The Messiah, under the unconventional Conductorship of Ashiq Aziz by Aurora de Pena

The Knox College chapel is packed. There are actually no seats available 5 minutes before the start of Classical Music Consort’s Messiah. I have to sit in a single plush chair graciously dragged to the back of the church by the door man. People who arrived after I did seemed to have no problems standing.

This was the quietest place that I have ever been, from my solitary spot in the improvised back row, I could hear somebody in the front shift in their seat and take a Kleenex out of their purse.

The Knox College Chapel, built in 1858, is 100 and years younger than the music that echoed off its grey stone walls on Friday night. It is Classical Music Consort’s goal, under the direction of Ashiq Aziz, to give the listener an idea of what Handel’s original Messiah might have sounded like when it premiered in April of 1742. They employ era specific instruments and remain faithful to every Baroque vocal ornament, but there is something undeniably modern about the way these people approach the music that they love. The ensemble, though not entirely informal, is relaxed. Conductor Aziz is athletic and alert, the singers are confidently connected to the music’s text, and the members of the orchestra smile at each other throughout.
This is a simple, clean production. The soloists stand and deliver clear and fresh interpretations of the libretto. Particularly interesting is alto Susanne Hawkins, whose warm and expressive voice draws attention to the intensity of the text. The story, which we all know by heart, can’t help but be touched by the secular world we all live in today. It’s almost deleivered in the third person, which makes The Messiah a really interesting choice for this group.

This very human, very 21rst century atmosphere is prevalent throughout the chapel; people of all ages are completely engaged. The woman sitting directly in front of me (I wish she was my Grandma—seriously) is pushing a cool 80 in a primary coloured Christmas blazer. She knows every inch of the music, and conducts from the back. Beside her are a couple of 25 year olds with bangs who hold hands for the whole three hours. The simplicity of the production lets the composition shine. So many complications in the music, all of the vocal and instrumental gymnastics, become abstract when stripped of their showiness. This is what Classical Music Consort will become recognized for, this dedication to the actual value of the music. There is no attempt to explain why or justify the relevance of playing the music of 300 years ago, and that’s fine, in the hands of this ensemble, it stands on it’s own.
Read more!

In case we needed another reason to unite the left...

The Harper Conservatives are already prepping for the next election. This article from CBC pretty much says it all. If we don't want to end up living in the United States of Canada we're going to have to come together to fight the great blue wave. Read more!

Yes We Can by Chris Dupuis

Last week the citizens of our great neighbour to the south elected the first African American ever to their highest political office, as well as solidifying control of their left leaning political party over the entire government. Watching the election results roll in on TV from a bar on Queen West I was taken, not just by the level of emotion on screen, but also in the bar I was standing in. It's true that Barack Obama does have that inspirational aura about him that we in Canada haven't had floating around one of our national leaders since Trudeau. Still, one has to wonder, why we were so much more excited about this election than the one we had in our own country just a few short weeks earlier.

Of course seeing a person of colour elected to the top slot in the world's most powerful country can provide a slight glimmer of hope to all those around the world who have felt marginalized for who they are. And though it's good to know that not just rich white men can be president of the United States (since as of November 4th, 2008 Rich Black Men can also fill the same role) I don't think that was the thing getting people so excited either. After years of tyranny under the rule of the Bush administration the American people finally managed to elect a government that will hopefully be responsive to the needs of all of its citizens, not just for the exceedingly rich. And the tears of joy shed all over left wing strong holds of Canada that night were a tribute to the dream that we share of returning our own government to the way we think it should be run.

During the last election in Canada there were a bevy of union groups, arts advocates, and environmental organizations that actively campaigned against Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party. For the average person on the street in our great liberal bastion of Toronto it seemed unthinkable that old blue eyes could possibly get anyone in his party elected yet alone form a majority government. Yet when the ballots were counted he came in with 143 seats, 16 more than he had the last time, but still 11 shy of that majority he wants. With another election likely two years or less in our future, Harper has precious little time to cultivate that support he needs, but that's actually okay for him. He doesn't need to do that much to get his majority because all us left wingers are just going to hand it to him if we don't get our shit together.

Perhaps the single greatest problem facing advocates of left leaning political policy in Canada is the fact that of our five federal parties, four of them (the Liberals, the NDP, the Greens, and the Bloc) are on the left, while only one (the Conservatives) are on the right. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if we on the left are going to split our vote between four different parties we don't have a hope in hell of electing anything other than a Conservative government. We got lucky this time in the fact that Stephen Harper managed to secure only a minority, but rest assured he's going to keep trying for that golden apple of a majority. And when he finally gets it (and he will if we don't stop him) all of us artists, enviromentalists, advocates for women and minorities, anti-poverty activists, gun control advocates, and anyone else who else on the left, are fucked. Period.

In the last election the conservatives took in just under 38% of the popular vote, meaning that almost 62% of us did not want to see them in power. Why are they the governing party then? Because we on the left made the decision to split our vote between four different parties, only three of whom that ended up with seats in the house. Now I'm certainly not calling for a return to a two party system, but we need to seriously rethink how we're doing things if we want to avoid disaster. We have a lesson that we need to learn and the people who we need to learn it from are the top brass in the recently defeated Republican Party of America. What could we possibly take away from a bunch of gun toting, gay hating, anti-abortion, oil tycoon bigots you might ask? Well, for one, they like to work together.

The success of the right in the US (up until now anyway) has happened in large part because those on the right have unified their agendas. The Evangelical Christians are big supporters of the gun lobby and are fond of teaching their children that global warming is a liberal construction. Oil companies donate to anti-gay and pro-life organizations in an attempt to make themselves appear more "family friendly". And the poor in America, who have without a doubt suffered the most under the Bush agenda, have consistently voted Republican because that party claims to support the Christian values they espouse. It seems a bit ludicrous that these disparate groups whose agendas should be in opposition to each other (Pro-Lifers are FOR guns?!) have managed to come together and maintain a conservative hold on their government for the last eight years, but they did it and so can we.

We need to start looking outside our own communities to build a stronger support for the left wing political agenda. I'm sad to say I don't have a magic formula for how to do this, but I will say that we have to start talking among our different groups to figure out a plan. Artists need to start talking to environmentalists. And anti-poverty activists. And women's rights advocates. We in Toronto need to start talking to the rest of Ontario and we in Ontario must start talking to Quebec, which is great a stronghold of left wing support. There has long been a rift between rich English Ontario and poor French Quebec, but we have to start healing those wounds if we don't want to be forced to bow together to the will of the great oil rich west. If Ontario and Quebec alone had a national party that represented both of them we could have a sufficient number of seats to maintain control of the House of Commons.

For most of its history Canada has had a progressive government in power, so we can assume that sooner or later (perhaps when Justin Trudeau becomes the leader of the Libs?) that things will return to the good old days of Liberal Majority. In the meantime however, we must continue to fight against the Harper Conservatives and the leaders of our left wing parties must start working together. It's probably worth taking a moment here to remember that it was Jack Layton who brought down the Paul Martin Liberals by making a deal with the devil (aka Harper) and who owns a lot of personal responsibility for the situation we're in now. I'm pretty sure Jack isn't reading this, but in the off chance that he is I will beg him "Please do not sell out your comrades on the left again for the sake of personal gain and vanity!" Layton will have to learn to play nice with Gilles Duceppe and whoever takes over the leadership of the Liberals after the convention next spring. And I think I might just get over my current hate-on for him if he'd be willing to somehow bring Elizabeth May into the fold.

We on the left have some big questions before us at this moment in history. Can our community groups unite their agendas and stop vote splitting among left leaning parties? Can our politicians start working together to prevent the Conservative minority from ruling like a majority? Can we return our country to the great place we always believed that it was? In the words of the African American president of the United States of America: Yes We Can.

Read more!

The Life of an Ordinary Artist/Person by Katherine Sanders

Summer is over. Winter is on the way. There is yet another conservative minority government in power. Once again, people whom I did not vote for are running the country, although it’s not quite as bad as it could have been. I have just been rejected for yet another grant. If I’m lucky in the future there will still be grants to apply for. But right now I have to look for work. I have a pile of laundry to do. I have to clean my apartment.

I am one of those ordinary people who practice art. The kind Stephen Harper believes doesn’t exist. I am even from Alberta, originally. I grew up in Calgary, where all the theatres are named after oil companies. Culture is booming in Calgary right now, thanks not to the government but to the enormously rich oil companies. As more and more people move to the city to work in the oil & gas industry, the sponsorship departments of these companies ensure that there will be something for their employees to do. They also want to offset their bad reputations as planet destroyers and land rapers. So they give money to theatres, symphonies, dance companies, galleries, even individual artists. They help fund projects that would never happen if they relied solely on government support. They have funded the cultural revolution in Alberta.

Now, I am one of the biggest detractors of Alberta oil companies. And yet here I am praising them for the contributions they have made to culture in my former hometown. This is because, unlike Stephen Harper’s conservatives, they recognize that people can’t live without art. Compared to the elected leaders of this country, the oil companies are a godsend to the arts. This is bad.

But I am still an artist. I am an ordinary person, and my life gets more and more ordinary with every grant rejection. Every time I try unsuccessfully to get funding from the government to create my work, my life becomes a little bit more banal. I didn’t get the grant - now it’s time to look for catering work. I didn’t get that endowment - now I have to find a temp job. So I spend my time looking for ways to survive, rather than spending my time making this country a more interesting place to live. I can’t stop being an artist just because no-one will give me money to do it.

So what now? For me? Well, I have to go to the laundromat. While my clothes are spinning, maybe I can jot down a few ideas for my next project. Then I’ll go home and look on “” for a while, see if I can find something vaguely related to my passion, something that will pay me actual money. Then I’ll call my catering company and see if there are any gigs coming up. Then maybe I can squeeze in a bit of writing before bedtime. This is the life of the ordinary artist.

Katherine Sanders is a Toronto based actor and writer.
Read more!

External Storage by Evan Webber

Before ‘what now?’, another question: what is going on now? A couple of days ago, the federal finance minister announced with mock-sadness that Ontario is officially ‘a have-not province’. Moments later, in a press conference with the provincial finance minister, reporters asked for his comments not on the impact, but on the symbolism of his federal counterpart’s statements. Maybe this could be called out-sourcing: the reporters (or more accurately, their editors) could once have been relied upon for such comments on symbolism, which is to say, potential conceptual impact; now these comments are the very subject of the inquiry. Is this the news? (I am not even talking about the U.S. election.)

There is a principle at work here and my guess is that it has to do with the fact that there is now more digital space than mental space, meaning that there is officially more information than there are human minds to hold it. One side-effect is that in this terrain, the ‘news’ is not the appearance of new subjects – which are beyond count already, and so, a poor investment – but the appearance of new modifiers: the massively unpredictable tectonics in the unlimited continents of information. The “have-not province” story is one of its cruder manifestations, but it reflects what, to me, is a serious problem about mental space, and overcrowding, and the selection of ideas and language, and history, and survival.

Because I am a human who wants to survive, and I want other humans to survive, and I think that this mutual survival requires some cultural survival too, I think the study of information tectonics is vitally important, but I wonder if the reporters are going about it wrong by emphasizing understanding over being. To be in space, particularly a potentially infinite, virtual space, one needs an equivalent kind of time. If I look for this time-making in performance, it’s not because it’s more common there than in other places, but because I think the possibility for direct transmission is greater when I’m with others; also, a room or a field of people listening and watching is an efficient distribution network for home-made time. A relaxed and disciplined body doing something real, with precision, can transmit this virtual time – for a moment. People seen to be engaged with the work of being themselves alone can actually accomplish this – even if just for a moment. That moment however, is all we need, if we can get access to it, if it can be retrieved. So I want to have access to that time – I want it to be available to myself and everyone else. I think this is why I find myself increasingly looking for, and engaging with, and thinking about stories, and particularly the kind of stories that are bigger on the inside than on the outside. Because these stories are memorable, they’re good containers for experience. They resist infinity.

In other words, it’s possible that the sense of time that comes from being relaxed enough, oneself enough, might be made more available (as memory) if it’s located in language, if it’s wrapped in a story. Which is about as new and revolutionary as breathing, but also, maybe, given the world, as necessary.

Evan Webber is a Toronto-based writer, performer, and producer.
Read more!

[boxhead] at Buddies in Bad Times by Chris Dupuis

Presented by Buddies and Crows Theatre in association with Mammalian Diving Reflex

Text by Darren O'Donnell

Directed by Chris Abraham

Featuring Adam Lazarus and Andrew Shaver

Photo by Beth Kates

The original production of [boxhead] at the Factory Studio Theatre in 2000 still ranks among the top ten theatrical experiences of my entire life. As a fresh-faced graduate from theatre school, over-saturated in naturalism and starving for something different, the piece which tells the story of a young geneticist who awakes one morning to find that he has a box affixed to his head, was simultaneously unlike anything I'd ever seen and exactly the inspiration I needed as I was beginning to forge a career for myself as an artist interested in experimental work. Recreating the impact of an experience like that is virtually (if not totally) impossible to do, however when I was heading off to catch the new production of the show last week at Buddies I did everything I could to calm my expectations, lest I be let down by however this version would weigh in my mind against the previous one.

The original creative team on the project has returned, through the O'Donnell and Paul Fauteux who originally performed the roles of Dr. Wishful Thinking and Dr. Thoughtless Actions respectively, have been replaced by Adam Lazarus and Andrew Shaver, both of whom throw themselves into their parts with gusto. The set design (devised by the team of Abraham, O'Donnell, and Naomi Campbell) is more or less the same, as is Steve Lucas's lighting. There have been small updates to the text (references to Stephen Harper, the current economic downturn, and the internet have been added) though the script is essentially the same. It makes sense that not much has changed as the show was essentially perfect the first time it was produced. At the same time, it just doesn't work quite as well as it used to.

Criticism is an incredibly subjective thing, which is why I always go to great lengths to insert my personal experiences and prejudices into my writing, so that readers know where I'm coming from. The show blew me away the first time I saw it and this time it didn't, which I think is both a combination of the body of work I've seen in the last eight years of my life and some subtle changes that Abraham has made with this production. One of the subtle changes is a reduction in the amount of subtlety. The first production (though I think it was almost exactly the same length) seemed to give the actors a bit more room to breathe, alternating the firing-squad speed of the text with space for the audience to absorb what was happening. There were moments of quiet, moments for reflection, and space for us to think, which given how much the script asks us to think about is pretty important. In this version you can almost hear Abraham in rehearsal yelling "Faster! Faster! FASTER!!!" as the actors race through the text with such incredible speed it's frequently difficult to understand them. This is the third time I've seen the show and I still had problems understanding some of the text, so I can imagine how challenging this would have been for an audience member who was viewing it for the first time. Combining this with a slightly too heavy handed approach to the sound design (please turn the reverb down just a little bit!) and Buddies cavernous Chamber which is certainly not one of the best spaces acoustically in the city, meant that at times the text just became a sonic blur. With a different play I might not have had such a problem with this but the text, particularly the way that repetition plays in this piece, is so essential to the overall outcome, that making the sacrifice of adding an extra five minutes to the playing time would have been incredibly beneficial to the audience's experience of the work.

Having said all that, I'd still recommend the piece to anyone. If you've seen it before, you may not like it as much this time. And if it's totally new to you? It just might end up on your personal all-time top ten list.

[boxhead] plays at Buddies through November 2.

Box Office: 416-975-8555

Read more!

Rankefod at Harbourfront Centre by Chris Dupuis

Choreographed and Performed by Kitt Johnson X-act

Co-presented by Dance works
Photo Credit: Per Morten Abrahamsen

After a four year absence, Danish dance dynamo Kitt Johnson returns to Harbourfront Centre with her newest solo-work Rankefod. Created as a means of exploring the relationship that human beings have with our primordial ancestors, the piece derives its name from the Danish word for Cirripedia, a class of invertebrates that includes barnacles and acorn-shells. This could have been a dangerous starting point for a lesser dance artist, but Johnson pulls the show off with such a level of skill that it's impossible for you to take your eyes off her for a full 55 minutes.

Clad only in a white loincloth and lengthy hair braid, Johnson leads us through a process of evolution on stage, from single celled organism to proto-human, while alternating through extended periods of stillness combined with La La La Human Steps style speed. Acting like a piece of human origami, she folds herself into all sorts of strange positions, resembling a vast array of long since extinct creatures that you've never heard of, but somehow recognize. The program talks about how the pre-archaic body and senses live within human beings like pockets of memory inside the primordial slime of our cells, and I think perhaps this might be part of why the piece registers on such an instinctive level.

Though I'm not usually attracted to choreography that's about "creating images on stage" Johnson makes this style of work interesting because she really plays with how our eyes see. The way she distorts her body makes you frequently forget that you're watching a real person and she degrades to a quivering mass of prehistoric flesh. She's aided handily in this endeavour by Mogens Kjempff's skillful lighting which, despite its simplicity, serves the cause of tricking our eyes immensely. Charlotte Østergaard's evocative yet simple set design, consisting of a cloth backdrop, transports us to the bottom of the ocean, across a Pleistocene landscape, and inside the human body, as Kjempff's light hits it in different ways.

Will incredible skill, precision, and even occasional moments of humour, Johnson achieves something younger choreographers often strive for but rarely accomplish; getting the audience to look at the human body in a totally different way. Absolutely mesmerizing. Catch it while you can!

Rankeford plays at the Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront Centre
October 16 - 18, 8:00pm
Box Office: 416-973-4000
Read more!

Norway.Today at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space

Norway.Today by Igor Bauersima

Translated by Anna Köhler
Directed by Sarah Baumann
Featuring Ieva Lucs and Steven McCarthy

The rebels that punctuate human history – Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables, Luther nailing his theses to the church doors, Nietzsche’s late 19th century announcement, “God is dead” – are better known for their gestures than their teachings. Parables, theses, and poetics are, after all, more opaque than gestures; and less effective in grabbing a public’s attention. Today, the gesture has eclipsed the teaching (one need only conjure up the image of smoldering towers). However, theatre, one of the “original” sites of the gesture, offers a unique place to question the potency of the gesture. Theatre Smash, a fledgling Toronto-based theatre company, led by artistic producers, Ashlie Corcoran and Sarah Baumann, use the stage for precisely this enterprise. Their production of the forceful two-hander, Norway.Today, directed by Baumann, and written by contemporary Swiss playwright, Igor Bauersima, wrestles with the flippancy of existing gestures, from smiley faces to adolescent declarations of self-destruction, and offers audiences evocative gestures of its own.

Written in what is often referred to as the “postdramatic” style—an approach to theatre that puts the emphasis on the role of performance rather than the dramatic text—Norway.Today demands much from its theatergoers. A highly theatrical and episodic work, the play calls upon its audiences to not only interpret the performance but to complete it. Karen Jürs-Munby, in an introduction to Postdramatic Theatre, explains that spectators do not just plug “in the predictable gaps in a dramatic narrative but are asked to become active witnesses who reflect on their own meaning-making and who are also willing to tolerate gaps and suspend the assignment of meaning.” Like other iconoclasts in the postdramatic genre (think Heiner Müller, Sarah Kane, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Martin Crimp, to name a few), Bauersima wants spectators to be as aware of their position in the performance event as they are of the actors on stage. To witness a performance is to create it. And in the bold case of Norway.Today, to witness (and thus create) is to question the very boundaries between the “real” and the “fake.”

Our stewards in this boundary-crossing performance event are the characters, Julie, played by leva Lucs, and August, performed by Steven McCarthy. Their presence on stage as middle-class European youths is loosely inspired by “true” events. However, Julie and August are closer to mad, chattering polemicists than richly drawn characters with a sense of depthless interiority. (Make no mistake: Bauersima is making a brazen allusion to the patron sinner-saint of Naturalism, August Strindberg.) And while it is not part of the Tarragon season, the Smash production (a Canadian premiere) is, nonetheless, an interesting work to stage at the theatre, which is known for its emphasis on realism and psychologically complex characters. Moreover, the play is clearly a “director’s” script as it demands extensive interpretation. This demand is in contrast with the aesthetic and mandate of Tarragon, which calls itself the “home of the Canadian playwright.”

Trenchantly formal, Norway.Today acknowledges its presence as a piece of art in the text (Julie, for example, directly addresses the audience as the audience), and the production evokes an equally artificial stagescape (the characters are first in a chat room and, later, the edge of a fjord in Norway). Formal elements such as set design, lighting, sound, music, and video do not assiduously copy an off-stage reality but are treated as tools in their own right. The design team, Robin Fisher (Set and Costume), Michael Walton (Lighting), and Romeo Candido (Video) make remarkable use of the Tarragon Extra Space. Flat screen televisions and empty frames of various sizes connote an online environment; a sloped white stage, in the centre, evokes the edge of a fjord; and a white scrim poses as a camping tent and voyeuristic love nest.

The online environment, the chat room, is where the play begins. Bauersima’s choice to install his characters in a virtual environment where text is quite literally the site of the action (the visual display on the screen) and the main vehicle for communication mirrors his own work as playwright. Chat rooms resemble play texts as participants bat back-and-forth dialoguing, monologuing, and diatribing. Because the chat room is a virtual site, the “where” is staged as a set of screens and frames with tight lighting focused on Lucs’ and McCarthy’s faces. It is through technology, then, that we enter a postdramatic landscape that blurs the line between the real and the virtual.

The chat room becomes the social networking site of choice for Julie, a bellicose young woman desirous of self-destruction. She enters in search of someone with whom she can commit suicide. “Would someone like to die with me?” (From the beginning then, Bauersima links death with sex since chat rooms are regularly places where people go looking for illicit sexual encounters.) Lucs, a poker straight blond with an even voice, is unrelenting in her portrayal of Julie, and makes strong use of a text that flows in mad, often frenetic directions. Like the historical rebels that precede her, Julie wants her gesture to be public and thus announces her intensions for self-demise to an audience. We, as spectators, are the implied “writers” and readers in the chat room.

As Julie recites the chat room dialogue, the screen hanging behind her functions as a Brechtian-style placard. At one point, she states/types, “smiley face,” the eternally optimistic icon that follows a good portion of online exchanges. The program cover and poster, which includes Julie’s suicide inquiry is followed by the requisite smiley face (stitched together as colon, dash, and comma): “Would someone like to die with me? :-)” In the production, however, the screen projects the indefatigable emoticon J of the chat room and other sites where people text. Even in the throes of self-destruction, Julie’s insertion of smiley faces and “lol” into conversation conforms to an online culture that insists on positivity.

Julie eventually does find a suicide partner in August. (Julie, in the original German language script, is phonetically identical with Juli, German for “July.” ) A nineteen year-old self-described loner, August steps onto the set directly from the implied chat room, the audience, and stands on the opposite end of the stage. McCarthy, lanky, hands permanently in his jean pockets, plays a teenage boy who reveals himself to be far more emotionally integrated than his twenty-something suicide partner. Equally adept at handling Bauersima’s text, McCarthy proves to be a skillful interlocutor with an intuitive sense of stage timing. As August and Julie “chat” about their potential destruction, the screens behind them display the vertical tab line that signals a keyboard in standby. Magnified on the screen, the tab moves in and out of the digital ether, and as their conversation progresses, the pulsing starts to resemble a heart monitor.

When Julie and August arrive at their frigid destination, the edge of a fjord in Norway, we are treated to a kind of inversion of the creation story in Genesis. Adam and Eve, August and Julie, join not in a fecund paradise, but on the edge of Pulpit Rock, a 2000 ft. cliff that looks out into an abyss. The pair, rather than falling from grace, experience a number of “false” falls, and at different points find themselves at the precipice of the cliff, but can not force themselves to self-demise. These “false” falls lead to a romantic one as Julie “falls for” – and seduces – August. Their love is celebrated through the medium most devoted to representing romance, the “big” and “small” screen. Images of Julie and August saturate the stage in an artful display that refracts the couple through live feeds, music video style clips, stills, and shadows. We are returned here to the realm of the online environment and its position as “everywhere” (or perhaps we have never left). In a euphoric display, real and virtual, alive and dead, space and time fold into one another and become indistinguishable.

The “real” fall comes when Julie and August attempt to record their suicide letters with a camcorder. Their innumerable, failed attempts to record and rerecord their familial good-byes comes to override the object of their mission. Suicide falls flat on camera. As they obsessively scan and rewind their goodbye messages, suicide no longer appears like the ultimate in “real” acts but, on screen, as hollow, emotionally stunted gestures ridden with cliché. The pair’s inability to articulate a truly “authentic” goodbye on camera forces them to come to terms with the inadequacy of their actions. In Norway.Today, Julie and August expose their gesture of self-destruction not as tragic, or even miserable, but a need to potentialize a static existence.

This review was first posted on

Keren Zaiontz is a writer, critic, and PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto
Read more!

Artists and Politicians by M John Kennedy

After fulfilling my civic duty at my advanced polling station I ventured into Nuit Blanche. I took in exhibits, installations and artists all night for free. I may not have found all of the pieces worthwhile, but the energy of streets still filled at 5am with hundreds (earlier in the evening it was thousands) of people searching out and finding art to watch and do was an unusual delight. I know that there is already much critiquing of Nuit Blanche happening both inside and outside the arts community and yes the event does have some problems. However, I have lived in Toronto for ten years and I cannot recall a time when so many people have flooded the streets for a singular event let alone an artistic one. I have never seen so many (mostly sober) people of this city engaged in what is inherently a social and artistic endeavor. In addition to the scheduled pieces, galleries and shops stayed open and there were numerous impromptu performances. If I was in a Nuit Blanche zone, it was full of people, energy and art. It made me wonder how certain politicians cannot see the value of programs that bring people together, which is what artists do best.

It is easy to sell artists on the value of art, but what about politicians? How can all the hollering become more than preaching to the choir? What do politicians and artists have in common?

In order for me to understand, I need to start by looking at politics. If the purpose of our democracy is to unify a community voice behind a representative who will then defend the community’s interests in our parliament of representatives then this political system is meant to ensure that everyone has a voice. Perhaps it needs an overhaul to further ensure this, but I will accept that this is the idea. Therefore politicians are meant to be the voice of the people they represent (no news there). Obviously, no community speaks with a single voice but politicians must strive to accurately reflect the wants of the majority of those they have taken an oath to represent. There will always be voices unheard.

Enter the artist.

Many artists represent the desires and ideas of the minority. The artist can be popular, powerful and a voice of the majority, but most artists exist in relative obscurity. The artist delves into new areas and challenges established thought and perspective. Artists are people who have something to say that they will not trust to a representative. The curious urge to create, communicate and affect others in new, provocative ways is a driving force behind the artist. The desire to create is inside of every person (just as are opinions about how to better run the community). However, not everyone is driven to taking on the mantle, lifestyle and responsibility of calling her/himself an “artist”. Once that title is worn, you leave the safe confines of creation as habit and suddenly you must endure criticism of said creation because you are selling it. Similarly, some people go from having an opinion to selling their opinions by becoming a politician. In both cases the public is asked to support a perspective and pay someone else to express it. Artists and politicians both are then subjected to intense criticism and examination in regards to what they create and preach.

Generally, we need to delegate in our society to get things done. No person has time to do every thing. This is what leads to specialization and careers. We no longer do our own hunting, gathering, building of shelters and the like; we have others hunt, gather and build shelters and we trade for it. We also pay others to express for us. What do artists and politicians have in common? We have the same job. We are paid to express a perspective.

Just as we need professional politicians, we need professional artists. There has been great art created by those working in their spare time but if we wish to represent ourselves as exceptional artists, we must delegate. Enter funding. Without funding potentially great artists would be forced to either put their art aside in order to survive or they would be forced to live in squalor. It is true that, once established, if the artist is truly great she/he may earn the opportunity to be able to support her/himself but to get to that point, the artist needs support. Every artist is a small business developing a product of art that the public may or may not find worthwhile. However, there are no small business loans for artists. Imagine sitting down with bank manager to explain the potential returns.
Just as intangible is the practicality of trying to be a politician. Imagine going to the bank to ask for a loan because you are running your first campaign. Anyone starting a career needs help.

The only difference between artists and politicians is employment status and rate of pay. Maybe we should look at artists more like politicians.
(Potential artists would have to vie for a position as an artist of the people. We pay you to create, we get to come for free and if we like what you are doing, we hire you back for four more years. You get a staff and an expense account for travel, meals and materials.)

If we pay one third of what an MP gets paid, we could have three full-time national artists for every district for the same price of one politician! Perhaps we should hold politicians to the same standard as artists? It would get rid of the backbenchers. Imagine an artist was hired for a four-year contract of creation and expression and then did nothing but still took the money?

Arts funding is not the life or death of art. Art will always be created, some will find an audience and select artists may even be able to make a living creating without government support. The reason funding is necessary is not to encourage artists (you cannot stop them) but to foster their development so that they do have to live in complete squalor while devoting their lives to creating. Also, culturally, some may view art as a luxury but it is the difference between a society that is surviving and one that is alive. If the government has an interest in the quality of life its citizens, it needs culture. I applaud any corporation that sponsors the arts but must we as a society depend on the kindness of strangers to have art.

The current conservative party and particularly Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the first politician I can recall taking an active and aggressive role putting down the arts and arts funding. It may not be surprising that certain right-wing politicians - who claim to be ever practical and interested only in the measurable results - are disinterested in the arts. I am not surprised that the belief is there, but the actual distain the Prime Minister seems to have for the arts is startling. I am also confounded that the party that argues itself to be the most logical and anti-“touchy-feely” so embraces religion. The concepts of God, faith and religion may be the least measurable thing in this world that so many are fully committed to. The “impracticality” of art must be at least matched but the impractical nature of religion. Perhaps there is a battle at the root of the distain for the arts. Is it possible the right-wing perception is that artists are competing for the dedication, cultural significance, sense of community and faithfulness of religion? If that is the case, then the artist is not only godless heathen but false prophet or anti-Christ. Is that it? Does The Prime Minister think I am the anti-Christ?

There may not be a culture war but there is a definite schism of ideologies occurring in this election. The Liberals, NDP and The Green Party all have extensive sections in their platforms on Arts and Culture. The Conservatives have decided they do not need a platform and since neither Arts nor Culture is listed in their “Key Issues” section I think it is safe to assume that funding in those areas would not play a role in their policy-making decisions. Assuming art and culture is important to you, I hope you always read the policies of the parties and vote for the perspective that most closely matches your own.

I did.

M John Kennedy is an actor, writer, and teacher based in Toronto.
Read more!

Unsolicited Advice to My Fellow Creators by Anthony Furey

If Stephen Harper can be accused of performing the Empire Lite gavotte with the Bush administration, left-leaning Canadian artists are equally as guilty of an Idea Lite when it comes to their excoriation of Harper’s choices.

Recently, the Conservative government knocked a good few million out of the arts coffers. They claimed the reason was to re-evaluate the worthiness of these programs. They also wanted to re-direct funds to support the forthcoming Vancouver Olympics. Both of these, at first glance, are worthy reasons. It’s important to reconsider the founding principles of various programs and departmental divisions; perhaps they were ill-conceived.
Artists remember these excuses from the Mike Harris days and are wise to doubt their sincerity. As such, with megaphone in hand, they denounce the cuts by citing the importance of the arts.

Now right-leaning politicians tend to have fundamentally different conceptions of where funds should go than their left-leaning counterparts. These are in some respects the bedrock of their views, and to merely look down at your navel and proclaim arts funding as a messianic command is to debate on your own terms and not those of your opponents. To be so myopic is to confirm your opponents’ suspicions of your attitudes.

Nobody, save for a few backwater yokels, has ever stated that the arts are not important. The main issue is to what degree a person may think government should be involved in the funding of these arts. Many educated readers and culture vultures take a libertarian stance towards arts and government.

When earlier this year I wrote an essay concerning arts funding for the National Post, I was inundated with letters from readers calling Canadian artists freeloading has-beens. I was surprised and disheartened by their sentiments. However I soon understood that these were educated voices, if a tad abrasive: cultured conservatives who were familiar with the country’s artistic landscape and were not happy with the direction it was headed in. What they require is not a condescending suggestion that they fail to see the importance of the arts; they require worthy combatants who take time to consider their positions and offer a considered rebuttal.

Recently Canada’s vice-regal consort, Jean-Daniel Lafond, gave a rather banal argument against the cuts in an interview with The Globe & Mail citing ‘the importance of the arts’. So an artist thinks the arts are important because arts are important. That does little to aide the Red Deer Albertan into appreciating why his income tax is being used to create plays about pederasty.

In an age when anybody can claim they are an artist, and can therefore feel they have a right to receive government subsidies to stay at home and create, it’s important we make clear exactly what it is about the arts that makes them important, what constitutes an artist and on what terms we believe said artists should be funded.

Interesting arguments are buzzing around in the air just like Mozart claimed his melodies were before he deftly plucked them down. What’s barring their explication is that no Canadian virtuoso seems willing to stretch and make a grab.

Where are the impassioned essays concerning how artists are always leading the frontier of ideas, and thus reactionary sentiment to their funding is to be expected? Where are the economic explanations of how theatre – which is at risk of becoming the old curiosity shop the opera houses devolved into some hundred years ago – is unable to sustain itself through its own revenues? Where are the earnest explorations of the differences between American and Canadian artists, such that the former have a more viable economic model?

At present, I am not going to write these arguments because while I do not support those who call for cuts to arts-funding, I also do not support the reasoning behind those why decry them. But if the protesting artists give the strong bang-for-your-buck they pledge, then they should easily be able to compose a nifty panegyric or two.

If you do not create more nuanced arguments, conservatives will take you for mere freeloaders scared that the ride is coming to an end.

Anthony Furey is a theatre artist and writer whose work frequently appears in national magazines and newspapers.
Read more!

An Open Letter to Canadians by Bobby Del Rio

So let me get this straight... The bastard Conservatives are anti-gay, pro-censorship, and now anti-art, and we’re just supposed to keep our mouths shut?


Here’s an alternative: Fuck you, Stephen Harper.
First you try and tell all my gay friends that they shouldn’t have the same rights to marry like you and all your ugly, boring friends. Then you try and decide what kind of art is ‘moral’ and what isn’t. Now you’re gutting our international infrastructure to market our art to other countries – when what we need is MORE money, not less.

If this was the schoolyard, I would’ve kicked your ass like a year ago. And I would’ve spent your milk money on whores.

This political street fight has officially entered the artistic arena. While artists are continually relegated to the realm of pauper, vagrant or morally-ambiguous in the eyes of this antiquated government, it’s time to fight back! Let’s stop writing shitty plays about Newfoundland in 1932, or horrible TV shows about small towns in Canada, or trying to recreate Road to Avonlea as the poster child for Canadiana.

We’re getting fucked here, people. And when you get fucked, you fight back. That’s how I was raised. And, proverbially, that’s how I roll…

What we need is some SERIOUS BACKLASH to all these Conservative moralists who are doing their best to portray a society that is anti-gay, anti-risk and all white all the time. Institutions like the Shaw Festival will have to realize that you can’t keep making all your art to serve the whims of 70-year old white people. Toronto is 47% non-white, the old people here are afraid of computers, and we have more categories of sexual orientation than I could effectively research in a master’s thesis.

I want to see a Canada whose art reflects all of these wonderful things. I want to see a TV show about an Aboriginal lesbian couple. I want to see a play done at Stratford that makes teenagers say, “Dude, you HAVE to go to Stratford!”, I want to see our failed Canadian entertainment industry say, “Okay guys, we’re not making money doing American-lite versions of art we cannot afford to produce anyway. Let’s start taking some serious RISKS, and show that you don’t need MONEY to make great art, you just need great IDEAS.”

Here’s the truth: We have lots of talented, sexy, edgy, dangerous, risky, compelling, daring, young, angry, horny, gloriously-diabolic artists. In this country, they have no home. They’re supposed to make their best attempts at creating pleasure for white, blue-haired, Conservatives. The Stephen Harpers of the world are much happier this way: Gutting funding for artistic projects that might actually succeed, and siphoning that money to kill Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

But who are the worst offenders of all? The Canadian citizens that allow all this to happen. Talk about an inferiority complex…

Bobby Del Rio is a writer, actor, and producer, based in Toronto
Read more!

The Emergency Monologues at Summerworks by Evan Webber

The Emergency Monologues
by Morgan Jones Phillips

Directed by Evalyn Parry
Presented by Drinking Well
Featuring Morgan Jones Phillips

Morgan Jones Phillips is big and friendly and tells funny and horrifying true stories from his work as a paramedic, and he has all the unnerving, loquacious energy of the shell-shocked. The night I saw the show he informed us that he had just worked his third nightshift in a row. He was almost falling over, and was entirely winning. Though Phillips is the only human performer in the show, it would be a mistake to say that he is the star of The Emergency Monologues. That honour undeniably goes to ‘The Wheel of Misfortune’ which is prop, hero, villain, plot device, and rickety emblem of human frailty all rolled up into one.

It’s a brilliantly simple form. Phillips spins the wheel, he reads out the random selection and then has to talk about the indicated story, code-word or moral. Then he does it again, and the show literally revolves around the wheel, so always the tales of wisdom and idiocy he expresses are punctuated by the melodramatics of a roulette game. It’s inevitable that the random playlist yields less than perfect results, but that’s pleasingly intentional. The formal constraint is compelling and thematic in its own right, but by offering the possibility that we might hear a story that’s never been told, or that Phillips might be forced into an even more uncomfortable position as speaker as he shifts quickly from the comic to the irredeemably dark, it also makes a witty comment on the show’s own avowedly populist form. It shows us ourselves.

At the end of it, of course, he tell us the message, which is that Toronto needs more ambulances on the road lest the Wheel of Misfortune grow even larger. Sometimes Phillips's desire for a funny story, or his simple exhaustion undoes some of the beautiful tension of this show. It’s also possible that he’s too good a storyteller, that he’d rather make us laugh than give us the space to live uncomfortably with the material. But this is a brand-new work (I hope that this production marks a point of departure rather than arrival) and the fact that I could imagine what it could be doesn’t change what it is. As such, The Emergency Monologues is a piece of intelligent agit-prop. Successful agit-prop too, because, there is no suspect or problematic ideology on display here. (Unless you think publicly-funded health-care is suspect or problematic, and even you might have your mind changed). It mobilizes us instantly against that intractable foe: plain, dumb luck, Dame Fortuna herself – and not alone, not by ourselves, as the title might suggest, but freely, eagerly, and together.

Fri Aug 15 6:00pm
Sat Aug 16 10:00pm
Sun Aug 17 6:00pm
Read more!

Fewer Emergencies and Singhski at Summerworks by Evan Webber

Fewer Emergencies
by Martin Crimp

Directed by Brendan Healy
Presented by Mitch
Featuring Ken Mackenzie, Vahid Rahbani, Erin Shields, Andrew Pifko

Singhski is Chad Dembski and Rebecca Singh

Maybe the good Pastor's shadow is still covering our bright city, or maybe it's the start of the monsoon season, but I’m still feeling sublime Evil around every corner at SummerWorks. The text of Martin Crimp’s very funny Fewer Emergencies is provocative not so much because of its story of suburban desperation and violence, but for the way it dismantles itself, leaving only people and their hopes as the possible source of the contagious violence they must confront. Thanks to director Brendan Healy, these are people on stage, and its their double nature as performer/characters (particularly in the immensely composed Vahid Rabhani) that makes this show so worth seeing. As characters, their hope is for a more meaningful life; as actors they
hope just as palpably for a deeper logic, for a more complete story. In the end, what the performer/ characters (and finally, we the audience) are looking for is a judgement, and this is the Evil in Fewer Emergencies: there isn’t any. Instead, there’s a cautious mapping of the territory of hope, where the golden key dangles always out of reach and the car gets overturned again and again, where the contingency of our happiness is as absolute, and as final, as our ability to do something about it.

Meanwhile, the territory of hope gets driven over by a sparkler-mounted electric monster-truck in Singhski, part of the Performance Gallery series at the Gladstone. In just under ten minutes, Rebecca Singh and Chad Dembski simply, effortlessly, even childishly show us how ‘Things used to be better’, while nimbly keeping themselves clear of the black hole of nostalgia. In doing so, they manage to renew our faith in the power of strangeness. It’s hard to say what you’ll find when you go, because the set-list of their performance (which is likely to include ‘internet poetry’ and Sun-Ra-inspired costumage) is mutable. Though it's sure to stay essentially, refreshingly, weird.

Fewer Emergencies plays at the Factory Studio Theatre

Tue Aug 12 6:00pm
Wed Aug 13 6:00pm
Thu Aug 14 10:00pm
Sat Aug 16 4:00pm

Singhski is being presented as part of the Performance Gallery at the Gladstone Hotel

Every night 7:00-9:00pm
Read more!

The Pastor Phelps Project at Summerworks by Evan Webber

The Pastor Phelps Project: a fundamentalist cabaret

By Alistair Newton and the members of Ecce Homo

Directed by Alistair Newton
Musical Direction by Daniel Rutzen
Presented by Ecce Homo

Featuring Matthew Armet, Andrew Bathory, Adam Bolton, Raffaele Ciampaglia, Andrea Kwan, Evalyn Parry, Kaitlyn Regehr, Chy Ryan Spain, Kristine Steffansson, Carey William Wass

It could not begin better: outside, people hold signs and placards, repeating other people’s gestures, grimly attentive, ready for anything; and then we sneak into the luxe, faux-bordello interior of the Cameron House, which is all abuzz with rumours – ‘Apparently, Phelps has crossed the border… yes he’s on his way – and then we are ushered past the threshold and into the back of the Cameron, where we sit down in the fake foliage and the black velvet. It is our very own Heart of Darkness, and the real, live Kurtz is on his way! And then, music! The actors come out, and in a supremely ironic gesture, the whole world inverts, and what we see on the inside is exactly what is happening on the outside: people hold signs and placards, repeating other people’s gestures, grimly attentive, ready for anything…Director Alistair Newton pulls an immense amount of energy out of the cast who all play fast and loose and jump into the Bizarro-world with wonderful abandon. But inverting reality so completely like this can also lead to a general state of dizziness, and to a series of rather unsettling questions floating in the heads of the audience. When, for example, did this show actually begin? With Newton’s recent invitation to Phelps, published in Fab Magazine?

‘…You are so utterly loathsome, your ideas so mind-bendingly facile and your tactics so crassly ludicrous that you provide the perfect mirror to reflect the awesome stupidity of religious homophobia...’

Or with the reply from the Westboro Baptist Church?

‘…The Pastor Phelps Project is a tacky bit of filthy sodomite propaganda, with no literary merit and zero redeeming social value, masquerading as legitimate theatre. It is of the fags, by the fags, and for the fags…’

Certainly, the show started before it started In turn, the performance of the show itself feels like the emblem of a larger dialogue happening outside the theatre. This is (mostly) as it should be. Framing a bigger issue is something that theatre does, and the best achievement of Pastor Phelps is how it demonstrates the pleasure of this property through a style that is all beautiful, DIY cliché and sheer, skin-of-the-teeth exuberance.

The show-as-frame is so clear however, that we see the arguments inside it immediately. Pastor Phelps is not just an ironic name-calling session – that would reduce this show to a piece of fluff. Under the all mockery in the show is real fear; a more troubled, and more troubling, engagement with the notion of evil. It’s in the imagery and in the juxtaposition of texts; Phelps himself is not even a human, rather, he’s coin-operated nightmare puppet. (What currency activates him, we do not know, but it comes from the hand of an ‘innocent’ child.) He is beyond the pale. And if we laugh at him or his minions, it is not in recognition of his human frailty, but in the face of him as the enigma of evil itself.

In Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, Zizek writes about the enigma through the lens of the Holocaust, and I kept thinking about this while I was watching Pastor Phelps:
“Any attempt to locate [the Holocaust] in its context, to politicize it, is equivalent to the… negation of its uniqueness… However, this very depoliticization of the Holocaust, its elevation into the properly sublime Evil, the untouchable exception beyond the reach of ‘normal’ political discourse, can also be a political act of utter cynical manipulation, a political intervention aiming at legitimizing a certain kind of hierarchical political relation… at the expense of today’s radical political possibilities.'

This is what I was worried about.

Any performance that matters to people happens in the territory between the elevated sublime and the contextually politicized, and a little touch of evil can certainly build an atmosphere and help nose a story along. It’s hard work to avoid the consequent depoliticization-effect but it’s work well worth doing unless one wants to end up merely as Phelps’ liberal doppelganger; a Phelps-enabler, not by argument, but by attitude.

An example of a successful navigation of the obstacle: though there’s lots of genuinely sexy and disturbing moments, the most engaging and challenging parts in Pastor Phelps are the sections of verbatim text from the Tyra Banks Show (yes, there is a Tyra Banks Show, news to me) and from the on-camera meltdown of a Fox News anchor at one of Phelps’s deplorable funeral pickets. Both scenes are copied from television and staged with great restraint and sensitivity. And they stand out precisely because they do negate the uniqueness (they show us, instead, the banality) of evil: not only could this person be me; this person is me, and so deserves equal criticism and compassion.


Pastor Phelps is only one of a big handful of shows at this year’s SummerWorks that is explicitly dealing with fear, belief, and navigating the void of un-reason. (I count nine, including the One Reed show that I’m performing in, from the blurbs alone. I’m sure the number’s even higher.) Curatorial bias or unopposable Zeitgeist? Time, and a few more performances, may tell. Either way, it’s very exciting to see such a clear theme emerging in the festival programming. Hopefully it will lead to more, and better, conversations.

The Pastor Phelps Project plays:

Sat Aug 9 8:00pm
Sun Aug 10 3:00pm
Thu Aug 14 8:00pm
Fri Aug 15 8:00pm
Sat Aug 16 8:00pm
Sun Aug 17 3:00pm

The Cameron House
Read more!

Evan Webber's Fringe Wrap-up

So I posed myself this question, ‘What do people like?’ And gave myself the duration of the Fringe festival to answer it. After seeing a lot of Fringe shows there’s a pretty quick and easy list to throw together: hockey fans, beer drinking, waving prairie grasses, (all Canadiana must be lovingly held up and then skewered ironically); Torontonian up-tightness; other Fringe plays; otherness, generally; love stories; marriage stories; bartenders. So why am I optimistic?
Yes, these tropes can seem a little worn down, but like the very same bartender they are also only one part of a more elemental (and after seeing so many plays, necessary) transaction. So what leaves me feeling optimistic about the Fringe, and maybe even about theatre, has not so much to do with the kind of stories that I heard told or represented or shouted or sung. It has to do with the way that those stories were told, that is, in a profusion of forms.

From this angle, what people like (and what I like too) are performances in which the ambition to communicate is desperate and huge, shows that ask a lot. Shows that, even when skillfully executed, are precarious under the burden of huge imaginations. I think this is true because many of the best shows I saw were just celebrations of the signs of the need to communicate, big wrangles like Lupe: Undone or Die Roten Punkte – SUPER MUSIKANT (which was good in the theatre, but even better when the performers tried to sell their merch outside).

My Fringe-related optimism stems from the generosity of imagination that audiences demanded, which reflects an unmistakable desire to communicate – to learn something, but also to say something back. It might go a little like this: imagine big, performers, and ask much of us watchers and listeners, because the imagination that we demand of each other is what will make communication possible.
Read more!

Acis and Galatea at the Toronto Fringe Festival by Aurora de Pena

Acis and Galatea by George Frederic Handel
Libretto by John Gay and Alexander Pope

Presented by Classical Music Consort from Toronto/New York/London

Acis and Galatea, based on the story from Ovid’s Metamorphises, is a simple confident and innovative Baroque Masque by The Classical Music Consort. There is a feeling of constant movement, wind and water, as the pastoral is evoked not only in the video which projects on performers and backdrop alike, but in the fluid grace of the costume design and constant flux of the choreography.

Conductor Ashiq Aziz employs an ensemble of period instruments to recreate Handel’s composition, and the music shines. The singers embrace every Baroque vocal ornamentation; and the effect is wonderfully emotional and poignant, with the silver throated Rosie Coad (Galatea) making a stunning impression. She is present in voice and body, compelling to watch as well as to hear.

Aziz and director Patrick Young have accomplished something quite special in their relaxed and confident production. Opera, for the general North American population, is dead. This is due to its inability to change and reflect the world as the current generation sees it. Of course there are great and enduring works on universal human themes, but of these, many contemporary opera companies neglect to focus on those universal themes and instead concentrating effort on the preservation of the original art form, featuring corsets and large, heavy sets in giant theatres. Aziz and Young, however, make their production electric by stripping away those excesses and letting the work speak for itself. This is an intimate and excellent production, the right direction for the future of opera.

Read more!

Bluebeard and Take it Back at the Toronto Fringe Festival by Evan Webber

Bluebeard by Pericles Snowdon
Presented by GromKat Productions, Toronto


Take it Back
by Jodee Allen and Helen Simard
Presented by Solid State Breakdance, Montreal

The atmosphere at the Fringe Festival tent can feel closer to that of a Bruegel market scene than a strait-laced theatre festival. Producers sidle up like pickpockets to slip flyers into your hands. Actors sit gossiping in knots like farmers, with their wares – their flyers – arranged in front of them. Performance poets stand silent, beer in hand, wearing back-banners proclaiming the dazzling reviews their shows have garnered in distant cities. For all its craziness, this atmosphere also offers a kind of clarity, because, as a few moments of conversation with any of the above will confirm, what marks the value of a Fringe show is unambiguous; what matters is whether people like it.

Another way of saying this: Fringe artists are engaged primarily with a question about audience - what kinds of relationships can exist between performer and audience? And maybe another, more dangerous question: what do people actually like?

GromKat’s production of UK playwright Pericles Snowdon’s Bluebeard answers that people like a richly imagined Platonic parable dramatized as a post-apocalyptic Jacobean revenge tragedy. It’s an unusual pleasure to hear this kind of language spoken aloud, even if it must be in the King’s English, and the performers are unhurried and (for the most part) show great ease with the story’s uncertainties and logical cul-de-sacs. The production’s struggles are rather with the stakes of its own drama, and the ironies of the show’s fairytale aesthetic are skin deep compared to those in the script, which plays adroitly with our expectations. It’s only by the time we’re asked to choose between safety and certainty inside the castle and a life outside in the unknowable and violent ‘world without a heart’, that we’re we one step ahead of the characters. And this is only because we in the audience know that a kind of practical certainty is actually all too available in the world; what’s harder to find is Mistress Blue’s abundant imagination. If we want the characters to stay, it’s because we’d like to stay there too, for just a little longer.

Of this violent and unknowable world, Take it Back (by Montreal’s Solid State Breakdance) would simply like to know, how come people don’t dance together anymore? It’s an innocent question that hides a very thorny tangle of observations about gender, race, power, and the conversational qualities of dance. They might be a little biased (the title’s a hint), but their investigation is thorough, and their conclusions are charmingly related and occasionally – even unnervingly – thought provoking. For a show where couples dance to the Lindy Hop (among other things), Take it Back manages to stay remarkably light on nostalgia. Though there is a little self-conscious song-and-dance-ness to some of the more narrative moments, there are also moments of unadorned clarity, even joy. When the dancers really laugh, when they really fall, when they really flirt with us and each other, Take it Back cuts through its own problematics with a simpler and more radical statement, which has to do with why they’re dancing together, and why we’re there watching them: sure, abundant imagination is alright, but it’s other people that make things fun.

Bluebeard plays at the Tarragon Mainspace

Tues , July 8 @ 3:00 PM
Thu , July 10 @ Noon
Fri , July 11 @ 8:45 PM
Sun , July 13 @ 5:15 PM

Take It Back plays at the George Ignatieff

Thu , July 10 @ 7:30 PM
Fri , July 11 @ 12:30 PM
Sat , July 12 @ 11:00 PM
Sun , July 13 @ 4:30 PM
Read more!

Hung To Dry at the Toronto Fringe Festival by Aurora de Peña

Hung To Dry by Donna Maloney, Carley Spencer, and Perry Harowitz

Presented by RumRaisin Productions, Toronto

Though Hung to Dry can be appropriately described as hilarious by anyone’s high standards, the 60 minute show exceeds the expectations of the realm of Saturday Night Live era sketch comedy. Fresh, exciting and original writing and performance by Donna Maloney, Carly Spencer, and Peggy Harowitz is both dark and pop, allowing the audience to experience not only the big laughs, but also the slightly uncomfortable/relatable moments that make the laughter ache a little bit. The girls turn a critical eye toward life in the city and the culture that’s supposed to go with it. Carly Spencer’s rhyming poetic monologues (narrated by urban Canadian wildlife) are innovative and unexpected—Her poems as performances are so charming, appealing and unique that they could carry the show, but happily, they have lots of excellent company. Peggy Harowitz explores, with an empathetic but deeply skeptical eye , the life of a modern Russian email bride (“Your money is enough to buy me a new fur coat and hysterectomies for my Mother and my sister and my sister and my sister”) and Donna Maloney’s performance as an early 80’s sex therapist who plays by The Rules is cringe-worthy as well as hysterical. It is complex and self reflective humour in keeping with the Sedaris age.

Hung To Dry plays at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace

Mon , July 7 @ 4:00 PM
Tues , July 8 @ 5:00 PM
Thu , July 10 @ 2:45 PM
Sat , July 12 @ 6:15 PM
Sun , July 13 @ 5:45 PM

Read more!

Chris Dupuis Shuts Up!

I'm not in Toronto for the Fringe Festival this year, so I've got a couple of other writers prowling the festival, looking for interesting shows to cover. The caveat is that they are only going to write about shows that they like and I'll be posting things daily to the site as they come in.

Read more!

As I See It: Careerism VS Artistic Integrity

Not that I'm planning to derive all my sources of blog-writing inspiration from there, but this is another response to a posting on the Praxis Theatre blog. The question of Careerism versus Artistic Integrity was thrown forth and there were a pretty broad range of responses. Here's mine:

I have to say first off that I have a bit of a problem with this question because it implies a kind of judgement that we as artists feel justified in placing on each other. If someone makes a living making art who the fuck am I to judge the decisions they have made that have brought them to that point? I have no problem with people saying that they like or dislike a particular piece of art or the body of work produced by a particular artist, but to say that someone lacks integrity because they've either chosen or fallen into a path that has brought them financial success is totally unfair. Artists have to deal with enough judgement that is lumped on us by society about what we do. We don't need this shit from each other.

I got into an argument during a panel discussion about playwrights at the LMDA conference a few years back. I can't remember what the exact topic of the panel was because every panel I've ever attended that's about playwrights ends up coming down to the same thesis: that the subscription-season based programming formula doesn't leave room for taking chances or bringing new voices into the mix and that we're all struggling, suffering, and starving because being a playwright is just so damn hard. At the time I was working with bluemouth inc., a company who eschewed traditional models of performance making by working in a site specific context, thereby negating both the need and the desire to work within the traditional system. I suggested to the audience that if what was ultimately important to them was getting their work out there, that the best recourse was to try working outside the established system, rather than fighting to be a part of it. A particular member of the audience responded to me by saying that she "didn't have time to do plays in her back yard with friends" and added that because I was "young" (I still had an absence of grey hair and crows feet back then) that I couldn't possibly understand what she, and other mature artists within the profession were going through while trying to make a living. When I posed the question of why she was making art, if her ultimate goal was to make money, all hell broke loose.

I think I was probably about twenty-five then, and still very much attached to the romantic notion of the starving artist. Now, a few weeks away from my thirtieth birthday, my perspective has changed a bit. A still think that being an artist is a lousy way to make a living from a financial perspective and we have to trade a lot in terms of material comforts and financial gain in order to follow the career path that we want. That said if someone does end up being financially successful through their art work, regardless of what they are making, I have to applaud them for that. Even if it's Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Here's a secret about me; I want to be a successful artist. The definition of success if different for different people but for me translates to having opportunities to create and present my work around the world and to not have to sling drinks or answer phones while I'm doing that to make ends meet. Does that make me a careerist? I sure as hell hope so, because I want to make art as a career. That's not to say I place any judgement on people who make art as a sideline to their regular work or have other jobs to fill in the financial gaps left in their bank account by the inconsistency of their income. They probably have much nicer apartments than I do, take better vacations, have nicer clothes, and dine in nicer restaurants. And a lot of them make really good art. I can only speak for myself and the career path that I want. Since I've started to think about my own career from this perspective, I've all but lost any interest in whether or not other artists have "integrity" or seem to be doing things for "the money". The only artists I care about are the ones who are making work that is interesting to me and the ones who aren't, whether they're making money at it or not, don't show up on my radar. Those artists who are making work that is interesting to me are the ones that I'm going to give my time and money to and whose work I am going to support and write about.

And if Andrew Lloyd Webber lies awake at night feeling unfulfilled because he's been making a shit-load of money pitching spectacular crap on stage for the last several decades, rather than making the experimental site-specific interdisciplinary performance art that he's always secretly dreamed of and feels like he has no integrity as a result, that's his problem to deal with, not mine. I have a sneaking suspicion that he doesn't feel this way, however in the case that he does, he can take it up with his therapist. I'm pretty sure he can afford a good one.
Read more!

As I See It: Why We Need Critics

A few weeks back there was a post made to the Praxis Theatre blog, referencing a piece that George Hunka had made on his blog about dismantling the critical apparatus in the theatre world, by either sending all of the critics on one-year vacations or just refusing to let them into our shows. It's taken me a while to figure out exactly how to respond to this, but I'm finally getting around to it.

As someone who straddles the worlds of critic and artist, I've had to put a lot of thought into what exactly the role of the critic should be and I can say with all sincerity that we do not need to get rid of critics. We need more critics. Better critics. What we don't need any more of is reviewers, which is what the major publications of the city have on staff. Writing a piece that tells someone whether or not they should spend money to take in a piece of art is not criticism and the people who pen these articles are not critics, despite the fact that the publications that they work for, in an attempt to grant them some level of legitimacy, assign them this title. While reviews can be humourous, insightful, and (especially when they are scathing) quite fun to read, they do not constitute critical writing and including them in this category diminishes the value and importance of actual theatre criticism.

Criticism, whether written about theatre or any other art form, is writing which is designed to accompany the work, NOT writing designed to tell people whether or not they should see it in the first place. True criticism is written under the assumption that your reading audience has seen or plans to see the work you are talking about and should inform the viewer's experience of the work, not to place a value judgement on the work itself. That doesn't mean that everything a critic has to say about a work is going to be positive, however the minute a critic starts telling their reader that they should or should not see a work, it ceases to become criticism and becomes a review.

Criticism should do several things for its audience. The first is to contextualize the work they are writing about, both within the practice of the particular artist they are covering and also within the greater context of other artists working in the same tradition. Critics who are good at what they do know what is happening on the world art scene. They read voraciously what other critics are writing about art. They travel to see work in different cities. They have an in-depth knowledge of the history of the discipline they are writing about. They also have at least a general sense of what is happening in the art world outside of their particular area of expertise. Perhaps most importantly, they talk to artists about what they are doing with their work.

True criticism should be a guide to the work being talked about. In addition to providing context it should clarify the intention of the artist. The reviews that I find most offensive are the ones that can be summed up with the phrase "I didn't understand this piece and therefore it is bad art". In an academic setting, which is about the only place in Canada where true theatre criticism takes place, if a paper was presented where the author said that they didn't understand a piece of work and that it therefore had no value they would be laughed off the stage. It is your job as a critic to understand the work you are writing about inside and out, as well as having a clear grasp of the artist's intention behind it. It's fine to judge the intention and execution of the piece in relation to the artist's practice and context in which they are working, but to simply throw up your hands, shrug your shoulders, and tell people it sucks is stupid, lazy, offensive, and is the thing I believe artists should truly be intolerant of.

When I say we need more critics, what I mean is that we need more people generating the kind of writing about theatre I've outlined above. I would love it if at every show I went to see, I was handed a critical essay along with the ticket and program that would actually engage me in the work in a way that I might not be if I just saw the work on its own. I would surmise that if this kind of writing was provided to reviewers, in addition to the company bios and flashy photos that normally pad a press-kit, we might also see a reduction in bad reviews as it would improve their understanding of what they are seeing. I would also suggest that this would be a considerably more effective tactic in dealing with the phenomenon of bad reviews than banning reviewers from seeing our shows. There have been a few companies that have tried this in the past and it hasn't worked. If a publication wants a journalist to cover a show, they'll get them in the door one way or another, even if it means having them pay for a ticket rather then getting them a media comp or having them go in disguise as Kate Taylor used to when she attended shows at companies that had banned her.

Ultimately, unless you're producing work for a large company that has a huge budget for marketing, you need to get reviews of your work as they are the primary means of reaching your audience. Rather than hate the reviewers, try to work with them by providing them with as much information as possible about your work and the context in which you are working, assuming they haven't gone to the trouble to do this themselves. Find a critic to generate this material and include it in your press kit. Have your publicist follow-up with them to ask if they had questions about the piece or found things confusing and offer to talk to them about it. And perhaps most importantly, don't hate them. Reviewers are just doing a job that they get paid for which, by the way, is the lowest paying form of journalism. It's not going to guarantee that you'll never have a bad review of your work, but at the very least it will ensure that you won't have a bad review simply because the person writing your show doesn't have a fucking clue what they are talking about. And if we can, at the very least, avoid those kinds of the reviews it's worth the effort.
Read more!

Marty Bragg is Leaving Canadian Stage



Artistic Producer Martin Bragg to leave after 2008-2009 season

- Statement from Martin Bragg, Artistic Producer, The Canadian Stage Company -

I am announcing today that our upcoming 2008-2009 season – my 17th with The Canadian Stage Company – will be my last. My current contract with the Company expires in June 2009, and I have informed the Board of Directors that I will not be seeking a renewal.

After more than a decade and a half of great artistic achievement, and times of prosperity and challenge, I have decided that it is time for me to turn the keys over to new leadership. I have been very fortunate to have forged many treasured relationships with this Company and, for that, I will be forever grateful.

The Canadian Stage Company is now on a strong footing going forward. The Company has received important artistic recognition for our 2007-2008 season, with 21 Dora Mavor Moore Award- nominations, and we are poised to present a very powerful 2008-2009 season of contemporary theatre on all of our stages. This begins with A Midsummer Night’s Dream later this month, Nightwood Theatre’s Wild Dogs in September and Frost/Nixon in October. We have a strong vision and strategy in place for the Company and next year will mark the beginning of our new Berkeley Street Project, a concept and idea of which I am particularly proud.

Our plans for the upcoming season are well in hand; we will have all remaining shows cast by mid-July; and we have begun planning for our exciting new season in 2009-2010. I will also be supporting the Company’s search for new leadership in whatever way I can. It is our plan to effect a smooth transition.

My immediate focus will be to lead the organization through next season and to present one of the strongest seasons of theatre in the history of The Canadian Stage Company, while I plan the next chapter of my career.

I would like to thank all of the artists, staff and our Board of Directors, past and present, for their ongoing support of this Company. To our audiences, donors, funders and sponsors - please accept my deepest thanks for helping to make Canadian Stage one of the most important theatre companies in Canada. These past 17 years have truly been the highlight of my career.


Read more!

Nadia Ross is Talking to Chris Dupuis!

After the craziness of the FTA settled down, I had the chance to dialogue the Nadia Ross, Artistic Director of STO Union. I caught their new show 7 Important Things, the third section of the 'How Can We Live' trilogy, and decided to pose 7 Important Questions to Nadia about her work, why some people hate what she does, and interviewing piles of Kleenex.

Check it out!

For someone who has never seen it before, describe the aesthetic of your work.

Stark, primitive and restrained with a practical design. We try not to present work that has an iconic feel to it – something that must be submitted to. We try to create something more porous, which can be entered into. I am interested in the authentic, which appears imperfect and flawed from the perspective of ‘the Grand Performance/Well-made Play’, but, to me is much more beautiful.

What artists working in performance today are you inspired by? Can you speak a bit about what they do and how they have influenced you?

What happened to me was that I was hugely inspired for a couple of years when I was just starting out in the theatre, but then, just like an infatuation, the feeling faded. That being said, I love to see the work of Rimini Protokoll (Berlin). They use people from the general public and they really know how to frame each person so that they ‘come out’ beautifully. They also have a really nice sense for design. I just saw Raimund Hoghe at the FTA. He is the hunchback dancer/choreographer. There was something extremely vulnerable in his work, and, again, very restrained. He is a hunchback who threw himself into the dance. Just that was beautiful for me. But it was his restraint that was truly masterful. There are more companies, like Lone Twin in England… When I started out, it was Robert Wilson, Heiner Mueller, the Wooster Group. In Canada, I’ve always liked Daniel Brooks’ work for its elegance and intelligence. I like Darren O’Donnell (provocateur) and Jacob Wren (intelligent and eccentric), to name a few.

The first STO Union show I ever saw, I didn't like. The improvisatory nature of the performance left me feeling like the artists on stage hadn't put that much thought into what they were doing. It was only after seeing more of the company's work that I began to understand the careful choreography that goes into creating a work which gives off the energy of being improvisatory. How do you respond to audience members who, being unfamiliar with the way in which the company works, respond to your work like this?

In my experience, I’ve met some audiences that like to be taken away by a strong narrative and the perfect/repeatable performance. They like the feeling of having their minds and imaginations taken for a ride through a well-made illusion. That’s just their cup of tea and when it is well done, it is a great experience. Often, this is a cultural difference: audiences in Germany, for example, are more at ease with different kinds of work than audiences in other parts of the world.

For those who don’t know how to approach our work but our willing to try, I say to them that one of the best ways to connect with the work is to stay in the moment. I think that the struggle people may be having is that their minds are trying to connect the dots and make a traditional story out of what they are seeing. They want to make sense of things right away and to feel secure in the thought that the performer is not going to make any mistakes – is not going to be humiliated. They came to see something solid, perfect; they don’t want to be reminded of our humanness, and they don’t want to be brought into the present moment. They want to be taken over and not participate at some level. Some people hate the feeling of ‘not knowing’ – it feels a little bit like a kind of death. If one can relax enough into this kind of open system, they often find that they’ve ended up somewhere they didn’t expect. This happens because they’ve allowed themselves to become more vulnerable, because usually that is what comes with ‘not knowing’. The audience’s vulnerability touches us onstage, and we also become more vulnerable. A kind of intimacy can ensue: it is a tangible feeling in the room and it is really nourishing for humans to experience this kind of intimacy in a public setting.

One of the things I've seen in several of your works is a section in which the performers dance. At those moments, there was a certain feeling of relief that I experienced as an audience member, as if that was my opportunity to process the experience I'd just had during a dance-break. Why is it important to you to include that element in your work and what do you feel it brings to the audience?

Dance is just another kind of energy, one that has a ‘release’ feeling to it. Release is always good at some point in an evening, in my opinion. It’s healthy. It’s fun and, in our case, we like our dance to be entertaining. I like a bit of entertainment with my art.

In this specific show, I saw the melding of your lecture-style aesthetic with sections that functioned more like conventional play scenes. As an artist currently working on a project that involves this blend of different styles, I'm especially interested to know more about your process of combining the two, the impetus behind it, and any pitfalls or wrong turns you may have taken during the process.

I look for different types of performance acts. A lecture is a performance, a eulogy is a performance, a dramatic scene is a performance, a stand-up comedy act is a performance, etc. They all have their own rules and each has a certain flavor. I have no problem at all butting up two very different things against each other. That, to me, is when things get most interesting. The play becomes more like a score, than a story. So I approach it a bit more like music. The music of 7 Important Things is jaded, has sharp edges – a kind of broken melody. So the sections that I use are meant to create this kind of discord: a beautiful song that has been somehow broken; it is similar to how the main character has experienced life.

The greatest pitfall, which applies to all kinds of processes, is the one where the director is only seeing what he/she wants to see and not what is really there. Because we don’t work from an already written play, there is more chance for this kind of delusion to enter the process. For example, Jacob Wren, Tracy Wright and I spent an afternoon working on an interview section where we interviewed different piles of Kleenex – anthropomorphizing piles of tissue paper. We were having a lot of fun so it was tempting to think that the work was good. But, we came to our senses. A German director I was training under years ago used to repeat: ‘don’t be stupid, you are stupid enough’. Another German who I study meditation with says: “when the animal is ready, slaughter it’. A third German I worked with used to say: “You can only do good work when you know where you come from”. The same director would also repeat to me: ‘don’t be afraid of not-knowing what to do” And, a final quote from another German director I studied with at school: “avoid doubling” (i.e. indicating).

This show is based on the life of a real person, as I believe some of your previous works have been. Can you talk about the process of creating a work that is based on a living human being who is part of the process? Are there certain challenges associated with that that are different from, for example, creating a show about someone who is dead or that you've never met before?

7 Important Things is the last of the 'How Can We Live' trilogy. For these three plays, I was interested in a process that I’ve seen over and over again in meditation groups, and which I find riveting. This is a process where someone who is blocked, who doesn’t know how to proceed, goes in front of a group and just reports what is happening in their body, their mind and their emotions. They catch a kind of thread that they begin to follow, simply by reporting what is actually happening now. The thread is by no means a traditional narrative, but it is most definitely engaging as a story, one that is made up of bits and pieces that eventually form a whole. By observing this thread, things start to shift. The thread leads the person to some truth about themselves or their lives that they are resisting or a delusion that is making them sick. The moment they can finally see it, than the entire story takes a different turn: things open up, the sun comes out, space occurs. Their awareness is finally able to see what they’ve been avoiding because they’ve been present, moment to moment, following and reporting their inner states as they shift, as opposed to leading or controlling what is happening to them. In the vast majority of cases, the trajectory goes from suffering because of a delusion, meeting up with the resistance to seeing the delusion, experiencing the resistance openly, things shifting naturally because they’ve been seen, and the letting go into unknown territory: the empty space that the illusion was defending against.

With the trilogy, I was experimenting with this basic process and its potential applications for the theatre. George Acheson, the central figure in 7 Important Things, was willing to bring his own life to the process. The main challenge I faced is that George doesn’t really agree with the process that I’ve outlined above. So, he wasn’t willing to really ‘go there’. That created a similar discord that I had with Jacob Wren when we created ‘Revolutions in Therapy’. Jacob doesn’t really see much value in the meditation stuff that I am so interested in. So, this kind of opposition was integrated in the work, which makes the work more complex. It polarizes it, which I like. I like that because it then offers audiences a choice: they can become polarized (like/dislike) or they can see if they can ‘hold both sides’ and not ‘choose’. That, for me, was the answer to the Trilogy’s question.

What is the space that you see performance occupying within our contemporary TV watching, Internet-surfing, DVD-renting culture? More specifically, if an artist wants to create in performance, what do you think they need to do that differentiates their work from the world of increasingly accessible digital entertainment?

I have heard it said that Theatre is version 1.0, TV is version 2.0, film is version 3.0 and video games are version 4.0 of the ‘observer/observed’ fictionalized experience. In some ways I feel a kinship with people who do traditional crafts, like quilting or looming. I think that it’s important to keep the traditions of the theatre alive during times when it is not very popular. I also think it’s important to continue to experiment with it. It has the potential of revealing the shared human experience in a tangible way, because it involves the body and real time and actual space. I believe that to be reminded of our shared experience is really important for the health of our communities. So, to me, the aspect of sharing is key, as is actual spaciousness. The other mediums you mention above don’t involve much actual, real space. They also have elements of sharing, but to a different, and often lesser degree. They tend to re-enforce a kind of me-ness. The benefit of the shared experience is that it offers the chance to not feel that me-ness for a brief moment. It is actually a relief. In my experience, the release from me-ness reveals a space of incredible potential.
Read more!