Wednesday, June 29, 2011

SummerWorks and the Ongoing Conservative Cultural Chill

Anyone who doubted that a Conservative majority under Stephen Harper would be anything other than benign business as usual--particularly where arts and culture are concerned--should take careful stock of the recent announcement that Canadian Heritage has, after five years of providing federal funding for the SummerWorks Festival in Toronto, rejected the Festival's most recent grant request of $47,000, representing a 20% shortfall in the organization's budget just weeks before the 2011 Festival is to open on August 5th.

Folks may recall that SummerWorks was rebuked last year by Herr Harper himself for staging Homegrown, a play that dealt--a little too sympathetically in the eyes of the Prime Minister's Office--with the friendship between playwright Catherine Frid and a member of the Toronto 18. That this year's withdrawal of funding is tied to last year's programming is abundantly clear, and such blatant ideological intervention into cultural content on the part of the government should cause all in this country significant alarm.

As Guy Dixon notes in today's Globe and Mail, the decision also has consequences beyond the chill it sends to other arts and cultural organizations dependent on federal funding. SummerWorks is an important testing ground for new theatrical work in this country, as well as a venue visited by ADs, curators, and cultural programmers at other festivals across the country looking to partner on daring and provocative productions. This could have consequences not just for what audiences get to see in Toronto, but what the rest of us don't get to see.

Then, too, we should listen carefully to what's being telegraphed by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who is quoted at the end of Dixon's piece as stating that ALL cultural groups should be on notice that they cannot necessarily depend on continued public funding from the federal government, no matter their track records in the past. Because, of course, those of us who appreciate and support arts and culture in our society are just a bunch of snobbish elites who don't vote the right way.

Prove Flaherty and the Conservatives wrong, Canada, by writing to the Prime Minister and Heritage Canada protesting their funding decision regarding SummerWorks. And, as importantly, consider donating to the Festival to help them with this year's shortfall. You can do so here.


Monday, June 27, 2011


We've been talking a lot about the importance of incongruity as a structuring principle of comedy in one of my classes this summer. Here are a few of the political incongruities that gave me a chuckle this past weekend:

1. Just in time for the 42nd edition of New York City's Pride Parade yesterday (at which a chastened Tracy Morgan served as honorary marshall--kidding!), Governor Cuomo signed a bill on Friday making New York the sixth state in the US (plus the District of Columbia) legalizing same-sex marriage. As the lead article in Sunday's New York Times pointed out, "the biggest and most influential donors to the New York campaign were Republicans." But as the paper's former restaurant critic Frank Bruni put it elsewhere in a very personal (and movingly written) op-ed piece--with what I take to be only the slightest whiff of irony--perhaps the greater incongruity is that this is a victory that the LGBT community is celebrating in the first place: "Why such widespread backing, from such surprising quarters? One major reason is that the wish and push to be married cast gay men and lesbians in the most benign, conservative light imaginable, not as enemies of tradition but as aspirants to it. In the quest for integration and validation, saying “I do” to “I do” is much more effective — not to mention more reflective of the way most gay people live — than strutting in leather on a parade float. We’re not trying to undermine the institution of marriage, a task ably handled by the likes of Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards and too many other onetime role models to mention. We’re paying it an enormous compliment."

2. Meanwhile, here at home, after nearly a year investigating across party lines allegations of Canadian troops' complicity in detainee torture in Afghanistan, Stephen Harper's government has released thousands more pages of transcripts. Once again, most of the information on those pages is blacked out. Word is that some of it has to do with asbestos being used to build the prisons where the alleged torture took place.

3. In Saturday's Globe and Mail, Mayor Gregor Robertson admitted that he didn't know how many police were on the streets the night of the the Stanley Cup riots, and that Police Chief Jim Chu wouldn't tell him. Apparently last year's release of the same information was a "mistake" and that as Chair of the Police Board, the mayor has no input into operations, only for "police and budget." But wouldn't both of those things--personnel and money--fall into the category of operations in most organizations? At least Robertson agrees with Premier Clark that those responsible for the worst of the mayhem should be duly punished. As the above photo details, they are starting with bad spellers.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Fire and Ice

The above images confirm why I am not a hockey fan, and why I dreaded the outcome of Wednesday night's final game.

Lots of finger-pointing and hand-wringing about why this happened, who's to blame, and the black eye this is giving to the City's image little over a year after the general euphoria of the Olympics (those initial Black Block riots notwithstanding).

Given what happened in 1994, given the mob mentality stoked and abetted (including by the mayor, the premier, and even my university president) at every level leading up to this series and especially the do-or-die Game 7, and given that a major attraction of the sport is watching players beat the shit out of each other on the ice, why is anyone surprised?

The phrase "Go Canucks Go" has never been a benign and supportive cheer from my perspective; rather, I have always found it to be oppressive in its ubiquity, and tinged with menace.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Not Completely As I Would Have Liked It

There is much to admire in David Mackay's production of As You Like It at Bard on the Beach, which I caught in preview performance last night along with several members of my Women and Comedy class (we are discussing the play next week). Lois Anderson is a spirited, intensely physical, and very sexual Rosalind, and she is matched in comic timing, vivacity, and stage presence by Luisa Jojic as Celia. These two bosom buddies do not moon coquettishly over the de Boys brothers (Todd Thomson as Orlando and Sebastian Kroon as Oliver), but rather openly display their desire and revel in the frank ribaldry of Shakespeare's language. As such, we are given much lustier portraits of both women than we normally see in productions, their respective sexual ids having been unleashed by the wilds of Arden--a point reinforced especially by the staging of one of the songs requested by Jaques (John Murphy) of Duke Senior's men in Act IV as a fever dream of Celia's.

At the same time, I did chafe a little at what struck me as the resolutely heteronormative channeling of the women's open sexuality. After all, the play is pretty clear in suggesting that Celia and Rosalind, who share a bed in addition to an intensely symbiotic friendship, are same-sex cousins who kiss, and very likely a lot more else besides. When Rosalind falls for Orlando, Celia is openly jealous, and as critics like Julie Crawford have suggested, one way to interpret the speed with which Celia accedes to Oliver's marriage proposal so late in the play (and so soon after first laying eyes on him) is that she sees in a union with Orlando's newly reconciled brother a way to remain close to her own "most true" bosom buddy--Rosalind.

Of course, one of the delicious ironies of As You Like It is that the marital epithalamium is actually forestalled at the end of the play. To be sure, the god Hymen is magically conjured by Rosalind to unite each of the four couples (Rosalind and Orlando; Celia and Oliver; Touchstone and Audrey; Silvius and the truculent Phoebe), but the bonds are actually never pronounced and Duke Senior's concluding couplet announcing their imminence is followed by Rosalind's epilogue, which takes us out of the fictional temporality of traditional comic closure and into the subjunctive temporality of the play's real-world staging ("If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me..."). Spoken by a boy actor who has just finished playing a woman playing a boy playing a woman, both the potential cross-gender and same-sex pathways encapsulated by this phrase are made manifest not just in the radically unstable referent behind the first-person pronoun, but also in the equally ambiguous second person addressee, whose multiple and multi-directional identifications cannot be pinned down.

So what happens if you excise the epilogue altogether, as this Bard production does? For one thing, you necessarily make marriage the de facto end point, both structurally in terms of the play and ideologically in terms of normalizing the free play of gender identifications and sexual desires that up until that point had reigned in Arden. The homoerotic associations that resurface in Rosalind's epilogue, and that link it to her cross-dressing elsewhere in the play, are here jettisoned in favour of an explicit staging of the revelries only hinted at in Duke Senior's final lines.

As disturbing, to me, is the fact that removing the epilogue also imperils if not destroys altogether the complicity established between performers and audience, that we are not only in on the joke (of gender and sexuality, generally, but also of theatrical masquerade more specifically), but that we are enjoying the joke. In a production that has up until this point traded in broad winks at the audience, not least in Ryan Beil's delightful capering, ad libbing, and general breaking of the fourth wall as Touchstone, this seems a curious final choice. And falling back on an excuse of changing theatrical conventions--i.e., that to a contemporary audience a female actor speaking the epilogue as written just wouldn't make sense--betrays an equally grievous failure of imagination in presuming audience members' identifications with both the character of Rosalind and the actor playing her are singular and straightforward.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bee in a Bonnet

Last night I braved the hordes of depraved Canucks fans crowding around the open windows and patios of pubs broadcasting Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals to attend a benefit for Théâtre la Seizième at the Playhouse featuring The Daily Show's Samantha Bee. Turns out la Seizième's Artistic and Managing Director, Craig Holzschuh, went to school with Bee at the University of Ottawa, and was able to convince her to come to Vancouver to talk about her career as "the funniest Canadian woman on American television" in order to raise some funds for Vancouver's resident French-language theatre company. As I'm teaching a course right now on Women and Comedy (and helping to organize an affiliated scholarly workshop on the topic for the beginning of August), I thought it would be a good opportunity for some of my students and I to get a glimpse of the process behind Bee's particular brand of subversive humour.

I have actually only ever watched a few clips from The Daily Show, but I am familiar enough with Jon Stewart's fake news concept to know that its basic premise is divided between Stewart, as anchor, satirically parsing the main headlines of the day or interviewing invited guests, and field correspondents (of whom Bee is "the most senior" on the show) doing more in-depth reports on some of the everyday people behind or affected by various events Stewart and the show's producers deem worthy of comedic ribbing. Last night Bee set up two of her more memorable reports, one on the "gayification" of NASCAR, and the other on the 2008 Republican National Convention, in which, following the news of Bristol Palin's pregnancy, she tried to get various delegates to even utter the word "choice." I don't know which was funnier: the actual audio clips of the reports that aired on the show, or Bee giving us a blow-by-blow of how the reports were put together.

The evening was not structured as a stand-up routine (Bee is trained as an actor), but rather as a conversation between Bee and Holzschuh, with questions taken from the audience at various moments throughout. The format worked well, as Bee is a born comic storyteller, her anecdotes displaying just the right combination of pointed wit and digressive self-deprecation to keep the audience in stitches. And if, as Tina Fey has recently argued in Bossypants, the writer is always queen in comedy, then Bee wears the crown regally. For me, the absolutely funniest part of last night came when Bee read an hilarious excerpt from her book I Know I Am But What Are You?, in which she details how a crazy family vacation to the Maritimes that got tacked on to another couple's honeymoon led to her parents introducing the facts of life to her via an explanation of lesbian sex.

Although it doesn't do the full context of the story justice, here is a YouTube clip of a pregnant Bee reading from the relevant section of the book:

As good a rebuttal as any to the specious claim that women aren't funny.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Knockout Point

I have always been a huge fan of the particular brand of metatheatre developed by Daniel MacIvor at da da kamera, the company he founded in 1986 and ran with producing partner Sherrie Johnson (now resident curator at PuSh) until 2006--and out of which came several important collaborations with director Daniel Brooks. Never Swim Alone (1991) was one of MacIvor's first big successes, and last night I caught Hardline Productions' excellent staging of the play at their tiny studio space in Gastown.

In Never Swim Alone, two friends from childhood, Bill (Raes Calvert) and Frank (Sean Harris Oliver), work through their adult frustrations and anxieties (with work, with their marriages, with material success or the lack thereof) in a literal game of one-upmanship, each doing his best to humiliate the other and so score a point from the comely bathing suit-clad female Referee (Lisa Goebel) overseeing their competition. All of this is done in a largely presentational style, with the actors speaking directly to the audience, or in warring "duologues," verbal sparring that produces a fusillade of words we thrill to hearing even as we recognize its largely assaultive function.

In this respect, the fit between MacIvor and Hardline is a good one, as the company's mandate is to produce plays "that punch you in the face"--at least figuratively speaking. And in terms of linguistic knockouts, it is arguably with this play that MacIvor patented da da kamera's trademark theatrical patter: fast, furious, repetitive, with a logic that accrues as much through rhythm and sound as through content and sense, and where the beats come not between the words but within them. Never Swim Alone is a verbal fugue on speed, with the characters' overlapping and counterpointed voices adding rich resonance to the one refrain they actually speak in unison--"beat you to the point." In the language of the play, this refers both to a swimming race gone horribly wrong from the boys' past and the increasingly extreme physical stakes that will eventually come to hijack their verbal jousting in the present.

Needless to say, all of this requires virtuosic performers with amazing timing and great articulation. Hardline's cast did not disappoint, with narry a dropped line or missed cue, and with great presence and physicality to back up their delivery. As written, MacIvor's characters are more functional types than psychologically complex individuals, but it is a credit to the performers--and to director Genevieve Fleming--that Bill and Frank and the Referee do not remain mere ciphers, and that they convey a range of emotions throughout the tightly paced 50-minute show.

Calvert and Oliver, Hardline's Co-Artistic Directors, along with Fleming and Goebel and much of the crew, are products of Studio 58. Once again we have that venerable institution to thank for gifting to the city another amazing upstart local theatre company.