Oct 31, 2008

Today is Halloween. It's a day when everyone embraces theatre, and the world of artifice. Oh, and eats heaps of candy.

In speaking recently with Marshall Pynkoski, the Artistic Director of Opera Atelier, I was reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote -and I'm paraphrasing here -that there is nothing more telling about a person than a mask. Marshall said that when people come to see an Atelier production, they're constantly being reminded that they're watching a piece of theatre. To use a Mozartean example, no one suspends their disbelief over a magic flute. And he noted that kids have a much easier time in accepting the fantastic, make-believe world of opera than do adults who come to the art form later in life. It reminded me of all the times I went to the then-O'Keefe in my long dresses. No wonder being a princess for Halloween wasn't a big deal.

Alas, no outfits this year -unless you count frazzled journalist. Ministry puts it best.

Oct 30, 2008

Not Anon... But Awesome


Here's a note my friend Thom Marriott imported from his own, very-fine blog, to Facebook. It's worth a read (or two):

In a major cabinet shuffle this morning, Stephen Harper announced sweeping changes to his inner circle and introduced many new faces to some very important positions. The major news is undoubtedly the inclusion of 10 women, representing 26% of the cabinet seats. This is a long overdue move by any sitting government, and the Conservatives should be lauded for this move in the right direction toward equality in parliament. However, I have concerned myself with one specific move - one which actually demotes a woman from a major to minor portfolio.

Josee Verner, MP from Louis-Saint-Laurent, was demoted this morning from her post as Minister of Canadian Heritage, Minister on the Status of Women and Minister responsible for Official Languages to Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Minister for la Francophonie (two minor cabinet posts). This is a fantastic move on the part of the government. Ms. Verner has been an embarrassment in her post of Heritage minister, cutting programs without the ability to defend those cuts and failing to fight for her portfolio and its programs with the same verve that is expected of other ministers in their positions in Industry, Environment or Finance. I will grant that she was overburdened by leading three portfolios, but that simply emphasizes the lack of commitment to arts and culture by this Conservative government. Stephen Harper and Josee Verner have played that portfolio to their grassroots supporters, following the pro-free-market stance of Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in England. However, the English Conservatives have not held power in England since the retirement of Thatcher, and Ed Vaizey, the shadow cultural minister for the Brit Tories, is now pushing for more government funding of the arts, exclaiming that politics has no place in arts funding.

“Government money is pump-priming money,” he says. “Success breeds success. The irony is, if you double the grant to an arts body, you probably end up doubling the amount of private giving to it as well, because people say, ‘I want to invest in something that has the backing of the government.’

Today, Mr. Harper made a change to the landscape of arts in politics. James Moore, the youngest cabinet minister (he’s 32), has been named to the Heritage post and I must admit that it concerns me. Mr. Moore holds college diplomas in economics and business administration and a university degree in political science. He was first elected an MP at 24, quickly becoming Deputy Foreign Affairs Critic, Deputy National Revenue Critic, Senior Transport Critic, and Vice-Chair of the Commons Transport Committee. After re-election in 2004, Mr. Moore served as Official Opposition Transportation Critic, as well as Amateur Sport Critic in Harper’s shadow cabinet. After the Conservatives took power in 2006, James Moore was appointed to Parliamentary Secretary to both the Minister of Public Works and Government Services and the Minister for the Pacific Gateway and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics. By the time the most recent election rolled around, James had again shifted - this time to Secretary of State for the 2010 Olympics.

James Moore is obviously a hard worker and well liked within the Conservative Party. In his first term, he was named “the best up-and-coming MP” four years in a row by fellow MPs and staffers. His resume is impressive and his education is extensive. However, where are the qualifications to understand the portfolio that he has just been handed? What is his knowledge of the arts industry and its needs? In this time of uncertain economics, do we really have time to wait while a former transport critic learns the ropes of an underfunded portfolio? Will this MP take the time to fight for the support that is so desperately needed in the arts and culture industry, or is he already looking to the next rung on the ladder?

A change in leadership at Heritage Canada is a good thing, and I hope that James Moore is the right person for the job. If so, I leave him with this advice...

Listen.

Listen to the artists that strive to eke out an existence with meaning; with purpose.
Listen to the songs, the poems, and the plays that attempt to define our identity as a nation.
Listen to the heartbeat of a nation longing for a culture to call our own.
Listen to us and our cultural industry will thrive and be the envy of the world.
So much is possible from the office you now occupy, Mr. Moore. All you have to do is listen.

Oct 21, 2008

A Sunday Afternoon


Study, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

Post-brunch Sunday, I found myself a hop, skip, and a jump from the downtown park that is the originating point of the 2008 Toronto Zombie Walk. Though I'm not a fan of the film genre, I thought it would be a great experience, to "shoot" zombies in perhaps the most humane way possible. It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon, cool but bright, and full of great, friendly, community-minded people. There were families, older participants, young ones (some really young -a zombie princess was spotted) and even pets.

Every imaginable variation on the zombie theme was represented -a veritable A to Z of undead-types (chefs, gypsies, cheerleaders, doctors, even clever references to other film characters) -and even though some of the makeup and special effects were a bit gruesome, there was a spirit of fun and freedom sitting at the heart of the experience.

And theatre.

I hadn't seen this much spontaneous play-acting and consciously-minded inhabiting-of-character in ages; every zombie was play-acting their particular story, every participant trying to get across their specific brand of un-dead horror. It was clever. It was cool. It was creative. It was also a golden marketing moment that I don't think most smaller arts companies (at least in Toronto) would think of utilizing. Pity. The Toronto Zombie Walk, which attracted more than 2,000 participants this Sunday alone, embodies the all of qualities inherent to every good artistic community, alive, dead, or zombified. If you can, get down to the next one -there are several walks organized in various cities. Bring your camera, your curiosity, and... your braaaainnns.

Oct 18, 2008

Leaves


Leaves, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

Years ago, I decided to explore the one art I hadn't yet tried: drawing.

After drama, music, dance and photography, learning the basics of good drawing is a logical step, after all. I tend to be one of those people who strongly believes in a balanced diet of exposure to all things; art is, for me, a big, madly delicious buffet of experiences and expressions. A little bit of this, a scoop of that... Jill of all trades, master of none, but happy. Once you find the right dish, you never run out of ways to improve it, or want to stop experimenting with the ways in which it matches up with other tastes.

I'm more conscious of my visual side lately, noting the beauty of theatrical design in various productions I've attended; the costumes, lighting, props, and set all started out as ideas first done in drawing. My own initial work with pencil, charcoal, conte, and watercolour years ago lead to one of my great passions: oil painting. I painted with mad passion for years, and found much solace and calm through my work with brushes, palette, and a bare canvas. At times it was my greatest comfort, at others an utter torment -but it was always there.

Alas, life being cyclical, I've moved away from painting and back to my earlier love of photography. Looking through recent shots, I was struck by their painterly qualities. Amazing, how some arts naturally integrate themselves within artistic expression and form. Does this mean I'll be doing any free-form features in my arts writing? Doubtful. But it does mean I might trust in my subconscious instincts a bit more, without trying to fit into a mold of how I think I "ought" to sound. Writing is, for me, a careful balance of research, reason, observation, and experience; that doesn't, however, mean it should lack passion or personality.

In that vein, the next Play Anon interview will hopefully be published this week. I recently met with a painter who thinks the Canada Council should be abolished; before you get your shoulders up, take a deep breath. He dislikes government -period. It was one of the most enlightening conversations about art that I've ever had. I hope you'll enjoy it. Stay tuned.

Now get outside and enjoy the splendor of autumn. Take your camera, your pencil, your paintbrush.

Oct 10, 2008

Red


Red, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

... this is why artists do it.

Oct 8, 2008

Bipsy, Balls, Weill & Northrop

I didn't realize how much I enjoyed puppet theatre until I saw Famous Puppet Death Scenes, put on by Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop, last year. It was bizarre, it was gross, it was moving. It had moments of extreme insight, and others that wallowed in the most deliciously macabre humour. I couldn't stop thinking about it, and some of the powerful images it presented. Puppets may just be "blocks of wood", as Old Trout puppeteer Judd Palmer told me last week, but what they convey in the hands of such skilled masters is something far past the corporeal. To quote my first PlayAnon interviewee, they're "show(ing) us who we really are." Quite an achivement for mere blocks of wood. Run, don't walk, to see one of the best pieces of ... well, whatever you want call it. The pseudo-kiddie skit "Das Bipsy and Mumu Puppenspiel" is worth the price of admission alone.

The Young Centre, where you'll find the Old Trouts' puppet show, just came off a successful run of shows in their first-ever cabaret series, sponsored by Canwest. With roughly 150 artists ranging from gospel (Jackie Richardson) to world sounds (Waleed Abdulhamid) to classy jazz (Patricia O'Callaghan) and much more, the Canwest Cabaret Series, was, by all accounts, a smashing success. I was able to take in the Cabaret's Kurt Weill Songbook Saturday night, pre-Nuit Blanche-ing, and I must say, it had some of the best performances of Weill I've ever seen. Peppered with a range of interpretations and styles (including beautifully lyrical readings by Mike Ross and Sarah Slean, sexy, classic renditions by O'Callaghan, and decidedly scatty, quirky performances by Mary Margaret O'Hara), the Kurt Weill Songbook was a great example of an important idea: bringing supposedly "high" and/or "obscure" art to the masses -as in, to the ordinary grubs (us, that is) who happen to love it. Just days before, German songstress Ute Lemper had captivated a sold-out crowd at Roy Thomson Hall with her Dietrich-esque readings of Weill, and while the dressy crowd surely ate it up, the audiences assembled Saturday at the Young Centre were definitely more casual -in jeans, sipping beers, chatting with others at the numerous little tables set up in the Bailie Theatre so as to give a club-like feel. It was intimate, casual, and smart.

Monday night I attended the evening of skits and sketches put on by national political theatre group The Wrecking Ball. Made up entirely of pieces written only in the past week, and having had only one rehearsal, the show was part of a national effort to bring attention to the arts cuts that have so coloured the lives of Canadian artists these past few months. Along with clever work by Rick Roberts and Pierre Brault, the evening also featured work by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, whom Kelly Nestruck, the Globe's Theatre Critic, rightly says is "swiftly turning into Canada's David Hare." Dead on. My favourite, however, was Teresa Pavlinek's tale of two ordinary people who share a bus ride, along with stationery, and eventually, their dreams and ambitions. Called "The Road to Ordinary", it was perhaps the least partisan piece of the evening, but for me, it was also the most moving, notable for the subtle ways in which Pavlinek showed how culture has the power to change lives. Great acting too, from Ieva Lucs and Hardee T. Lineham. Best Speech of the Evening Award went to Michael Healey, who reminded the packed Tarragon that, despite what we may think of him, Prime Minister Harper is a patriot too. It was brave, good, and ballsy. Kudos, Michael.

The last word goes to Northrop Frye, again, taken from The Educated Imagination. I like this one, because, based on the artists I've spoken with, including my next PlayAnon interviewee, artists of various disciplines in this country didn't really speak to one another until the arts cuts were made public. What a way to foster discussion. Still, there's a long way to go in terms of cultivating those connections. So, without further adue, Mr. Frye's thoughts...

... just as it's easy to confuse thinking with the habitual associations of language, so it's easy to confuse thinking with thinking in words. I've even heard it said that thought is inner speech, though how you'd apply that statement to what Beethoven was doing when he was thinking about his ninth symphony, I don't know. But the study of other arts, such as painting and music, has many values for literary training apart from their value as subjects in themselves. Everything man does that's worth doing is some kind of construction, and the imagination is the constructive power of the mind set free to work on pure construction, construction for its own sake. The units don't have to be words; they can be numbers or tones or colours or bricks or pieces of marble. It's hardly possible to understand what the imagination is doing with words without seeing how it operates with some of these other units.

Oct 7, 2008

Joy Is For Everyone

Walking up Bay Street at 10pm Saturday night, I couldn't help but look around in wonder. The streets were jammed, and there was a palpable excitement in the air. It was the third annual Nuit Blanche, and Toronto was staying up late to catch the "all-night art thing." Whether visual or performance, everyone was curious about experiencing... something. The flashing pixellations in the windows of City Hall were like a beacon for the thousands walking up Bay street, past the lineups of others curious about finding out about being part of a live art installation.

Waiting to meet a friend in the chaotic, crowded madness of Nathan Phillips Square, I had to wonder: "Wow, are we all elite?" Stephen Harper's sad, sadly hilarious idea about art being a "niche" meant only for elite people at galas seemed really removed from the reality surrounding me Saturday night.

And after wandering around the city all night, and taking in the smiling excitement, open experimentation, child-like curiosity, and outright wonder that such an event produces, I can only reiterate my own position: culture isn't partisan. Like good food, we all consume culture. We all have our tastes, sure, we all have our favourites, we all have the things that work better for us than others. But we still share the passion, curiosity, wonder, and delight. Art isn't made by, much less for, outsiders. It's about us, for us, by us. Hallelujah.

In that spirit, I'm excited about the spate of openings coming to Toronto this week and next. Tonight the magnificent Famous Puppet Death Scenes returns to the Young Centre; I saw this wonderful show, by Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop, last year, and in all frankness, it changed my life. It changed the life of my 905-dwelling friend, too. Never having been to the Young Centre, much less to puppet theatre, she was so enamoured, enthralled, and inspired, that she's planning on returning with a gaggle of 905 buddies this year, to introduce them to the wonders of Old Trouts, puppets, the YC, and the Distillery District. Ordinary? Whatever.

The next fortnight also sees the openings of Scratch, a new play by newcomer Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, whose mother, journalist Caroline Corbeil, died of cancer. The play is based those experiences, though it has comic elements. With my own mother starting a second round of chemotherapy this week, there's a special significance to the work for me. Something about the scenario of a young woman writing and sharing her life and vulnerabilities that I find very brave. Sometimes art helps us make sense of our own lives through sharing experiences. Carrying on the big-up-tha-women theme, Nightwood Theatre launches its fall season with an adaptation of the Helen Humphreys novel Wild Dogs; from the sounds of it, the work is challenging, disturbing, unusual. Good. I like that.

Speaking of challenging, Canstage opens their season next week with Frost/Nixon, a play about the famous interviews between Richard Nixon and David Frost in the 70s. Having already played to great acclaim in Vancouver, I'm looking forward to seeing this Ted Dykstra-directed work, with its timely themes and, from what I've heard, excellent performances. Soulpepper, a company Dykstra helped co-found eleven years ago, offers the Toronto premiere production of A Raisin In The Sun next week too, and never having seen it live, I'm looking forward to it immensely.

Amidst all this, I'll remember the mascots, who were probably my favourite Nuit Blanche installation. It was silly, stripped-down, basic theatre in its most absurd and joy-full state. Called I Promise It Will Always Be This Way, and performed beneath the blazing lights of Lamport Stadium, with Yoko Ono's enormous IMAGINE PEACE billboard illuminated in the background, the sight of various furry mascots dancing, jumping, and instigating cheers made for pure, unfiltered joy. I looked around at my fellow Torontonians, between snapping shots and dodging the bouncing beach balls tossed into the crowd; everyone was smiling. Isn't that the point?