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.
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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.

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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
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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

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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.

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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.
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