Saturday, June 28, 2008

An Island Daze

I wrote this on Centre Island. I was right at the edge, the waves crashing against the rocks and some very old sandbags. The city stared back at me with its imposing towers and the Dome and the CN Tower providing some visual contrast.

This is really a lovely way to get away from it all without going very far, especially on a beautiful day like today. It's a lot less humid on this side as well.

Whenever I've been around theatre people lately, the conversation has turned to the impending departure of CanStage's Artistic Producer, Marty Bragg. I feel this is long overdue. I'm not the only one who feels this way - one person even suggested that Marty has become cynical about theatre. CanStage's recent seasons have been incredibly safe and uninspired. Whether that was Marty's decision or forced onto him by the board, the reality is that the company needs an extreme makeover.

The big problem I had identified was that Marty's title was Artistic Producer, which meant that any Artistic Director had to report to him. In most companies, the AD is counterbalanced by the General Manager and they both report to the Board of Directors. This provides a balance between the vision of the AD and the admistrative practicality of the GM. With the current CanStage structure, decisions are made first and foremost on a financial basis. Hense the boring, safe seasons. Having more creative tension at the planning level hopefully will create bolder programming decisions.

It all becomes based on who the next AD is. The community hope is that there will be a stronger commitment to developing new work and programming existing Canadian work in the larger, more commercially based stream. Next season is a step in the right direction, with CanStage partnering with independent companies but this is seen as more of a cost-saving move than a commitment to developing more Canadian work.

CanStage (and Soulpepper) are so far removed from the rest of the not-for-profit community that it would be nice to see a change in attitude at CanStage. Hopefully that is in the works.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Black Watch

Here it is, the promised Black Watch review. I've been wrestling with this a little bit, trying to figure out how to articulate what was a pretty emotional experience. I was crying all through the final scene because it was so beautiful in its staging. Other colleagues I saw after the show had a similar reaction.

Why did we react this way? The story itself has been told before - soldiers talking about their real experiences, not wanting to be pigeonholed based on politics but recognized for doing their job, although this is the first I'm aware of about the Black Watch itself.

The only conclusion I can come to is the staging, which is a potent mix between realism and high theatricality. There are so many examples of this. We start off with a writer interviewing some retired members of the Watch. Some of them are playing pool. When the scene shifts to Iraq, two soldiers cut their way out of the pool table and start the scene. The table, with a new top placed on it, gets used again after one of the ex-soldiers talks about their locker (the back end of an armoured truck, if I'm remembering this right) being no bigger than it. At one point we're taken through the history of the regiment, with the soldier who has been our primary guide through the story being changed into the various historical uniforms as he talks about it. And when we hit the climax of the story, when 3 of them are killed by a car bomb, they are descended slowly on wire, balletic in their movements yet still realistically flying through the air in an explosion. The finale reminded me so much of Soldier's Mass, which I saw the National Ballet do a couple of months ago. Maybe that's why I found myself crying.

It wasn't just the acting and blocking either. Whether it was creating the feel of being under attack, or hearing political rationale, or the stirring finale, the sound along with video and lighting effects were stunning, making the show a feast for the eyes and ears. I was warned I would have trouble with the Scottish accent but I picked up most of what they were saying, and I suspect the stuff I missed had more to do with Varsity Arena's acoustics than the actors.

One thing I would be really interested to see would be a script. I'd like to see the dialogue I missed and I'm really curious as to how strong the script really is. One colleague suspected it really wasn't and it's the inventive staging that makes the show. I wonder if that's true.

It is rather sad that I could go on and on about Midsummers' Night Dream and yet be so at a loss here. But while I was glad I saw Midsummers', this show is that one that is inspiring me and I suspect will stay in my memory a long time.

Theatre is Territory has this great article on the politics and funding of Luminato, with a follow-up article coming next week. May the debate continue.

Friday, June 20, 2008


This was going to be the Black Watch post but I watched Roy Halladay take a line drive off the side of his face tonight and now I can think of nothing else.

They say he just has a bruise on the right temple and that he should make his next start, but one of my other favourite players, Aaron Hill, took an elbow to his head in a collision a month ago and they still don't know when he'll be back.

I should be comforted by the fact that he walked off the field on his own (almost disdaining the trainer walking beside him), there was no blood, and if anyone can will themselves well it's Roy Halladay. But I want him to get his World Series ring, his no-hitter, his ticket to the Baseball Hall of Fame so badly. Will he still be the same after this? Or did I just watch his career end?

When did I come to care so much about what happens to this man? And why?

Anyway, the Black Watch post is coming, I promise. It's playing at the Barbican in London at the moment so if you know anyone there, please tell them they owe it to themselves to see it.

ETA: They did an X-Ray and didn't find anything, which makes me feel a little better. They say he's day-to-day but should make his next start.

All of which brings to mind these words from Queen's theme for Flash Gordon:

Just a man
With a man's courage
Nothing but just one man
But he can never fail
No one but the pure at heart can find the holy grail.

That's what it is about Roy Halladay. He's my hero. And it's hard when you're reminded that they too are frail.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Midsummer's Night Dream

I'm glad that I decided to take a night off work to see this show and Black Watch (which I'll write about in the next post). Both shows have a large amount of international acclaim and will be talked about for years. Tim Supple's Midsummers' is poised to be the new reference point for future productions of the play, as Peter Brook's 1970 white box production has been for the last 30 years.

Sitting behind me at the performance was a professional stage designer who had seen the Brook version. He said it was obvious that Supple had used Brook's production as a jumping off point. I've only ever seen stills of the 1970 show but my memory has always been lots of aerial elements to it. So did this production. However, Supple has created a riot of colour to play off of a white backdrop that slowly gets destroyed over the course of the evening, revealing a jungle-gym structure that is used extensively in the fairy world.

There were musicians on either side of the stage and along the front a shallow pool of water. In the middle was a smooth, dark stone that Puck plays by running water along the top and running his hands along its smooth top at various points in the story. (You can see it in a brief moment during the video that runs on the site link above.) It put me in mind of the Shiva Linga, an ancient object of worship in Hindu culture.

Sexuality and sexual imagery play a large part in this production. The gentleman designer sitting behind me was delighted that Supple grasped that a lot of the play's action revolves around the sexual discord between Titania and Oberon, a sexual energy radiates throughout the woods, and leads to Bottom's transformation into what was considered the most virile animal in Elizabethan England. There are other moments added in which bear this out. I found it fascinating that when Hermia confronts Demetrius after Lysander has taken off to find Helena, he kisses he and she responds before pulling away. Helena responds to Lysander's kiss in the same way when he finds her. Considering there is nothing in the text to indicate either woman is attracted to these men, I found it an interesting choice. When Bottom is transformed, not only does he gain ears but an appendage in front that looked to me like a elongated acorn. Titania's reaction to him is completely sexual and when they return on stage after going off to bed, his appendage is now red in the bottom third. This called to mind the practice of putting out the bedsheets the morning after the nuptial night to prove the bride's virginity.

I have always hated Bottom and have always wished for the mechanicals to just go away. This is the first time I've actually enjoyed them and liked Bottom. My guess is because the mechanicals actual feel like villagers who really like each other and work well together. The sense of village carried through on all their scenes. In that context, Bottom comes off as that guy who is a little full of himself but means well and his heart is in the right place. He also felt completely natural in whatever context he found himself in, which is something I hadn't seen before. And when they perform for the court, they maintain their simple dignity in the face of the court's mocking, culminating in Francis Flute's heartbreakingly real performance of Thisbe discovering her lover's body. This performance shifts the court's mood and with it, the play, leading to a truly joyous conclusion.

I was especially looking forward to the multilingual nature of the show, having been enthralled by Frank Theatre's tri-lingual production of Crown of Blood (Macbeth) in Brisbane in 2002. That element did not disappoint. Supple made sure that the vital information was always delivered in English, and the actors speaking in their native tongues gave the lines a force, which in turn brought up the game of the English speaking actors. Knowing the story so well, I didn't feel I had lost anything.

The reviews I read raved about the male actors but it was the actors playing Titania/Hippolyta, Hermia, Helena and Peaseblossom who captivated me. They all had this aliveness that just vibrated in their voices and in their bodies. They wore their sensuality easily.

The transitions from the court to the woods and back were masterfully done and the use of costumes being torn apart or pieces added on brought an added dimension and a richness to the work. This production deserves the acclaim. The problem for me was that it suffered from having to follow Black Watch, which I had seen a couple of hours earlier and just blew me away. After seeing that show, this one for me was merely very good.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Toronto's Mille Femmes

Continuing with my love for large public art project, I went and saw this installation at Brookfield (formerly BCE) Place. It is another hanging installation in the Galleria, but this time it's 1,000 portraits (each chain 4 down, different photos back to back) of "artistic, creative and inspiring women from Toronto and their proteges, who embody the passion and heritage of the city".

After giving Luminato such a hard time, I have to give them full marks for this. I was continuously surprised and delighted by the number of familiar names and faces I saw. I had expected the usual suspects - writers, actors, dancers and broadcasters - but in the collection I saw designers, technicians, administrators, FOH managers, marketing people, and the most amazing of all, freelance and independent artists. Whoever compiled the list for Pierre Maraval deserves HUGE kudos.

The photos themselves are stunning. Each one of them has one adjective on them, plus their name. Everyone looks fantastic. They tell me the photos will be collected in a book and sold in the fall. It's one book I really want to add to my collection.

Check this out if you at all can.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The funny thing

The web is such a wild and woolly place. After blogging for months on theatre in its many aspects, we finally get noticed by a major online blog.

And it's for the entry on the Telectroscope.

Sigh. We'll take our victories where we find them.

On another note, Luminato is now going on around town. With Twelve Angry Men running at the same time (as well as the brutal heat wave we just went through), I've only been to two events — First Night, which featured the Count Basie Orchestra, and On the One, which was a Funk Festival. Both of these events turned out to be disappointments.

Not that it was all bad. The Orchestra was rocking, but the dance floor that was laid out as part of the Light On Your Feet programming was filled with people just watching the show. There was a good turnout from the swing dance community but the looks we got from bystanders as we tried to find somewhere, anywhere to dance was unbelievable. Between sets, the tiny section of the dance floor we had managed to carve out was taken over and we were all forced to dance way off to the side on a surface that nearly twisted my ankle, even after I was changed back to my street shoes. I talked to one of the Luminato staff afterward and he said that because Yonge/Dundas square was a public space, they couldn't section off any of it outside of the dance lessons, as it would be impossible to police. But as a fellow dancer pointed out later, large sections of the square had been reserved for a large booth for the sponsor and another large section for a bar.

It strikes me as unbelievable that it was billed as a dance event and yet the dancers were not given any consideration at all. Also, any swing band will tell you that they feed off the dancers, so imagine what could have been if they could have been able to see us. It was just incredibly frustrating, especially because I made arrangements to leave work early so that I could participate.

I went to the Funk Festival between shifts on Saturday, and outside of watching some great dancing during the Funk Crew Competition (which I couldn't stay long enough to find the winner of), I was extremely disappointed with the programming. Almost the whole time was hip-hop, which I know is part of the evolution of the music but not what I have in mind when I think funk. The DJ spun some good stuff but there was no effort to make it more participatory — it just felt like a time waster, with no encouragement that I could see to get people dancing (although I will admit finding shade was a bigger priority at that point). My schedule meant that I could see the marquee acts (James Brown's Soul Generals & Morris Day and The Time), which would have made a difference in how I perceived the festival, but I felt deeply disappointed. And that disappointment meant that I didn't bother to attend the Disco night tonight after work, which I also had been looking forward to.

Luminato has become deeply resented by a lot of the smaller organizations around town. I know the folks at the Toronto Fringe are deeply unhappy with the amount of government funding the festival has received (they told me Luminato got more than the Toronto Arts Council's annual budget) and the way that Luminato wanted to use the artists they have nurtured without crediting or assisting the Fringe in any way. I've heard other companies talk about how they've not been invited to be part of the dialogue between the festival and the community. I've felt really mixed about this because I strongly feel that Toronto needs an international arts festival. I've seen firsthand the benefits a large festival has brought to the Australian and New Zealand artists and I would like us to benefit as well.

But Friday night, after watching another community I'm a part of (the swing dance community) be disregarded and disrespected, I'm really starting to turn against the festival. They've brought in some wonderful work — A Midsummer's Night Dream and Black Watch are must sees (which sadly I'm going to miss because I need my last week of work) — and show why a festival needs to exist. I'm just really feeling right now that festival isn't Luminato.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Since it's my birthday...

I feel like sharing something Tim Freedman wrote on this date 3 years ago. Vintage Tim, but you may spend an hour googling all the references.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Tyler Yarema rocks my world!

Just came back from seeing Tyler play at the Reservoir Lounge. A few years ago my birthday fell on a Saturday and I decided that was where I wanted to celebrate it. Ever since then, I've gone on the Saturday just before my birthday. So it's become somewhat of a tradition.

I've already talked about him here, but one can never praise him enough. He plays with such passion and joy. Much like Tim Freedman, he is most alive in those moments. I usually end up dancing pretty close to the stage by the end of the night. Tonight he caught my eye at one point and I felt the fire that runs through him in performance. And man, he plays a mean piano!

One of the things I miss most about being in Sydney was my ritual of going to see Bernie Hayes play at the Rose of Australia each week. On my last trip, I also went to see Jackie Orszaczky (he's an upcoming post) play each week as well. Being able to see someone play in such close quarters, to feel that you're part of the magic being created, and then talking to them afterward is a pretty incredible thing. I hope when my life reconfigures, I'll be able to make seeing Tyler a weekly ritual, and have that feeling on a regular basis again.

His album is almost finished. It's been a long wait. I love how his songwriting has evolved and I'm itching to get my hands on the CD. I'm sure I'll be posting about it when I do.