Friday, October 31, 2008

The unofficial white paper: North York

Ian Mackenzie at Theatre is Territory asked me to do a survey of the Toronto theatre industry. I turned it into a SWOT analysis, so please go check it out.

Back? In the comments, Ian mentioned that commissioning a white paper on this would be valuable. While I think it's a good idea it may be a while in coming, so I'd like to go into further depth in a series of posts here. My white paper. With hopefully other voices chiming in. That means you.

Concentration of condo development along the subway lines has created a new potential theatre audience, especially in North York.

Today I'm going to touch upon this. A few years ago, when David Miller was first running for mayor of Toronto, he talked about having theatre less concentrated in the downtown core, serving all communities. At the time my comment was that it made sense, the problem was that companies who had tried it had trouble getting audiences and critics to follow them. For companies trying to establish themselves, this wasn't practical.

Fast forward a few years. The Sheppard subway has opened, sparking all kinds of condo development along the subway line on both the Yonge and Sheppard lines. And right in the middle of it all, at the North York Centre subway station, is the Toronto Centre for the Arts and its 200-seat Studio Theatre. It has a resident community company, Encore Entertainment, who has been producing there since 1997. Tribal Productions was the resident professional company from 1997 to 2004 and has since decided to focus on touring.

Both companies have started a tradition of theatre in the venue and with the new influx of people who most likely will not want to travel too far for entertainment, I believe the time is ripe for a few established independent companies to try to expand their audiences there. Once they get people in the habit of coming to see quality theatre, newer companies could try their luck there too. Or conversely, the Studio Theatre could become our small transfer house.

North York seems psychologically far away for the theatre community but I truly feel there is a great opportunity there we should be exploring - especially because we keep losing venues in the core.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Daniel MacIvor

Welcome to this week's Umbrella Talk with playwright Daniel MacIvor, who just won the 2008 Siminovitch Prize. This week Daniel talks to us about nodding, smiling and saying thanks; which part of Stephen Harper's house he would like to see one of his plays produced; and the 47 things that inspire him, to name a few.

A little more about Daniel MacIvor

Daniel MacIvor has been making new theatre in Canada since 1986. For twenty years he was artistic director of da da kamera an international theatre touring company that he ran with Sherrie Johnson and which brought his work to Israel, Ireland, Norway, Australia, the UK and extensively throughout the US and Canada. He is the writer of "Marion Bridge" , "In On It", "Never Swim Alone" and many others. With director Daniel Brooks he created the solo plays "House", "Monster", "Here Lies Henry" and "Cul-de-sac". In 2006 Daniel received the Governor General's Award for his publication "I Still Love You: Five Plays". Last season his play "His Greatness" won the Jesse Award for Best New Play. Recently he directed his play "A Beautiful View" at the Studio Theatre in Washington DC and he is working on a trilogy of plays: "Confession" with Mulgrave Road Theatre, "Communion" with Tarragon Theatre and "Redemption" with the National Theatre School in Montreal . He is writer-in-residence at the Banff Playwrights Colony and the University of Guelph . Currently he is developing a new solo performance with Daniel Brooks called "This Is What Happens Next." Check out his weblog at

Umbrella Talk with Daniel MacIvor

What do you drink on opening night?

Water. Lots of it. Critics dehydrate me.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
I'd love to see Morris Panych and Bryden MacDonald tag-team direct anything of mine. Or anything of anyone's. I don't know how the play would turn out but the rehearsal room would be a blast.

What scares you? What can't you write about?

I am frightened by people who have contempt before investigation. I can't write about romantic love as a solution.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

The politics of Politics.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
A verite comic-tragic magic-realistic fright-fest.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

Praise: Nod and smile and say thanks. Criticism: Nod and smile and say thanks.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
Stephen Harper's foyer.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
Both. I start off in pen and transfer over to keyboard to finish and edit. In the first draft I make notes in pen on the hard copy and then go back to the keyboard. From 2nd draft on it's pretty much the keyboard.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

MacIvor's work was part of the movement that led to a theatre being built in every neighborhood in the country."

What inspires you?
In no particular order: music, books, newspapers, blogs, overheard conversations in restaurants, cashiers, waiters,
shamen, killers, dentists, doctors, vets, dinner parties, fairytales, the Bible, hotel rooms, how people treat animals, mistakes, coincidences, bar fights, death, biology, birth, fanaticism, apathy, sugar, pipe fitters, bank tellers, greed, kindness, people's various concepts of "God", dreams, going to the gym, the faces of people on public transit, my family, misery, joy, autumn, teenagers, children over the age of 5, the elderly, people's search for romantic love, divorce, mid-level government workers, the search for meaning, my friends and being asked questions.

Thanks for reading this week's Umbrella Talk with Daniel
MacIvor. If you are a playwright who has been produced a number of times here in Canada or elsewhere and would like to talk to us, please send us an e-mail at

Monday, October 20, 2008

In Memoriam: Nick Enright

It's been easy for me to follow Toronto-based playwrights. I have an opportunity to see most of their body of work over time. However, with Australian playwrights, it has been much more difficult.

However, I've been fortunate to see three plays of Nick Enright's in production.

Daylight Saving was the first Australian play I ever saw. Tarragon produced it in 1991 and it was so witty I fell in love with it immediately. It didn't hurt that two of my favourite actors, RH Thomson and Joe Ziegler, would end up playing in it. I saw it two or three times and was always enchanted. Years later, I was in the library of the University of New South Wales and took the opportunity to re-read the script. It was just as wonderful as I remembered.

The second show I saw was Cloudstreet, when it toured to BAM in New York. It's a 5 hour plus (it had an intermission and a dinner break) adaptation of a seminal Tim Winton novel that follows two families, the Lambs and the Pickles, over a span of 2 decades. The great Neil Armfield was directing and was also giving a talk at BAM, so there was no way I was going to miss it. Even though I bought my tickets early, it still, to this day, has been the most I have ever spent on one show.

As timing would have it, the show opened three weeks after September 11th. Ground Zero was still burning while I was there, the toxic fumes in the air as I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to go to Neil's talk. Even with all the craziness, it was completely worth the trip. The staging was simple and highly theatrical (my personal favourite moment was a group of single lightbulbs suspended individually over the stage to create the stars in the night sky), the script sharp and moving. And listening to Neil convinced me that he and Richard Rose have been separated at birth.

Six months later I was in rehearsals in Sydney and his new play, A Man With Five Children, was playing. To my memory, it's the first time I had seen a show with video projection - at the very least, I remember being very impressed by how the show integrated that element. I didn't feel the script was as strong as the others, but I did feel taken along on a wonderful emotional journey. I found the premise, based on Michael Apted's Up series, fascinating. (There's a great academic article on it written by David Jobling in 2005 for Australian Screen Education.)

I had hoped that the next time I went to Australia I'd have a chance to meet him at the annual Australian National Playwrights Conference, but fate never gave me a chance. After a year-long battle with cancer, Nick died on March 30, 2003. Having no idea he was sick, I was in shock after seeing the obit in the Sydney Morning Herald.

I wish I was able to read more of his work. I wonder if he came to Canada when Daylight Savings premiered. I wish more people knew his name and work. So this article is a small way to do that. Through a search of the online archives, I found two articles in the Australian that can be accessed through the library archives: one by Brendan O'Keefe called "Era captured in the Nick of our time", which talks about a conference held in 2005 on Nick's work and the plan to codify his work and teaching into a book,; and another written the same year, "Between community and the mainstream stage" by John McCallum, the resident theatre reviewer, talking about his legacy. Sadly, there's not much out there on the internet itself. I couldn't find past reviews of the shows I saw, and had to do major digging for the links in this article. It's a sad state of affairs.

And to tie into a theme I've been on recently on this blog, a quotation from Nick from his Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture in 2002 (link is the full text):
I believe we are losing sight of the value and dignity of the actor in our society, and of the importance of continuity, tradition and experience in this most ancient and essential art form...To paraphrase Hazlitt (William Hazlitt, literary critic), the actor shows us who we are, who we hope to be, and who we fear we may be. So we need to recognize that by demeaning, marginalizing, and superannuating actors, society cheats itself.
May his legacy not die out.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Stephen Massicotte

Welcome back to Umbrella Talk! This week we chat with playwright Stephen Massicotte. Stephen tells us what he drinks on opening night to ease his dry mouth; which director would direct a production of his play Mary's Wedding with puppets; and reveals which famous writers and playwrights would make special guest appearances in a play about his own life.

A little bit about Stephen Massicotte

Stephen’s award winning plays A Farewell to Kings, Pervert, The Emperor of Atlantis and the popular Star Wars inspired Boy’s Own Jedi Handbook series have played for audiences throughout Canada. In 2002, his play Mary’s Wedding premiered at Alberta Theatre Projects’ annual playRites Festival and was the winner of the 2000 Alberta Playwriting Competition, the 2002 Betty Mitchell Award for Best New Play and the 2003 Alberta Book Award for Drama. Mary’s Wedding continues to be produced in English and French throughout Canada, the US and the UK. His film writing credits include the screenplays for the feature films Ginger Snaps Back:
The Beginning and The Dark. Stephen has a BFA in Drama from the University of Calgary and a black lab named Agnes.

Umbrella Talk with Stephen Massicotte

What do you drink on opening night?
Water to ease my dry mouth. After the show I drink ginger ale or or something to make it look like I'm drinking vodka and seven. I can't imagine getting smashed on opening night.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
I'd like to see Ronnie Burkett do a production of Mary's Wedding with his puppets.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
I find it harder to write about myself directly, than myself in disguise. I can write about myself very easily by putting my traits into historical characters. I can't write about my family. I have a notion to write a play about my family when I was growing up but I don't think I could let my parents see it. Maybe after they're gone if I live that long.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
Darwin. Evolution. Everything. King Tut, First Nations in Canada, the Oka Crisis, etc. There is hardly anything I don't want to write a play about. I'd write about Van Gogh if there weren't many great plays about Van Gogh already. The Group of Seven.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
Comic-tragedy. Hemingway would be narrator with appearances by Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Henry Miller, Casanova and Marguerite Duras. I actually one time thought about writing a bio-play about myself... not out of vanity but out of search for self truth versus public truth.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
I don't deal with praise or criticism very well I'm afraid. I've found both to be quite debilitating, just in different ways. I guess if I had to pick, I'd take praise. I'm very sensitive to criticism and have nearly no capacity to take it at all. Praise makes me uncomfortable and I usually don't believe it anyway. The only praise that generally means anything to me is unsolicited praise from perfect strangers. I do read all reviews, good and bad, but only give them one quick speed read.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
I'd like a show to be done on the West End and on Broadway just to be able to say so. I'd like to be done at the Shaw Festival and Canadian Stage. I'd also like to be done at Roundabout and the Atlantic Theatre Company.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
Keyboard. Although very occasionally I will write bits of dialogue in a journal or on a napkin when I am without computer.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
I would indeed like them to be writing about me in 50 years. I'd like them to say I never wrote the same play twice and the plays I did write were good ones that not only were about ideas but had a deep emotional core.

What inspires you?
Everything inspires me but particularly non-fiction books - history, bio, ideas. Wikipedia. The news. I get very inspired by seeing particularly good theatre and particularly bad, movies good and bad... I get awfully inspired by going to art galleries. I think if I could have an alternate career it'd be as a painter. Travelling is inspiring. I sometimes wish things were less inspiring. It gets noisy in my head with all these plays clammering around wanting to be written.

Thanks again for reading this week's Umbrella Talk. If you are a playwright (or know one) that has been produced here in Canada or elsewhere and would like to chat with us here, please send us an e-mail at

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

After the Election

So now the election is over and the heavy lifting begins. We still have an industry in crisis and despite all the rhetoric the Prime Minister said last night about supporting all Canadians, I'll believe it when I see some concrete action towards addressing our concerns. Now is the time to remind all MPs about the value of our industry and the importance we have for their communities. We need to keep arts and culture in the forefront of the issues facing the House. In times of financial crisis, arts and entertainment participation actually goes up. We need to be positioned to ride this wave of interest, and we need our politicians to be partners with us towards this goal.

On a different note, I was riding the bus to work this weekend when a woman came on and started talking about how the world was going to hell. She talked about workers being shafted and possible politicians being assassinated, and she finished up by saying:

Woman: But it's ok, it all has to happen because we're in the end times.

I couldn't stay silent at that point.

Me: I don't believe that.

Woman: Don't you read the bible?

Me: I've read the bible. And I know that Revelations was written for its particular place in time.

Woman: (forcefully) Don't you believe in the end times?

Me: I don't believe THIS is the end time. I believe that its a time of constriction that will lead to a great leap forward. If you look back throughout human history, there were many points where people thought it was the end time, but we're still here. I'm sure the folks living through the plagues in the Middle Ages thought it was the end time. I think throwing up your hands and saying that there's no point is doing a huge diservice.

She didn't have a response to this and I was able to have a quiet trip. But I thought about it on the trip and realized that this is something I feel very strongly about.

I grabbed the Middle Ages example out of thin air but it seemed to fit. Lots of people dying in foreign wars (the Crusades). Diseases wiping out huge parts of the population in certain parts of the world. A lot of power and money concentrated in relatively few hands. Conspicuous consumption besides grinding poverty. Yet what came out the other end was huge leaps forward in understanding our world, challenges to long-held societal assumptions with regards to government and spirituality, and a great artistic explosion.

I really feel this is what we're heading for now. A constriction that's going to lead to a huge leap forward in human development. Maybe the challenge in the end is to imagine a world without restriction, create a new frontier of the mind. We as artists are at the vanguard of this, or at least should be. Maybe what's happening now, forcing us to look at how our place in society is viewed and how the industry we've created to promote our work operates, is the beginning of this. At least, I hope it is.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Nuit Blanche and link o'mania

I saw a lot of disappointing things (Conversation #2, Sound Forest, House of Leaves, Time-Piece), and I'm still mixed on Domaine de l'angle #2, but there was a lot I liked as well. I again was inspired by the dancers at the Casa Loma stables. I sat down in Maple Leaf Gardens, looked around at the sections that were devoid of seats as well as those that remain, started picking out where I sat for different events, and cried. I loved the changing images playing out on City Hall and wished I had stayed longer. (The exhibit, Stereoscope, is still going on until Saturday. There's some great video of it here, here and here.) I enjoyed mellowing out at Byron Wong's soundscape at Dundee Place. And I had a really great laugh at The Greatest Falls: Mounties in sequins, a grand piano on wheels, and a Superman in a wheelchair was the most whacked thing I saw all night but it was whacked in a really good way. I ended the night talking to strangers, trying to place locations in the photographic installation Toronto Nocturnes I at Brookfield place. (Check out the Flickr pool for shots of all this plus others.)

In all, I wasn't out as late as last year, starting after work at 11pm and finishing off around 4am. But considering my feet were hating on me from about 7pm onward and had actively disowned me by the end, I think I did alright. And through it all, I saw people interacting with the city, claiming the streets, talking to strangers. It was one of those nights where it seemed everyone was really connected and for that alone, I think it was a huge success.

I am sad that I didn't realize that the Sam's sign was being lit up one last time. Annoying that I was right around there but not that section of Yonge. Wish I would have seen it - it and the Gardens had so much to do with my musical education and it really does feel like a passing of an era.

To read other people's experiences, Catherine writes about it in Play Anon, the incisive James Bradshaw outlines his evening in the Globe, and the Star sent out an intrepid reporter to cover their night.

And just to keep people updated on the arts funding issue, Mark-Leiren Young has written a fantastic opinion piece on arts funding in the Vancouver Sun, and Margaret Atwood has just finished doing a very interesting Q&A at the Globe website.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Brendan Gall

Welcome to this week’s Umbrella Talk with playwright Brendan Gall. Brendan talks about acknowledging all praise as being 100% true; avoiding ideas & feelings and religion; and being inspired by deadlines.

First, more about Brendan Gall

A graduate of George Brown Theatre School, Brendan has written three plays: Panhandled (UnSpun Theatre), A Quiet Place (Single Threat – 2007/08 Dora nomination: Outstanding New Play), and Alias Godot (Tarragon Theatre – 2007/08 Dora nomination: Outstanding New Play). An earlier version of Alias Godot was translated into Italian and performed in Florence as part of Teatro Della Limonaia’s 2006 Intercity Festival and subsequently remounted the following year as part of their 20th anniversary retrospective. A new production of Alias Godot will open at Edmonton’s Theatre Network at the end of September. Brendan has also collaborated on the collective creations Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and Don’t Wake Me (with UnSpun Theatre), I Keep Dropping Sh*t and Dedicated to the Revolutions (with Small Wooden Shoe), contributed pieces to Convergence Theatre’s multi-playwright environmental shows The Gladstone Variations and AutoShow, and written the feature film Dakota (distributed by Mongrel Media). Brendan is currently a Playwright-in-Residence at Tarragon Theatre where he is trying to write two new plays for them. In addition, he is also working on an adaptation of The Seagull for his own company, Single Threat, co-writing a new screenplay with Dakota director Matthew Atkinson, contributing a short-piece to UnSpun’s The Red Room, and will be collaborating with Brendan Healy on a one-man show for Crow’s Theatre. Brendan is also an actor.

Umbrella Talk with Brendan Gall

What do you drink on opening night?

A) I resent the insinuation that all writers drink excessively on opening night.
B) Absinthe & Red Bull

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

The COOLEST? Probably James Dean. Or that camel with the sunglasses that sells cigarettes in American magazine ads...

What scares you? What can't you write about?

Ideas & Feelings. They are the Children & Animals of the page; I avoid both religiously. Oh, also Religion.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

Well, they say there are really only three stories in the world: Man against Nature, Man against Machine, and Man against Man. I'm thinking of trying to combine them all into one story, and then do something at the end that no one's ever done before. So I have this idea about this guy who fights a horse. Then in the second act he fights a robot. Then in the third act he fights another guy. THEN in the FOURTH act (a bit unorthodox, I know) he fights a GHOST. Boom! Brand new story: Man against Ghost.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)

Probably a spaghetti western; although a lot of my life appears as though it took place in Montana, it actually occurred in Italy.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

I acknowledge all praise as being 100% true and wield it as proof of my overall worth. I disregard all criticisms as unfounded lies and petty jealousy.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

In my brain, initially. Anywhere else and technically it's plagiarism.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

At a little out-of-the-way cafe I know in Paris in the 1920's, using the same voice-recognition software Dan Brown used to write The DaVinci Code.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

"50 years ago today it was discovered that Brendan Gall's work cures cancer and stops the aging process. The following day Brendan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and became a billionaire. Later that year he went on to invent the perpetual motion machine and beat a cheetah in a footrace."

What inspires you?


Thanks again for reading Umbrella Talk this week. If you are a playwright and would like to talk to us too, please send us an e-mail at

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The future of funding: part one

I've just finished watching the Bravo town hall and the second time around was very useful. There are a few clips available to watch but I can't express enough my frustration that one of them is an actor pontificating (yes, I'm getting tired of film actors being used to speak for the entire industry) yet we don't get James Bradshaw's beautiful and comprehensive breakdown on what the real issues and concerns are around the nature of funding and the need to risk, or Sara Diamond's & Wendy Crewson's impassioned argument about artists & creativity being needed in the new economy to keep us competitive. Oh, and Russell Smith's clip doesn't even seem to be working, which is a shame because he also made some amazing points. There's also a comment section that doesn't seem to want to work right now, but hopefully people can get a chance to comment.

I realize more clearly now than I did at the time that Jeff Melanson was approaching the issue as I am. He talked about the need to have the larger public conversation. To that end, I've been participating in a discussion on a conservative blog, The Great Pumpkin, to look at ways to support the industry while still addressing concerns around accountability and alternative funding. Please feel free to enter this conversation.

I honestly believe the cure to the PR problem is to start by respectfully engaging opposing viewpoints. In that way, we can be heard, and challenged, and we can start tearing down the walls. We're communicators - I know we're up for that.