekends. There wasn't a family ski pass. She's just had to work harder than others, but then, after she's busted her ass according to the rules (she says 'You have no idea what it cost me to get to this school'), he changes them. Just because he likes her. It's that easy for him. All because of privilege, "and he won't know it." I swear, in many ways I think Carol's incredibly patient and generous with him. I'd try to stab him in the neck with a pen half a minute into Act II.

My point is that it's a larger issue for Carol. He said and did what she complains about because of this basic belief he has that he is entitled. And his entitlement means she, and her group, get thrown under the bus on a daily basis. And so she asks, "What gives you the right?" Which is, I think, more than fair.

There is a strong hint that Carol is a survivor of sexual assault. How much did you try to fill in the blanks of her past?

So hard to say. I mean, it's never specified, but do I think she's been through some kind of sexual assault? Yeah, I do. Hell, statistically, it's very, very possible. She reacts very strongly to being touched, twice. As far as filling in the blanks, it was more important for me to think about money, and what a college education means to someone whose family doesn't have any. What enormous pressure that is...she begins some sentences, like, "How can I go back and tell them the grades that I..." which, like all the other half sentences, I needed to finish.

You've worked with Diego now a few times -did that make working with him here? That fight at the end is super-intense...

This is my third show with Diego, and I guess we've known each other several years now. It made everything easier. We've seen each other work, we know how Laszlo works, and it just means that in a two-hander like this, the process (both rehearsals and after opening) can go further than it otherwise might. In a play like this where there's so much intensity, it's really nice to be able to be relaxed with the other actor.

How much do you think Mamet wanted people to take "sides" -or at least react This seems like a play that wants a strong reaction...

I'm just guessing, of course, but I think that if Mamet wanted you to take sides, it's just so he could pull the rug out from under you a minute later. I mean, there are clearly two (or three, or four, depending how you count 'em) big red buttons pushed in Act III, which I think are absolutely there to make you react very strongly.
But then, you judge, you make your decision about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, and there's that last button, and who do you cheer for then? Who is right, and why? And what gives you the right to decide? It's this endless, maddening string of questions. That's my favourite thing about the play, really. Anything you think about it...whether you love it, hate it, love or hate Carol, love or hate John...you have to ask yourself why, and you're confronted with how blatantly your opinion is shaped by your own privilege, or lack of it.

Photo credits:
Illustration by Chris Silas Neal
Oleanna Production Photos by Bruce Zinger
Photo of Laszlo Marton from LaszloMarton.net
Photo of Sarah Wilson by Sandy Nicholson

Feb 13, 2011

Mukra, Inshallah

As with Part One of this feature, fate kindly provided me with the perfect intro for the next part of my Q&A with Project Diaspora co-founder and photographer Teddy (TMS) Ruge. The past week's momentous events in Egypt are astonishing, inspiring, overwhelming, and frankly... past all the puny adjectives I can muster.

Past that astonishment, one of the first things I wondered was, how will this affect the rest of the continent? As politicians and pundits wring their hands (rightly) over the effect the Egyptian revolution will have on the Arab world, I sat this past Friday afternoon, squinting at the television, and wondering how it'll affect the African one. Media outlets love to treat Africa as one big blob, not particularly differentiating between people, culture, customs, language, and histories. Right now it feels like so many are forgetting that Egypt, for all its ties to the Arab world, is still in Africa, its culture very much very much a demonstration of an artistic and historical fluidity not specifically tied to geographic regionalism.

The effects of what's unfolded across Egypt will unquestionably be felt just as much in the Sub-Saharan part of the continent as they will in the sandier regions of the Mediterannean. One blog post from Nancy Birdsall at the Center For Global Development does a good job of introducing ideas around how events in Egypt might affect various governments and development organizations, specifically within an African context. Hopefully we'll see a great examination of this as the weeks unfold.

With all that in mind, I present the second part of my chat with the ever-indefatigable, super-accomplished Mr. Ruge. He thoughtfully addresses the "Africa-as-a-big-amorphous-continent" perception that's is sometimes frustratingly perpetuated by media and popular culture in North America, and he also explores the reasons behind his starting Villages In Action, an idea that was born, interestingly, on the ashes of another idea called TEDx Poor.

Now, you might recall I interviewed one of the co-founders of TEDx Toronto last fall about the reasons behind starting an outpost locale for the immensely popular TED series of talks. Dig a little bit into TED, note the participants in those videos online, and draw your own conclusions (or big question marks) about why TEDx Poor didn't work; you may understand Ruge's reasons for choosing to reject the TED model -or not. It's all up to you - kind of like the way you view events -revolutionary, quiet, virtual -halfway across the world. They're always a bit closer than you might think.

Why do you think Africa is referred to as a whole, and to Africans as one giant collection of peoples and perceived problems by some North American media outlets?

Because it easier to say Africa than to name 53 countries or make the distinction between North Africa and where the sub-Saharan states begin. It’s that place over there full of famine, hunger, genocide, and militaristic genocide. To isolate a country. After all, isn’t one poor malnourished African as true as the next? What’s it matter what country they are from? They are from Africa, aren’t they?

I am not really sure how we got stuck with that homogenous identity, but if anyone is going to change it, we have to do that and demand that our voices beheard. Each individual nation has to stand up and say, “our identity counts” and defend their country’s right to exist, not simply as an afterthought, but as an integral part of a whole. You don’t simplify Europeans into one description or all of North America as Americans. Mexicans and Canadians have a problem with that. So why should we be ok with simply being African?

How does VIA aim to correct (or gently adjust) these perceptions?

The VIA platform helps to break down some of those misconceptions. (VIA presented) one particular Ugandan after another standing up and saying, “Hey, wait a minute. I am not poor just because you label me as poor. I may have less, but I am content. And like all people, rich and poor. I am struggling just like you are.”

I was happy the conversation wasn’t about this conference in Africa. Instead, it was a conversation about village voices in Kikuube, Uganda being heard. Purposefully, a very specific place on a map. We put a very particular dot on the map of Africa with video, and pictures. We put real live faces and voices to the generally accepted stats and figures.

As the platform grows, I hope it is not a “gentle” nudge, I hope it is a five-fingered slap in the face of the status quo: Hey look over here, we can express ourselves, and oh look, we are not all sitting around in poverty, genocide and helplessness waiting for knights in shinning white SUVs to come and rescue us. We can and are doing that for ourselves thank you very much.

Why do you think TEDx Poor fell through? Why do you think its model didn't work for what you wanted to accomplish?

TEDx Poor fell through because it had to in order for Villages In Action to be born. My frustration was with TED’s restrictive terms on what and how one could hold the event; TED turned out to not really address what I wanted to achieve. At Project Diaspora, we are about elevating those Africans that are doing for Africa in hopes that it’ll inspire other Africans to do more. TEDxPoor didn’t really lend itself to supporting that really. It would have been yet another Western platform that Africa was being forced to adapt.

On reflection, perhaps “poor” didn’t suit their tastes. For me it was a jab at the faceless individuals that the CGI and the UN MDG summits kept referring to but were never handed the microphone. I think the VIA platform does a much better job of dispelling that label.

I spoke at TEDx Kigali and I got a feeling that the model was a little restrictive. Perhaps it was the location, or the way I delivered my talk. But, I don’t think anyone was expecting me to me as brazen as I was going after politicians in their failings to address our woefully inadequate education systems across the continent. And I purposefully went over my 20-minute time limit because I had a point to make and I wasn’t done.

As I’ve said before, TED has a highly successful platform in its own right, but we needed to run with our own map, in-line with our home-grown solutions. No more top-downism. And I hope that VIA is one of those home-grown solutions that does make a difference.

All photos by TMS Ruge Photography.

Feb 1, 2011

Artists. Period.

After trying desperately -and unsuccessfully -to think up a suitable introduction for this blog, voila... The New York Times did it for me.

The grey lady of print featured an article relating to a highly contentious art exhibit in Zimbabwe. I had read the piece recently, but stupidly hadn't bookmarked it for a second go-through. When I wanted to find it again, I looked, naturally, under the Arts section. And kept looking. And looking. A meticulous comb through the Art and Design section produced a frustrating zero. Forty minutes of fruitless searching came and went, and then, finally, I found it -in the Africa section. Because why would an Arts story that happens in Africa be classified as anything other than "African news"?

Teddy (TMS) Ruge is working to change this perception, one story at a time. Born in Uganda and educated in North Texas, Teddy's impressive online presence, including his dedicated work with Project Diaspora and Villages in Action, has played a huge (dare I say life-changing) role in opening up my eyes to the complex realities surrounding trade, development, and the outmoded, dangerous perceptions of Africa as a gigantic, monolithic continent of pain, suffering, AIDS and poverty.

Along with running a photography and design business, Ruge has an indigenous farmers' business in Masindi, Uganda, and also advises a women's jewelry-making co-operative in Kampala. I never fail to be astonished and inspired by his activities, whether it's blogging, tweeting, or even interacting and commenting on others' posts. I've had the pleasure of exchanging ideas with Teddy and have always been compelled by the thoughtfulness of his responses. The ones below, on the role of the arts in development, are no exception.

But a confession of sorts is in order before getting down to business. This blog has taken a long time to produce, partly because I was toying with the idea of starting another development-focused blog centering on women's issues (something close to my heart), and partly because I worry about being seen as tokenistic in my interest. But I realize, after much soul-searching (that, I should add, is ongoing), it's my wish to blend my passion for the arts with my passion for development issues.

And so it was that Teddy and I exchanged thoughts about the role of the arts in bringing about change. I'm going to post our discussion in two parts, because there are so many good ideas here, and it's worth digesting them all fully. See what you think about what's being said. You might look at those charity singles -and that big, monolithic thing we North Americans think of as "Africa" - a bit differently afterwards. You'll want to know more about artists like Fred Mutebi too. I fully expect to see his name in the Arts section in future, by the way -him, and his fellow artists. Because that's precisely where they belong.

The arts is my passion, as you know, and I was thinking a lot lately about culture’s connection with social issues: artists' roles in trying to instigate change, if artists should feel compelled to make their work political, what kind of responsibility exists to their communities.

It leads me to question what role art might play as it specifically relates to the work you do with Project Diaspora.


I think artists are unnecessarily encumbered by social issues, and they bend towards that will for fear of not being accepted anymore. They are turned into mouth-pieces and spokespersons when their greatest weapon of choice should have been their unadulterated interpretation of what art is through their chosen medium.

Some artists choose social commentary as their subject matter, like Fred Mutebi here in Uganda. Others choose to be unbending in their adherence their artistic style like Bjork, Radiohead and hopefully Uganda’s Maurice Kirya.

I think the best thing artists can do is continue to focus on being the best you can be at your chosen medium of expression. Don’t be something you are not because you are looking to score cool points. It is okay if you are a movie star and you do a piece that highlights the plight of a marginalized population of the human race, but I think it is going too far if you are all of a sudden packing heat in Haiti, and trying to make a difference because you are trying to feel good about yourself. Some things aren’t your responsibility.

We had student performances at our first Villages In Action conference. Their piece dealt with the cultural perception of polygamy and its effect on children and their education. The kids did a really good job of expressing the current socio-economic pressures placed on the balance between tradition and the demands of modernity. It was topical and relevant, where as the band that performed later that evening was purely entertainment and added little to the topical conversation.

Why do you think there’s a Western insistence to keep referring to Africa as a whole, and to Africans as one giant collection of peoples and perceived problems?

Because it easier to say Africa than to name 53 countries or make the distinction between North Africa and where the sub-Saharan states begin. It’s that place over there full of famine, hunger, genocide, and militaristic genocide. Isn’t one poor malnourished African as true as the next? What does it matter what country they are from? They are from Africa, aren’t they?

I am not really sure how we got stuck with that homogenous identity, but if anyone is going to change it, we have to do that and demand that our voices be heard. Each individual nation has to stand up and say, “Our Identity Counts” and defend their country’s right to exist, not simply as an afterthought, but as an integral part of a whole.

You don’t simplify Europeans into one description or all of North America as Americans; Mexicans and Canadians have a problem with that. So why should we be ok with simply being African?

How do you think art can help to improve the economic development and social welfare of the community?

From an artistic stand point, I think it is important to show that those called to be artists are still able to create even without the access, the privilege, or the fancy tools. We had a kid that had a full-size replica of a motorcycle. I asked him what he needed to keep creating. He said, “I need an engine to put in there.”

This was topical social commentary on how life was going on around him. Because of economic development brought on by subsistent farmers turning to commercial sugar cane farming - a lot more of them were buying motorcycles.

As mentioned before, Fred Mutebi has great woodcut pieces that are basically two-dimensional documentaries on various social subjects. If VIA had happened in his village, I would have loved to have him give a talk about the life he documents.

____

The next blog with Teddy will feature more of Teddy's thoughts on the West's perceptions of Africa, how Villages In Action (which happened last November) might help to change ideas around development there, and why TED isn't always as welcoming to new ideas as you might think. Stay tuned.

Artists works:

Top painting by Eria Solomon Nsubuga, Untitled.

Middle painting by David Kikuuba, "Proud Heritage".

Bottom painting by Fred Mutebi, "Abannyunyunsi".

Photo of Maurice Kirya courtesy of RFI Musique