Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Umbrella Talk with Kathleen McDonnell

In this week's Umbrella Talk, Kathleen McDonnell talks about inspiration in water, what she wants in a director, and where she'd like her work produced.

A Little More about Kathleen McDonnell

Kathleen is the author of eight books (fiction and non-fiction) and a dozen plays. She has done playwriting residencies at Youtheatre in Montreal and at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People in Toronto. She received a Chalmers Award in 1994 for her TYA play Loon Boy and two Dora nominations in 2003 for The Seven Ravens. Other Canadian theatres that have produced her work include the Blyth Festival, Theatre Passe Muraille and Shadowland Theatre.

What do you drink on opening night?
Good microbrewery beer - too bad theatres don't have taps.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
For my new play "Beautiful Savage" I want a director who's as excited about the story as I am, but who brings something totally different to it - especially a strong visual sense, which I don't have.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
There's a story I've been circling around for years - a murder that I have a personal & family connection to...

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
Growing up in a big (9 kids) family, without the reality-TV spin or "Cheaper by the Dozen" cuteness.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
Is it a cop-out to say "all of the above"?

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
I respond with profound embarrassment to both. Crazy, eh?

Where would you like your work to be produced?
Well, I'd be an idiot not to answer "everywhere". But to get specific, I'd like see Beautiful Savage at Canadian Stage or the NAC. And one of these days I would love to have a play produced in Chicago, where I grew up, so my family can see that I really do work for a living.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
Both - I write first drafts in longhand - once something's on the screen it feels "locked-in" and no longer fluid to me, so I don't keyboard till draft #2, at the earliest.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
Every writer's daydream: "If only her brilliance and startling originality had been recognized in her lifetime!"

What inspires you?
Water - in liquid and solid (ice) form. I get my best ideas while swimming and skating in/on natural bodies of water.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How did the export funding cuts affect you?

It turns out that I know someone pretty high up in the Department of Finance. I'll be seeing him tomorrow and I'd love to be able to point him to stories and stats showing that the lack of export support is hurting this industry.

So I'm asking how did the cuts affect you, or people you know? Please tell the story in the comments, being as specific as possible. And please forward this request to other organizations/artists. It would be great to have as wide a range as possible.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Transformation of Canadian Stage

I was at the launch of Canadian Stage's 2010/2011 season, the first programmed by Matthew Jocelyn. It's a day that's been long awaited, going back to when the search for Matthew first started. (Here you can find the excellent reportage of Kelly Nestruck on the issue. Sadly, the comments have been lost thanks to server switching.) I had my own ideas of what Canadian Stage should be. And when Jocelyn was named, there was widespread anticipation of change.

Now we know what the change is and I'm totally delighted. It was everything I'd hoped for. Catherine Kustanczy has done a fantastic job of summarizing the season, so I'm just going to talk about what I like about it.

I'm incredibly thrilled about the international Spotlight series. I love that we're starting with Italy, as I can't remember the last time an Italian company was here. It's a nice compliment to the work Tina Rasmussen is doing at Harbourfront with World Stage. In recent years she's been concentrating on Scandinavian, Pacific Rim and United Kingdom countries (with a bit of South Africa, IIRC). If she continues that trend and Jocelyn uses his central European contacts, we should be a long way towards getting to see the best of the world. Speaking of which, local productions of a German play (based on a Spanish novel), a Polish play, and a Scottish play? Love it.

I also love that Canadian Stage will be working with Theatre Passe Muraille on the Project Humanity project. One of the big problems I have had was the feeling that CanStage and Soulpepper operated in isolation from the rest of the Toronto community. This project signals Canadian Stage's integration into the community.

I adore the NAC co-pro. Not only do we get to see Peter Hinton's work and the vaunted NAC ensemble, but they're doing a classic Canadian play. I've never seen Saint Carmen of the Main and didn't think I ever would. I love this reclamation of Canadian theatre history. I also really love that we're getting a contemporary Quebecois piece as well, courtesy of Nightwood.

The Electric Company is coming! This continues the trend of the last couple of years of finally getting to see some of the top companies in Canada. National touring is finally a reality for us. Major kudos must go to Factory Theatre as well for this trend.

Jocelyn plays wisely to the existing subscribers in bringing in Robert Lepage (Ex Machina) and a new piece by Édouard Lock (La La La Human Steps). This gives him recognizable names to sell while still keeping in the new direction he's pointing the company.

Notice what's missing? New York and London plays. I'd rather see Tarragon get a crack at these shows because I believe their strength is text-based work. I'm hoping that's what we'll see in the future. Maybe that will be the Toronto community association next season?

I'm totally thrilled. This was the direction I hoped the company would go in. Now I hope the audiences will support this as well. Can't remember the last time I was this excited about one of their seasons. And with all the other seasons that have just been announced, next year is going to be an amazing one for Toronto stages.

In fact, for the first time in my memory I feel that all the mid-size companies now have distinct identities. (Waiting to see what Brendan Healey has in mind for Buddies.) They're all doing play development but in different areas. Tarragon is focusing on text-based work with an emphasis on the use of language. Passe Muraille is the home of diaspora theatre. Factory is urban focused. The Theatre Centre is the home of Canadian multi-disciplinary creation. And now Canadian Stage is working with an international focus within the Canadian context. These are rough sketches, I know each are doing shows that don't fit this template, but it's what I see. And it's really exciting.

Monday, March 15, 2010


I saw An Evening of Cabaret at the Vaughan City Playhouse on Saturday and immediately got excited by the idea of directing cabaret shows. It seems to dovetail nicely with my interests and strengths.

But I'm haunted by one question. Does the nature of cabaret preclude a director? My understanding of the form is that it's devised and then presented by the performer. However, watching the shows I could see where an outside eye can shape the performance. My work with storyteller Jean Bubba went against the idea of storytellers working alone, so I do have some precedence in doing this kind of genre-busting thing.

Being new to the genre, can you give me a definition of what cabaret is and what separates it from the one-man show? I would love the thoughts of those do cabaret or those who see a lot of it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


On Saturday I got my long-awaited ticket to see a-ha. And I'm talking 25 years of waiting, ever since Massey Hall sold out in 1986 and I was a poor student with no money to pay scalpers. With all the service fees I guess I did this time but I don't care. I'm six rows back for one of my all-time favourite bands.

Most of you only know the first album and Take On Me but there's so much more to their music. They've taken risks their whole career. Each album has its own feel and sound, like all great artists. I connect to the music and lyrics on such a deep level, so please allow me to take you on a musical tour.

Cold As Stone (all 8+ minutes of it), from their Memorial Beach album, is as far from Take on Me as I think you can get. Epic in scope and melancholy in its aspect, it never fails to elicit tears from me - in a good way. (The official site has a remixed version of the song in their media playlist.) If I had to choose only one song it would be this.

But it's a difficult choice. Lifelines features a lot of amazing tunes. The title track and Forever Not Yours, besides being amazing songs have incredible videos, continuing the tradition started by Take On Me. White Canvas has one of the most uplifting lyrics I have ever heard, while Time & Again's lyrics are haunting. You Wanted More, Did Anyone Approach You, Oranges on Appletrees, A Little Bit, Less Than Pure, Cannot Hide, and Dragonfly are all amazing songs. Yes, I think Lifelines might be my favourite album, with the disclaimer that I haven't heard the most recent one, Foot of the Mountain, yet. (HMV has it. Road trip!)

Then there's my previous pick for favourite album, Scoundrel Days. I'll let Ned Raggett, AllMusic Guide, say it for me:
The opening two songs alone make for one of the best one-two opening punches around: the tense edge of the title track, featuring one of Morten Harket’s soaring vocals during the chorus and a crisp, pristine punch in the music, and The Swing of Things, a moody, elegant number with a beautiful synth/guitar arrangement (plus some fine drumming courtesy of studio pro Michael Sturgis) and utterly lovelorn lyrical sentiments that balance on the edge of being overheated without quite going over…The ’80s may be long gone, but Scoundrel Days makes clear that not everything was bad back then.

The track that follows, I've Been Losing You, is also fantastic. And The Weight of The Wind has stunning lyrics. This album underperformed in the US (I have no idea of the Canadian numbers) and doomed North America to being a-ha-less for 25 years. Wish I knew why.

Then there's East of the Sun, West of the Moon, featuring a wonderful version of The Beatles' Crying in the Rain. The title track is gorgeous, I Call Your Name dangerously catchy, Cold River hard-rocking, and Sycamore Leaves is the ultimate driving song.

Minor Earth, Major Sky marked the reunion of the band after a 7-year break. Great songs on this one too: the title track, Little Black Heart, The Sun Never Shone That Day, Thought That It Was You, I Wish I Cared (which appeared on Smallville), You'll Never Get Over Me, I Won't Forget Her, and the centrepiece of the album, the world-record setting Summer Moved On. (In it, Morten holds a note for 20 seconds!) I prefer the premiere performance of this song at the Nobel Peace concert. I adore how Morten comes in to the long note (at 3:25). Most singers would make a big production of this, or you'd at least see them prep, but he has such incredible breath control that you don't even know it's coming. And when it's done, it's just another day at the office. Stunning. And he still does it. This is from a concert five days ago - the note's at 2:50.

This brings me what I have for the longest time felt was the weakest album, Stay on These Roads. My CD player decided to stop working and Baby's having media player issues so this album, which I only have on cassette and isn't in a box, has been my only option. And to my surprise, even the songs that used to annoy me (Touchy!, I'm looking at you) I'm enjoying. I'd always loved The Blood That Moves The Body, This Alone is Love and There's Never a Forever Thing; and liked the James Bond theme The Living Daylights, the title track, and Out of Blue Comes Green. But now I'm not skipping any of the tracks and I'm singing along to the songs I used to despise, which surprises and delights me. And in singing along, I'm appreciating all over again that incredible breath control.

So now I think the weakest is Analogue. It's not a knock on the album. The one-two punch of Celice and Don't Do Me Any Favours is fantastic and the next three, Cosy Prisons, the title track, and Birthright are good. But rest heads into a style that's really not my thing. Others love it and it got glowing reviews but to me it sounds like the 90s grunge I'm not a big fan of. (Not that it's grunge. I don't know that style enough to classify it.) But who knows? It took me years to truly appreciate Memorial Beach and I'm just now getting Stay On These Roads. It may be another one that grows on me.

And now, if you're still reading and you're not a hard-core fan, I'm hoping you might want to check some of this out. The official site has done an incredible job of having everything available. I'm really impressed - even if I can't get the videos to run.

In the end, I just want to share the love. After this tour, the band is breaking up for good. It saddens me that the first time I'll see them in concert will be the last but believe me, I'm grateful I'm getting the chance. A lot of other people aren't. And I'll probably gush on this blog all over again when I do.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Umbrella Talk with Diane Vanden Hoven

Yes, it's been six months but we finally have a new Umbrella Talk! Totally on my shoulders. I need to be more aggressive in finding great playwrights to bring to you.

This is the first of two Umbrella Talks we're doing to support the Playwrights of Spring festival in Aurora. Playwrights of Spring’s goal is to support and encourage the development of new voices in theatre, particularly those of writers. Now in its fourth year, new scripts are solicited by playwrights in Ontario and are juried by three theatre professionals, one of whom is the Festival Dramaturge. From those scripts, the jurists (Readers) select the best two evenings of theatre that perform for one week each.

In this week's Umbrella Talk, Diane Vanden Hoven talks about her attachment to her laptop, her struggles with praise and criticism, and invents a new genre.

A Little More about Diane Vanden Hoven

Diane’s first play This Above All, about Canadian painters Lawren Harris and Prudence Heward, won Theatre B.C.’s National Playwrighting Competition and toured throughout the province. Her next play, The Twisted Land, received an Honourable Mention in the Herman Voden Playwrighting Competition. Her short plays Welcome to Naxos and Faeire Inc. were presented at the Alumnae Theatre New Ideas Festival and her one woman show Bobasaurus played at the Poor Alex Theatre in Toronto. Two other short pieces Strings and The Inferior Planet were performed as part of the Grand Theatre’s Playwrights Cabaret.

Her latest play, Like A Mustard Seed, was chosen as the full-length production for Theatre Aurora's Playwrights of Spring festival. It was also selected to be a part of the Women’s Work Festival in Saint John’s, Newfoundland. Her one act, Bought and Souled is slated to be in the London Fringe Festival. Originally from Huntsville, Diane now lives in London with her young family.

What do you drink on opening night?
Is it an open bar? Oh it doesn’t matter - red wine.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
Robert LePage or Julie Taymor.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
I’m scared that I will run out of ideas or conversely that I won’t have enough time to write the ideas I do have. I have the hardest time writing plays that take place during my own life time. But I’m trying my best to rectify that.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
Someday I’m going to have to write about losing a loved one a piece at a time. I think I touch on it a bit in my work but I haven’t fully confronted the idea of the mind having left, while the body remains.

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

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
I use to deflect praise with self deprecation. But then I realised, if someone is kind enough to say something nice I should be gracious and accept it. Criticism makes me cry. I remember it forever. Though I try to remember the source. The thing is, it’s all art, it’s all subjective. Some people aren’t going to like it. Lately, I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with a group of people who are great and giving supportive feedback and that helps to keep things in perspective.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
How about the smallest town in the middle of nowhere, in front of an audience that has no expectations, but is there simply for the experience.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
I keep a spiral notebook where I jot down ideas for each play. I had a beat up lap top that I was very superstitious about giving up. Now I have a fancy new computer but I’m squirreled away in a little hutch in the corner of the room.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
I believe Ron Cameron-Lewis said I have a way of making everyday speech sound like poetry. Or maybe I just imagined he said that. If academics said something akin to that I would be very happy.

What inspires you?