Friday, December 17, 2010

In Brief, Take 2

An interesting phone call the other day from the Vancouver Playhouse. A volunteer was following up on our attendance at Brief Encounter, no doubt wanting us to spread the word about its manifold charms to other potential audience members. When I told her we left at intermission there was a pause, a curt thank you, and then a click. Guess we won't be hearing back from them again soon--although I am going to be giving the company one more chance this season with Melissa Gibson's This in January. I read the New York Times rave when it played Off-Broadway; and this production will star Megan Follows, who bowled me over in an otherwise hit-and-miss revival of Cloud Nine in Toronto last February.

Speaking of phone calls from performing arts organizations, kudos to Ballet BC for their alacritous and gracious stewardship etiquette in response to a recent donation I made. I had phoned up their box office to place an order for two mini-pack subscriptions to the remainder of the season after receiving an email in my inbox about this short term offer. This deal is a very smart marketing move on the part of Artistic Director Emily Molnar and Executive Director Jay Rankin, as it allows them to capitalize on the success of their season-opening November program (which I had to miss) as well as the added Christmas cross-marketing of their Nutcracker offering. Equally smart is having box office staff (I was served by the most capable Ashley) ask you at the time of purchase whether you would also like to make a tax-deductible donation to the company. As I'm learning more and more at PuSh, nine times out of ten all you have to do to get people to give to something they believe in is ask. Such was the case with me, and I appreciated the follow-up phone call the next day from Development Manager Roger Kayo thanking me for my donation.

On the subject of arts funding, I note that George Abbott is alone among the declared candidates to replace Gordon Campbell as Liberal Party leader and Premier of the province in vowing to restore gaming and other monies to 2008-9 levels. Chump change should, as most expect, that harridan from talk radio, Christy Clark, win the contest. Even more depressing are the latest poll numbers, which indicate the Liberals, with Campbell on the way out, have now overtaken the Carole James-less NDP in voter popularity. Et tu, Jenny Kwan?

Other things of mildly vexatious interest: Mayor Gregor Robertson can't get through to 911 to report gang shootings in his neighbourhood, but he and his Vision-dominated Council can steamroll through, against overwhelming citizen opposition, a travesty of a plan to "re-green" Hastings Park. How expanding the PNE and Playland fits into such a mandate is beyond me.

Meanwhile VAG chief Kathleen Bartels and the City continue to be miles apart on a potential deal to find a new downtown site for the gallery. Heather Deal is quoted in the Georgia Straight as saying that the main post office depot at Georgia and Hamilton is likely to close soon, suggesting that as a possible alternate site to Larwell Park, which Bartels and the VAG Board covet. Hell, yes!! It's a wonderful, vast modernist building, perfectly situated across from the Queen E and the Playhouse, with no doubt heaps of underground storage space, and square footage up the whazoo for the right architect to go crazy with. But Ms. Bartels doesn't seem interested, confirming that she wants a new signature building to cement her legacy as Director rather than finding the right solution to showcase the collection.

Finally, I was amused by the recent report from Canada's Officer of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, criticizing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics for their inadequate use of French. Well, duh! Anyone watching on TV could have figured that out. Did we really need a months-long, and no doubt expensive, report to tell us what we already know? I mean the ceremonies themselves were overseen by an Australian; and VANOC CEO John Furlong is a unilingual Irishman. Furlong, by the way, dismissed the report, noting that 40 odd complaints from peeved Francophones couldn't compare with the thousands upon thousands of congratulations VANOC received on the ceremonies. What nobody seems to realize in all of this is how outdated is the notion of linguistic nationalism. It's been a tenuous reason for holding the country together at the best of times, and in our polyglot 21st-century, transnational world, it just not signify at all.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Queer Performance Art Redux, or, It's 1990 All Over Again

A somewhat churlish (but mostly positive) review of Tim Miller's most recent solo show, Lay of the Land, in the New York Times this past Thursday ("Is anyone a performance artist anymore?" is how it begins), coupled with a reference in the same review to Miller's shout out to fellow queer performance artist and NEA Four cultural blacklisting victim Holly Hughes (whose new show, Let Them Eat Cake, is currently running at Dixon Place), and the growing brouhaha over the removal--at the urging of Catholic League President William Donohue--of the David Wojnarowicz video "A Fire in My Belly" from the National Portrait Gallery show Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture in Washington, DC (see Holland Carter's article in the New York Times on the scandal), not to mention the failure of Obama's attempts to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," has got me thinking that it's 1990 all over again.

It's also got me thinking about my moribund research project on "Solo Performance and Sexual Citizenship in the United States, 1984-2004." This project, which originally began as a comparative one also considering solo performance during the same period in Canada, has continued to evolve as I have been interrupted in my thinking by other ideas and projects. However, at the core of my research remains a desire to contextualize--and historicize--the development of solo performance (in theatre and performance art, stand-up comedy and concert films, video and dance) in the United States from the re-election of Reagan to that of George W. Bush, paying special attention to how much of this work, in its reflexive foregrounding of the queerly gendered body, comments on flashpoint debates relating to sexual citizenship in that country (from AIDS and gays in the military to reproductive politics and same-sex marriage) over the past 20 years.

A key question structuring my investigations is how the radical potential of AIDS activist politics in the 1980s and early 1990s, which seemed to offer a new way of thinking about citizenship and kinship outside of normative models of family and coupledom, morphed into the virtually wholesale adoption of same-sex marriage as the do-or-die cause of the current mainstream LGBTQ movement in the US. To this end, the larger project will likely have to bring the historical narrative up to at least 2008 (and likely beyond) and the fight over Proposition 8 in California that served as the backdrop to the election of Barack Obama. Prop 8 is in fact the subject of Miller's Lay of the Land, and his previous show, Us, was also preoccupied with marriage rights for the LGBTQ community. Ditto, it seems, Hughes's Let Them Eat Cake, which, according to the show's website, is about "the wedding nightmare your mother warned you about: a gay marriage gone wrong that asks the guests to salvage the situation by interrogating what it means to be married, single, gay, straight, commitment-phobic, a joiner, included or jeering from the outskirts." Even post-porn performance artist Annie Sprinkle, who exposed her clit to audience members in the 1980s, has embarked on a seven-year performance art wedding project with her partner Beth Stephens (see

What's going on? And how might Karen Finley, the "straight" member of the NEA Four (the other was John Fleck, who seems to have all but disappeared, most recently seen in a bit part on the TV show Weeds), help us to see more queerly about this apparent embracing of mainstream normativity artistically and politically? I offer the following excursus, from a paper drafted in the very early stages of this project, as one possible explanation for why the past week has, to me at any rate, felt like deja vu all over again.

Towards the end of The Constant State of Desire, the solo performance piece that Karen Finley premiered at The Kitchen in New York City in the fall of 1986, and that together with C. Carr’s provocative exposé of Finley’s “taboo art” in The Village Voice earlier that summer, helped put her on the radar of both uptown cultural impresarios and critics and uptight politicians like Jesse Helms, Finley follows a particularly harrowing description of sexual abuse and “unrequited [father] love” with the following encomium to Ronald Reagan’s butthole:

… I saw Mr. Reagan on TV. There is a TV camera up his butthole looking up his asshole for polyps, for his colon cancer. He is so obsessed with what not to put up the butthole. So obsessed with what not to go up, up the ol’ shithole. Had to sit with Rather/Jennings talk about yo’ old polyps every day. Boy, I call your disease a metaphor. I call your disease your personal metaphor of being a fuckin’ pain in the butt. I’m puking, man, on your liberty, your state of the union. (151)

Plus ça change. In her most recent play, George and Martha, a two-hander that opened at New York’s Collective Unconscious shortly after the 2004 Republican National Convention, Finley interrupts her Albeesque dissection of the kinky sexual relationship she posits between George W. Bush and Martha Stewart with a similar scene of political scatology. George, played by Neal Medlyn, awakens suddenly from a fitful sleep, convinced that Osama bin Laden is inside him; consummately professional and ever-prepared with handy home remedies, Finley’s Martha promptly grabs a flashlight, orders George down on all fours, and proceeds to inspect his anus for trace signs of the Al Qaeda leader.

Much has been made of the kinder, gentler, post-9/11 Finley, the Finley who, following the collapse of her Supreme Court case against the NEA in 1998, entered Jungian analysis, packed up her bags and left New York for LA, worked through her political and personal demons in Shut Up and Love Me (1999), only to return with a new, hyper-theatrical, multi-character, and giddily empathetic performance style in Make Love (2003); here, Finley trades her former focus on the stripped, naked and exposed “I” who speaks of individual suffering, for a series of lavishly made-up, bewigged and laméd “Lizas,” whose unresolved childhood traumas and ongoing family dysfunction become the means to work through issues of national mourning and collective healing. But to the extent that the family, as an “unhomely space,” has always served as a metonym of the nation in Finley’s work, that, for her, states of desire are always contingent upon and circumscribed by the state of the union, and that, as my opening excerpts in part attest, fathers, foodstuffs, and anality have repeatedly been used by Finley as performative signifiers of national and sexual abjection, there is, I would argue, more continuity than discontinuity between Finley’s early 1980s brand of Artuadian theatre of cruelty and her more recent Ludlamesque experiments in ridiculousness, particularly with respect to questions of sexual citizenship.

That is, taken as a whole, what Finley’s two-decade corpus of mostly solo work illustrates is that both the sexual terrorism and the terror of sexual difference that she explores in works ranging from I’m an Ass Man (1984) and We Keep Our Victims Ready (1990) to The Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman (1998) and Shut Up and Love Me leads directly to the national (in)security state dissected in Make Love and George and Martha. As Liza #3 (played by Finley) puts it at one point in the former work—which, I would argue, works more or less a solo performance piece—“In our expressed collective grief we can now without guilt express our own personal childhood terrors of abandonment and abuse in the safety of disguise known as national mourning…. America was built on and grows from fear…. Our projections as a nation of living with fear. Our leaders. Our fears heightened with national security so we are in national bondage, our country is a national S and M torture chamber” (60).

Finley’s persistent focus on the literal embodiment of otherness (what hasn’t she ingested, poured over herself, or regurgitated while on stage?) foregrounds the sexed, sexual, and sexualized stranger as the unassimilable, abject limit that both constructs what is known and familiar about the citizen’s identity and what threatens the very stability of that identity (cf., as well, in this regard the images to emerge from Abu Ghraib). The processes of incorporation and expulsion highlighted in the excerpts above, not to mention the visceral, often physical, reaction audiences frequently have to Finley’s performances (even, and maybe most especially, if they haven’t seen them), illustrate, among other things, how participatory regimes like liberal democracies formally deny certain bodies and communities full membership in the national polity through a paradoxical process of anxious identification and reluctant estrangement, the labelling of someone as not like you (a pronoun that appears almost as often as “I” in Finley’s solo works) being necessarily premised on an unspoken acknowledgement of similitude, of the uncanny possibility of being just like you.

I'm not sure I even know all of what I'm on about here; however, I do think the question of embodiment is what continues to link Finley's work with that of Miller and Hughes and Sprinkle--past and present. These artists are putting their bodies on the line for us (dear Tim does so love to get naked). For that reason alone, and no matter the content, the work remains relevant--and queer.


Monday, December 6, 2010

RIP: David French

The Mercer family and English-Canadian theatre have lost their paterfamilias.

Reading the Globe today, I learned that David French has died from cancer, aged 71. It may seem hard to believe now what a landmark event Leaving Home was when it premiered at the Tarragon in Toronto 40 years ago. But as Soulpepper's recent revival of it--and French's subsequent Mercer family plays, Of the Fields Lately and Salt-Water Moon--the work stands the test of time.

His voice shall be missed.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

In Brief

Last night, Richard and I did something we haven't done at the theatre in a long time, if ever: we walked out at intermission. The show was the Vancouver Playhouse production of Brief Encounter, Emma Rice's adaptation of the 1946 David Lean film, itself based on the one-act play, Still Life, by Noel Coward. Never mind that Max Reimer's production is as all-over-the-place and mish-mashy as his cast's accents; the play itself is a travesty of styles and tone, a burlesque of Lean's beautifully restrained film, which zeroed in with unflinching intensity on its two principals' willed suppression of their desire for each other. The train station tea shop was a perfect metaphor for the temporal fleetingness and what ifs that defined their relationship: but in another place, at another time, they might have been allowed to remain together.

By opening up the action to the supporting characters in the shop, Rice creates some additional stage business to be sure, but why clutter that up with so many theatrical tricks? Puppets, song and dance numbers, toy trains, a bicycle, and all the winking acknowledgements of the audience--and that was just the first act! Then there's the piece's integration of filmed sequences into the live action on stage, the element that seems most to have caught audiences' imaginations in the UK and on Broadway, where the show just closed after what I gather was a reasonably successful run. I don't know what all the hoopla is about--the effects were really quite pedestrian, to my mind, and made what The Electric Company did earlier this fall with Tear the Curtain! seem downright genius (which, as you may recall, I also had major caveats about).

There was a twinge, as we collected our coats, about not sticking around to see what the production does with Alec's fellow doctor-friend, Stephen Lynn, whose flat Alec borrows for an aborted rendez-vous with Laura in the film. As Richard Dyer has famously--and most convincingly--argued, Stephen is quite clearly coded as gay, and it would have been interesting to see what Rice does with this in our post-Wolfenden, post-queer, post-post era. However, after the butchering of Rachmaninoff to close Act 1, we decided it wasn't worth sticking around to find out.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

ASTR/CORD in Seattle

Just back from Seattle, and the joint American Society for Theatre Research/Congress on Research in Dance Conference. Kugler, Rob Kitsos, and I participated in a Thursday evening workshop purportedly aimed at coming up with some bombasts, manifests, and all-around provocative first principles regarding the creation, performance, and reception of a “bastard” form of dance-theatre that somehow wouldn’t be called that. You can check out the group’s preliminary blog posts on the topic at

The actual workshop discussion was decidedly disappointing; not only did the co-conveners have an agenda for the evening that seemed to obviate completely—if not be totally antithetical to—the work we had been asked to do prior to the conference, but one of said conveners was further intent on reducing everything to her own delimited and circumscribed performance practice, training, experience, and biases. Then, too, it became very clear that no one—least of all the conveners—was very interested in hearing about our experience of cross-disciplinary collaboration on The Objecthood of Chairs, which we had very clearly stressed would be our primary reference point in our initial proposal to join the workshop.

All of this may have something to do with the unique structure of the ASTR working groups model, which has now been in existence for some years. This replacement for the traditional panel paper presentations (although those still do happen at ASTR, in the plenary sessions) does have the benefit of encouraging participants to dialogue and share work and ideas before the conference proper. However, it also—by virtue of the workshops being open to auditors/audience members who haven’t been a part of this prior conversation—forces speakers to distill, at times extremely reductively, very complex arguments (that might have been part of a much longer paper) into pithy sound bites of no more than one or two sentences, the reverberations or connections between which the convener then assembles like some sort of choirmaster (or director, or choreographer). It’s perhaps for this reason that the convener’s voice tends to dominate, and everyone else ends up looking to some extent like a performing monkey—with audience members for the most part passively absorbing the spectacle. Alana’s workshop on Saturday morning, “Risking Encounter,” looked extremely interesting on paper, and, indeed, some very provocative ideas about the “ethics of touch,” in particular, were bandied about; but the number of participants (13) was just too large, and again one of the co-conveners (who hadn’t even circulated a paper!) spoke way too much. Where is the pay-off, I wonder, in someone journeying half way around the world to present their research for at most five minutes worth of speech?

To be fair, this is my first time at ASTR. And I did only attend two sessions… I’m a fairly grumpy conference-goer as it is, and I’m not very much of a fan of the traditional format either. Still, I think I’ll need to do a careful reading of the workshop proposals for next year’s ASTR meeting (sans CORD folks) in Montreal before I think of interrupting our planned semester sojourn in the UK with a return visit to eastern Canada in mid-November.

Conference-wise, Seattle may have been hit and miss—and they could have done better with the weather (though all the American announcers were uniform in their blame of the “arctic air from Canada” for the unusual cold snap)—but culture-wise the city delighted, as is so often the case. We had a fine post-workshop dinner with Kugler, Rob, and Rob’s wife, Lorraine (a quasi-Seattle native), at Tulio, which also doubled as a kind of deferred celebration of the Chairs production—which we measured by raiding our box-office take for the three very yummy wines the table shared. Then there was the incredibly comprehensive Picasso exhibit on at the Seattle Art Museum. There was a crush of bodies, but there was much work I hadn’t seen before, and it was mostly accessible for more than rudimentary contemplation.

Finally, on Friday evening we caught Ralph Lemon’s new show, How Can You Stay in the House All Day And Not Go Anywhere?, at On the Boards. I haven’t yet processed all that was going on in the piece, and I think in some respects my reaction was both pre- and over-determined by all that I had read in advance about the background to the work (in particular Lemon’s successive losses of his partner and then his longtime collaborator, Walter Carter). Still, I was definitely struck by the mixing of media—live narrated text, video, and recorded and live dance—and how what can be said about, what can be shown of, and what is felt as a result of grief could be tracked along two parallel (and inverse) tracks of abstraction and (in)articulacy. The dancers’ frenzied movements, their convulsive writhing (which is almost as painful to watch as it must be to perform), embodies both the release and the absorption (indeed, the reincorporation) that is a necessary component of the work of mourning.

Lemon’s artistic sensibility is as capacious and prickly as his view of the world, which he presents as vast and amazing and complex, but also as raw and unfinished and filled with thorny thickets. Grief is an especially painful and constricting brier-patch, but as Lemon here suggests via Lewis Hyde and Uncle Remus, a wily hare or rabbit can eventually find his or her way out. So too with this very challenging work of art. Lemon doesn’t make it easy for his audience, but just when it seems like he’s completely boxed us in as spectators/witnesses/co-supplicants, and left us “no room” to maneuver (and only one way to react), a hole opens up and a possible way forward is glimpsed.

Talk about an ethics of touch…


Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Just a quick follow-up to one of the chapters I include in the book that gives this blog its title. Yesterday the BC Court of Appeal ruled that four dissident congregations in the Anglican diocese of New Westminster that broke away from the church over Archbishop Michael Ingham's controversial decision to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions will not be allowed to hold on to their valuable church properties.

This includes St. John's in tony Shaughnessy, which must be worth a pretty penny. Not that one can put a price on faith. Conversely, the workings of Christian charity have always remained somewhat mystical to me, not least in terms of the Anglican Communion's great divide on this issue.

But then, to paraphrase the soon-to-be-sainted Cardinal Newman (also rumoured to have been gay), mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism. All of which, if one were a Dan Brown-style conspiracy theorist, might set one thinking about Pope Benedict's recent trip to the UK...


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Exhaustingly Inexhaustible

As a dance form, Butoh is relatively young, having only emerged in Japan post-World War II. And yet it seems so much older, what with the traditional shaved heads and white-painted bodies of its performers, and the slow, hyper-controlled nature of its basic movement vocabulary. Sankai Juku, founded by Ushio Amagatsu in 1975, is considered one of the premiere second generation Butoh companies in the world, pushing the form's traditional exploration of the relationship of the body to gravity in new thematic and stylistic directions.

Sankai Juku's most recent work, Tobari: As if in an inexhaustible flux, arrived at the Vancouver Playhouse this weekend as the opening production of the third season of DanceHouse, the wonderful subscription series that brings the best of large-scale, contemporary international dance to our city. Watching it was in part an exercise in testing the limits of exhaustion. For Butoh, it seems to me, requires as much discipline from its audience as it does from its performers (although, it should be noted, many Butoh pieces are performed without an audience). Following that slow unfurling of an arm or even finger, the impossibly long holding of an extended leg, a contorted crouch, or full pelvic floor lift: if, as dance theorist Susan Leigh Foster has suggested, mirror neurons in our brains (among other things) prompt us to respond kinesthetically to choreographed movement on stage, then there's every reason to understand why a Butoh performance would leave us drained, as unconsciously our limbs and muscles and nerves have been contracting and releasing, tensing and unfolding along with the performers'.

Tobari, Amagatsu helpfully explains in his program notes, refers to a "veil of fabric hung in a space as a partition" and is also frequently employed metaphorically to "express the passage from day to night." Other divisions, or passages, were at play in the 90-minute piece, including masculine/feminine (a classic concern of Butoh, more generally), old/young, vertical/horizontal, birth/death, earth/sky, etc. If, to begin, I found some of the sequences bordering on kitsch (there was that "Walk Like an Egyptian" bit at the beginning that I'm still trying to figure out), the work gradually grew more complex, and the floor work by the four younger dancers in the final scene was amazing (talk about working one's inner core!), as was their earlier sand crab crawl across the stage. Genta Iwamura's lighting design, Masayo Iizuka's stunning costumes, and especially the terrific score by Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz, and Yoichiro Yoshikawa also added to my overall enjoyment. I reserve judgement, however, on whether the whole thing merited the standing ovation that most of the audience gave it (a sign of how easy we are to please, or of how desperately we crave challenging international dance?). Despite my experience of Vancouver's own "post-butoh" company, Kokoro Dance (whose style is, among other things, much more "athletic"), I simply do not have enough to compare this performance to.

While the house was definitely enthusiastic, it was not full, a first in my attendance of the DanceHouse series. I hope this is an anomaly and not a sign of some larger post-Olympics, post-HST trend. The donor and fundraising rhetoric was also more prominently on display in the program and again one hopes that Barb and Jim's reference to wanting to lessen their "dependence on more volatile funding sources" (i.e. non-existent provincial grants) does not belie a deeper shortfall than they might have anticipated.

If so, ante up people! This series is no where near exhausting the potential roster of stellar companies and dance artists it can and should bring to Vancouver.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Iphigenia at SFU Woodward's

The gods and goddesses in Greek mythology have a lot to answer for. First there's that rigged beauty contest between Artemis, Athena and Aphrodite that leads Paris to inadvertently initiate the Trojan War, the absconded Helen being his prize. Then there's all the mischief the immortals get up to in the lead up to the Greeks' attack on Troy. Wouldn't be a fair fight if there weren't some additional casualties and especially familial collateral damage along the way.

And poor Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, seems to suffer more than most, starting with his fateful decision to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, which, depending on whom you read (Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles), sets off an escalating series of retributive and self-destructive acts by other members of his family: his wife Clytemnestra, his other daughter Electra, and his of course his son, Orestes.

In Euripides' first version of the story, Iphigenia at Aulis, it all starts with Agamemnon's presumption that he's a better hunter than Artemis. In retaliation for this boast, Artemis stills the winds behind the sails of the Greek ships gunning for Troy just as they reach the harbour of Aulis. Agamemnon is told by an oracle that the only way the winds will pick up again is if he sacrifices Iphigenia. He doesn't want to, but his bloodthirsty lieutenant Menelaus is insistent (in one version of the story even intercepting a missive by his boss warning his daughter and family to stay away), and so he sends for his daughter under the pretext that she is to marry Achilles. Problems arise when the none-too-stable mother of the bride gets caught up in planning her daughter's nuptials, arriving with a full-on trousseau, and consulting the young and het-up Achilles about his plans for her daughter. Achilles (who, you will remember from Homer, has his own issues to deal with, not least a more than brotherly affection for his comrade-in-arms, Patroclus) has no idea what she's talking about, and soon Clytemnestra outs her husband's plan and the real argument of the play (and of all Greek drama, really) takes centre-stage: the rights of the individual versus the interests of the state.

In Lois Anderson's staging of John Barton's 1980 translation/adaptation of the play, SFU Contemporary Arts' inaugural student production at Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, that question gets aligned in a very 21st-century way with political and religious extremism. That is, Iphigenia's eventual acquiescence to the will of her General father and her willingness to sacrifice her own life for the greater good of the Greek people (at least as the choice of death in this case is presented to her), it is suggested, starts to look a little like jihadism. In other words, if we connect the dots between Iphi's choice and that famous wooden horse that eventually gets wheeled beyond the gates of Troy, the girl starts to look a little like a suicide bomber.

It's an interesting approach to the material, but unfortunately in this production it mostly stays on the page--i.e., in the Director's Note on the program--rather than getting worked through materially on stage. Fanaticism to a cause is incarnated most forcefully by Menelaus (Troy Kozuki), and there are some wonderful moments of physical choreography (local dancer/choreographer Noam Gagnon advised on movement for the piece) that suggest a bodily short-circuiting of rational debate to a moral and ethical problem. But Iphigenia's own conversion to her father's ideals seems remarkably passive and resigned as portrayed by Anouska Anderson Kirby (the director's daughter). This could have something to do with the fact that this decisive moment in the play occurs on video rather than live, and while I applaud Anderson's overall integration of different media in this production, I question the choice of mediated delivery in this case, if only because in the cavernous space we were in it was difficult to hear what was being said.

Mostly, however, Anderson made terrific and theatrically novel use of the space, starting with Talthybius's (a superb Aryo Khakpour) opening entrance on his bicycle and the dropping of the upstage safety curtain. Special kudos must go to sound composer Elliott Vaughan, who made fantastic use of the space's available ambient sound sources to produce simple yet wonderful effects: moving the curtains along the stage left and right walls to suggest wind; pounding on exposed pipes and chairs and the floor for rolls of thunder, or approaching armies; and, in conjunction with Anderson, showing an intuitive understanding of the Greek chorus and the aural basis of Greek drama more generally through a canny use of recorded voice-over and live call-and-response from different parts of the theatre.

Lighting, costumes, and especially props (the reproduction of the stalled Greek ships was most effective) are also superb. And, in this regard, I was delighted to see that three crew members from The Objecthood of Chairs made material contributions in these areas: Milena Popović, Jordan Boivin, and Lain Kim.

Iphigenia at Aulis runs at SFU Woodward's through to this Saturday. Call 778-782-3514 for tickets.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

2011 PuSh Festival Program Launched

Today marks the official launch of the 2011 PuSh Festival Program Guide, and I have to say the offerings look pretty amazing. There's a special focus this year on Vancouver's 125th anniversary, and shows like 100% Vancouver, City of Dreams, La Marea, and Podplays are definitely not to be missed.

Plush Club PuSh and the PuSh Assembly are back! Get your program at any JJ Bean location around the city, or consult the electronic version online here. And buy your PuSh Pass while you can.


Press Conference Politics

Who knew Premier Gordo could upstage a contrite US President Obama admitting the Democrats had taken a "shellacking" in the midterm elections south of the border?

But I have to admit I forgot all about wiccan Tea Partiers, California's failed doobie proposition and even, briefly, recalled Iowa Supreme Court Justices when I read on-line yesterday afternoon that Campbell had resigned. It must have been a sizable caucus revolt he was facing to finally penetrate that immense ego and convince him that he had to fall on his own blunt sword.

Now the game's afoot for a replacement leader and our next Premier. But who would want the job and, more to the point, would they publicly repudiate or endorse the hated HST in advance of next September's referendum? There's over two years till the next mandated election, more than enough time, under usual circumstances, to reverse Liberal Party fortunes, and catch up with the NDP in popular opinion (especially with Carole James flailing herself). But that crazy Dutchman, Vander Zalm, and BC's even crazier electoral politics have made things anything but business as usual. So, again, who would want the job?

A certain University Chancellor-designate appears to be out of the running, but in this province anything is possible...


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name

Once again something smells in this province. As Premier Gordo undertakes yet another cabinet shuffle in a desperate bid to shore up some shred of his party's dwindling popularity, news not only that Kevin Krueger is out as Minister of Tourism, Culture, and the Arts (welcome), but that the ministry itself has been renamed--it's now the Ministry of Community, Sport, and Cultural Development (which is perhaps not so welcome).

Read the details here.

It's not just that art has been banished altogether in this new moniker; it's also that whatever might be meant by the at once overly capacious and hopelessly vague category of "cultural development" comes a distant third in this catch-all ministry's apparent list of duties and priorities.

Add to that a first-time cabinet minister, Stephanie Cadieux, who is quoted on page 4 of the print edition of today's Vancouver Sun as being a bit "trepidatious" about her new job, and members of the BC arts community have yet more grounds to be worried about the direction of this government.

When is the next election, again?


The Suburban Vote

Is there any greater argument against metropolitan amalgamation than the election last night of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto? First Mel Lastman, and now this?!

And I thought Michael Bloomberg buying a third term in New York was a travesty of civic politics.

As Torontonians were going to the polls to cast the majority of their votes for Ford, Naheed Nenshi was being sworn in as the first visible minority (and Muslim) mayor of Calgary. Poor Toronto, we hardly knew you...


Micro Setting, Macro Sound

Last night Richard and I experienced a performance straight out of the 18th century. We attended a concert of the newly formed string quartet Microcosmos (Marc Destrubé, first violin; Andrea Siradze, second violin; Tawnya Popoff, viola; and Peggy Lee, cello) at the home of our neighbours, Martin Gotfrit and Patricia Gruben.

I have never listened to any kind of live music in so intimate a setting, let alone a chamber form whose sound palette is so ideally suited to the salon. Sitting directly behind violist Popoff, and within spitting distance of cellist Lee, the evening's repertoire provided the best kind of aural shock therapy: a gradual dark descent with Shostakovitch's String Quartet No. 1, followed by the pulsating, buzz saw awakening of R. Murray Schafer's String Quartet No. 1, and then finally the aggregate and richly atonal chromaticism of Bartok's String Quartet No. 1.

The six quartets composed by Bartok will in fact form the core of Microcosmos' repertoire as they present similar programs at equally intimate venues over the coming year. As last night's program notes assert, the group "takes advantage of the compactness and portability of the string quartet--four chairs and adequate light are all that is required."

Plus, of course, available ears. Do lend them yours.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Torn Curtains

It was a gorgeous, sunny Thanksgiving Sunday yesterday, and I spent much of the afternoon in a darkened theatre. Not, as originally planned, at the Granville 7 watching another VIFF offering. Instead, I decided at the last minute to catch the final performance of The Electric Company's acclaimed play Tear the Curtain! at the Stanley, in a co-production with the Arts Club and the 2010 Cultural Olympiad.

My choice of live theatre over mediated film is of course the very subject of ECT's brilliant show. The piece is at once an historical exploration of the economics of entertainment specific to the Stanley's original construction--when vaudeville stages were being cast aside in favor of cinemas, which in turn had to be retrofitted to show the new talking pictures then eclipsing the theatricality of silent movies--and a philosophical meditation (mostly via Antonin Artaud) on both the power and the limits of each medium to awaken and engage its audience's senses. That the production itself, in form and content, seemed to make some very definitive choices of its own in terms of the prioritization of media surprised me.

First the praise: Vancouver audiences are unlikely to see anything so technically accomplished and intelligently conceived on local stages this fall (although I may eat my words after Brief Encounter at the Playhouse). The interplay between filmed and live sequences was literally seamless, and the sheer inventiveness by which the former were projected (on screens, scrims, and even David Roberts' magnificent set) kept astounding. Kim Collier's direction also drew out the site-specificity of the piece, using actors' entrances and exits, in particular, to play with the Stanley's proscenium, incorporating or excluding the live audience into the (mediated) mise-en-scène as the situation dictated. Finally, the entire company was in top form, equally comfortable on stage and on screen. Laura Mennell, as femme fatale Mila, and Dawn Petten, as loyal girl friday Mavis, were especially impressive.

Now the critique: Tear the Curtain! does not, it seems to me, challenge the binary between film and theatre (at least not in the way other ECT shows have, particularly No Exit). Rather it maintains, and even reinforces that binary--at times in some ideologically disturbing ways. Not only does the play's plot (which, for all the curve balls it throws us, is fairly conventional) resolve itself in favor of the soporific effects of Hollywood romanticism; its blending of filmic and live theatrical effects mostly unspools as a form of continuity editing, with progressivist and predominately linear match cuts between the two trumping those moments when their coming together was more engagingly juxtapositional (as when, in a favourite moment of mine, Mavis drives Jonathon Young's Alex across the stage in a makeshift Model T, while a projected rear screen backdrop moves behind them).

My bigger problem is that the case for the theatre--which, don't get me wrong, is there--is made almost as an inside joke, with winking references to Peter Brook (the Empty Space Society) and Philip Auslander (the television set's "liberation"/remediation of theatre in the end only a red herring) presented for the cognoscenti, but otherwise not fully elaborated in terms of a theory of either theatrical liveness or sensory and political "aliveness." A telling moment, in this regard, is when jaded theatre critic Alex, equal parts amanuensis and usurper of local artistic visionary Stanley Lee (James Fagan Tait), delivers his/Stanley's Artaud-inspired manifesto in favour of a new kind of total theatre. At the end of his oration, the house lights come up and Alex comes to the downstage lip, acknowledging the felt connection between audience and actor that can only come through live performance: "You are here," he says. "Here you are."

Too often, however, it felt like the audience's only available response to the material was "Where are they?," so relentlessly are we buffeted back and forth between virtual and embodied actors, not to mention the representational telos specific to each medium. For André Bazin, that telos in film has, ever since the camera began to move, been realism--but a realism that, in the words of another French film theorist (Christian Metz), is doubly imaginary (in the sense that what is imaginary masquerades as real). By contrast, even the "bourgeois" theatre that Mila and her revolutionary cronies in the ESS decry acknowledges its constructedness, makes visible in greasepaint and in costumes and in wires and in different-hued specials its status as a representation. For theorists from Plato to Michael Fried this very artificiality condemns the theatre to corrupting inauthenticity, and its audiences to slavish worshippers of false idols. But for artist-theorists like Brecht and Artaud, among other members of the European avant-garde who borrowed extensively from non-Western traditions, the theatre's codified and anti-mimetic properties also make it the ideal form to make an assault on representationality itself. (This included linguistic representationality, and a further irony of a play that takes Artaud, and his anti-textual bias, as a guiding light, is that it is incredibly wordy, Young and Kevin Kerr's script clocking in at well over 2.5 hours. I had the same complaint about Studies in Motion--it was just too long.) Moreover, they trusted their audiences enough not just to weather this assault, but to actually welcome it.

Would that ECT, in putting together Tear the Curtain!, placed more trust in their audiences to follow Alex beyond the threshold of the new theatrical experience he quite literally brings them to the very edge of. Instead, theatre is presented as a cordon sanitaire, a form of cultural capital that, as businessman and impresario Patrick Dugan (Gerard Plunkett) suggests, is meant to keep the riff-raff out. Whereas film emerges as the medium with which the masses can, again quite literally, most identify. Thus, the piece ends with Alex and Mavis, now a happy couple after the faithful secretary has helped the troubled critic find his "real" self, seating themselves amongst us in the audience, and then staring contentedly up at their screen surrogates.

Romantic, yes. Radical, no.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

You Are Here

Last night at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby Crystal Pite presented her company Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM in a Mixed Repertoire of works in progress. It was a rare opportunity to see the acclaimed local dancer-choreographer not just talking about, but actively soliciting feedback on, four pieces she's currently building as part of a full-length evening of dance called The You Show. That show will premiere next month at the Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt, which has stepped in where no Canadian institution or government agency has, and provided Pite and her company with a two-year residency to create new work. Thereafter, the show will tour, eventually ending up back in Vancouver at The Cultch in May.

But audiences this week at the Shadbolt were treated to a sneak peek in an intimate studio setting. Even better, a visibly pregnant Pite was on hand to chat with the audience and welcome commentary on the work in between pieces.

Pite introduced the evening's program by saying that the idea behind The You Show was to think about how one would compose works of dance in the second person, and how this might in turn enable audience members to locate themselves in a dancer's movements, and see their own stories and conflicts and losses reflected in the physically embodied language on stage. Her basic architecture for each piece is the duet, and the evening began with the only previously performed piece in the repertoire, "A Picture of You Falling," created in 2008 for Anne Plamondon and Peter Chu. Both dancers were back together on stage last night, and as precise and articulate as ever in their telegraphing not just of Pite's deconstructionist choreography, but of the narrated text (written by Pite) to which that movement is con-/dis-joined: "This is a picture of you falling--knees, hip, hands, elbows, head." Continuing Pite's fascination with the body's marionette-like qualities, the collapsings and strivings of which we are not always the agent (see Dark Matters, which also featured Chu as the puppet-master who comes to be controlled by his creation), the work establishes the leitmotif for the evening, which Pite has elsewhere described as a "kinesthetics of rescue," and which we might translate here as finding the you in me (and vice-versa).

That process can involve a descent to some very dark places, as the second piece in the program demonstrated. Going back and forth for the time being between two possible titles--"The Brother You Thought You'd Lost" or "The Other You"--Pite paired longtime collaborator Eric Beauchesne with new company member Jiří Pokorný in a study of increasingly high stakes brinksmanship and animal aggression that culminates in a surprisingly tender pas de deux to Moonlight Sonata. Afterwards, Pite said that she had no idea she would end up choreographing to that piece of music, but that when it became clear she would, she felt the prelude to it had to be even darker, in order to "earn," in her words, the romantic climax.

Then came an untitled work for Cindy Salgado and Yannick Matthon that began with an image of shattering glass, to which Pite then asked longtime musical collaborator Owen Belton to compose a score. Intensely physical and featuring an amazing lighting design by Robert Sondergaard, this was the one work of the evening that Pite herself labelled still unfinished. In the feedback she solicited, I couldn't help much with the movement, but I did, as per her instructions, suggest a title: "Pieces of You" is perhaps a bit kitschy and cliched, but she promised to write it down.

Finally, the evening concluded with the longest work, "A Picture of You Flying." It begins with dancer Jermaine Spivey sitting on a chair (!) talking to the audience about sacrifice, strength, endurance, the body's armor, and the physical and mental toll exacted by his line of work. At first you think this is a bit of self-reflexive commentary on his profession as a dancer, especially when he mentions the drawbacks of wearing tights. But then he lifts his pant leg to reveal a bit of red lycra underneath. And then dancer Sandra Garcia picks a bit of red cloth up from the floor and wraps it around Jermaine's neck, like a cape. When he mentions flying, you know he's talking about being a superhero, not a dancer. But then, as this piece (and others by Pite) reveals, what precisely is the difference?

In this 35-minute work, Pite has a great deal of fun playing with various iconic poses and movement imagery associated with comic book superheroes, and their related pop culture offspring. There's a lot of slow motion "ka-pow!" sequences and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger moves. And the highlight is the Transformer-esque duet between Spivey and Garcia, these two friend-foes and possible lovers raised aloft, their arms and legs and heads shielded and manipulated by other company members as they dance/fight to the death--or sheer exhaustion. But, again, as Pite's work repeatedly suggests, what's the difference?

All in all, a thrilling evening of dance. I can't wait to see the finished work next May.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Getting Angry at VIFF

Although Reginald Rose's play Twelve Angry Men (itself adapted from Rose's own 1954 teleplay for CBS Studio One) was revived successfully on Broadway in 2004, most of us are probably more familiar with Sidney Lumet's 1957 movie version, starring Henry Fonda as the famously dissenting juror. A classic liberal drama about prejudice and society's quickness to judge (the accused is Spanish-American), the play and film also function as sharp allegories of the intersection between class and masculinity in 1950s Cold War America.

Now imagine transporting all of that to a prison in Lebanon. The documentary 12 Angry Lebanese, which I saw yesterday at the Vancouver International Film Festival, chronicles director Zeina Daccache's year-long project working with 45 inmates in Lebanon's Roumieh Prison on a staging of Rose's play. A proponent of drama therapy as a way of transforming the lives of disadvantaged and marginalized individuals, Daccache is at once an inspiring human being and a terrifying theatre director, cajoling, haranguing and generally browbeating a motley collection of "murderers, drug dealers, and rapists" into putting on a production that is not merely competent but artistically rewarding for audiences and actors alike. In so doing, she manages not just to effect concrete social reform (in helping to jumpstart a stalled bill on early prison release), but also to restore a sense of purpose and self in her actor-inmates' lives, some of whom are serving life sentences or even sitting on death row.

But what is so amazing about the film record of this journey is that it gives equal weight to the social message and the artistic process, juxtaposing interviews with the prisoners' about their lives and the galvanizing effects of Daccache's production with fascinating scenes of the men rehearsing Rose's play and building additional elements for the larger evening's performance, of which the play will serve as the climax. To this end, the men work with Daccache in developing individual monologues about their lives and the crimes they committed, original music to accompany the production, dance and movement sequences, and even a bit of drag. Throughout, Daccache is solicitous and stern, funny and fierce, tender and terrifying in equal measure. She's not afraid to yell at her actors until they get their line readings right, nor even to fire one of them two weeks before they open because of his inability to commit to the project one hundred percent. And then there's the scene when she learns that Mustafa, who is to play Juror #5, has been released from prison--five days before they open! As much as she's elated for Mustafa, there's the little matter of finding a replacement. She calls on Capo, who up to this point has remained somewhat apart from the proceedings, only willing to take on a backstage role. That Daccache not only convinces Capo to agree to the part, and to memorizing his lines with the aid of his cellmate at night, but further solicits from him a bravura performance, is a testament to her uncompromising vision. As the VIFF program guide puts it, Daccache essentially is the star of her own documentary.

If I see nothing else of any note at this year's Festival, this film alone has made the experience truly memorable.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Of Parks and Musical Recreation

The best recent satire of municipal politics and competing Vancouver lifestyles is playing through to October 17 at Langara College's Studio 58, and best of all, you can hum along.

The Park is an original musical by Benjamin Elliott, Hannah Johnson, and Anton Lipovetsky about Vancouver's oasis of green in the West End, Stanley Park. It began life as a one-act collection of songs that premiered last spring, and has since evolved into a classic two-act musical comedy that weds the signature elements of the genre (including a central boy-girl romance and its impediments) to a bit of local colour. Add a firecracker cast having goofy fun with every outsized stereotype they're asked to incarnate and punchy lyrics dripping with irony, and you have a recipe for a hit. Can a summer run at Malkin Bowl be far behind? The setting would be appropriate.

The story pits tree-hugging environmentalist Geena (Amy Hall-Cummings) against the dastardly Gabriel Fines (Dustin Feeland), a developer who, in the words of Joni Mitchell, wants "to pave paradise and put up a parking lot." Caught in the middle is the hapless John Bristle (Joel Ballard), a Parks Board employee who pines for Geena from afar and who, in a fit of pique after receiving a pink slip from the city, is tricked into signing a petition supporting Gabriel's plans. When Geena starts a rival petition to save the park, John joins her fight in an attempt to woo her. But things go south in parkland when Geena learn that John's name is the first one on Gabriel's petition. That's the one that ends up receiving the blessing of the city's "President," a yoga-addicted, bicycle-driving, juice-swilling pretty boy who plays both sides of the development/environmental divide with equal charm, and who will have you doing double-takes about some of Mayor Robertson's kookier ideas. (Suffice to say that Geena's Chicken Waltz number will have you rolling in the aisles.)

As does the current administration occupying City Hall, and the musical deus ex machina ending--which sees Gabriel's former radical environmental activist parents talking their son out of his plans by offering him a job at their sustainable forestry business--is an apt allegory for a city that wants its cake green, but to eat it too.

Again, the entire cast is top-notch, but kudos must especially go to the male leads, Ballard and Freeman, who play off each other perfectly. Musically, the score mixes classic show tunes with rap and hip hop, and even barbershop, all to great effect. Elliott on keyboards and Lipovetsky on guitar, together with Specer Schoening on drums, make a crackerjack three-piece orchestra.

I can't wait for this creative team's next offering. Might I suggest something around the Olympics and the whole Athletes' Village debacle? With Millennium only yesterday defaulting on their loan, the provincial government rejecting all three social housing bids, and the City now scrambling to rescue the whole project, what could be more timely or topical?


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Empty Chairs

So, it's been just over a week since Objecthood closed, and I guess I'm slowly coming to grips with the fact that it's over.

The post-show melancholy remains, reinforced this past Friday when I was at SFU Woodward's for Contemporary Arts' Open House (continuing today, though without performances; details here) and took a visiting friend to see Studio T, the space in which our piece ran. The lights and set (such as it was) had been struck, of course. But what really got me was that the rather luxurious and plush chairs that had filled the risers for our audiences had been replaced by cheaper folding metal ones.

I saw later that ours had been moved into the bigger Fei and Milton Wong Theatre, which was hosting the mainstage Open House performances that night. Still, it made me feel a little sad.

Not that it wasn't a great run: enthusiastic audiences, performances by Justin and Vic that just got better and better, a crew that faced every challenge with professional aplomb, and, heck, we even made some money. It would have been nice to get a review, but the email responses from friends and colleagues have been so gratifying. And it was great to talk through the process with Don and Rob K last Wednesday in front of Henry Daniel's class, who had all seen the show, and had some really smart responses to it.

One consequence of all this is that I'm completely behind in my own theatre-going. I saw nothing at the Fringe, and have yet to get to The Electric Company's Tear the Curtain. We're going to Park: The Musical at Studio 58 next Friday. I plan to get there early so we can get a good seat.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Gondola Gossip

The rumours I had been hearing about were finally confirmed in yesterday's Vancouver Sun. Translink is indeed considering building a gondola from Production Way Skytrain Station up to SFU!

There's the little matter of the $70 million prince tag but, heck, the announcement was enough for me to begin celebrating: no more long line-ups for buses that putter up the hill; no more walking down said hill during snowstorms; better for the environment; and something else we can hold over UBC.

Our own little bit of Venice in Burnaby...


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gertrude Stein and a Companion

This past Tuesday, I finally got to see our sister show, Gertrude Stein and a Companion, running just down the hall in SFU Woodward's Studio D until this Saturday.

Having only heard a very little about the show from Kugler over the past year, I was amazed to discover the parallels between our two works. Both Gertrude and Objecthood are two-handers that combine presentational/lecture-style address to the audience with more intimate moments of dialogue between their respective acting couples. Both also combine movement, projections, music/sound, and lighting/design as part of a larger interdisciplinary aesthetic, while also still reveling in the pleasures of language (though I'm hardly a match for the words by Stein quoted in Wells' play). Both pieces also, I would say, have at their core a theory of objecthood; in Gertrude this takes at least two forms, with the character of Stein ruminating at length, and lovingly, on Alice B. Toklas as the "object of her affections," and with both women in turn discoursing on their paintings as objects. Finally, both plays are in some fundamental sense about grieving the end of a relationship, and the atemporality that necessarily goes along with that process. The future anteriority that underscores the conversation between Vic and Justin throughout much of my play (how they met always already shadowed by how they will part) is transformed in Gertrude into a kind of past perfect, with the play's conceit taking the form of a beyond-the-grave Stein watching over and simultaneously longing to be reunited with her beloved Alice.

As Stein, the formidable Gina Stockdale is in full command, effortlessly engaging her audience in intimate confidences not just about Alice's manifold loveliness, but also Stein's own de facto genius. SFU Contemporary Arts Events Manager Heather Blakemore, who also serves as costume designer on Gertrude, told me last week that the Alice Toklas in this show is very much a "fantasy" Alice, Alice seen through Stein's besotted rose-coloured glasses. And, indeed, Kathryn Ricketts plays her as much more gossamer and ethereal than one might at first suspect from having formed an impression of the woman via grainy historical photos or literary gossip. Taller and thinner than the real-life Toklas, and displaying in the simplest of movements (languishing on a divan, for example) her dancer's training, Ricketts conveys not just why it was so easy for Stein to fall in love with Alice, but Pablo Picasso as well. Ditto Stockdale confiding the other great love of her life--Ernest Hemingway (much to Alice's dismay).

This is a witty, moving, and intellectually stimulating play about the complex lines of affection and affiliation in a relationship, deftly directed by Penelope Stella, who has a sure sense of how the head and the heart interact in this work (not to mention language and the body). All of which makes for great dramatic synergies with Objecthood.

Both plays continue tonight through Saturday at SFU Woodward's; call 778-782-3514 for tickets.


Monday, September 13, 2010

A Post-Olympic Ghost Town

First we learn that more than 65% of market housing units in the False Creek South Athletes' Village development now known as Millennium Water remain unsold.

The cost overruns on the controversial development are admittedly severe, a situation the current Vision Vancouver-led municipal government inherited from its predecessor. However, this isn't the way to go about remedying things. Even folks at BC Housing remain perplexed.

Empty luxury condos, vacant produce aisles at Urban Fare, and rows of gleaming new exercise equipment waiting to be used at the city's newest--and most under-accessed--community centre are one thing. To abet the shortage of affordable housing in the city through such shenanigans is just plain scandalous.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Opening Night

It's been a while since my last post. I've been preoccupied with the start of term (which has entailed learning a new admin job) and, even more so, with the lead up to the opening of The Objecthood of Chairs, which happened last night.

It was, I guess, what one might call a "soft" opening. A small but, I like to think, appreciative audience joined us at SFU Woodward's Studio T for what the front of house manager rather grandiosely introduced as the "world premiere" of my play.

Even following nearly a year of workshops, three weeks of intensive rehearsal, two dress runs, and Tuesday night's invited preview performance, I still get goose bumps when Milena calls for the house lights to dim and then, courtesy Jay, we hear the first beats of Martin's opening music, "Les Chaises," followed by Jordan's fade in of the two upstage specials designed by James to showcase the bentwoods first brought on stage by Justin and Vic, who shimmer gorgeously in Flo's costumes. Then there's that long, expectant pause as J and V position themselves with their backs to the audience before beginning the opening "Stand and Release" movement sequence choreographed by Rob K, supplemented by Kugler's direction regarding the bringing on of the other four chairs. Finally, Sammy and Shang-Han call up the opening film projections by Rob G, only at the end of which do we hear my words. And, as an added insider bonus, I know that Lain and Caroline linger behind the upstage legs, waiting to bring out crucial props later on in the performance.

The slow accumulation of these different component parts at the start of our show sums up the whole process of this collaboration for me--the performance is at a place now where I can no longer imagine it without any of these elements. Nor without the incredibly talented and generous contributions of all the individuals (and more) mentioned above. I had a vision--crazy perhaps--of what might be possible by putting two performers and six chairs on stage, and then seeing what happens when text, movement, video, music, dramaturgy, and design are added into the mix. These folks have helped me realize that vision, and I'm in awe of what they all can do. Especially Justin and Vic, who've been with this project from the beginning, and who've learned each other's disciplines expressly for it. This piece places impossible demands on them, and they nail it each time.

So, I'd like to think a soft opening portends a slow build. We are competing with a lot of other offerings in the city, including the Fringe, the Playhouse's much-praised mounting of David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre (with PuSh Festival Associate Curator Dani Fecko doing an amazing job--onstage and off--as stage manager), and the premiere of the much anticipated new show by The Electric Company, Tear the Curtain, at the Stanley. And, although by no means our competition, there is our excellent sister show next door in SFU Woodward's Studio D, Gertrude Stein and a Companion. It hasn't helped that The Georgia Straight seems to have screwed up our listings info, meaning we're without any print media publicity for both weeks of our run.

That screw-up has hopefully been mitigated somewhat by the on-air interview I did yesterday with Rick Cluff on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition (you can listen to what I had to say by following the links from here.) Despite being barely awake, and despite Rick getting the name of our show wrong to begin with, I think the conversation went well, and hopefully some listeners will be curious enough to check out the show. I've been asked to do a similar interview next week with Radio-Canada, which means brushing up on my French.

At any rate, even if audiences don't come out in droves, this has already been an amazingly rewarding process--again, for the opportunity to work with this great bunch of people; and for the generous feedback that has already come in. As one audience member communicated her response to last night's show to Kugler, her connection to the play began more in her mind and ended more in her heart.

That's satisfaction enough for me.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Objecthood of Chairs at SFU Woodward's: Sept. 8-18

I've mentioned this before, but as our opening is just over two weeks away, I'll mention it again:

I’ve written a play. What’s more, it’s actually being produced! As this conjunction of events is unlikely to happen again any time soon, I’d love for readers of this blog to come and see the show. I realize this is easier said than done for those of you not presently in Vancouver. But should you be passing through at the beginning of September, or should you know folks in the city who might be interested in attending, here are some details…

The Story

The Objecthood of Chairs is about the romance between two men, as told through Western culture’s historical romance with chairs. We follow the men as they meet, move in together, and eventually part as the result of a freak accident. Along the way, and in a largely presentational style, we are provided various “object” lessons in: modernist chair design; Shaker asceticism; the revolution in sociability and sexuality inaugurated by the Thonet café chair; the inherent cruelty of childhood games of musical chairs; and Buddhist sitting practices. The text draws on architectural theory and art history, industrial design and neurophysiology, poetry and pop culture to think through the relationships and resistances between bodies (and objects) as they move through space, and to reflect on the necessary loss of autonomy that comes with asking for, and offering, unconditional support.

The show runs without an intermission and is approximately 80 minutes long.

The Players

My script is just one component of a larger interdisciplinary work of physical/dance-theatre, a multi-media collaboration with colleagues from SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts that also features original choreography by Rob Kitsos, video projections by Rob Groeneboer, music by Martin Gotfrit, lighting by James Proudfoot, costumes by Florence Barrett, and direction and dramaturgy by DD Kugler. Our amazingly talented performers are Victor Mariano and Justin Reist, graduates from SCA’s Theatre and Dance programs, respectively, who have immersed themselves in each other’s discipline specifically for this piece. Additional SCA faculty, students, and staff have been working behind the scenes for months on technical direction, stage management, film production and editing, visual and sound effects coordination, publicity, and the like. All of them have helped make my words look and sound infinitely better than they ever would have on their own.

The Venue

An added bonus of The Objecthood of Chairs is that it will be the inaugural production in the new SFU Woodward’s Studio T. Many of you have already had the opportunity to attend a performance at the spectacular Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, on the lower level of the Woodward’s building. With the School for the Contemporary Arts’ relocation to the complex now a reality, many of the smaller performance spaces are being opened to the public. Studio T, located on the second floor, is a wonderful black box space that seats approximately 100, and our production will take full advantage of its bells and whistles.

SFU Woodward’s is at 149 West Hastings, between Cambie and Abbott Streets—although the main entrance to the complex is actually through the courtyard off Cordova.

Pick up your tickets in the lobby, and then proceed up one floor to Studio T, on Level 2.

Dates and Tickets

Performance dates are September 8th-11th and September 14th-18th, at 8 pm.

Tickets are cash only at the door: $20 regular/$15 for students and seniors. Reservations can be made by phoning 778-782-3514.

I hope to see you at the show.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Another Casualty of the BC Arts Cuts

Kudos to Jane Danzo for taking a principled stand in resigning as Chairwoman of the BC Arts Council.

Citing the deep cuts in core funding and gaming grants to arts organizations across the province and, as crucially, the lack of consultation on the recent Arts Legacy Fund announcement (i.e., throwing money at youth-oriented "spirit festivals" rather than restoring core funding to existing arts organizations), Danzo said that the Council's was hamstrung by a lack of independent voice from the provincial government. She said she was "stepping down" in order to "speak up."

Kevin Krueger, Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, said that he accepted Danzo's resignation with regret, but offered no further comment.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mike Daisey's "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs": A PuSh+ Event

A friendly public performance announcement in my capacity as Fundraising Committee Chair of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival Society...

So maybe you missed out on those Cirque de Soleil tickets. Or just found them insanely expensive. Consider the following performance option instead:

Mike Daisey's The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Thursday, September 2nd, 7 pm (doors open at 6 pm)
VanCity Theatre, 1181 Seymour Street
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory
Tickets: $40, available online from the VIFF Box Office: click here to purchase

Mike Daisey is a celebrated solo performer, monologist, and social commentator in the tradition of Spalding Gray. He is especially well-known for his satirical reflections on corporate American culture, from Amazon (21 Dog Years), to Microsoft and Wal-Mart (Monopoly), and now, in this latest show, Apple. Here's an excerpt from the press release that PuSh Communications Manager Kara Gibbs has circulated:

Mike Daisey reveals the fascinating story of Apple CEO Steve Jobs--a real-life Willy Wonka whose deep obsessions have shaped our modern age. Tracing his meteoric rise Daisey shows us how, in our lifetime, controlling our interface has become the key to controlling the world itself-and how the digital tools we use every day change us as they tell our stories.

Breaking free of the virtual, Daisey follows the trail all the way to China where millions of workers toil in factories to create iPhones and iPods in a world we pretend does not exist. A darkly hilarious tale of pride, beauty, lust, and industrial design, Daisey illuminates the war to control how we see the world, and the human price we are willing to pay for our technology.
The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a PuSh+ event (one outside our normal Jan-Feb festival dates) that is also doubling as a fundraiser. To this end, we'll also be raffling off an iPad at the reception following the show, where guests will get a chance to meet Mike and director Jean-Michele Gregory. All proceeds from tickets and raffle go to support programming at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

For more information, click here.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Richard Hatfield: The Opera; Bricklin: The Musical

Harry Somers' brilliant Louis Riel notwithstanding, I've always thought the Canadian politician who would make the best subject for an opera was New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield. The outsized ego, the New York City rentboys, the marijuana in the luggage, the public spats with Pierre: it's all there.

I admit to being somewhat biased. My Dad was born in the same small town as Hatfield: Hartland, N.B., home of the longest covered bridge in the world. That fact alone could inspire infinite arias, not to mention a potentially amazing set design.

Well, if we have to wait a while longer for the definitive Hatfield opera, we can at least console ourselves with the fact that at least there's now a Hatfield musical. Or at least a musical in which Hatfield plays a key role.

I'm referring to Bricklin, a new work by Allen Cole and Paul Ledoux about the futuristic 1970s car (it of the gull-winged opening doors fame) designed by US entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin that he somehow convinced Hatfield to sink tens of millions of New Brunswick taxpayers' dollars into, and that went bust soon after it was first unveiled in 1975. According to an article in today's Globe, the musical--subtitled "An Automotive Fantasy"--is apparently playing to full houses at the Fredericton Playhouse in a co-production with Theatre New Brunswick directed by the very talented Alisa Palmer (whom until now I did not know was a fellow Maritimer).

I remember once getting a glimpse of the Bricklin at a science and technology museum in Ottawa, and my Dad telling us the story of its production, likening its failure to a Canadian industrial tragedy as disastrous as that of the Avro Arrow. I didn't really know what he was talking about at the time, and I wasn't much interested (as boys my age were meant to be) in cars anyway, but I do remember thinking those flying buttress car doors were pretty cool.

I'm still not much into cars. But I do love musicals. And, though I never met the man, I can't help thinking that Hatfield and I, two sisters with deep Hartland roots, share a spiritual connection of some sort. Here's hoping the show becomes a bona fide New Brunswick hit in a manner much more wickedly camp than PEI's Anne: The Musical!

That would definitely be something worth going home (and homo) for.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Henry V at Bard

It only took 20 years, but last night I finally made it to Bard on the Beach to take in Henry V on the Studio Stage. I've never thought Shakespeare to be the ne plus ultra of theatre in the first place (and, indeed, I've seen more bad Shakespeare in performance than good), and the quirky, crunchy rusticity of its outdoor seaside setting that BOTB promotes as part of its west coast charm has never been a huge selling point for me. Plus, while the company showcases the work of some very fine local performers year-to-year, I also think it retains some lesser lights for not altogether sound repertory reasons, and could be a bit more adventurous and diverse in its casting.

However, I put aside those reservations this year. Partly this had to do with the fact that I had taught Henry V in my Intro to Drama course earlier this spring, which was organized around the theme of war. Having unpacked--with the help of the Chorus--the jingoism of some of Henry's speeches, and asked my students whether, based on his actions in the play, we should consider Harry a hero or a war criminal, I was interested in seeing director Meg Roe's take on the play's martial masculinities, and how she treated the rather dubious reasons promulgated by Henry and his advisors for going to war with France (what to do about those tennis balls, for example...). The fact that Roe had cast her husband, Alessandro Juliani, in the title role also helped. I'd long been a fan of Juliani's work as the traitorous Felix Gaeta on Battlestar Galactica, and his starring role as Frog in last year's stupendous production of after the quake only confirmed my opinion of his acting chops. Finally, my colleague Rob Kitsos--and collaborator on The Objecthood of Chairs--has contributed original choreography to the production. So, really, it was the the right alignment of elements that found me under the smaller of the two tents at Vanier Park last night.

First of all, Roe's production is a miracle of concision. Any mounting of the play that can get us all the way through to 4.1 and the crucial pre-Battle of Agincourt scene pre-intermission needs to be applauded. What might be sacrificed in terms of plot and character complexity (especially regarding the Archbishops' opening discussion of Henry's surprising switch from wayward rebellion to pious devotion to duty upon the death of his father and his assumption of the throne, and equally in terms of the Archbishops' own conspiring reasons to convince Henry to invade France) is made up for in terms of a swift pacing that recognizes that the play really only gets going once Henry and his men reach the gates of Harfleur. Then, too, Roe takes the Chorus at her word when she says at the outset that the "wooden O" of a theatrical stage cannot do their story proper justice in truly representing the scale and scope of a story that moves between England and France, that features pitched battlefield scenes, and a cast of literally thousands of characters. Heeding the Chorus' advice for us in the audience to use our imaginations, Roe plays on the intimacy of Bard's Studio Stage, using simple design effects to turn the upstage entrance into the prow of a ship or the gates to Harfleur, and having her actors switch between their doubled roles as soldiers of France and soldiers of England by making some clever signals in costuming.

As the Chorus, Colleen Wheeler brings great stage presence and a suitable gravitas to the role, anchoring us in the story, if not exactly trying to colour our interpretation of that story, as in some revisionist productions. And here is where I would say my only real criticism of this staging comes in: this most political play is for all intents and purposes devoid of politics. Roe certainly does not shy away from showing us the brutality of war, and the scene where the Welsh Captain Fluellen (an excellent Andrew McNee) enters carrying the brutally murdered young Boy (a preternaturally poised Joseph Gustafson) is gut-wrenching. But at the same time there is little to no questioning of Henry's motives for going to war in the first place, nor of some of the decisions Henry makes in the name of war: the executions at Southampton of the traitorous Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge; the execution of Bardolph for his looting in France (an act that while interestingly performed on stage in this production had curiously little effect/affect on this viewer in terms of how we're meant to interpret the King's treatment of his former friends); and the order of the slaughter of the French prisoners, an order that's crucially given in Shakespeare's text before Henry knows of the French massacre of the young boys attending the English luggage).

Granted, I have not seen Bard's production of Falstaff, the reworked version of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 running in rep with Henry V, so I can't say exactly what continuities and/or changes in character we witness in Prince Hal/King Henry over the course of the two plays. And yet while I appreciated Juliani's naturalism in the title role, I didn't get much of a sense of him wrestling with his conscience regarding the justness of his war, nor in his arguments with Williams in 4.1--and in the soliloquy that follows--a sense of just what is at stake morally and ethically in his adherence (despite the sins of his father and grandfather and great-uncle) to kingly duty and ceremony. Whatever gender politics one might also discern in the final love scene between Henry and Katherine (a winning Amber Lewis) tend to be likewise obscured by the overt playing of this scene for comedy--which, in the expert hands of Juliani, did work, I have to say.

Where I think Roe takes the most risks in this production is in her approach to movement on stage. She correctly recognizes that this is a very physical play, and does not shy away from representing the labour of war. Which is where Rob's contributions come in, using a combination of dance choreography and martial arts moves to both abstract and literalize the kinesthetics of medieval battle, with its strange and heavy weaponry (swords and crossbows), its close proximity (ie, mostly hand-to-hand combat), and its interminability (pitched battles that go on for days). All of this is aptly signaled in the heaviness of the men's backwards and forwards steps, in the massings of bodies on stage, in the repeated and exchanged gestures that telegraph futility and exhaustion among the rank and file. Showcased on its own at select moments throughout the play, especially during the climactic Battle of Agincourt, Rob's choreography allows the audience a pause from the text, but by no means from the action represented in/by the text. Indeed, in daring to show us what the combat we hear about actually might look light, Roe and Kitsos also suggest that this battle isn't going to be won, as the Dauphin (an energetic Charlie Gallant) thinks, by superior steeds on the French side, nor even, as Henry thinks, by the hand of God guiding the English, but rather by which side has the most men left standing at the end of the day.

And therein lies the politics of this play: in its movement.