Was I ever pumped to see aKabi! I missed the show when it played at Springdance in Utrecht, so I was pretty overjoyed to have the chance to catch it in Montreal. I try not to judge a show based on its poster images, but those shots of the dancers in giant platform shoes were so compelling for me, if only because they brought back fond memories of my rave days. The show was choreographed by Turkish dance artist Aydin Teker, who's a bit a legend in Europe, and featured among others, Ayşe Orhon who choreographed Can You Repeat, one of my favourite pieces at Springdance this year.
The show started with a long blackout. I mean a seriously long blackout. Long enough that people in the audience started asking each other if something was wrong. I did have a slight moment of panic myself, realizing that I was seated dead centre in the massive Salle Pierre-Mercure, and probably wouldn't make it out alive if there was a rush for the exits. Just when it started to seem like there was a major problem, the light began to come up on stage very slowly and we could gradually make out the shapes of the dancers, perched in their platform shoes. Once the lights were fully up, the dancers...well, they didn't do anything. Didn't fucking move a muscle, for what felt like at least five minutes. There was a lot of uncomfortable coughing and shuffling in the audience, people wondering a loud what was going on and why they'd paid to see people stand still. Then slowly, the realization dawned on us that the dancers actually were moving, albeit incredibly slowly. Slowly enough that unless you stared at them for five minutes, and realized that they had actually changed position, you wouldn't know they were moving at all.
The show gradually got more dynamic, though it was still punctuated with these intensely long moments of stillness. A least ten people in front of me got up and walked out before it was over, perhaps feeling frustrated that they had come to see dance with hardly any dancing. As I was watching the piece, I started to wonder whether or not something is worth watching, simply because it's hard to do. I've had this discussion with dance artists before, especially when it comes to works in which the dancers make incredibly difficult acts of synchronization or slowness seem incredibly easy. Am I as an audience member to find my satisfaction, not because the picture presented on stage is compelling, but because I know it was incredibly difficult to create?
It's a hard question, and one that's gotten me into more than a few drunken bar arguments. Part of me wants to say yes, that watching something that lots of other incredibly well trained dance artists couldn't do on stage, should make for a compelling evening of performance, because of the challenge that's associated with it. The other part of me, that wants to say no, feels like I need something more than that. I want to love a piece of work that's hard to perform and love artists for taking risks and doing things that are hard to do, but sometimes the work just doesn't resonate with me.
I think it might come back to how I've changed the way in which I want to understand performance works at this point in my life. In the early part of my career I was much more apt to take things at surface value, where as now I find the need to go deeper, to find out more about the artists and what they are doing, to dialogue. If I wasn't willing to do those things (and lots of people who see art are not) how would I understand the work? More specifically, if the artist hasn't provided me with the tools to understand a piece of work within the context its being presented, should I be expected to go and seek out the answers on my own? I feel like I have to do that for myself, but more because if I'm going to say that I don't like something I feel like I need to be incredibly prepared to back it up. In essence, I hate being wrong.
I got into an argument about these issues on a programming jury I was part of a few years ago. There was a particular piece that we were thinking about programming, but in order for the audience to understand it, there would need to be some program notes, clarifying what the artist was doing. I liked the piece a lot and suggested that we should include it and add the notes to the program so that people would understand what they were seeing. This sparked an intense debate in the room about whether or not a piece or art must be able to "Speak For Itself". I don't recall how programming situation ended up, though I remember the discussion ended with me walking out of the room.
So here's a question: What should we as audiences expect from artists in terms of information necessary to contextualize, understand, and presumably appreciate their work? What should we as artists be expected to give our audiences, as far as tools for understanding what we do? What role should critics (and I don't mean just me) play in this process. What do you think?
Oh, right. I have to finish writing about aKabi. As far as my final reaction to the piece, I had moments where I found it infuriating, but at the same time I walked out loving it. It's a piece of work that takes a lot of patience, and probably could do with repeated watchings. Though I spent a large part of the performance in dialogue with myself regarding the relationship between how artists create their work and how audiences understand it, ultimately I left satisfied, if only for the fact that I now had a new set of questions to ponder.
Dispatches: Is You Me by Benoît Lachambre, Louise Lecavalier, and Laurent Goldring, Festival Transamériques, Montreal
One of the things I often find frustrating about the integration of dance and video is that the artists often don't take full advantage of the possibilities available by merging the two forms-- namely creating a genuine interaction between them. Dancers have a degree of precision in their training that allows them to interact with prerecorded images in a way that actors simply cannot, which is why I always find it maddening when choreographers employ video simply as a visual backdrop for their work, rather than an integrated element of the performance. Is You Me is an ideal example of how to work with these two forms together. Far from being a simple background for the action, the video design in this piece is truly integrated with the movement to the degree that you occasionally forget you are watching dance, and start to feel like you are watching a computerized video projection in which the dancers are shapes being drawn along with the rest of the images. It's fitting that Goldring is credited as co-creator along with Lachambre and Lecavalier, as his design for the piece functions like a third dancer on stage. The all white space and deceptively simple set design brings the dancers and the projected images into the same visual plane and allows for a whole series of simple but brilliant trompe-l'oeil's in which their bodies are morphed, turned inside out, and wrestled into one visual paradox after another. Lecavalier is perhaps best known as the blonde-dreadlocked power house who danced with La La La Human Steps for eighteen years. Along with choreographer Édouard Lock, she helped develop that company's lighting-fast choreographic aesthetic and is maybe best known for her signature "barrel jump" (think pirouette turned sideways) one of the great defining images associated with the company. Now, nine years after leaving La La, she's turned her efforts to exploring a slower style of movement. She says in the program notes that speed and slowness are similar in that they both can indicate a lack of connection with our primal driving forces, though when pushed to the extreme they can transform our perceptions and relationships to time and our own bodies. Lest I make it sound like the choreography resonates with some kind of Butoh-like glaciality, I should be clear that both Lechambre and Lecavalier (who turns fifty this year!) both move fast, though there's a greater contrast between fast and slow movement than she was known for in the past. It's amazing to see someone who has had such an incredible career with one of the best known international dance companies in
Is You Me, the new collaboration between
Developed over the last two years, in collaboration with video artist Laurent Goldring, and musician Hahn Rowe, the work consists of the two dancers on an all white stage, in the midst of a kinetic, colourful, and visually riotous series of video projections. Abstract in nature, the projections appear to be composed live (though the program notes indicate they are prerecorded) and resemble a drawing created in a simple computer program like Microsoft Paint. Lines are drawn around and across the dancers' bodies. Spaces are filled with colour and imitate human forms, animals, and objects, though the way they are rendered every image is suggestive, rather than concrete.
One of the things I often find frustrating about the integration of dance and video is that the artists often don't take full advantage of the possibilities available by merging the two forms-- namely creating a genuine interaction between them. Dancers have a degree of precision in their training that allows them to interact with prerecorded images in a way that actors simply cannot, which is why I always find it maddening when choreographers employ video simply as a visual backdrop for their work, rather than an integrated element of the performance.
Is You Me is an ideal example of how to work with these two forms together. Far from being a simple background for the action, the video design in this piece is truly integrated with the movement to the degree that you occasionally forget you are watching dance, and start to feel like you are watching a computerized video projection in which the dancers are shapes being drawn along with the rest of the images. It's fitting that Goldring is credited as co-creator along with Lachambre and Lecavalier, as his design for the piece functions like a third dancer on stage. The all white space and deceptively simple set design brings the dancers and the projected images into the same visual plane and allows for a whole series of simple but brilliant trompe-l'oeil's in which their bodies are morphed, turned inside out, and wrestled into one visual paradox after another.
Lecavalier is perhaps best known as the blonde-dreadlocked power house who danced with La La La Human Steps for eighteen years. Along with choreographer Édouard Lock, she helped develop that company's lighting-fast choreographic aesthetic and is maybe best known for her signature "barrel jump" (think pirouette turned sideways) one of the great defining images associated with the company. Now, nine years after leaving La La, she's turned her efforts to exploring a slower style of movement. She says in the program notes that speed and slowness are similar in that they both can indicate a lack of connection with our primal driving forces, though when pushed to the extreme they can transform our perceptions and relationships to time and our own bodies. Lest I make it sound like the choreography resonates with some kind of Butoh-like glaciality, I should be clear that both Lechambre and Lecavalier (who turns fifty this year!) both move fast, though there's a greater contrast between fast and slow movement than she was known for in the past. It's amazing to see someone who has had such an incredible career with one of the best known international dance companies in
The Independent Aunties (Evalyn Parry, Anna Chatterton, and Karin Randoja) along with guest director Brendan Healy, are presenting their new show Breakfast at the Theatre Centre until June 1st.
Check it out. You'll never think of self-help tapes the same way again.
I caught up with the Aunties in the Theatre Centre dressing room to talk about creating collectively, flying fists, and why Louise L. Hay is evil.
The Independent Aunties have been one of the resident companies at the Theatre Centre for the last three years while developing this project. Did the process start with them offering you the residency or did you approach them with this specific project?
Karin--It was a combination of both. We had this project in mind and the Theatre Centre was interested in offering us space. Brendan Healy, who’s our director, was also looking for a residency and we knew we wanted to work with him. Before this project, I had directed every show our company had done, and we felt like switching things up a bit by getting an outside director. We had a 10 minute idea for Breakfast--a short piece about a family having breakfast and Brendan was really interested in investigating space.
Evalyn--Brendan had been doing a lot of Anne Bogart training, looking at compositions and space. Mixing the idea of breakfast with an investigation of space brought us to the idea of kitchens as a space, women's relationship to kitchens, family relationships, etc. We really connected with the idea of breakfast being a new day, a fresh start. We spent a long time at the beginning figuring out the questions we wanted to ask in this project and it kept coming back to family, legacy, and the idea of making a fresh start.
Karin--We were also interested in the idea of "authentic self"; Can you truly be an authentic person? Is that possible? What is "authentic"?
You mentioned family a couple of times. Was there a point where there were more characters?
Karin--At one point Anna played my little sister who was coming home after being away for a long time. She was a sort of free spirit and I was this repressed older woman. When we first started the process, we just played with space and composition so we were working in every nook and cranny of the Theatre Centre.
Evalyn--The idea originally was to find story and character through exploring space, as opposed to bringing a story to the space. Those compositions became very abstract. We made tonnes of material and little bits of it have remained though the process.
Karin--After our first work period we’d made a sort of an übercomposition for the piece and it seemed like there were relationships but we weren't clear about what they were. For the second stage of the process we wanted to look at character and story. So we made this dressing room into my kitchen and we spent two weeks locked in here working.
Evalyn--It was very healthy! (laughs) At that point it became more about intimacy, which was something we had touched on before, but it became more about audience intimacy. At one point we thought we were going to do the show in an actual kitchen. We spent a few weeks working at Equity Showcase Theatre in that upstairs kitchen they have.
Anna--We did a showing there and thought about doing the final version there as well, but then realized that we could only fit ten people in the room and we couldn't afford to have an audience that small.
Evalyn--That was the point where we swung from something really abstract; the big übercomposition as we're calling it was made up of many images, songs, and small bits of text, and moved towards something more solid.
I'm curious to know more about your writing process, which is something I’ve always wondered about with your company. Do you create improvisationally? Do you go off and write on your own and bring the material into rehearsal? Or do you next to each other at the computer writing together?
Evalyn--All of the above actually, though it's been different with every process. With Clean Irene and Dirty Maxine Anna and I were working at the computer side by side.
Anna--Although some times we'd go off and write on our own and then smash the two scripts together.
Evalyn--And then we took that script to Karin who became the dramaturge and helped us develop it. With Frances, Matilda, and Tea we really worked on our feet most of the time, creating improvisationally and then writing bits down and piecing things together. And then Mysterious Shorts was definitely more on its feet since it was more image-based.
Karin--With this show we spent part of the process creating a new piece each day. Brendan would give us a series of tasks and five hours to work. At the beginning he left us alone a lot and then later he would come in and help us as we were shaping it. David Skelton, who was the resident at the designer at the Theatre Centre at the time, was around helping us as well to create the new designs for the show day by day.
Evalyn--We'd present the piece at the end of each day and then the next morning we would come in and spend the first hour of rehearsal doing writing based on what we created the night before.
Anna--So we had all this writing that the three of us had done.
Karin--And that didn't work!
Anna--So then it was decided that Evalyn and I would take the writing reins as we normally do. But that still took forever. We wrote probably wrote twenty different endings.
It's interesting that it after all that work and exploration you ended up coming back to the same process that you've been using all along.
Karin—That what Brendan said--Go back to what works.
That happens a lot as an artist; you have your first impulse but you still need to explore all the other possibilities. Most of the time though, you end up coming back to your original idea.
Evalyn--That's true, but at the same time we would never have been able to write this piece, even using the methods we had in the past, without having those two years of exploration. None of us could have ever imagined what this show would be at the beginning.
Karin--I think this has been the most collectively created project we've ever made.
Anna--For a while we were writing because that’s what came easily to us. But we finally got to a point last December when we decided we just couldn't write any more and we had to get into the studio and start working on our feet.
I want to step back from this show for a moment and talk a bit about the idea of being a creator/performer. Hearing you talk about this process and how it's taken you three years to get this show ready for its first run makes me think about the fact that most theatres aren’t interested in artists who work like this. They want one person to go away and write a script, then hand it over to a director, who casts it, and builds the show over three 48-hour work weeks. I'm excited that there has been a bit of a revolution in Toronto over the last few years and Artistic Directors at established companies have recognized that there are a lot of artists who don't work this way.
Anna--This project would absolutely not exist without this residency. It was such an incredible gift that the Theatre Centre gave us this space and time because space is so hard to find and expensive to rent in Toronto. Also, the open-hearted total belief in what we were doing from Cathy and Franco was so essential to us being able to do this.
Evalyn--When we started this process we didn't even have a script and they still agreed to produce the show without having anything on paper.
It’s unfortunate that Brendan’s not here to talk, because when I got the press release for the show, one of the things that immediately stood out to me was that there was now a man in the room.
Anna—Having Brendan around definitely changed the atmosphere. Because the three of us work together so much we have developed our own way of working that’s specific to us. Brendan is more of a disciplinarian, which brought a different force to the room. We all struggled with at first it for sure, though now we all recognize the strength that it has provided, especially over this last period of working prior to opening.
Evalyn—It’s funny rereading the grants we wrote ages ago about how we were a female centred company, creating work by women and about women, and then we bring on this male director. It brought a very interesting creative tension to the project. None of us could have predicted how challenging it could be. It’s not only about gender though. It’s also about having a new person in the room, having different ways of approaching things and different perspectives. Claire Calnan said something really interesting at the opening. It was specifically in reference to visual art but really made sense in our process. She said that it takes more than one position to bring perspective.
I know exactly what she was talking about. To render a proper perspective drawing, you need to look at the object from multiple positions in order to make it three-dimensional. If you only look at it from one position it becomes a flat composition.
Karin—We did that very consciously because we were all feeling like we needed a new perspective, since all of our work has been Anna and Evalyn on stage and me directing. Brendan was able to add something that the three of us could not have manufactured on our own.
I also think Brendan was a really interesting choice. He’s certainly done more experimental work, but he’s still very much a “director”.
Anna—He’s a director but he’s so interested pushing boundaries. What was different for him about this process is that he’s used to having a script to work from.
Karin—We have strong personalities and a strong group energy and I think he wanted to try to let us be for the first little while. Later in the process he came to a point where he said that he couldn’t direct something that wasn’t his vision. He had watched us play and experiment, but at a certain point in order to direct we had to allow him to have his vision of what the show was going to be. When we started this final rehearsal process we all agreed that we would let him take charge.
We should probably stop talking about Brendan since he’s not here. While we’re on the subject of directing though, I’m curious to hear more from you Karin about how you see the director’s role in devised work.
Karin—It’s like being a sort of mystery anthropologist or something, looking for secrets, clues, and other hidden things. During the processes, you’re watching and extracting, finding ways to bring it all together, and using your instinct as director to create the world of the show as well as a good place for play and exploration.
In terms of what Brendan was saying about the group needing to “submit”, for lack of a better word, to the director’s vision; have you as director in the past had a similar experience?
Karin—Sometimes, definitely. I don’t really believe in “collective” collectives. I think the collective part is about choosing a leader. Ultimately we have to get things done and we can’t discuss forever and sit constantly in disagreement. It’s about giving the power to one specific person because you trust them.
In my first year of theatre school, we had to create a collective project with our entire class. I think it was about thirty people. They said that part of the reason why they made us do that show was because in order to work as theatre artists, we needed to learn how to get along with people. I walked away from that process thinking that being in a collective was about everyone coming to an agreement about everything. Then when I got out of school and started working with bluemouth inc. my ideas about collective work changed dramatically. Working in a collective isn’t about everyone coming to an agreement. It’s about everyone agreeing to disagree.
Evalyn—That was very true about this process in particular. There has been strong disagreement and differing instincts.
Anna—It’s difficult when you have opposing instincts to decide who’s instinct to trust.
How do you reconcile that? Maybe a better way to phrase the question would be “What’s a fight like for the Independent Aunties?” Are there fists flying?
Karin—There are sometimes tears.
Evalyn—And occasional storming out of the room.
Karin—There’s been some storming. But I think if we had continued to work the way we had been working, more collectively, this show just wouldn’t have happened. At some point you just have to move forward.
Radix, the company based in Vancouver that bluemouth inc. was born from, had this thing called “The Bathtub Clause”. It came originally from a show where one of the members of the company decided he had to have this 400-pound claw-foot bathtub in the show. It was expensive and heavy and impossible to deal with but he was extremely insistent about having it. The Bathtub Clause became this rule in their process, where everyone gets one instance per show where they can insist on something being a certain way, and everyone else has to defer. Because you only get to do that once per process, it forces you to be very careful about what you chose to fight over. Do you have anything like that in the Independent Aunties?
Evalyn—We don’t actually have very many rules in our process. For this show, having Brendan around has certainly made us think more about what our process is than we’ve had to before. Prior to this it was just kind of organic and evolved over time.
Anna—It’s a weird thing to say, but a process with four people is incredibly different than a process with three. Definitely there’s a rule for us as writers to fight for what you want and whoever is the most convincing wins.
Evalyn—Being able to throw out ideas is really important. We say to each other all the time “I hate that. Throw it out.”
Anna—For someone who’s new to the process that can be really insulting. But because we’ve worked together so much we know how to talk to each other.
Karin—We’ve always had as our centre the fact that everyone has the best intentions and wants what’s best for the show. When you have that basis it’s actually kind of easy to let things go.
Anna—There’s also that aspect of passion; how we all care so desperately about wanting it to be “right”.
Even though there are occasional disagreements about how to make it right.
Anna—There were a lot of disagreements! There were many points along the way we almost stopped the process entirely.
One of the rules that Theatre Smith-Gilmour has in their process is that any idea that you bring to the table, you are required to fight for until the end of the day. The next day you can come back in and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong” and no one else is allowed to say, “I told you so”.
Anna—This entire process has been about people screaming back and forth “This has to be the way!”
Karin—Brendan is so passionate and intense in his direction. There have been many moments where he insists that something has to be a certain way. It gets kind of confusing, because later there’ll be a note that’s the opposite. When you question it, he says the previous note was just an exploration and he’s decided it doesn’t work. As a performer, I’m really used to having my own inner world, but at the same time, doing exactly what I’ve been told. So this has been such a huge lesson because I’ve had to give that up.
I want to talk a bit about self-help, which is an over-riding theme in the piece. I’m particularly interested, because I’ve been working on a video piece in the last year using text from self-help books, in particular Louise L. Hay’s work.
Anna—She was a major source of inspiration in this process.
Evalyn—She’s the grandmother of self-help!
Can you talk a bit about what you think of what she does?
Karin—I think what she does can be dangerous. I remember being in my teens and someone giving me a copy of her book You Can Heal Your Life. Self-help always initially turns me on and makes me feel empowered to change my life, but what inevitably happens is that things don’t work as easily as they do in the book. It’s more complicated and mysterious than she let’s on.
Evalyn—There’s this weird thing about self-help where it blames the person who is suffering from the illness for what’s wrong with them. It empowers you to heal yourself, but at the same time, it reminds you that it’s your fault for getting sick in the first place.
Anna—At one point we were actually using the book in the play. It was given to me by my dad who’s a total new age guy.
Karin—Cathy Gordon saw a run that we did when we were working at Equity Showcase and one of the comments she made was that it’s really easy to make fun of self-help. And as much as we’re kind of twisting it, we have to be careful, because it is something that actually helps a lot of people.
Evalyn—We ended up going in a bit of a different direction after that. It did make us think about what we really wanted to say. We aren’t making a show that’s about making fun of Louise L. Hay. It’s actually something much deeper than that. There was also a lot of talk about The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and the commercial capitalism that is implicit in the world of self-help.
It’s a 6 billion dollar a year industry. The notion of self-help being really easy to make fun of is something I’ve been wrestling with in the project I’m working on as well. There’s part of me that wonders if self-help is a really easy thing for artists to make fun of because we’re blessed with a kind of self-awareness that the general public doesn’t have as a result of what we do. More specifically, we go through a lot of those things that people are asked to do for themselves in self-help books because we have to in order to be able to make our art. You’re all nodding, so I’m assuming you agree.
Karin—I remember when everyone was talking about The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron a few years ago. At one point I was reading the book, and I started to realize that the life the book was trying to get me to have was already the life that I was living. I think everyone wants those things and those books can be helpful if you have no clue how to do that for yourself.
Since you’ve decided you’re not making fun of self-help, can you tell me what you’re saying about it?
Evalyn—Well, we're still sort of are making fun of it.
Karin—The show is about transformation and self-help is about transforming yourself, although we wanted to look at it in a deeper way. It starts with self-help…
Evalyn—But it just gets much more absurd.
Anna—There are no simple answers in life, even though self-help sometimes makes it seem that way. In the play we contrast that view with a more realistic one about what it takes to change yourself.
Last question: Can you tell me one at a time what you want the audience to walk away with?
Anna—A visceral experience. That is how we created the piece. Rather than being in their heads, trying to figure things out, I want them to walk away having felt a bunch of different emotions.
Evalyn—I want them to feel like they’ve woken up from a really powerful dream that unsettles them and they have to figure out what it means.
Karin—I want them to realize that theatre can be incredibly powerful and it can change you, not just while you’re watching the show, but also after you leave. Read more!
It’s fair to say that director Daniel Brooks (along with his regular designers Julie Fox, Richard Feren, and Andrea Lundy) has created a style of theatre that’s unique to him. Nobody else in Toronto makes theatre that looks quite like Daniel Brooks’ and The Eco Show subscribes to his aesthetic of the last several years: sparse sets, hard-edged surrealist lighting, video projections, and of course loads of Feren’s sound cues. As I was watching the show last Thursday night, the whole time I kept thinking about whether or not the script, as written, could possibly hold up on its own without all the technical trappings. Probably not. But then of course, I had to ask myself if that was a fair question.
I’m assuming that when Brooks is writing a script he has at least some sense of what the design elements are going to be in the show, since he’s going to be directing it ultimately, so he can consider that when he decides how much information needs to come out of the mouths of the actors. Still, the incredible reliance on technical effects to put across information made me think about how powerful words can be. While I’ve worked in a lot of different art forms, at my core I’m a writer and as a result I’m also a total word junkie. I love having things described to me with text, rather than seeing them happen on stage and I felt like, particularly with the video aspects of the show, while ideas may have been presented more concisely using images, they could have been presented far more effectively using words.
I’ve seen a lot of Brooks’ work over the years and it pains me to say this, but I feel like he’s stalled creatively. If I had never seen anything he had ever done before, I think I would have liked The Eco Show a whole lot more. The fact is that I didn’t see anything new from him in this piece, just a recycling of the same tricks he’s been using for years. Not that they aren’t good tricks, but you can only watch a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat so many times before it starts to get stale. Not only that, but given how resoundingly he’s blown me away in the past, I just expect more of Brooks than I do from other artists. He was the inaugural winner of the Siminovitch Prize, has a shelf full of other awards, and is probably the best known and most lauded director of contemporary work in English Canada right now. I want to see him push the medium forward as he has in the past, though I can’t say he’s achieved it with this piece. Maybe it’s the struggle of having set the bar so high with his previous work that he just can’t top himself. If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s time to try something else.
Speaking of which, the other thing I was thinking as I was watching the show is that maybe Brooks actually wants to be making films (even if he doesn’t know it yet). Given what he’s done for Canadian theatre, he could be a welcome (revolutionary?) voice in Canadian film and the subtlety of the acting style he asks of his cast in this show along with the sonic backdrop that Feren provides seem to have more in common with the big screen than the small stage. Some people get really agitated at the thought of theatre artists making the transition to film, but for me it can be a very logical next step for an artist who has either stalled or achieved all they can creatively in a specific medium at that time. As well, there are artists who’ve been successful moving back and forth between the two forms, so shooting a few reels of film does not instantly mean that you’ll never set foot in a theatre again. Making films could be a new challenge for Brooks and I think it might be a welcome one. No one can deny that he’s an absolute master of the theatre, but maybe it’s time to try mastering something else.
The actors (Richard Clarkin, Fiona Highet, Joe Cobden, Jenny Young, and Geza Kovacs) as father, mother, son, daughter, and grandfather, respectively, all do fine work, though I feel like Brooks has taken them down to such a level of subtlety in their performances that I need close-ups shots as there would be in a film to really get what’s going on. I should qualify that by saying I was sitting in the back row of the theatre (all the better to take in the whole picture) but as any skilled actor will tell you (and this is a group of skilled actors) you need to reach the back row of the audience as well as the front.
Though it didn’t blow me away, The Eco Show is probably worth seeing, if only for the fact that you’re not going to see anything else like it in Toronto right now. If you’ve never seen Brooks before, it will probably be mesmerizing, and if you have, it will give you more ammunition when you have cocktail party conversations about the stagnancy of the old guard of Canadian theatre.
Check out the latest issue of Xtra Magazine to read the story about Michael Rubenfeld's new play My Fellow Creatures being produced by Buddies and Absit-Omen at Theatre Passe Muraille. The show runs for a limited time May 15-June 1.
Read the full interview below!
Michael Rubenfeld's new play My Fellow Creatures about a couple of convicted paedophiles in prison together is being produced as part of Buddies season as an offsite show at Theatre Passe Muraille. Rubenfeld and I met up last week to talk about sex, making theatre, and why we write plays about men who like to fuck boys.
I've found that anytime our culture has a dialogue about the issue of adult/child sexual relationships, we're required to say "But they're sick and it's wrong!" No matter what else we say about it, we have to insert that statement into the mix.
I can't say I disagree with that. I think that children can be really fucked up by having these experiences. In the context of our current society it's not condoned, but usually children don't know that until after they've had the experience. That's part of what is so difficult about it for them. They are told repeatedly that this relationship that may have really important to them is bad, which they then interpret to mean that they're bad.
As a heterosexual man, I'm curious about your relationship to the subject matter. You didn't choose to write a play about men who fuck little girls. You chose to write a play about men who fuck boys. Why?
I'm starting to realize that just about everything I write is a case study on men. I am fascinated by men and how we function. The men that I'm most attracted to as human beings are gay men. I feel like the relationship heterosexual men have to ourselves as emotional beings is problematic. I think that's why I have a tendency to write about men who are trying to get to the root of their emotions, to love and give love. And as a man, maybe it was easier for me to write about men who love boys because with a young boy it was easier for me to see myself
subconsciously in that person.
When I get into a dialogue about this subject matter, and it did come up a few times during Wash Me Clean, I frequently preface a my comments by saying I grew up in a household with a father who worked for The Children's Aid Society. As much as he tried to shield our family from the truly horrific things that he had to deal with a work, it would trickle down and we'd find out some of the things he saw. What I think is interesting is that as a culture we lump all of these different kinds of experiences on to one plate; The experiences of children who are being literally raped against their will are considered equivalent to kids who are actually engaging in something that's totally consensual, minus the fact that they're not of the age of consent.
I think there's a big difference. There's also a difference between a child who's gone through puberty and one who hasn't. I don't remember myself ever wanting to have sex at eleven. It took me a long time to figure out the ages that people needed to be for this play.
Part of what inspired Wash Me Clean was the hockey scandal, where that Maple Leaf Gardens employee was exchanging sexual favours with teenage boys for money, tickets to games, etc. I went to school with a lot of hockey players and I don't know if they were doing everything they were saying but they were sure as hell talking about fucking a lot of girls at thirteen or fourteen. So then to take those kids who are more likely than not sexually active with girls their own age and to take away their right and responsibility to consent to sexual activity with
an adult man seemed wrong to me. Most people enter puberty around the age of fourteen and before that I'd agree that it's not appropriate for kids to be engaging in sexual activity with people who are older than them. However, once you cross that line into sexual maturity, it's not fair to say that you don't have the right to make those decisions for yourself.
Sex with anyone is always an odd thing. When I was fourteen, what the hell did I know about sex? The feelings that kids have at that age are kind of ill informed. They are rooted in hormones and connected to things we're told we shouldn't do. I don't think it should be illegal to have sex once you've entered puberty. When you're ten or eleven you're not having sexual thoughts though. You just think girls have cooties.
From the time I was five or six years old I was doing sexual things with other kids.
Really? Was it because of curiosity or because of hormones?
I don't really know. Even looking back I'm not sure I have the perspective to know where it was coming from. All I can say is that it was an impulse. The same way that as an artist you have impulses and you can't explain where they come from, but you just know you have to do certain things. Anyway, enough about my sexual history. What do you want the audience to take away from the show?
I want people to gain a sense of understanding; A sense that the people who have these impulses aren't crazy psychopaths and that they're human beings. I want people to understand how these things happen.
I've always thought that one of the big issues in dealing with these kinds of relationships is the fact that we can't talk about them at all. I've had this discussion with my father, who works in the "industry" and he's sort of at a loss as to what to do about it as well. If you are someone who has this desire what the hell are you supposed to do? If you go and tell your doctor, the doctor has to call
the police by law. Just admitting that you have the desire in the first place can get you in trouble.
I think that's the problem. If people were able to talk about it, it would be more manageable.
Coming from a sex-positive background, I also think a big part of the issue is that it's about a sexual act and that's why we can't talk about it. In 2004 our supreme court upheld the rights of parents to beat their children. I don't know what that says about our society, that people has the legal right to hit children, but not to engage in consensual sexual activity with them.
I don't believe that it's okay to have sex with children but after making this show I think I understand where the desire comes from. I think the act of sex itself can be very intimate and very confusing. As adults it changes our relationships to people and things dramatically. It's such an intimate act and without a fully examined real understanding of what it is, it can be really confusing and harmful, much more so than getting hit. Taking off your clothes with a person, even as an adult is a really different thing than getting hit. It's a whole different kind of vulnerability to experience sexuality with a person. The power of sex is much greater than hitting or being hit. I think it would have fucked me up a lot more if my parents had had sex with me, rather than hitting me every once in a while.
One of the concerns I had with Wash Me Clean, because the writing has was so intensely personal and the character was speaking in a voice that people could immediately identify as mine, was that people would actually think the character on stage was me. Was that ever a concern for you while you were working on this piece--that people would look at it and say this is Michael Rubenfeld on stage?
A little bit, sure. When I'm talking about the piece I often clarify that I was not abused as a child, though I never specify that I'm not attracted to children. I just assume most people would know that and I think my opinion in the play is clear. At the end of the show, this child has been destroyed by the relationship he had with the older man. I think that the fact that I wasn't abused is part of what enabled me to write the play. People who've read it who have had the
experience have told me that it's very authentic. There's a part of me that has started to wonder since I wrote this play if maybe I was abused and I don't remember.
With Wash Me Clean, the desire and the uncertainty that the character expresses is one hundred percent from me, though the object of the desire is different. With My Fellow Creatures I wonder if the desire for a purer kind of love that Arthur is seeking is something that you've experienced in your life.
Of course. For me it's a play about unrequited love and it just happens that he has an unrequited love for a young boy. I had my heart broken in the middle of writing the play and that certainly helped me in the process. It informed both what Arthur's heart was going through and also Kelly's desire to be loved again; That feeling of heartbreak when you want something that you can't have that's totally unattainable. For Kelly, he wants to be a kid again. He wants that
relationship back, which I understand. We all want the best time of our lives to exist always and forever. But I think that's all that people have when they write plays, unless they've gone through the experience themselves.
I'm curious about how you see you work falling into a greater context of works that tackle this subject. I just re-watched the film Mysterious Skin recently, which I thought it was a really interesting take on the subject because it talks about two very different experiences of children being sexually abused by an adult. For one,
the experience is so traumatic, that he ends up blocking it out and suffering through all sorts of health and psychological complications. The other is a willing participant over a long duration of time, continues to have fantasies about the experience as an adult, and continues to seek out men who physically resemble the person who was abusing him as sexual partners.
I found that piece incredibly helpful. It made me think about the relationships in a way I hadn't before. It helped me understand what the central character of my play needed.
Are there any other works that you referenced during your process?
I saw the film Deliver Us From Evil while I was writing as well, about the Catholic priest who was sexually abusing children, and kept getting moved from one parish to the next. The amount of harm that one man inflicted on hundreds of people--I found it so upsetting. It was one of the most powerful films I've ever seen. There's a scene with one of the fathers talking about what the priest did to his daughter...
The part where he breaks down crying…
I started to cry when I saw that part. It was so shocking. My play tries to go there. I think it's important for us to see just how damaging these things are. And I actually think contextually it could help people who are having these feelings, help them think about what they are doing. Not so much in questioning the desires, as I believe the desires are authentic, but the sexual act itself. I think we have to think about it as a sexual preference.
As I said, I think a big part of the problem is that it's something were not even allowed to have any sort of dialogue about.
Those are the things that I'm interested in writing about. My last play Spain was about two straight men that have an attraction to each other and don't know what to do about it. They don't want to have sex, but how do they reconcile this attraction? It's a big question for me
of how men love each other. I think it's really hard for straight men to love other men.
I've never been straight, so I don't really know what that experience is like.
How many straight men can you say, "I love you" to?
That's an interesting question. A few years ago I was in this friendship with this straight guy and we were kind of in love, in a way. There was a lot of physical intimacy in our relationship and we told each other we loved each other. He was always really clear about the fact that he was straight and we'd talk about his troubles finding girlfriends. I think it was fulfilling a need for both of us at the
Did you believe that he was straight?
The way that I tend to look at sexuality in that context, is that until you say to me "I'm gay and I want to fuck you" I'm just going to consider that you're straight. I'm not going to go to that point where I start analyzing things and wondering about possibilities. Some guys are like that, but I have enough people that want to have sex with me and I'm not interested in aggressively trying to pursue someone who
may not be interested.
I can often get a read if a woman has a sexual inclination towards a man, even if it's not necessarily me. (pause) I feel like I have a sexual relationship to most things. Or a sensual relationship.
What's the difference?
There are a lot of people that I feel physically attracted to, but when I imagine being intimate with them I don't want that at all, even though I'll still feel drawn to them. You just know the difference.
It is kind of an instinctual thing that you just learn as you get older. We should probably talk a bit more about the play, as interesting as this dialogue is. And who knows what'll make it onto the blog.
I like your blog. I've been reading it.
That's good to hear. It's always a bit strange when people tell me they read it. I'm always sort of like "Really?"
Well, that's why it's out there--you want people to read it.
I know but it's strange. As a writer you just don't know if anyone is reading your work. As a playwright it's different because you can go to a specific space at a specific time and see who is hearing your words, but with my other writing work, I have no fucking idea who is reading what I'm writing. It's a pleasant surprise when you do hear it, because there's a feeling of "Oh, somebody's actually reading what I have to say!"
I feel that way when people notice my direction on things. When people comment on it, I often have to question it, saying "Didn't you just notice the play and the great actors?" I almost don't believe it sometimes.
I feel like direction is something you have to have a certain amount of technical knowledge to be able to spot, to tell that something is a directing choice beyond just a sense that the actors are great.
Sometimes you can't tell if something is a directing choice or an acting choice though.
Ultimately I think that everything that happens onstage has to be considered a directing choice. If you aren't happy with something an actor is doing it's your responsibility to change it as the director. Sometimes you are limited by what an actor can give you in that particular moment, but ultimately if you're putting it on stage and you're letting people see it I have to assume that it falls within
your range of choice.
I've worked with a lot of directors and some of them were really crappy.
Let's talk about directing then. You went to school as an actor and almost immediately started directing.
The first piece I did was Don Mickelson's Kyke Cabaret at Rhubarb. That was a hard show to direct. I think I've only more recently decided that I am a director, but only because I've had my heart broken too many times by awful directors or shows that could have worked that didn't because they had the wrong director. It was either become a director, or spend the rest of my life complaining. Although I think now I've realized at heart that part of it is wanting to be in
I remember when I was doing my undergrad; there were people in the acting program that kept saying the whole time they were there that they wanted to direct. Did you feel that way when you were at NTS?
My last year of high school I took the drama program twice, the first time I was acting in everything and the second time just because I wanted to direct. When I got into NTS I was excited about directing, but NTS was such a hard process for me I just thought mostly about
surviving to be honest. The idea of doing anything professionally, including directing, I couldn't imagine so acting felt like a smaller more manageable thing I could take on. It wasn't until I got out and worked on a few shows that I started to feel like it was something I was able to take on. Early in my career I wrote a play that I gave to someone else to direct. It got bad reviews, and at that point I decided that if people don't like my work I want to be entirely responsible for it.
When I was studying I knew that I wanted to be a playwright/director. One of the problems I had at school was that in directing class we always had to bring in old material. We were never allowed to create our own work. And in playwriting they were always adamant that we had to have other directors for our workshops and readings. I understand those choices on a certain intrinsic level, as there are specific problems that can happen when a writer directs their own work, but I
think ultimately for me as a creative artist working in the theatre, it's the only way I can be totally satisfied.
I think if the playwright is a director themselves, chances are they'll do as well directing their own work, if not better, than someone else. Directing your own work you can really cut down the time it takes to figure things out. When I did Spain in 2004 I cast it and directed it and it was really scary, but really good. I was really proud of it.
It was quite successful when you did it. Do you think if it hadn't been successful it might have altered your trajectory a bit?
I think so. I didn't really know what I was doing at that point. I didn't think that much about it. I just did it. I remember on opening night I almost passed out because the reality of what I was about to do hit me.
There's a part in the process as a director when you hit this beautiful moment, usually around dress rehearsal, sometimes a bit before, when you accept the fact that there's nothing else you can do for the show. It just is what it is. Obviously with My Fellow Creatures you have a bit more time before you get there.
I knew I needed a lot of time with this process so I pushed for a full three weeks of rehearsal. I'm pretty scared about putting this out since it's my first full-length piece of professional theatre outside of a festival.
And it's a really different context to have your work judged as part of a main stage season versus a festival.
True. I think it's a much better play than Spain and it's a much more complex piece of theatre. Some people are going to hate it.
You think so? Just because of the subject matter?
Probably. There's a reason why it's never talked about. People are afraid of it. Some people are going to come to see this piece and not be happy to be going through the experience of it. It's a very intense piece to watch. I have moments in rehearsal where I find it really
hard to watch.
After I did Wash Me Clean there was a guy who accosted me at the gym to tell me what he thought of it. Up until that point all of the feedback about the piece had been incredibly positive and full of complements and the first thing he said to me after mentioning that he'd seen the show was "Well, you're not saying that's okay, are you?" And my immediate response was "If that's how you feel about this why
are you talking to me about it?"
That's not a bad response because you can then turn it around and ask them what they think. I'd take that response any day, over people hating it because it's not a good play. If people don't like your work for the right reasons that's okay. If people don't like what I'm writing about I don't really care. If people don't like how I'm writing about it that might be a bit harder to deal with. Read more!