Andrew Snowdon

Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Ottawa–Toronto, one-way, non-refundable

In Ottawa on Thursday 17 March 2011 at 7:30

For her poets and writers are apt to be drawn thither, for the better companionship there and the higher rate of pay. —Rupert Brooke, Letters from America

Emma Godmere is leaving Ottawa, and I can’t say I blame her.

Anywhere two rivers meet, a city will be built. So it is that, at the junction of the Rideau and Ottawa rivers, we find the City of Ottawa, capital of Canada, and its conjoined twin Gatineau.

Ottawa became the capital of Canada simply because of its relatively remote location—not, as the tongue-in-cheek myth goes, because Queen Victoria, in one of her many efforts to amuse herself, closed her eyes and pinned the donkey’s tail here on the map. At the time a logging town, it was subsequently connected to the important military port of Kingston by a canal. Accessible, but safely out of the way.

The city is a lot smaller than municipal amalgamation makes it look on paper. It’s spread out, and without a reliable transit system to link its bedroom communities to its core, much less cohesive than the Katamari Toronto that threatens to absorb Hamilton (if it has not already done so). To make matters worse, Ottawa is barely habitable, or at least inhospitable, due to its wide range of temperature, and high-humidity valley microclimate.

Whenever I hear or read of someone comparing Ottawa to ten-times-bigger Toronto, as I bite my tongue, I recall Rupert Brooke’s Letters from America, written in 1913. Brooke, who died only two years later from an infected mosquito bite whilst serving in World War I, was an educated upper-class young man who took a trip through America—including New York, New England, and much of Canada—and wrote a series of letters detailing his observations to the Winchester Gazette in England. His travel diary thus published is of a style somewhere between a modern travel blog and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, if it were written by Oscar Wilde.

Letters from America is unlikely to find its way into schools, even Canadian ones, due to Brooke’s (appropriate for his time and social class) cheery, unabashed racism (including the chapter blithely titled “Some N—rs”). We are much the less for this, as he has set down the clearest cultural description of each of our major cities, among them Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Winnipeg.

Then, as now, “… there is an atmosphere of Civil Servants about Ottawa, an atmosphere of safeness and honour and massive buildings and well-shaded walks.”

Whereas, “Toronto, soul of Canada, is wealthy, busy, commercial, Scotch, absorbent of whisky; but she is duly aware of other things. She has a most modern and efficient interest in education; and here are gathered what faint, faint beginnings or premonitions of such things as Art Canada can boast (except the French-Canadians, who, it is complained, produce disproportionately much literature, and waste their time on their own unprofitable songs).”

Is there any wonder that Ottawa suffers so, culturally? It is like a little flower planted late in the season between two huge trees (Toronto and Montréal) whose vast canopy of leaves blocks the sunlight and whose thirsty, spreading roots draw all the water and nutrients from the soil.

If our creators are leaving for another city (I don’t count Nancy Kenny, who lives and works in a Littlest Hobo eigenstate between Toronto and Ottawa) with its established audiences, what about our Ottawa audiences? I don’t, by the way, think it’s fair to blame Ottawa audiences; we should be taking the non-audiences to task instead.

Here is the thing: Ottawa’s economy is composed (mostly) of government, universities, and a technology sector. Each of these attracts people (workers and students) from outside of the city. A significant portion of the middle-class population, therefore, has no particular roots in Ottawa.

This is not a question of immigration. Immigration, as in Toronto and Montréal, serves rather to catalyze cultural evolution. Ottawa’s nascent live spoken word community, for example, is at least 50% driven by first- or second-generation immigrants.

The Ottawa middle class is culpably resistant to the changes required to develop this city into a metropolis capable of sustaining a local culture. If we want to be urban, we must build buildings; we can’t chisel out Manotick-like villages in the middle of it all. The trade-off has always been, and should remain: if you want to live surrounded by limitless greenspace, commute from the country. The people that can afford and do appreciate cultural enrichment can also afford to travel to Toronto or Montréal to get it, and they are guaranteed an ample, competitive supply.

If any environment is culturally and economically inhospitable, the most promising twentysomething minds will leave it for one that is—thereby decreasing the rate at which local cultural offerings will be improved to the point that they impress people into becoming new audiences.

I’m not convinced, either, that the same folks who have been running the show for decades have earth-shattering “new ideas” that will coax the public from their suburban bunkers. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’ll keep my cow until I see the beanstalk.

Emma Godmere’s imminent departure (JUST when I was getting used to seeing her on stage) is good for her, but also a symptom of the underlying syndrome. We lose our best and brightest to our neighbours, whether due to talent, ambition, or a healthy synergy of both.

And who could blame them for leaving?

The quote preceding this post, by the way, refers to artists at the time leaving Toronto for the States. So there is hope that we can overcome our disadvantage of proximity in due time.


Quality versus Popularity

In art, Ottawa, theatre on Wednesday 9 March 2011 at 17:57

Thanks in part, I’m sure, to craptastic weather conditions in Ottawa over the weekend, a spirited discussion of the nature of theatre, audiences, marketing, and economics erupted on Twitter early Saturday morning and continued well into Sunday (when we finally decided on the #OThChat hashtag to dispense with the immense block of @s and keep things “organized”). I hope it continues to continue.

The discussion touched briefly upon a fact which, although it seems self-evident, frustrates the hell out of people who make a living (or aim to) out of creating art: quality and popularity are independent quantities. In other words, just because it’s “good” doesn’t mean it will sell.

Quality and popularity are independent quantities.

There is a fair amount of subjectivity involved in the assessment of quality, to start with. I’m of the opinion that aesthetic value, like any physical measurement or other perception, depends on the observer, that which is observed, and the act of observation. These things are variable. But there is such a thing as technique, and even if it cannot be objectively measured, some value can be established by consensus. We all agree, I hope, that an actor standing two feet to the left of his mark (and well out of his light) is bad quality—the craft is lacking.

Popularity, on the other hand, can be measured by attendance or box office revenue with a fair degree of accuracy. If a show sells out, it is popular; if there are blocks of empty seats, it is unpopular. It’s not that it rained or that there was no parking; unless you kept your show a secret, it’s unpopular, by definition. (Could it have been made popular? Very possibly. But that’s not what we’re talking about right now.)

Here’s where it falls apart: something can be very good, very well-done, yet be unpopular. This is less of a problem in the “durable” arts (the plastic arts, literature, recorded music—anything you can put in a box and save for later) than the performance arts, since tastes may change over the years and decades (unfortunately the creator often dies first).

If the critics are doing their job, the good stuff gets critical acclaim.

We have evolved critics ostensibly to determine what is good, and ideally they will laud high-quality theatre. When the public doesn’t know any better—and they can’t, really, in advance—they must turn to the critic for an opinion with which to compare their own. The critic walks a tightwire strung between public opinion and the accepted (in some cases centuries-old) wisdom as to what determines quality in a given art form. Criticism is, in one sense, the art of thinking about art, and the art of articulating that thought. The role of the critic is, ideally, to attempt to rotate the “popularity” axis counterclockwise so that it more closely approximates the “quality” axis.

Popular theatre is profitable theatre… one hopes.

Since popular means that people showed up and (presumably, or what are you doing?) paid, it follows that popular productions are financial successes (hopefully, they made a profit). The definition of a financial success is an accounting question rather than an economic one, and it’s muddled somewhat by the issue of grants. You can always, however, peek out from the wings and see how many seats are full. Popularity, all other things being equal, can depend upon such factors as appropriateness for season (try producing an intellectually-charged tragedy in the middle of winter) or local relevance. It is rarely influenced by the rain.

Now here’s the diagram that’s going to piss everyone off (with any luck). These are the regions of the graph we might expect professional and community theatre to occupy.

Professional vs. Community Theatre: what we might expect

Let me start by saying that I love community theatre. For one thing, it’s pretty much the only way, in a market like ours here in Ottawa, that we will see plays with a cast of more than four characters on stage. Also, perhaps also because of the state of the market, some of our community theatre is pretty good quality.

On the other hand, I also think that the people who produce/create a product should, if they so desire, be paid in accordance with the perceived exchange value (with society) of their contribution to the product. That means, if you consider that theatre has value (and why are you reading this if you don’t?), then actors (and crew, and everyone else involved with a production) deserve to be paid. Unless, of their own free will, they waive that pay.

Can community and professional theatre co-exist? Certainly. But there are certain conditions that must be met for that to happen.

My Inaccurate Rideau Awards Predictions

In theatre on Tuesday 1 March 2011 at 7:45

Last night at the Atomic Rooster on Bank Street, the nominations for this year’s Rideau Awards were announced to a room packed to the gills with, well, most of the Ottawa and Gatineau theatre community. I kind of feel sorry for the regular patrons who may not have had any idea what was going on. But then, who’s at the Atomic Rooster at 5pm on a Monday?

The Rideau Awards Gala is just over a month away, so it’s probably not too early to speculate as to the winners. The trouble is, I somehow failed to see everything that was nominated for last year. Despite promising myself after last year’s Rideau Awards to see more French theatre, I managed to miss every single one of the nominated French productions. Je débordes de chagrin honteux. Of the English productions, I did not see: Swimming in the Shallows, Heroes, Twelfth Night, They All Do It, Macbeth, Trouble on Dibble Street, Facts, The Danish Play, The Radio Show: It’s A Wonderful Life, or It’s Just a Stage (for which I apologize to Ken Godmere each time I see him in person, which is not nearly as often as I’d like). These glaring omissions will not, however, stop me from making some violent stabs in the dark; at least for the English-language awards.

Here, then, are my predictions for this year’s Rideau Award winners for English-language productions (please visit the Rideau Awards site for the full list of nominations; I didn’t feel like copying it out in full):

Outstanding Production
Wow, I missed over half of these. Shame on me. I’m personally leaning toward Turn of the Screw, but I heard so many good things about Heroes that it may just get it. I’m awfully glad Blackbird was nominated in this category; I was afraid it would be overlooked. Now I don’t feel so bad bringing it up as an example so often.

Outstanding Direction
Did I only see two out of five of these, too? Oh, wait, that’s because it’s basically the same list; just swap out Facts for Twelfth Night. This is a bit tougher. Okay, how about Patrick Gauthier for a brilliant site-specific staging of Turn of the Screw, and Heroes can have Outstanding Production? Does that work? I think it works.

Outstanding Performance, Female
Oh, I am torn. The only one of these I didn’t see was They All Do It. Now, if we were talking about Sarah Finn‘s latest go at Shadows during the undercurrents festival, that would be my pick. But we’re not; we’re talking about the original run at the 2010 Fringe—still a stellar performance, mind you. Sarah McVie‘s Rita was great, but I don’t think it was great enough to take this category (we’ll have to wait and see if her adorable Sophie from Strawberries in January makes next year’s list). Kristina Watt exceeded expectations (and shut a few people up) in Blackbird, but then Catriona Leger crafted a set of characters in Someone For Everyone that basically made that show (I think I called it The Catriona Leger Vehicle at one point, in private). Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t see They All Do It, or I’d be split five ways. Watt or Leger will likely take it, and I’ll put my money on Leger, ever-so-glad that no actual money is involved.

Outstanding Performance, Male
This is interesting. If I recall correctly, the Capital Critics Circle had such a hard time deciding who merited their version of this award that they jointly awarded it to Paul Rainville, Peter Froehlich, and John Koensgen, for their performances in Heroes. Sly move, and probably well-deserved. The Rideau Awards Committee doesn’t allow itself such deus ex machina, however. To complicate matters, Koensgen is nominated rather for his performance in Third Wall’s Blackbird. Oh, and then we throw Kris Joseph into the mix for good measure. DON’T MAKE THIS EASY OR ANYTHING. I would take a gamble and say that rather than choose Rainville over Froehlich (or rob Peter to pay Paul; either way), it’s going to be a battle between Koensgen and Joseph (for Screw), and Kris Joseph‘s going to take it, if only because he played 697 characters to Kate Smith‘s one and did sound effects.

Outstanding Lighting Design
Guillaume Houët is bound to win something. He’s up against Jock Munro in the English nominations, so he may not sweep lighting entirely, but if he doesn’t win in English, he’ll win in French. I unfortunately didn’t see what Lynn Cox did with Swimming in the Shallows, but if it was as good as what she did technically with Shadows, she’s a viable contender too. Every single one of the shows I did see had remarkable lighting. This is a tough call. Despite the fact that lighting made The List, and was integral to the characteristic feel of Vimy, and Houët’s masterful crafting of darkness itself in Blackbird was breathtaking, Turn of the Screw was probably the most difficult and unusual lighting challenge of them all, and depended on crackerjack lighting direction so thoroughly that it was virtually a third actor. So I’m picking Screw.

Outstanding Set Design
I only saw Vimy? What was I doing? And why isn’t The List on here? Maybe I’m the only one, but I really liked the set of The List. I am hideously unqualified to even guess, so I’m crossing my fingers and saying Vimy. I hope I’m right, or I missed a set that was better.

Outstanding Costume Design
Shadows. Vimy was accurate (although I’m still not sure about nurses wearing boots, but the research I did suggests that they were issued boots) but there’s not much room to get creative with a well-defined military setting: you either do it right (which they did), or not at all. Turn of the Screw was simple, and if I recall correctly (from hearsay), Macbeth was minimalist costume as well—both of which are eminently suitable costuming choices… but not award-winning. Judith DeBoer created a whole wardrobe for two characters centred on one colour scheme, with costume changes an integral part of the action and essential to straightening out the timeline. Add to that the plays within the play, and she should get this award. But that’s just my opinion.

Outstanding New Creation
I am most sad that I didn’t see Airport Security (although I did read every one of Kris Joseph‘s tweets from the stage). However, I would kind of like Six: At Home to get this: for being innovative, creative, and “christening” the Laurier House space. If Shadows, for some reason, doesn’t win anything else, it will probably win this. And here I thought They All Do It was an adaptation of Cosi Fan Tutte, rather than a new creation. I guess I stand corrected.

Outstanding Adaptation
I bet Heroes will take this. It’d be nice if A Flea in Her Ear did, but I don’t think it’s likely.

Outstanding Fringe Production
The way I forgive myself for not having seen It’s Just a Stage is by remembering my Fringe mantra: You can only see 53 out of the 60 shows, so see stuff from out of town first. It’s kind of a cumbersome mantra, but it works. I am so overjoyed that multinational gRape corporations got nominated. I can feel the toilet-paper bouquet as clearly as the day I caught it; I kid you not, I dreamt of it the other night. The Last Goddamned Performance Piece was good, although I would have liked to see the Nancy Kenny night for comparison’s sake. Probably Shadows will take this category, but it would be really cool if Six: At Home did.

Emerging Artist Award
I’ve got an idea! Instead of having an award, why don’t we have Anna Chambers and Hilary Nichol co-stage-manage a production starring Nathan Ings, Cari Leslie, and Guy Marsan? I would totally pay good money to see that. Those poor judges have to choose one? I do not envy them their task*. Well… Anna’s done pretty damn well this year, even if you don’t count her being Natalie Joy Quesnel‘s eyes, ears, and right arm for the Fringe Festival. I can’t go to anything—media call, opening night, random theatre party—without Ms. Chambers popping out from behind something. That’s what emerging means, right?

Technical / Stage Management Award
Oh, look! I is nominated for something. Why is it only one thing? Never mind: I pick it. That was a technically difficult show and set, with lots of props and pretty near 40 people moving around. But mostly because I should win the one thing for which it was nominated.

So, on April 10th, we’ll find out just how wrong my “predictions” are. In the meanwhile, I have to find a date… and some wings.

* I actually do envy the judges their task. And hard.