Andrew Snowdon

Posts Tagged ‘theatre’

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).

The Tao of Theatre: SubDevision and The Extremely Short Play Festival

In art, Ottawa, theatre on Friday 11 May 2012 at 13:40

So tonight I’m going to see King Lear at the NAC. I’m pretty excited; ever since the season launch when it was announced, it’s been on my mind. I want to see it; I want to see what transposing it to an Aboriginal context adds to (or takes away from) this timeless classic.

But I don’t think it’s the most exciting thing going on theatrically in Ottawa right now.

Actually, there isn’t a most exciting thing going on theatrically in Ottawa right now.

There are two.

Taoists will be unsurprised.

Another show I was waiting for since it was announced was New Theatre of Ottawa‘s Extremely Short Play Festival. It’s hard not to get excited about something when (NTO artistic director) John Koensgen is talking about it; his eyes genuinely light up whenever he talks about a project he believes in. I even briefly considered submitting an extremely short play (defined here as under ten minutes in length) myself; I quickly discovered what a challenge the short form really is when you’re not just writing a one-gag sketch. I wondered what level of quality the submissions would have.

Now, I didn’t get out to see this until the second week, which I sort of regret since it far exceeded my expectations both as to the quality of the writing and the quality of the production itself. There were plays from known A-list playwrights like Pierre Brault and Lawrence Aronovitch (whose Late made me both glad I had abandoned one particular piece I was working on and eager to pick it up and rework it), as well as those known primarily for other genres of writing or acting, Dan O’Meara (yes, of Ottawa’s celebrated Manx Pub) and Geoff McBride, and emerging writers (Jessica E. Anderson, Kelley Tish Baker, Andrea Connell, Adam Pierre, Tina Prud’homme and Kevin and James Smith) with considerable potential. Then, the actors interpreting the work were top-notch: Kristina Watt’s effortless versatility, Brian Stewart’s arresting stage presence, Kate Hurman’s comic grace, and Adam Pierre’s freshness and energy infused the characters and situations with life. I was impressed with the lighting, the sound, and John Koensgen’s direction. I was also glad that on the soggy, stormy night on which I went, the house was well over half-full.

So there is hope for traditional playwriting; there are established writers who continually turn out interesting work, there’s a wave of new writers cutting their teeth, and Ottawa is the place they all come home.

Then, there’s the other kind of theatre: that writ not in a chair, but wrought from thin air.

Just down the street (Daly Avenue) from NTO’s home at Arts Court Theatre is a church at the corner of Cumberland that Ottawa theatre faithful will recognize as Mi Casa Theatre’s near-regular off-the-beaten-track venue, St. Paul’s Eastern United Church.

Usually Mi Casa rents out the basement, and puts on a show or throws a party (the distinction is debatable). This time, not only Mi Casa but seven other theatre companies are spread throughout the church—the basement, yes, but also the kitchen, the wheelchair elevator, the sanctuary chapel with its majestic pipe organ and towering stained-glass windows that face the setting sun, and a few nooks and crannies besides.

The event is called subDevision. It’s a crime that tickets are only $20, and a sheer act of treason that it’s only on for three nights, one of which is now in the past.

SubDevision is not a typo, but a clever portmanteau: the venue is subdivided into multiple performance areas, and the works are all devised works, created collaboratively within and inspired by the space. The event itself was inspired by Vancouver’s HiVE co-creation space, and its genesis took place in the same fertile ground that gave us the undercurrents Festival two years ago: a Backyard BBQ attended by the Ottawa theatre community’s core creative elite.

Site-specific devised theatre isn’t an entirely foreign concept to Ottawa, although so far it’s been on a smaller scale. Six: At Home, for example, was wildly successful at the 2010 Ottawa Fringe Festival, despite being located at Laurier House—a long, hot summer’s trek away from the main venues. It’s no surprise that several of the performer/creators who were involved in that production are also members of companies taking part in subDevision.

From a logistical perspective (i.e. how to see which show when) subDevision is a bit confusing at first glance. The performers seem to have been given pretty much free rein with their timing, so not everything fits neatly into a schedule grid. Some shows take eight minutes, some take thirteen, some take twenty, one takes eleven, but they let one person in every eight minutes—and then things start selling out. Then, of the two shows in the sanctuary, one is only before dark and the other only afterward. So there’s a little arithmetic and planning involved; even more than at the Fringe, and with greater urgency.

Attendees can pick and choose performances, and there’s an incredible variety on offer. From women in slips adoring the sun from atop church pews, to a multilingual acrobatic wake, to intimate cocktails in an elevator, to revolutionary yoga, to physically philosophical comedy on the steps outside… the whole defies description (rather, I don’t want to give any of it away) and must be experienced. [Visitorium has done us all the favour of staying up until three in the morning to write his useful take on subDevision. Give it a go.]

There is some overlap between the performance spaces, giving a dreamlike quality to the experience: as you are led up a staircase by a robed figure holding a lantern, you are implored by performers splayed on the steps to join the party in the other room. At times, however, sounds from an adjacent performance intrude on the one you are in (the Bluesfest effect).

When I spoke with the organizers last week, they mentioned with pride the skill-sharing sessions that have been a part of the subDevision creative process, where the members of the different companies share their methods and tactics for overcoming blocks in collaborative creation. There’s definitely been some creative cross-pollination as a result; I noticed May Can Theatre, perhaps unwittingly, use a technique that I recognized from both The Missoula Oblongata’s The Daughter of the Father of Time Motion Study and Mi Casa Theatre’s Live from the Belly of a Whale. I don’t think it goes as far as being derivative, and it’s not a cliché—yet. It does serve to highlight the way in which a particular aesthetic or set of techniques develops organically in such an environment.

Analysis aside, it’s a bloody party.

There are, as always, theatre productions going on—there’s Lear, and there’s Death and the Maiden at the Gladstone Theatre, and next week the Great Canadian Theatre Company will wrap up its season with Circle Mirror Transformation. There are others. They’re each a worthwhile night out. And none of them would exist without some combination of the two kinds of creative process showcased by the Extremely Short Play Festival and subDevision.

Anyway, you don’t have much time left to see them, and you ought to. Theatre, like life itself, is evanescent. The best and most satisfying art often has the shortest shelf life of all.

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.

Leave Me My Name: Doctors, Teachers, Lawyers, and The Crucible

In theatre on Friday 13 May 2011 at 16:09

A couple of years ago, when Dr. Vincent Lam won the Giller Prize for Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, he thanked a number of his influences, including a high-school English teacher named Steve Durnin.

Like Lam, I too attended St. Pius X High School on Fisher Avenue in Ottawa (not the more famous one in Montréal), and had the pleasure of two consecutive years of English class with Mr. Durnin. The stories I could tell about Mr. Durnin would fill, if not a novel, at least a booklet.

Some English teachers are pretty neat, and some are stellar. One of the things that put Mr. Durnin squarely in the latter category was his treatment of theatrical texts. There are so many teachers that suck the life out of Shakespeare by concentrating too hard on the meaning of each dirty word, that treat every play as an extended short story composed merely of dialogue. Mr. Durnin really brought it home that a play can be appreciated on many levels: as a work of written literature, as poetry, as a theatrical performance—and that in many forms: simply read aloud, played live, or on the television or cinema screen.

By happy synchronicity, as we were studying Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the film adaptation (starring Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor and Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams) came out in theatres. We took a field trip (and I’m not even sure it was a sanctioned field trip; Mr. Durnin tended to teach in spite of the rules rather than in strict adherence to them) to the World Exchange Plaza to see it on the screen.

I think we did better reading it out loud in class.

When I found out that Patrick Gauthier would be directing The Crucible for the twelfth annual GCTC Lawyer Play, I was thrilled… and a little scared, too. Pat clearly loves the play; when I visited him at home for an interview late last year, he was deep in research, reluctant to leave it and quick to return to it. I have confidence in Pat as a director and as a writer. But I didn’t know what to expect from the lawyers—even though I was assured that many of them had participated in many previous Lawyer Plays and were accustomed to working with a professional director in this setting.

A merely competent actor (someone capable of committing their lines to memory) can be coached out of a few bad habits by a decent, patient director. A bad actor, on the other hand, taxes even a heroic director (who, if so saddled, does better to concentrate on the starfish that can be saved, rather than achieve stunted mediocrity). We may joke that lawyers are ipso facto good actors, but not all lawyers are criminal defense lawyers; most work behind the scenes, in offices, and such. (I’ll probably get into trouble for saying this, but lawyers are apparently also generally very good-looking people! No wonder everyone picks on lawyers; they have intelligence and aesthetic appeal.) So there are no guarantees, right?

In my opinion, you should go to the theatre primarily to see good theatre, not to “support the arts” or make a charity donation. Thank goodness you don’t have to make a choice here; you can do all of the above at once. There’s no need for me to say “but it’s for a good cause” because the production’s great.

However, if you need a little help over that $100 ticket hurdle: You receive a $50 tax receipt for your charity donation. The money goes to the GCTC and a partner charity, in this case Operation Come Home. Operation Come Home is an organization that reunites street youth with their family or guardian, or gives them the support they need if that’s not an option. Personally, from what I’ve heard it’s a great social service; it gives these kids the chance to produce something to earn money, encouraging productivity and independence rather than dependence. They’re squarely in the “teach a man to fish” camp, and that I can get behind.

So how do you turn over a dozen (busy) lawyers into credible actors? Apparently you start with a good text, a director who loves and understands that text and who has a vision for it, give them a brilliant set, lighting, and costumes, and make sure the actors learn their lines. Then you coach them.

Here’s where the musical swell at the end of a scene, which technique I marked with a frowny-face in my review of Hamlet 2011, works: when you have actors who, though quite competent, are not overwhelmingly stellar, it doesn’t hurt to underscore their action and motivate them with strong musical (and lighting) accents. When I say “quite competent,” I mean, for example, that Daniel Hohnstein was a far better John Proctor than Daniel Day-Lewis at the very least. I could go through each cast member and tell you why I liked what they did, but I will save that for the Ottawa Theatre Confidential podcast. It’s not really an ensemble cast so much as it is a set of good individual performances that dovetail well.

I do feel much more willing to pay for legal services after seeing the play.

I recall that The Crucible had made a profound impression on me in high school, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why until I saw it again: the theme of the play is personal integrity, which is a very important philosophical, moral, and ethical concept to me (never mind whether or not I actually live a life of personal integrity). The Crucible is thus also a play about religion, or in a religious setting. Both law and theatre have their origin in religious practice; the law from the practical application of religious doctrine, and theatre from the ritual enactment of mythology. The Crucible highlights what happens when the word of the law becomes superior to the spirit of the law, or when mob mentality overwhelms an individual’s common sense. In that way, it is very much like Antigone, or some of the lighter writing of Ayn Rand.

No wonder Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller. He was a damn good playwright.

Anyway. I found the 2011 Lawyer Play to be a great production of a text that has meant something to me for half my life. It’s the only time I’ve seen it live, and it’s probably the only time I’ll see it live. I’m glad it was done well.

You have tonight or tomorrow night to see it. If you can, do so.

Get tickets here.

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.

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.