Andrew Snowdon

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.


I Don’t Get How They Call It The Blues

In Uncategorized on Wednesday 25 April 2012 at 12:55

(sung to the tune of I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues by Elton John)

It came out last night
The Ottawa Bluesfest band roster
Between you and me something just isn’t right
The lineup could be so much hotter

Go get us some beers
Hope no-one’s stolen your bike
And it won’t be long before you and me run
Back and forth between bands that we like

But I don’t get how they call it the blues
Just random bands, and a blues act or two
Really, now: Metric, L-M-F-A-O
Then Iron Maiden, and Blue Ro-dé-o?
I just don’t get how they call it the blues

Just stare at the stage
Squint through the rain at the band
Think of the money they’re making off boomers
And you, who’s not really a fan

Wait on me girl
I need to go to the loo (the portaloo)
It’s such a shame we paid so much money
The good bands play at the same time

So do you get how they call it the blues
Like Just for Laughs, what does that have to do
With freaking music?  Did I say Metric?
Not even trying; this is pathetic
And I don’t get how they call it the blues

Wait on me girl
I need to go to the loo (round number two)
I’m so ashamed we paid so much money
For bands that are so far away

But I can’t get how they call it the blues
Where are the bands with a guitar or two
Who play the real blues, live out of their trunk
Oh well, I guess there’s always MonkeyJunk
I still don’t get how they call it the blues

I Mother Earth and Our Lady Peace too
And I don’t get how they call it the blues
Love Alice Cooper, but who are you kidding
I can’t fathom how they call it the blues

(with apologies to Elton John, Bernie Taupin, several perfectly good bands, and the good folks who do all the hard work for Bluesfest)

2011 Prix Rideau Awards, My Irresponsible Speculations on

In Uncategorized on Sunday 4 March 2012 at 15:17

Is there any pleasure in life to approach that of speculating about entertainment industry awards?

I sure hope so.  But it is a unique pleasure; at least half of the fun of these things is agreeing or disagreeing with nominations, the rationale of the categories, and guessing who’s going to win for what—and for what reason.

Although I didn’t get to attend this year’s Prix Rideau Awards nomination announcements—not because they were in Gatineau, but because I was working a little too late to have any hope of getting there on time—I did follow along on Twitter.

(Okay, I took a nap on the bus and then caught up with the feed afterwards.  Close enough.)

A quick look over the nominations confirms three things: everyone and everything that was nominated deserved to be, I still don’t see enough French theatre (remarkably, I did see Retour à Pripyat at the 2011 Ottawa Fringe Festival, and I’m glad it got a nod) so I can’t comment intelligently on the French categories, and I really should have seen Under Milk Wood.

I’m not entirely sure what will win, although I have my ideas as to what I’d like to see win (which I will keep mostly to myself, as I intend to continue to be welcome at parties).  I’m glad to see Roller Derby Saved My Soul nominated in several categories; I had a few glimpses into the creative process along the way so I know it was a difficult baby to birth.  I also know it was well worth it; even the most critical of critics approved and said glowing candid things.  Then there’s Sounds from the Turtle Shell, which I added to my (packed) Fringe schedule on the strong recommendation of Catriona Leger.  I don’t regret it.  Then there’s glitch… which I thoroughly enjoyed—maybe as much as I enjoyed Bifurcate Me.  I did miss the other two Fringe nominees, but it’s mathematically impossible to see everything and the beer tent is so convenient and social and tastes of apricot.  It’s good to see The Shadow Cutter get the recognition it deserves, too.  Andy Massingham has the lion’s share of the love this year; perhaps it’s partly due to his dancing at last year’s awards gala afterparty?  I kid.

Right away, I think the Design award is Ivo V. vs. Mr. Valentik (although I’m still listening to Fauré’s Requiem thanks to AL Connor’s intricate sound design for Little Martyrs).  Valentik’s set designs for Speed-the-Plow and A Midwinter’s Dream Tale were based on a similar stark white, exaggerated perspective aesthetic, but developed in two decidedly different ways.  I’m partial to the Speed-the-Plow set myself.
It’s a pleasant surprise to me to see Strawberries In January nominated for Outstanding Production.  Keen eyes will notice it’s not nominated under any other category; with four lovely, professional actors, a masterful translation that kept the francophone flavour intact, and a simple but effective approach to design and direction, no one element stands out.  And that’s as it should be in a winter romantic comedy.  Conversely, The Lavender Railroad, while nominated for Outstanding Direction, was not also nominated for Outstanding Production.  It was, however, nominated for Outstanding New Creation.  It’s bound to win something, but what?
As I hoped they would, both nominated productions Little Martyrs and Lavender Railroad have aged well in my memory.  This seems to be a characteristic of Evolution Theatre shows; whatever one’s immediate opinion of their productions (and I’m by no means suggesting it’s likely to be an unfavourable opinion), they seem to improve over time.  I think this is at least partly due to their strong visual aesthetic.  You remember the pictures.  I don’t quite know what this says about sense ratio, memory, and theatre, but if some postgraduate student would please apply themselves to researching the subject, or at least musing upon it, I would be immensely grateful.
The Outstanding Performance, Male category is troublesome.  Setting aside the three Andys Massingham for a moment, the two other nominees pose a similar question: what about their partner?  It’s not Richard Gélinas alone, but Gélinas and Zach Counsil that performed very much as one in The 39 Steps; in the case of John Muggleton and Chris Ralph in Speed-the-Plow less so, but why Muggleton and not Ralph?  This is a question that has come up before.  The Rideau Awards’ rules are much more rigid than the Capital Critics’ Circle, who were able to award all three of the cast of Heroes their equivalent award.  Sometimes common sense triumphs.  Once again, the Rideau Awards really need an Duo/Ensemble Cast category.  In fact, they need it more and more every year since as the theatre community matures and evolves and actors and directors become more familiar with each other, the tendency is towards mounting ensemble productions.
Outstanding Performance, Female is personally troublesome because—I don’t know if I mentioned, but I didn’t see Under Milk Wood, so I can’t compare Annie Lefebvre’s performance to the other nominees.  And I can certainly agree with the rest of the nominations.  If I say that nobody was left out, I’m sure I’ll get some dirty looks.  So: everyone who was nominated should have been, and that other one you’re thinking of should have been, too.
I’m baffled by the rationale used by the Prix Rideau Awards in classifying something as an adaptation or a translation.  The Ottawa Shakespeare Company’s inaugural production, Hamlet 2011, was neither.  It was Hamlet, pure and simple—Hamlet with strong directorial choices, but Hamlet you could read along with.  They didn’t even cut the First Player’s speech (usually the first thing to go).  Is every modern-dress presentation of Shakespeare an adaptation now?  Likewise, Antigone was a fresh translation, yes, but given that they kept even the Chorus (again, you could follow along with Sophocles in hand; it’s pretty close) what makes it an adaptation?  Even the Shakespearian mashup A Midwinter’s Dream Tale is stretching all sorts of definitions.  Maybe The Fan will win, and I can pretend it’s because one of the characters breaks into Trololo at an opportune moment.
The Emerging Artist category is one I really do wish everyone could win.  How, for example, do you separate Nancy Kenny’s breakthrough as a playwright from Tania Levy’s breakthrough as a director?  And is Pierre Ducharme’s spectacular set design for Little Martyrs better or worse than Mishka Lavigne’s translation?  And Katie Bunting’s a delight on stage.

I think the Prix Rideau Awards need a name for the award.  Prix Rideau Award is just too cumbersome to say, or to type.  I mean, the Academy gives out Oscars, there are Grammys and Emmys and Tonys so there should be some equivalent familiar term for the Prix Rideau Award.  I’m sure someone can think of a suitable bilingual name.  I mean, I guess we could call it a “Rideau” but that seems too easy, somehow.  Let us not follow the lead of the Junos and call it the “Rido.”  Please, no.

The award gala will be held at the Shenkman Arts Centre this year.  I’m still embarrassed that this will be my first time visiting Shenkman (I really, really should have gone to see Under Milk Wood), but it’s just so far away, living as I do sensibly close to the NAC and what I consider the basic necessities of civilization (an Herb & Spice, a Staples, and The Manx).  Then again, I understand it’s convenient by bus at all hours.  I still wouldn’t want to be making my way back to Gatineau or the west end afterwards.  Then again, they’re holding the Junos at Scotiabank Place, which is practically in Bancroft, so what do I know?

Enough nitpicking.  The Prix Rideau Awards gala is the best party in town, hands down.  It’s a theatrical event in and of itself, promotes dialogue between the English and French theatre communities, and keeps people thinking and talking about the productions they’ve seen.

Besides, when else can you win at theatre?

Oh, alright.  Everybody always wins at theatre.

The Little Things (You Do Together)

In Uncategorized on Friday 2 March 2012 at 11:48

This week I did something that I don’t usually do.

I went to the theatre for pleasure.

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit facetious.  I always go to the theatre for pleasure, but usually I’m also reviewing, so it’s not purely for pleasure.  There is a distinct difference between going to the theatre as a regular paying audience member for entertainment and going with a secondary objective in mind.  As much as I try to minimize that difference (I believe the kids call this “keeping it real”), it does exist.

What we went to see, and I am compelled to recommend, is l’Opéra de quat’sous.  I keep promising myself and the world at large that I will get out to see more French theatre.  It has, generally, an aesthetic flavour entirely different to most English-language theatre, and I happen to love it.  Honestly, though, I have wanted to see Brecht’s Threepenny Opera so badly that I would have gone whatever language it was in.  Then again, I’m happy that I was able to understand it.  This is a new, contemporary Québec French translation and it’s entirely appropriate for the material.  It seems closer to the spirit of the original than the Blitzstein English version, but that’s based on my very scant knowledge of basic German.  In any case, despite clocking in at two hours and thirty minutes with no intermission, it’s a wonderful show.  Did  I buy a poster?  Maybe.  I also bought a copy of the chantier dramaturgique, which provides fascinating insight into the process behind the development of this production.  I’m excited that director Brigitte Haentjens is  succeed Wajdi Mouawad as AD of the NAC French Theatre, not least because she’s such a fan of Henrich Müller.  Maybe we’ll get to see Médée-Matériau?  A man can dream.

Speaking of shows I desperately want to see, Sock ‘n’ Buskin Theatre is opening their production of Company, directed by Dave Dawson, on March 15.  As a bit of a Sondheim fanatic, I’m both looking forward to this and preparing to scrutinize it intensely.  Word is, they’ve hit a bit of a snag, and are looking for a number of competent musicians on very short notice.  I can only speculate as to the circumstances, but if you are an Ottawa (or Ottawa-convenient) musician, or you know one, you should get in touch with Sock ‘n’ Buskin pronto.

Dave Dawson is just about the busiest man in Ottawa theatre this month.  Not only has his production company Black Sheep Theatre brought Bremner Duthie’s ’33 (a Kabarett) (reviewed here) to the Gladstone this month, but also three other productions as part of a “Black Box Set.”  These late-night shows (with a curtain time of 10:00 pm), each about an hour long with ultra-short weekend runs, are frequently talked-about darlings of the Fringe circuit.  We have Jayson McDonald’s Giant Invisible Robot and Paul Hutcheson’s Third Time Lucky to look forward to in coming weeks, but this weekend (that’s tonight and tomorrow only, folks) you can catch The Last Goddamned Performance Piece.  Given the very real risk that my review will not go up before the show closes, and they could easily fit another hundred people in the theatre, I’m taking the time to recommend it.  I saw a previous incarnation (and reviewed it) a couple of years ago; it’s improved since then and is right at home on the Gladstone stage.  Also written by Jayson McDonald, it’s performed by Ben Meuser and Celine Filion.  Go see it.  (I still regret the fact that I never got to see either Nancy Kenny or Jodi Morden in the role Filion plays; but one can’t see everything, right?)

Also in attendance at The Last Goddamned Performance piece was 2011 Prix Rideau Award nominee Katie Bunting, which gave me the chance to congratulate her in person.  Now I just have to get to everyone else.  I’m still working on my detailed reaction and analysis of the nominations that were announced on Monday; I promise to speculate wildly on who might win, at least in the English categories.

Let’s hope it doesn’t get me uninvited from any parties.

Ottawa Theatre Confidential takes a breather

In Uncategorized on Tuesday 16 August 2011 at 7:24

Loyal fans (our metrics tell us there are nearly three dozen of you) of the Ottawa Theatre Confidential podcast will have noticed that, since our post-Fringe episode, we haven’t released anything.

Fret not!  Ottawa Theatre Confidential is far from defunct.  Tania (Levy), Heather Marie (Connors), and me (myself) are still very good friends and have not had more than the usual artistic differences (without which the podcast would be boring).  In this case, there are simply life situations that require the attention we would normally devote to putting together the podcast.  However, we have plans to resume producing regular episodes in September(ish).

To make up for the lacuna, we have a couple of improvements up our collective sleeve.  For one thing, we are in the process of moving the podcast to a more suitable host (there have been some persistent problems with billing; my bank has made an awful lot of incidental money off of this podcast but I’m not bitter).  This will likely be transparent to our loyal fans and subscribers (you do use iTunes, right?) but it will ensure that we can reliably and consistently deliver you a product worth listening to.

On that note, we’ve had various issues with sound quality in the past, seemingly intractable despite Heather Marie’s practical common sense suggestions and my efforts to correct recording issues with a barrage of digital effects.  Having had the recent opportunity to observe operations in a professional sound studio while recording voice-overs (I get all the cool jobs), I think I have a more solid idea of how to produce the best quality sound product we can with the equipment we have.  Will it work?  I guess we’ll all find out.

So, while you’re waiting for the next exciting episode of Ottawa Theatre Confidential to come down the pipe, why not catch some theatre?  Odyssey Theatre is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with their production of The Fan until August 21, A Company of Fools continues to present Antony and Cleopatra in parks across the city until August 20, or if it’s not quite a sit-in-the-park day, the Ottawa Little Theatre production of The Patrick Pearse Motel opens on August 16.

Plenty to keep you occupied.

Since They Can’t Take Grants for Granted…

In Uncategorized on Friday 15 July 2011 at 16:32

The government you helped elect (perhaps not directly, if you’re actually reading this) is doing great things.

By now, you’re well aware of the federal government’s highly questionable decision to withdraw funding from Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival.  While I’m not quite ready to say that I categorically believe this was in direct response to the festival’s production of Homegrown, this is the same government that has a documented history of lying to the public, altering documents in a way that would get a private citizen thrown in jail, castrating organized labour, and blinding itself in both eyes by crippling its own Census.

So, you know, I wouldn’t put it past them.

Then again, there’s only so much grant money to go around, and more and more arts organizations competing for the same pool of cash.  It seems reasonable that established, successful concerns might see their funding fall off as the government tries to spread it around to encourage groups just getting their start.

One way or the other, the arts have to find a way to depend less on the financial support of a small-minded, dishonest government that seems intent on marching us straight back into the 19th century, and more on… well, us.  The general public.

It’s not a begging game.  The arts are more use to society—and individuals—than can be put into words alone.

For instance, there’s no better way to learn good, persuasive English (or any other language) than through the study of literature: poetry, plays, and novels.  Is it important to learn good, persuasive English?  Oh, I should say its rather important.  The number of people boasting communications degrees who can’t compose a single simple coherent sentence… why, I heard just recently on the CBC (what’s left of it) that they’re thinking of taking Shakespeare out of the Grade 9 and 10 curricula.  Yet almost every day I see someone on Twitter swept up in the throes of an epiphany, some new revelation about the human condition, that was eloquently summarized in a heroic couplet about 400 years ago.  It turns out that artists have been distilling human experience for as long as our species has been able to make marks on rocks.  Why ignore all that work?  It may be too late to redo high school, but if you read a little and go catch a little theatre, you might learn something and save time by not reinventing the wheel.

Any person involved in business should certainly experience, if not study, the performance arts.  I’ve been to too many truly awful presentations; the average person could stand to take in some theatre or some spoken word to see how it’s really done.  You’d be surprised what a little stagecraft or attention to cadence will do to your ability to influence a roomful of people.

By the way, have we thought of what we’re doing to the cultural record?  As it stands, if future generations write of us at all (provided they can still write), what will they say?  That our popular symbols included the Guy Fawkes mask, lifted wholesale from history?  That half of our correspondence consisted of repeating the same phrase over and over again with minor variations (I believe you call that a “meme”.  I recommend looking up “memetics”).  That people were willing to pay money to hear already well-known (misogynistic) rap lyrics overlaid on already well-known classic rock guitar riffs?  Will this be known as the Age of Copying?

Or dare we encourage the creation of something new?

How do we go about doing this?

Probably the most obvious way is to choose your favourite sector of the arts (theatre?  dance?  the visual or plastic arts?  music?  literature?  film?) and devote as much of your entertainment dollar as you can stomach to enjoying that art.

Maybe you can spare some of the cash you would normally export to the States by going to see shitty movies, and catch a local theatre production instead.  Or you could divert the forty bucks you drop on alcohol any given week to buy a locally-written book, throw five dollars in the box at an art gallery, catch a local band—and still have cash left over for a pint!  If you’re bound and determined to exchange your pay for a headache at the pub, you could at least buy beer from breweries that sponsor the arts (McAuslan comes to mind).

Speaking of sponsorship: if you own or operate a small or medium business, sponsor an arts organization.  Large businesses do; heck, the banks do, and nobody’s better at making money than the banks.  Follow their lead.  Most arts organizations will be more than happy to put your name on everything they print and the walls too if you help them pay the rent.  Artists are also fiercely loyal customers and clients with very long, accurate memories.

The greatest artistic renaissances in history occurred after periods of great oppression—helping to end them, and lift entire societies out of ignorance and economic depression.

I’d rather prefer we headed it off at the pass this time.

Flying Solo

In Uncategorized on Friday 17 June 2011 at 16:15

Every year, the shows I see on the first night of the Ottawa Fringe Festival all seem to have something in common.  Last year, it was that they all had death as a major theme (i.e., they were comedies).

This year, they were all one-person shows—in particular, one-woman* shows.

Now I believe back during the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s inaugural undercurrents festival, I remarked (if not publicly, then privately), that I was a bit skittish about seeing My Pregnant Brother because it was a one-woman show, and they can go one of two ways.  Of course, Johanna Nutter’s show blew me out of the water: it was autobiographical without being self-absorbed, and presented a difficult, unfamiliar subject (not only from a heteronormative perspective, either) in an accessible, real way.

What My Pregnant Brother did for me was to raise the bar even further for solo shows.  I began to expect more from them, since I had been shown just how gripping they could potentially be with the right performer and the right story.

So the three shows I saw yesterday evening, and their performers, were: The Animal Show (Katie Hood), Old Legends (Emma Godmere), and Dying Hard (Mikaela Dyke).

Now, these are very different shows, and very different styles of solo performance.  The Animal Show is semiautobiographical first-person, depending for its effect upon (and highlighting) the personality, experiences, and insight of the performer.  Old Legends is fictional realism, the most traditional of the three (and therefore easier to analyze as theatre) and depends on the ability of the performer to assume a role, remember and deliver lines, and present a narrative to an audience.  Dying Hard is verbatim theatre with real people and their words and mannerisms as a source, where the skill of the performer in presenting this reality (and, by the way, verbatim theatre is a particularly strong echo of the oral historical tradition—I find it satisfying that the apex of our society’s technological development has led us full-circle to the imitative storytelling that predates written language) is the theatre of the piece.

These are each worth seeing since, in each case, the performer is more than adept at the make-or-break skill on which their specific show depends.  Furthermore, it is worth seeing all of them to destigmatize the solo show.

Maybe there was a time when all solo shows really were an exploration of the writer/performer’s crisis of identity/battle with addiction (and not all of those shows are unwatchable—many are brilliant—but they tend to run together).  This is certainly not the case now.  If someone turns up their nose when you say “solo show”, you can ask them if they’re going to see Nirvana live since they’re clearly still living in the 1990s.

I think it’s fairly accurate to say that a solo show benefits greatly from the involvement of a director (or a director-dramaturg).  A director keeps a self-written solo show from becoming introverted, ingrown, and self-involved.  I don’t believe, especially in the case of a solo show written by someone other than the performer, that the writer should also direct; in fact I think (and this may be the only time I admit this) that letting a director, dramaturg, or script consultant—one with an appropriate attitude towards the vision of the piece—have a go at the text with a long, long leash is probably the best way to keep the solo serpent from swallowing its own tail.

You can see The Animal Show, Old Legends, and Dying Hard, as well as a number of other solo (and non-solo) shows, as part of the Ottawa Fringe Festival.  Showtimes are too complex for me to list here, but the Ottawa Fringe Festival website, iPhone app, and paper programs have full schedules and maps.

* Is there a difference between a one-man show and a one-woman show?  Hey, that can be your Master’s thesis.

10 Shows I Must See at the 2011 Ottawa Fringe Festival

In Uncategorized on Monday 13 June 2011 at 23:16

I was sitting on the patio of the Bridgehead at Dalhousie and Guigues in the Byward Market about two days before the start of the 2010 Ottawa Fringe Festival.  As I got up to leave, I noticed a lady wearing sunglasses sitting at a table with a Fringe program, leafing through it.  I stopped and asked her what she had plans to see.

“I don’t know,” she said.  She asked me if I was involved with the Fringe; I said that I was, indirectly, writing reviews for

“Oh,” she said, “well, I’ll probably only see one thing.  What’s good?”

It took me a couple of seconds to realize what she was saying, and what she was asking.  Never mind that she had plans to see only one out of sixty shows, she didn’t know which one.  And, two days before any of them had hit the stage, she wanted me to pick—or at least make a suggestion.  Could I even remember a third of the names of the productions in the program?  Worst of all, I didn’t even know her; how could I tell what she might like?

So I asked, “Do you like comedy?”  She nodded.  “Well, Jonno Katz is coming in from Australia, and he hasn’t been here for a while, and his show Cactus—The Seduction… is probably going to be really good.”  I mean, not knowing you from a hole in the ground.  You might not like Australians.  Or cacti.  “It’s a safe bet.”

I said goodbye, reminded her to buy a Fringe pin, and hurried away.

The problem with making recommendations for Fringe shows is that it’s largely guesswork; unless it’s a show that’s been touring for ages, most of the productions are completely new and unknown, and even in a close-knit theatre community like Ottawa’s, many of the performers are unfamiliar.  Before the Fringe opens, you have to go on word-of-mouth, promotional materials, video trailers, press releases, and reputation—and that’s about it.

Bearing that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of shows that I think people must see at this year’s Ottawa Fringe.  (In the interests of full disclosure: I am under contract to the Fringe—I compiled this wonderful 15th anniversary commemorative book called OFF The Record that you can purchase as of this morning—but my duties and responsibilities do not involve the promotion of any individual productions.  In fact, the Fringe only benefits financially from the sale of the Fringe pins (which I insist you buy—collect all four!) and other merchandise, not from ticket sales.  Those funds go directly to the producing artists.  The opinions I express here do not necessarily reflect those of the Ottawa Fringe Festival, its staff members, or its Board of Directors, and I’d like to see you get them all in the same room and have them come to an agreement on which shows you should see, because that’s a pretty diverse group with a wide range of tastes and opinions.  Right?  Right.)

This is not that list. (That list is here.)

This list is the list of shows I must see at the Fringe.

There are some overlaps, but it’s a different list.  Why?  Well, for one thing I have my own tastes and preferences.  I work very hard at not inflicting my personal taste on others (unless they ask, poor souls).  When I write a review or discuss a production I strive to remain aware of what my tastes are and separate taste from criticism.  There are some things I don’t plan to see because they aren’t to my taste (and I have no other compelling reason to see them).  I’m not huge, for instance, on social issue theatre—that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe it serves a purpose (let’s talk about that sometime) or has artistic merit, I just personally don’t care for most of it. (Strangely, this does not include political satire, which I eat like candy.)

For another thing, there are a number of productions where I know (or know of) the people involved, and I’m curious to see their work.  This is known as peer pressure or puppy-dog eyes.

Also, I happen to like the really outrageous, even if it’s bad—and I don’t know that it is bad until I’ve given it a chance.  Is it a musical rendition of 2001: A Space Odyssey starring a watermelon puppet?  Great!  Will someone throw me a toilet-paper bouquet?  Awesome!  Is the action dictated by the contents of fortune cookies brought in by the audience members?  Sweet!  This is Fringe.  It’s not like you’re paying fifty bucks to see a guy sit on a stool and talk to a teaspoon for an hour—you’re only paying ten.

Alright, so here are (some of) the ten shows (and one not-show) I must see:

Peter ‘n Chris Save the World (Peter ‘n Chris)

I wish I’d known about these guys when I was talking to that lady outside the Bridgehead.  Not that Jonno Katz didn’t knock everyone dead (he did) but these guys cracked me up and captured my heart with The Peter ‘n Chris Show.  They’re physical, they’re choreographed, and  they’re funny.  If that wasn’t enough, I’ve become friends with their superfriend and sometime collaborator Melanie Moore so I have another reason to see them, and see them early.

LIVE from the Belly of a Whale (Mi Casa Theatre)

We don’t want another Countries Shaped Like Stars situation, where I miss the boat and have to wait two years because I miss all the other boats too.  Okay, a lot of people are going to expect Nick and Emily to turn out something of the calibre of Countries and… they don’t have to, eh?  They made Countries, now they’re making something else, why compare them?  I find Nick and Emily entertaining in the course of casual conversation.  John Doucet’s doing the design, superhero stage manager Anna Chambers runs a tight ship, and if I say Pat’s a great director one more time even he’s going to throw up.  I’m looking forward to this, and you won’t catch me saying “Well, that was no Countries Shaped Like Stars.”

Playtime with HM

Okay, so this isn’t really a show per se, but a series, and it’s the Artist Series, and I’m part of the first panel on Monday, Reviewing the Reviewer, so I kind of have to be there for that one at least.  You know Heather Marie Connors, right?  One of the co-hosts of the ever-more-popular Ottawa Theatre Confidential podcast?  Gave me the nickname “Softie McLovesTheatre”?  She runs really interesting and fun panels, and debates, and whatnot, and has a good sense of humour.  She asks the hardest (i.e. the most important) questions, and she really cares about the peripheral issues of theatre and its part in the greater scheme of things.

Roller Derby Saved My Soul (Broken Turtle Productions)

Speaking of Ottawa Theatre Confidential co-hosts, Tania Levy is directing Nancy Kenny‘s roller-derby vampire-slaying solo play and I’ve had snippets of the development process from both of them… I’m really curious to see how this will turn out.  Nancy’s a funny actor with natural comic timing, and Tania has the courage to do bold, wacky things (with a lot of thought, consideration, and hard art back of them).  Some really good shows have come out of a bumpy, compressed development process (Ditto Productions’ This Is A Recording is a prime example) and I hope this follows that path.

Complex Numbers (Silent QUEMB Productions)

Playwright, performer, poet, and a lot of other things Nadine Thornhill‘s Oreo was a hit of the 2009 Ottawa Fringe Festival, one of the few things that I got to see (I took an awful lot of volunteer shifts) that year.  I’m looking forward to this, not least because as I understand it Ken Godmere is directing.  Sweet.

Einstein’s Bicycle (Fractual Theatre Company)

Jodi Sprung-Boyd (whose for-school production of The Open Couple (hey, Ken Godmere was in that too!) I raved about on the Ottawa Theatre Confidential podcast and elsewhere) invited me to a workshop preview of this.  I’m not going to say too much about what I saw (obviously!) because I don’t want to give anything away about what I think will be a fun show.  It has good performers, a good director, good writing, and is undeniably 100% a Fringe show, in the best way possible.

glitch… (Ottawa Theatre School)

David Hersh (I) wrote this.  My favourite class ensemble of the OTS including Jodi Morden, Kaitlin Miller, Kyla Gray, Diego Arvelo, and Greg Shand (2010’s Impassioned Embraces, Hamlet 2011, and some other good things I didn’t see) is putting it on.  I’m going.

Old Legends (Bio-Punk Productions)

In the continuing effort to get my Godmere badge*, I’ve got to see the unpigeonholeable Emma Godmere in this.  Dark comedy, guitar, dance, storytelling… sign me up.  You had me at “Old”.

Dying Hard (A Vagrant Theatre)

I follow Mikaela Dyke on Twitter and I’m curious to see this; from the description I gather it’s a verbatim/documentary theatre piece about Newfoundland miners.  That happens to interest and fascinate me.  I grew up hearing mining stories from the east coast and elsewhere, and some may laugh (or worse, be unaware), but mining is one of the few things that we actually can point to as Canadians and say is a part of our shared cultural identity.

Pick Your Path (Garkin Productions)

I’m pretty sure Ray Besharah and Laura Hall approached me at the Mi Casa party to talk about this show, and I hear (from someone whose real name I don’t know) that the technical cues are very complex—from what I understand, the action is audience-influenced, and that’s the kind of audience participation I can get behind.  I do not promise to not wear my “No Commies” pin to this show.

The Interview (Ottawa Little Theatre)

I saw The Interview as part of the Eastern Ontario Drama League One-Act Play Festival last year, and I really want to see it again particularly with Ken Godmere taking on one of the roles, for purposes of comparison.  I’m curious about the effect that’s going to have on the dynamic of the piece.

If you didn’t make this list, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to see your show.  I do have another list forthcoming of shows I think will be of general interest, and I needed to keep the list reasonably short.  Heck, I may burn out early and not see everything I intend to see, or change my mind, or decide Alumni is too far to walk (it isn’t).  Also: it’s Fringe.  Pretty much anything can happen, from mystery bees to finding true love.  So don’t hold me to anything.

* There are four members of the Godmere family performing in and/or directing Fringe productions this year.  The family that does plays together stays together, kids.

A Word on Dialogue

In Uncategorized on Thursday 5 May 2011 at 12:30

Some years ago, I worked in the fraud department of a credit card company. Much of the work we did, outside of sending and requesting vast stacks of paper, involved comparing signatures and trying to figure out if people were lying to us. When things got slow (rarely) or management was otherwise occupied (almost always), I would pass the time by learning as much as I could about forensic handwriting analysis and document analysis without moving from my desk.

I came across descriptions of a fascinating technique called “statement analysis”. I would say it’s about as scientifically rigorous as graphology—i.e. not very—but the premise that how someone says something or what words they use can tell you what they think about what they’re saying is worth considering.

Creative writing, unlike criminal investigation, does not (generally) demand scientific rigour, so I think we can afford to look at one part of the theory which specifically applies to writing believable dialogue. This comes up not because I’ve been subjected as an audience member to unbelievable dialogue, but I’ve noticed one or two instances in plays where this principle was conspicuous in its absence. Since they were plays that paid special attention to the use of words, I paid special attention to the words used.

The theory is that a person will almost always use the same word to refer to the same thing (or person) unless they have a reason to do otherwise. This is called a personal dictionary or personal lexicon.

We see novice fiction writers violating this all over the place, possibly because some well-meaning English teacher (very likely not a published author) instilled in them the mania for using every word in their vocabulary as often as possible.

Here’s an example:
“You’ve met Sheila, haven’t you? My wife is a great admirer of yours. I was telling the other half just as we were leaving that we might run into you here. Dearest, this is John Bigslow.”

Reading it off the page (or the screen), you may find yourself wondering if “Sheila”, “my wife”, “the other half”, and “Dearest” are four different people. God help the actor stuck with that line in anything but a farce.

This is perhaps more natural:
“You’ve met my wife, haven’t you? She’s a great admirer of yours. I was telling her just as we were leaving that we might run into you here. Sheila, this is John Bigslow.” And then have our nameless doting husband refer to his wife as “my wife” in the third person and “Sheila” throughout the rest of the text—unless something catastrophic happens to their relationship, in which case the change of attitude can be subtly underscored by a change in language: “the wife” versus “my wife” works wonders.

Of course, this is an exaggerated example. However, on topics people feel strongly about, particularly those of politics, religion, and identity, they are utterly rigid about their vocabulary. What would you think of a person or character who used “Israeli” and “Jew” interchangeably? Do they think all Israelis are Jews and vice-versa? At least unconsciously. Do they think the distinction is important? Clearly not. Is this what you are trying to convey with the character? I hope so, otherwise you need to go back and clean up that dialogue before someone else reads it.

You can’t have someone explain the distinction between two terms, such as “sister” and “nun”, and then use them both to refer to the same person. Someone who self-identifies as “queer” or “African-American” is highly unlikely to switch suddenly to “gay” or “Black”. Even “kid” and “child” are decidedly different words; almost never will you hear the same person use both, and when they do, they mean two different things.

An exception to this principle is heightened or poetic dialogue, which is why Shakespeare is credited with adding so many words to the English language. Meter and rhyme call for a different approach to word choice. Just be sure you intend to be a poet before you commit poetry.

People actually use a smaller set of words than the average writer or playwright knows. This is to their advantage, as they can easier separate characters by varying their vocabulary space accordingly.

Never mind principles and rules. The best way to learn how to write effective, realistic dialogue is, of course, to listen to how people speak (this is why the best writers tend to be the least talkative people). Then you can evolve your own personal principles and rules of dialogue.

Je parle le théâtre

In Uncategorized on Tuesday 8 February 2011 at 0:38

When I was about seven or eight years old, I had a realization that changed my life: I realized that if I learned nothing else in school, I had better learn French.

I live in Ottawa, and to anyone else living in Ottawa it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a kid would twig to the idea that knowing French is pretty important here; not only is it essential for most government jobs, but a fair selection of private sector jobs require it too. Not being bilingual is almost a disability in this city.

It was an uphill battle. I was, after all, born in Vancouver to an English (not anglophone, but English) father and a Winnipeg mother. There was no precedent for learning French in my family tree. Latin, Italian, Ukranian, even Yiddish—but no French up either side as far back as anyone could remember. Luckily, I was decent enough at it that I made it through school, taking at least half of my high school courses in French, and I ended up somehow winning an award for it at one point.

Despite my awful accent (which runs the spectrum, according to unsolicited criticism, from “cute” to “Méxicain”), I managed to hold down a (private sector) job requiring me to speak both English and French roughly equally for the better part of a decade.

Another side-effect of learning French, and perhaps the most important, was gaining an appreciation for francophone and Québec culture. It started with watching MusiquePlus, for sure, but I enjoyed reading the francophone literature we were exposed to in school, and renting the occasional Québec film. For a time I even maintained that most of the culture in Canada was in or from Québec… and I’m still not sure it isn’t.

Brian Alkerton asked a question on Twitter a few weeks ago that stuck right in my prefrontal lobe. He asked (I’m paraphrasing as I didn’t have the foresight to save the tweet) if it were possible to fully appreciate Québec culture in the absence of the French language. The question stuck with me because, although my gut answer was “NO!”, I couldn’t say that definitively. It’s a valid point; a lot of cultural product only sells outside of Québec once it’s been translated into English. Is something always lost? How essential is the language to the culture?

It’s a complex question.

Last week, during the undercurrents festival, Kevin Orr directed Andy Massingham and Julie Le Gal in a fascinating experimental piece called Bifurcate Me, about which I’ve already written and spoken to possible excess. One of the features of the piece is that Massingham’s character speaks and understands only English, while Le Gal’s character speaks only French (but seems to understand English—also not unfamiliar in Ottawa). This led to some cute humour within the piece, but also had the effect of dividing the audience into those who understood what was being said in French and those who didn’t, which was evident from who was laughing at certain points. Whether or not that was the intention, it certainly underlined the gap that does exist.

It also brought to mind a more abstract question: Is it always necessary to understand the language to appreciate a cultural work? Well? Don’t we watch opera in Italian, or even German? I had the chance recently to test this question: Wayne Current and I went to see the Once Upon a Kingdom production—children’s theatre of the highest calibre—which was entirely in Russian. Now, I do know some Russian. I know how to say “Yes”, “No”, “What?”, “Please”, “Thank you”, and “I don’t speak Russian”. Beyond that, if I recognize a Greek or Latin root I may be able to get the gist of what’s being said… but otherwise I’m hopeless. I guess I’ll never know what linguistic nuances we missed during the performance, but the plot and the characters were perfectly comprehensible. I think I even picked up a new word or two.

Is there something to that, I wonder?

Isn’t that how we learn language in the first place, even our own maternal tongue? Not by reading it off the page, but by seeing it used? At their most basic, words are symbols devoid of intrinsic meaning; they acquire that meaning by association, and we infer meaning from context long before we run to the dictionary to look up definitions. Theatre and its offspring, film and television, probably provide the richest context (the visual elements, and the interactions between people) possible to observe without the pressure of interaction.

My personal opinion is that, although a good translation or adaptation is by no means a bad thing, any cultural product is best appreciated in its original language, whether one understands it or not.

I don’t expect everyone to share that opinion.

I do expect people to broaden their horizons. We shouldn’t be thinking so much in terms of “English theatre” or “French theatre”—that’s like watching with one eye closed.

There is much to be learned by an anglophone who takes the time to experience francophone theatre; including, but not limited to, the French language itself.