Andrew Snowdon

Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Year of Magical Blogging

In Uncategorized on Friday 14 January 2011 at 12:00

So, I thought I’d get back into this personal blogging thing this year. Not as a New Year’s resolution, but just as… this is the time that I decided to do that.

Of course, it’s probably mostly going to be about theatre, from an artistic and business perspective, because that’s what I’m interested in these days. I don’t promise that I won’t go on an occasional rant about language, censorship, politics, urban planning, or whatever winds my mainspring on a given day.

Actually, I don’t promise anything at all. You get what you pay for.

Last weekend I took in a couple of events that I’d like to share with you. I’m sorry I didn’t get to them sooner, but I had a slew of amazing lunch dates and the like. Plus, there was that whole Boobs And Pie madness that needed stoking.

First, last Saturday evening I went out to Ottawa’s fabled Raw Sugar Café for the launch of a local anthology called these are not movies. I found out about it through the posters up around town (cleverly titled this is a book launch), and was reminded by the Apartment 613 article, and a CBC radio spot early in the morning.

This anthology is precisely what it claims to be: nine very different stories, all written and formatted as screenplays (that is to say, in 12-point Courier with the traditional screenplay indentation; the book itself is about four by five inches so it does look vastly different from a letter-size script). I haven’t made my way through them all yet, but at the book launch we were treated to readings by some of the authors (including editor Adam Thomlinson, Colin White, Jennifer Whiteford, Michael Reid, and Sean Zio; the other contributing authors were J.B. Staniforth, Raouf Lefy, and Megan Butcher). That’s not too different an experience from your average theatrical staged reading, but as these are not actors, but writers, and these are screenplays, but not intended to be produced, it has a more relaxed quality somewhere between a staged reading and a poetry reading. I say “not intended to be produced”, but it is nearly impossible not to get an image of how they would be produced as you read them, or as they are read. Secretly, I’d like to see Jennifer Whiteford’s All the Single Dragon Slayers done exactly as it’s written; that would probably be easy to pull off. You can pick up these are not movies at Collected Works, Promise Books, probably a few other places I don’t remember. Check out the 40 Watt Spotlight website. I have my copy, and I don’t regret the ten dollars spent. You can spare ten dollars, right?

On Sunday, Wayne Current and I took in Fairy-Tales by the Fire, put on by Once Upon a Kingdom Theatre. This was a bit of a departure for us; not only was it specifically children’s theatre but the dialogue was entirely in Russian. I know about ten words of Russian—they used all of them, and a whole lot more besides. Yet, between the brief synopsis and the clear staging and acting (with strong use of live music and movement), the stories were delightfully clear. These folks will be putting on an English production of The Little Prince in June. If they bring to it the same sheer energy and stagecraft, it will be unmissable.

I’m excited to be seeing The Year of Magical Thinking at the National Arts Centre this evening. What a happy name for a play! I gather, however, that as it’s “a meditation on grief”, it’s not going to be all sunshine and double rainbows. Preliminary reports (that I’ve been unable to avoid) suggest it’s excellently done.

I fully intend to get out to see Trying at the Ottawa Little Theatre this coming week, while I still can.

The undercurrents Festival and Strawberries in January will have me basically camping out at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre for the last week of the month. I am content with that.

February isn’t even on the horizon, and I already know I’m going to see The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gladstone, and Little Martyrs at Arts Court.

So where am I going to find all this blogging time?


How to Act in the Audience

In Uncategorized on Wednesday 5 January 2011 at 7:55

. . .The audience was generally relaxed and in a gay mood; people smoked, ate oranges, and nuts during the performance. They cracked the nuts between their teeth and sometimes annoyed the actors and other members of the audience with the sound.

Although the enemies of the theater claimed that audiences were unruly and given to fighting and rioting, unbiased observers of the time speak only of the excellent behavior and rapt attention of the spectators, who laughed, applauded, and wept when their emotions were stirred, hissed or booed when they were displeased, but most of the time listened in interested silence.

—Randolph Goodman, Drama on Stage, 1961 (of the Elizabethan-era audience)

As the theatre season is getting back into full swing, I am reminded of a promise I have so far failed to keep. During nearly every intermission of any performance I’ve attended over the past year, I have vowed on Twitter to write a post on theatre etiquette. The reason, unfortunately, is that it seems to be so neglected.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh, and it’s one or two (or five) miscreants that are ruining it for the rest of us. However, I have noticed even people who really ought to know better doing things—small things, but disruptive things—that Ought Not To Be Done.

How to behave in the theatre is basic. We are decades past the days when wraps, opera glasses, and appropriate tips for the ushers were part of the equation.

Do not make noise. If you tend to fidget, fidget before the performance and get a handle on what’s going to make the seat make noise—so that you don’t. Avoid coughing and sneezing (and cover your face as much as possible if you must—a pillow that fits over your face but does not block the row behind would be ideal). Please do not pass gas, even if you think you can do so quietly. Do not unwrap candies during the performance. Do not chew gum. Do not chew anything. Do not touch the water bottle (that you shouldn’t have with you anyway); it crinkles. Do not play with the program, rolling, unrolling, and riffling it. If you are a reviewer or a student and must have a notebook out, write silently, don’t turn pages, and don’t draw attention to the fact. Do not talk.

The same structural principles that permit every person in the audience to hear the actors on the stage mean that every noise in the audience can be heard on the stage as well.

NAC English Theatre Artistic Director Peter Hinton says it so nicely, but I cannot bring myself to: Turn off your cellphone, pager, or anything else that goes beep or lights up. Off. All the way off. If it rings audibly, everyone will hate you (if you fail to turn it off during the intermission and it rings again during the second act—this actually happened—you are marked for life*). If it is on vibrate, it is still audible (quite audible if it’s in your purse on the floor, as a matter of fact). If it is on “silent”, even then, the signal of an incoming call, text message, or notification can in some cases induce a signal in the sound system which everyone will hear. Besides this, for some models of BlackBerry the scrolling and typing noises are very distracting. And the iPhone is practically a flashlight. The only way to be sure is to turn your phone or other device completely off. If you are someone who may need to be reached at a moment’s notice (expectant father, specialized surgeon, angel, &c.), you may be able to leave your device with the house and they will send an usher for you if the sky falls. Inquire. For the rest of us, if I can turn my phone completely off for the duration of a performance, so can you.

If your ticket was free or discounted (either because you bought it at the last minute, or have a subscription), remember that at least some of the audience paid full price. In fact, assume that everyone else paid full price. Pretend that you paid full price.

Dressing up for the theatre is recommended, within your means. Wash. Do not wear scents. Odours permeate a theatre and distract from the performance. Again, do not pass gas.

Treat the theatre, the actors, and the audience with the respect they deserve.

* If you actually answer it, you should just burst into flames. That ought to be a law of physics.

I’ll Have the Calamari

In Uncategorized on Tuesday 4 January 2011 at 7:55

Back when I used to eat meat*, I had a very simple way of judging the quality of restaurants: order the calamari.

Many to most restaurants offer calamari as an appetizer option. It’s rings of squid, breaded and deep-fried. And it immediately tells me a lot of things about the restaurant; how good the fry cook is, if he’s paying attention or not, how busy the kitchen is, how the chef balances creativity with the expectations of a diner, whether you get seafood sauce from a jar or a delicate house Marinara… even how fresh the lemons are. Calamari is surprisingly easy to screw up; the more you cook it, the tougher it gets. If it’s undercooked, it’s squishy and translucent (and you should call the Health Department). If it’s overcooked, it’s a rubbery exercise for the jaw. If it’s perfectly al dente, you have a tasty appetizer that speaks volumes about the quality of the kitchen and the food that will be coming out of it.

All for under $10.

Theatre season programming being not entirely unlike menu planning**, there ought to be an analogue for calamari; something that would tell you a lot about a theatre company, and permit you, more importantly, to compare it to other theatre companies. And there is (well, somewhat).

Now, I ruffled a feather or two a few posts ago by saying Yet Another Romeo and Juliet. I did not say it lightly; neither did I mean to cast aspersions on the play itself.

Last year, the NAC did Romeo and Juliet. So did Salamander—twice, if not three times. I think someone else did it too, but I can’t quite recall who. That’s just in Ottawa.

As a matter of fact, this March we’ll be treated to Sock ‘n’ Buskin‘s production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Dave Dawson. I was reminded of this (I’d forgot that I’d read about it in the Six Characters in Search of an Author program) when I went to coffee with a friend who mentioned that she had auditioned for it***. She also reminded me of the importance of Romeo and Juliet, and inspired me to design a t-shirt, suitable for wearing to auditions.

To start with, I love Shakespeare more than I let on. I particularly love Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and The Merchant of Venice. I love the texts, I love the characters. I love Shakespeare’s writing; his facility and inventiveness with the language****. I love these plays before they even leave the page and become theatre.

These plays are practically perfect, in the sense that, for example, you could stage Hamlet on a bare stage with no properties or set—even with only one actor, as Raoul Bhaneja has done. And everybody knows if you’ve done it right, because they are familiar, to some degree, with the plays (or at least they may become so rather easily).

For this reason, Shakespeare is very easy to ruin. Cut a speech, flub a line, misunderstand a word, and someone in the audience is going to notice.

Then there’s that awful practice (I am solidly with David Mamet and the gentleman who wrote to J. Kelly Nestruck in this opinion) of adapting Shakespeare. Does Romeo and Juliet really need to be set in space, or in Baghdad? What if the characters were both male, or both female? Well, what if? If it wouldn’t change anything then why do it? And if it would, then it’s not Romeo and Juliet anymore, and if you think you are possessed of sufficient genius to tamper with it, you should do what Shakespeare did; take the old story and rewrite it in your new setting and circumstances*****. But for God’s sake don’t put Macbeth on the Moon, or make Othello an android. These plays are good enough to stand on their own merits. You can play them in street clothing. Seriously.

When done skilfully, these are the core of the best plays in the English language. They have strong characters and compelling plots; even if you know the plot beat by beat, it is still easy (depending on the production) to suspend disbelief enough to be carried along with it—and something that holds your attention even though you know how it will end is the ultimate test of a good plot.

But Romeo and Juliet stands out. Why? There are many reasons why it’s good: it is a love story; it has action; it is quite easy for the audience to identify with Romeo, Juliet, or Romeo and Juliet as a single entity; there is a whole quiver of strong male roles for actors to experiment with, and who doesn’t want to play Juliet at least once? It has a particular historical context, but that’s not as important as its social context. Let’s not even discuss what it says about teen suicide.

In any case, it is so well-known, and so universal, that it can serve almost as a yardstick to judge directors, casts, crew, whole theatre companies by.

Thus, since Romeo and Juliet is the calamari by which you shall be judged, do it right. The best (probably the only) way to do that is to love it, to understand every word of it, and to be true to it.

* For digestive and economic reasons, although it’s nice to know that my meals are decapitation-free.

** I will develop that subject in full in the coming weeks.

*** And, since callbacks aren’t over and done with yet, I shan’t mention who that was.

**** I refuse to believe that Shakespeare was a cabal of writers simply because the average person of his time would not have had the vocabulary, the time, the resources, the specific education… there is such a thing as a genius. It’s not a popular concept anymore—certainly not in academia where people are paying to be certified as educated—we may be born equal in rights but some of us evidently come out of the womb with a shining talent. Shakespeare was such a one.

***** It’s called West Side Story, and I love it to pieces.