Andrew Snowdon

The Ottawa Stage Manager Battle

In Uncategorized on Tuesday 16 October 2012 at 12:32

Theatre is both collaborative and live, making it a unique medium.  While it’s true that a playwright, like a poet or novelist, may—though not often these days—craft a text in blissful isolation, by the time it reaches the stage that text has passed through many hands to bring it to life.  This is also the case in film and television, yet unlike these recorded media, there’s only one chance (per performance) for everyone to get everything right, and they all have to get it right at the same time.

This takes, as one might imagine, a great deal of co-ordination.

This daunting task—of making sure actors are where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be, that a light is on them (so that everyone can see that they are, indeed, where they are supposed to be), and that their entrance is accompanied by the appropriate swell of music and requisite burst of kerosene fog—is overseen by the shadowy figure known as the stage manager.

There aren’t that many stage managers to go around, compared to the other, more visible, theatre disciplines.  Anyone with a pen, paper, and sufficient self-confidence not to burn their first draft can claim to be a playwright.  Actors, too, are rarely in short supply; everyone who wants to be seen on stage is an actor until someone informs them otherwise, and even that doesn’t stop some people.  All a director really needs to do is communicate their vision, however nebulous it might be, to the cast, a set designer, lighting designer, sound designer, costume designer—and the stage manager will take care of the rest.

A stage manager needs to know a little of every job, and be a master of most of them.  It takes a particular personality (organized, calm, firm, agreeable) to be a stage manager.  You may never discover that you are not an actor, but you will find out in short order if you are not a stage manager.

The oft-invisible crew is the AV club of the theatre community, which means that nobody’s going to throw them a party unless they do it themselves.  Otherwise, who would even be able to organize it?

Thus, the Ottawa Stage Manager Battle, conceived and organized by (stage manager, naturally) Christine Hecker.  Three local theatre companies were each invited to create a short (twenty-minute) play with heavy technical requirements.  After a brief rehearsal period, they handed over their prompt book—the script marked up with all the technical cues for lighting and sound—prepared by their rehearsal stage manager (if indeed they had a rehearsal stage manager) to one of each of three competing stage managers (Anna Lindgren, Ashley Proulx, and Jessica Preece), an hour before the competition.  The shows were then staged one after the other, each with its appointed stage manager in the tech booth calling the shots.  Their performances were scrutinized by an intimidating panel of veteran theatre professionals—Natalie Joy Quesnel, Tania Levy, and Kevin Waghorn.

The three shows (Guard Duty by Glassiano Productions, Strips by Slattery Theatre, and Les Animaux by May Can Theatre) were obviously designed primarily to test the stage managers, with a borderline ridiculous number of technical cues.  They were entertaining for just this reason, and although Guard Duty won its share of laughs and Strips was pleasantly campy and visually interesting, only Les Animaux would be a complete, coherent play outside of the context of the event.  But that wasn’t the point.  These weren’t meant to be plays for a general audience (although with one or two modifications the Ottawa Stage Manager Battle could definitely be made to appeal to the public).  The point—with convoluted cues, hieroglyphic prompt books, and performer/creators liable to improvise liberally—was to give the stage managers a real challenge.

The trouble is, almost anyone can spt a typo, but it’s much harder to pick up on a missed cue.  Although it was quite obvious when certain cues were missed, even seasoned theatre professionals in the audience had a hard time catching all of them.  The judges were in a better position to, well, judge: Kevin Waghorn got to sit in the booth (arguably the best seat in the house) throughout the competition, and the entire panel was provided with the prompt books—freshly decorated with highlighter and Post-It notes—for their deliberations.

How serious was this competition?  Each of the plays presented significant challenges, but the specific challenges were so different that I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to compare one to the other.  In any case it was fun, and put the contestants through their paces.

There are, again, not that many stage managers to go around.  It may not, then, come as a surprise that the trophy—a hand grasping an assortment of writing utensils rising out of a base of rolls of tape—Jess Preece took home was one she had crafted herself.

Clearing the Backlog

In theatre on Wednesday 22 August 2012 at 16:52

I seem to have accumulated quite the backlog of things I really should be talking about.*  Let’s see how much I can cover at once:

  • I’m not the biggest fan of outdoor theatre, mainly because my lumbar region likes a seat with a back, and I’m not fond of bees, wasps, or falling leaves that might be bees or wasps.  However, in Ottawa we’re blessed with two theatre companies that produce such perennially good work that it’s worth a bit of private discomfort to always catch their productions.  A Company of Fools toured their production of Shakespeare’s Henry V through parks in the region this summer, complete with tennis balls and a fabulous cast (including, but certainly not limited to, Margo MacDonald in the title role).  I was impressed with their ability to make a historical play—it may contain one of Shakespeare’s most moving speeches, but it’s a historical play—engaging not only for the regular theatregoer but for everyone, and especially for children.  I caught the production one of the evenings it was in Hintonburg Park, the former monastery site behind the exquisite St. Françoise D’Assise church, which was an excellent setting.  Speaking of excellent settings, Odyssey Theatre‘s permanent location on the banks of the Rideau River in Stratchona Park is one of the most breathtaking spots in Ottawa, especially at night.  I quite enjoyed this year’s production, A Game of Love and Chance; there are still a few opportunities to take it in (until the 26th) and if you are in the mood for some light entertainment I highly recommend it.  Masque is very liberating; even those performers whose styles I’m not familiar with seemed particularly uninhibited.  The performances dwarf the text, but who wants a heavy, ponderous, complicated story in the middle of the summer?
  • Nancy Kenny wrote and performed a great (Prix Rideau Award–winning) one-person show called Roller Derby Saved My Soul a couple of years ago, under the direction of Tania Levy.  If you’ve seen the show, or if you’d like to see the show, Ms. Kenny has an Indiegogo campaign to finance a 2013 cross-country tour of the show that is in its final week.  I consider both Nancy and Tania my friends (I hope it’s mutual!), but I wouldn’t be letting you know you could bankroll their project unless I thought it had artistic and entertainment merit, which this does.
  • Speaking of Tania Levy, I hear the latest Fringe show she directed, Vernus Says SURPRISE! (written and performed by Ken Godmere) is doing quite well out west.  I’m not, er, surprised.  It’s a simple yet intricate piece of mime—although it’s”just” Ken on stage, there are about two dozen Ottawa voice actors credited in the program—that’s heartwarming and family-appropriate.
  • Each year for the past couple of years, thanks to the Ottawa Arts Court Foundation and the Downtown Rideau Business Improvement Area, we’ve been treated to remounts of local Fringe favourites as part of the Summer Fling festival.  I had a feeling (and I’m sure I said or tweeted it somewhere) that one of these two shows would be it this year: Alien Predator: The Musical or Space Mystery… From Outer Space!  I was wrong.  Instead, it’s both.  It is an honest-to-goodness science fiction double feature: a zany musical take-off on 80s science-fiction action thrillers, and an equally (yet differently) zany take-off on 50s science-fiction with a film-noir flavour.  Is it “high art”?  Hell, no.  But it’s entertaining, and you get to see both shows for only $12, which is more than worth it.  This will be a short run, from August 30th to September 2nd, at Arts Court; shows start at 8:00 and run for 60 minutes each with a half-hour intermission between them (not indicated on the press release, but I asked).
  • September 2nd is, coincidentally, the day the Ottawa Arts Court Foundation’s operation of the performance spaces in Arts Court ends.  What happens next?  Apartment 613 will be covering the latest developments in that story over the next couple of weeks.
  • The Gladstone Theatre just officially launched its 2012–13 season (although the lineup’s been public for some time now).  I’ll tackle the launch and the season itself in greater detail elsewhere (i.e. Apartment 613) but I want to let you know about a party.  John P. Kelly, the Artistic Director of SevenThirty Productions, is best-known in Ottawa as a director who specializes in Irish theatre (although that’s not all he does; I’m especially looking forward to seeing how he tackles Mamet this year).  This season he’s directing Stones in His Pockets at the Gladstone, which will feature Richard Gélinas and Zach Counsil (who were a dream duo in The 39 Steps last season).  He’s also directing Fly Me To The Moon later this autumn at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, which will feature Margo MacDonald and Mary Ellis (that’s a pair that promises to be at least as entertaining).  Both of these plays were written by Irish playwright Marie Jones.  Not only, therefore, are the GCTC and Gladstone/SevenThirty offering a special price for a package to both shows, but there will be a party at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre (at Wellington and Holland in historic Hintonburg) on Tuesday, August 28th from 5 to 7pm (5-à-7s are the most wonderful kind of party) featuring a “script-off” between the members of both casts.  There will, of course, be Irish beer, food, and music to go with the Irish theatre.

That about brings me up to date.  If you think I’ve missed something, feel free to leave a comment.

*This is partly due to my having been finishing up the contract I’ve been working on for the past year.  If you’re interested in education and literacy, especially as a parent or an educator, have a look at Wordly Wise 3000, the product I was working on, and the other excellent educational software put out by School Specialty.  No, I’m not being paid to say that; I just really liked the software (and there’s plenty of evidence that it’s effective).

On Grisly Humour

In crime, humour, Ottawa on Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 8:55

So somebody sent a human foot through the mail to the Conservative Party of Canada’s headquarters on Albert Street in Ottawa, and police later found a human hand still in transit in the postal system.  Montréal police found a torso.

While investigators gear up to play a grisly game of Sesame Street Mix and Match, Twitter and certain sectors of the print media have taken to rather macabre humour.  Most of it consists of puns, and I wish someone had taken the trouble to Storify it (or hope that someone has?).  Because it’s fascinating.

But is it funny?  There’s a foot and a hand and they came from someone.  They didn’t grow in a vat.  Someone is likely (at this writing) dead, or at least maimed, and that can’t possibly be funny, can it?

Well, it certainly seems to be, to some people.  Or at least it’s fuel for comedy.  But for how long?  How far is too far?*  Leaving aside the hocus-pocus of “coping mechanisms” and such efforts to analyze, and thereby desiccate, human glee and mirth, when does the ha-ha run out?

I found this gem excerpted from J. Berg Esenwein’s Writing for the Magazines, in Writing for the Photoplay, which he co-wrote with Arthur Leeds.  I think it is germane to the discussion:

“Good sense is at once the basis of and the limit to all humor. He who lacks a fine perception of ‘the difference between what things are and what they ought to be,’ as the always-to-be-quoted Hazlitt expressed it, can never write humor. All the way through we shall find that mirth is a matter of relationships, of shift, of rigidity trying to be flexible, of something shocked into something else.

“Let us think of a circle on which four points have been marked:

circle diagram

“Beginning with a serious idea, we may swiftly step from point to point until we return to the serious, with only slight variations from the original conception. Take the perennial comedy-theme of the impish collar, and visualize the scenes:

“1. A man starts to button his collar. Nothing is less comical, as long as the operation proceeds normally.

“2. But the button is too large and his efforts begin to exasperate him, with the result that his expression and movements become incongruous. We see, and laugh—though he does not.

“3. He begins to hop around in a mad attempt to button the unbuttonable, and soon rips off the collar, addressing it in unparliamentary language. He is ludicrous, ridiculous, absurd.

“4. In his rage he violently kicks a pet dog that comes wagging up to him. Our laughter subsides, for the fellow is more contemptible than amusing—a deeper feeling has been born in us.

“5. The little dog limps off with a broken leg—we are no longer amused, we are indignant. What is more, not only have we gotten back to the serious, but there is no amusement left in any of the previous scenes.

“Still applying the test of the extent of the variation from the normal as shown in the effects, we conclude that serious consequences kill humor. The mere idea of such consequences, when we know that in the circumstances they are really impossible, may convulse us with merriment, as when we see a comedian jab a long finger into the mouth of his teammate and the latter chews it savagely. In real life this might sicken us with disgust—I say ‘might,’ because we can easily conceive of such a situation’s exciting laughter if the victim were well deserving of the punishment. It is human for us to laugh when the biter is bit; indeed, variations on this theme are endless in humorous writing.

Sympathy also kills humor. The moment we begin to pity the victim of a joke—for humor has much to do with victims—our laughter dies away. Therefore the subject of the joke must not be one for whose distress we feel strong sympathy. The thing that happens to a fop is quite different in effect from that which affects a sweet old lady. True, we often laugh at those—or at those ideas—with whom or with which we are in sympathy, but in such an instance the ludicrous for the moment overwhelms our sympathy—and sometimes even destroys it.”

(Ha ha, those poor fops.  They certainly got the short end of the stick at the beginning of the twentieth century.)

Given the dual tests of “serious consequences” and “sympathy,” I would advance that no capacity for humour remains once we know whose parts they are.

Or was it never funny in the first place because the parts had always belonged to someone?

What do you think?

* Measured in feet, of course. And this is a footnote.


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