Jan 28, 2010

Woman. Hungry.

As I tucked into my quickly-thrown-together past earlier tonight, the thought occurred that it was perhaps a bit late to be digging into such a rich dish. 10:30pm? Yikes.

"Have to hit the gym tomorrow," I thought, with more than a hint of anxiety.

While I am a big promoter (and lover) of physical activity, I can't deny that a larger thought overtook the guilt-tinged one: damn it, I'm hungry. I had a long, stressful day, it's cold out, and damn, I was really hungry. Women are often, I feel, given the nth degree of guilt when it comes to our relationship with food. It's as if we're only meant to eat salad, fruit, and tuna, and never revel in the hugely enjoyable delight that comes with gastronomy. "Stay thin!" every media image shouts, "body fat is disgusting!" It's as if I have choose: a great body, or fulfilling my appetite. How unfair.

Thus, it follows that a large part of my attraction to Nigella Lawson is her turning away from this guilt over all things food-related, and freely, sensuously celebrating indulgence in the acts of cooking and eating. I still sometimes think that, despite my truly admiring her bringing in a decidedly European approach, we're too far too youth-and-skinny obsessed (especially in North America) to truly heed her message. She isn't arguing for gluttony -but nor is she arguing for poe-faced self-denial. She's arguing for rich, luscious womanhood, something I'm still not sure North America can wrap its size-0-youth-obsessed heads around.

And so it was that I found myself greedily spooning in mouthfuls of gorgeous, creamy, vegetable-laden pasta lastnight, amidst watching documentaries, writing future blogs, and organizing a myriad of projects. It hit the spot. I offer this handy stir-together recipe for all busy, harried women -and men -who want a good, nourishing meal after a long day. Pour yourself a glass of wine while you're at it. Eat, and enjoy.

You'll need:

roughly a handful of pasta (or two, if you want leftovers)
salt
olive oil
Noilly Prat (or other good white vermouth)
1/2 cup broccoli (baby is best)
1/2 red pepper
1/2 tomato (or 1 plum tomato)
1/4 red chili
a handful of spinach leaves
1/2 cup tomato sauce (passata, jarred, or creamy are all fine)
roughly 4 tbsp fresh-grated parmesan

Salt and boil water. Add pasta, stir, add more salt (I use coarse-cut sea salt, but use whatever you like).

As the pasta cooks, prep the vegetables. I've listed broccoli, red pepper, spinach, and chili, but you can also use carrot, zuccini, onion -whatever you have on-hand, but keep it varied, colourful, and flavourful.

Peel broccoli stems and discard the peels. Cut peeled stems on the diagonal in medium strips; judge florets accordingly. You want them to be bite-sized. Set aside. Roughly chop red pepper (again, keep pieces bite-sized -medium-ish, in other words). Set aside. Chop tomato and set aside. Wash and roughly dry spinach leaves. Remove stems. Chop roughly and set aside. Carefully slice chili pepper (it's a good idea to wear gloves); if you don't like things too spicy, discard the seeds. Set aside, making sure the chopped chilis don't touch anything else.

Drain pasta once it's cooked; 8-10 minutes should do the trick, depending on what type you use -I like penne or large shells for things involving sauces, but if you only have spaghetti or some other ribbon-like pasta, then leave out the tomato-based sauce (and indeed, chopped tomato) and go with butter and garlic instead.

Using the same pot you cooked the pasta in, heat up the olive oil. You'll need just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Turn down the heat to medium. Add chopped broccoli, and stir around to coat. Add a splash of Noilly Prat and clamp the lid on to steam lightly for 3-5 minutes. When broccoli is a bright green, add the red pepper and stir. The mixture might still be liquid -that's okay. Add the chopped tomato and stir around. Clamp on the lid and allow to bubble merrily for about 2-3 minutes. Add the chilies and stir; let cook for about a minute.

Shake off excess water from the pasta and throw in, along with any tomato-based sauce you may be using. Stir. Add chopped spinach. Stir stir stir. The spinach might seem overwhelming for the pasta, but as it is heated with the rest of the mixture, it will quickly wilt down, leaving gorgeous green ribbons winding their way through the pot.

Gently grate the parmesan straight in. Stir gently and turn off the heat. I've given a measurement of 4 tbsp, but certainly, use as much (or as little) as you wish. You want the cheese essentially to draw things together. Grate more on top (if you wish) once it's in your plate, in a mound of gorgeous tomato-y lusciousness.

Spoon in. Drink wine. Repeat.

And most of all: no guilt. You're hungry. Period.

Jan 27, 2010

iDon'tKnow

Apple unveiled its latest creation today, the iPad, which is aimed at filling a gap between laptops and smartphones. Was this necessary? Techheads might argue yes, but I'm not entirely convinced. So many technological gizmos derive their value from the fresh-off-the-shelf shinyness than their day-to-day practicality -though I freely admit there is a kind of decadent, delicious value in the revelry of the new. Who didn't want an iPhone when it came out? I sure did, and though I suspect the attraction to the iPad has a number of variables -age, profession, traveling needs -what Steve Jobs et al is banking on is, of course, consumer dedication to electronics of the Apple variety.

However, I am concerned about what the iPad means to publishers -of books, magazines, and newspapers. According to a report in my morning paper (remember those?), the figures for those who consume news online is rapidly rising, especially among those under 55 years of age. According to the Globe and Mail's Simon Houpt, who is quoting the Consumerology Report from Toronto ad agency Bensimon Byrne and the Gandalf Group research firm, 65 per cent of respondents engage in online news reading every day. This compares with 51 per cent of those who read print. Houpt quotes David Herle, principal of the Gandalf Group, who note that "most people under the age of 55 now prefer to get their new from online source than from (printed) newspapers."

What does this mean for journalists? It's an issue that's still being bitterly debated -online, in print, on the radio, and television. Whither the revenue streams? Questions are similar when it comes to books. According to Yahoo Tech Canada, "Authors can have books accompanied with video, colour photos, can change the font size" -that's truly incredible. I can see where iPad enhancements would (will) be wonderful for things like cookbooks (I'd love to see extras from the French Women series by Mireille Giuliano) and even non-fiction (Terry Gould's harrowing "Murder Without Borders" would be incredible, or any number of biographies, for example), but when it comes to fiction, I want my own pictures, thanks so much. All that digital hoo-ha is for naught if you have a crappy story. And, not to sound terribly old-fashioned, but isn't the mark of a good author the power they have to paint a unique mental picture in the minds of each individual reader?

There's something so soothing to me about the tactile nature of the printed word. Don't get me wrong: I absolutely love online news -I admit to being a complete junkie, and I've worked in it for most of my journalism career. But first thing in the morning, bleary-eyed and messy-haired, I want the slippery feel of newsprint and stained fingertips from printing press ink as I sip a hot cuppa and pick at toast. When it comes to books, I crave the smooth-rough feel of paper, the cut edges, the flapping jacket covers. I know, I'm a romantic. But the iPad isn't for romantics. That's okay -there's room for all kinds, types and gizmos in this world. Just be sure to keep your paper handy when the tea spills.

Jan 26, 2010

Humans

Nearly two hours after the end of a conference call to discuss rebuilding ideas for Haiti, and I'm still spinning -with ideas, inspirations, new insights and old questions. It all feels so mind-boggling, and concurrently, soul-searing.

The call tonight featured a number of distinguished participants -aid workers, doctors, politicians, and members of the advocacy group ONE. I'm going to be posting a more comprehensive report tomorrow, but in the meantime, I felt the need to wind down with music and wine (sangiovese, if you must know). The music below is courtesy of a group called This Is Awesome, and was heard on the excellent late-night program on Canadian radio called The Signal, hosted by the inimitable Laurie Brown. With the weird, witty, appropriately wry title "They Only Have to Look Like Humans", the work is dreamy and edgy and the perfect ending to a long, busy day. Enjoy.

<a href="http://christinebougiedafyddhughes.bandcamp.com/track/they-only-have-to-look-like-humans">They Only Have To Look Like Humans by Christine Bougie &amp; Dafydd Hughes</a>

Jan 23, 2010

Oh Coco

Conan O'Brien came out of nowhere in the 1990s and rocked my late night world. I was never a huge fan of David Letterman back then (too snarky) or Johnny Carson (too old), though I loved Arsenio Hall, for the great musical guests and generally modern feel of his talk show. But it was Conan who really showed me how comedy could work in a late night talk show context. The wacky cast of characters, combined with O'Brien's zesty silliness and embrace of surrealism immediately hit a nerve, and it never really left -even when he homogenized his sweet-sour-salty humour upon moving to Los Angeles to host The Tonight Show.

Conan is funny, but he's also shrewd, and I suspect he knew that his loopy cast of late-night characters probably wouldn't gel with viewers in that time slot, people who were more accustomed to Jay Leno's gentle (some might say dull) comedy. But he was (and, I think, remains) keenly aware of the power of fun: his farewell speech on lastnight's final Coco-hosted Tonight Show episode proves it. "I hate cynicism," he said, and continued:
For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen…This massive outpouring of support and passion, from so many people, has been overwhelming for me. The rallies, the signs, all this goofy outrageous creativity on the internet …you made a sad situation joyous and inspirational.
No kidding. Nothing kills the fun, the zany, and the childlike instincts faster than narrowed-eyes, tight-lipped "I don't think so"-ism. Good for Conan for not giving in and for knowing his funnybone is more important to protect than his ego.




Still, I'm naturally saddened by the entire Tonight Show/NBC debacle. I've followed Conan's career for years and it's truly horribly sad to see an original voice in comedy be so shut out, in such a brutal, mean-spirited way. But, in a larger sense, I think this might all work out for the best. The Masturbating Bear, Pimpbot 5000, Heavy Metal Inappropriate Guy, the hilariously tacky "If They Mated" and the zany famous mouths have run their respective comedic courses, and Conan's new-found freedom is a golden opportunity to dream up 21st century counterparts.

Creative, strange, surreal... and funny, Conan and Co. have a unique humour that isn't to everyone tastes. But it is important to have in the late-night landscape, as an equal, alongside everyone else. Go Coco. I can't wait to see what you do next. Just make sure it's appropriate to your gifts... otherwise, I'm sicking Triumph on you.

Conan O'Brien - Inappropriate Reaction Channel

| MySpace Video


Jan 22, 2010

Hallelujah



Tonight the Help for Haiti Now concert took over every major North American network. This tune was a huge favourite -a moving, tender, insightful moment full of soul and musicality. I never thought I'd enjoy JT singing a favourite Leonard Cohen song but... I was wrong. He should just sit and damn well sing more often. Even my mother (the opera fan) sat, enraptured, and enthused on the simple beauty of Justin's voice. Accompanying him was Matt Morris, a multi-talented singer/songwriter who's worked with fellow Mouseketeers Timberlake and Christina Aguilera in the past.

The gorgeousness purity of "Hallelujah" was indicative of the soulful, stripped-down nature of all the performances. Gospel sounds were heard throughout the night, with Stevie Wonder, John Legend, and Jennifer Hudson all making a noise most joyous; Hudson's rendition of "Let It Be" was another highlight for me. Madonna took the two-decade-old "Like A Prayer" out of retirement and let fly; the rousing gospel chorus that carries the song to its conclusion was hugely uplifting and moving. Even Madge had to move around.



Overall, Hope For Haiti Now was full of great sounds and some genuinely moving moments. Anderson Cooper's reports, featuring overwhelmed survivors (mainly children), could've turned maudlin and saccharine, but miraculously, stuck with being gently hopeful, while maintaining the appropriate hum of urgency. It was a lot better than the sentimental pap I was half-expecting/dreading. Well-done, all-around.

For a complete list of ways you can help and donate, click here.

Jan 20, 2010

Power Play


Power is rapidly becoming a big issue in the Haiti crisis: who rules amidst chaos? It's clear no one wants to return to the old system. But what kind of change hath tragedy wrought?

I thought about this in going over a release I received about a new adaptation of Shakespeare's bloody play Macbeth -a work that revolves around ideas of various kinds of power. Toronto-based company Theatre Jones Roy has taken this idea of power in political and military arenas, and turned it inside out, choosing instead to focus on the push-pull machinations between Macbeth and his wife. With Macbeth Reflected, the idea of power as shared between two lovers is examined with pinpoint precision. Lead performers John Ng and Mary Ashton provided some solid insights into the character and the work, reflecting the notion that Shakespeare didn't just write for his time, but for all time, and perhaps especially, this time.

What's the one thing that characterizes the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

Mary: They are partners in almost everything they do. They desire and fulfill their dreams together. Unfortunately, their dreams become so unhealthy that their partnership eventually crumbles.

With the emphasis on relationship in this production, how does it change the nature of the tragedy?

John: The body count is definitely much lower, and you will find certain character plots, known history and supernatural elements of the original have been eliminated or severely reduced. The retelling has placed this tragedy back in the hands of the two who are ultimately responsible for their own suffering and, in so doing, provide some insights into human psychology.

What role does sex play?

Mary: Sex, in the coital sense, as with any relationship, plays a big role whether it's present or not. With Lady M being "unsexed", she desires more than anything to be ruthless in her pursuit and to have no remorse or fears weigh her down which were attributes often associated with the "softer sex" in Shakespeare's time. Her femininity still exists and she most definitely uses it to her advantage.

How much does their being childless influences their choices and thought processes?

John: The loss has affectively reshaped (the couple's) moral universe. Since we were robbed once before, we've become acutely aware when a perceived injustice is done upon us. We're hardened. Very hard.

Mary: It's been an integral part in the development of (Lady Macbeth). I am fairly certain, based on the text, that she has had a baby. Where that baby is now, the text doesn't indicate but certainly there is loss. Loss and/or lacking can drive people to do unimaginable things and often times, with the best intentions.
-----------------------------

That idea, of a lack driving people to do horrible things, feels so timely and intimate, even as it's timeless and epic. Perhaps this bloody tale of two lovers has something to teach past the old high school interpretation of "absolute power corrupting absolutely." Perhaps power -and the ways it is used and abused in relation to those in need -is much more subtle, if disturbing, an argument. Those subtleties are worth considering.

Macbeth Reflected runs to January 24th at the Lower Ossington Theatre in Toronto.
For more information, go to artsboxoffice.ca.

Jan 16, 2010

Prince


Like many following the crisis in Haiti, I'm left with tremendous feelings of sadness. What can I do? How can I help? Is my donation enough? What else? As a journalist, it's been interesting to observe the various ways stories from Port au Prince are being related; some are more positive than others, but there is an undeniable emphasis on loss, which is both fitting and yet discomforting. Surely we have to start focusing on the reconstruction stories soon. Energy goes where eyes go, after all. And eyes need to be on feeding, rebuilding, doctoring, and all-around aid.

Jean-Michel Basquiat understood this concept of energy. His paintings were full of question marks: who am I where do I belong? how do I define myself -as a black man, an artist, an American? His works, utterly shaped by graffiti and street art, have a rhythm and pulse that many painters work hard at capturing. They're not meant to be soothing, polite, or elegant, but rather, raucous, loud, and confrontational. I frequently wonder if this is owing to Basquiat's own mixed background and the sense I get that, in his 27 short years, he was on an urgent, stabbing quest to try to fit in -on artistic as well as socio-economic levels -with a society that he knew, to some extent, would never entirely welcome him as their own. Maybe this sense helped to fuel the rage I see (and love) in his works.

I came across a book featuring his work today and was forced to pause between floor cleanings. Leafing through Life Doesn't Frighten Me, Basquiat's shifting sense of power, vacillating between lost rebel and confident artiste, was both enthralling and challenging. His works are a loud, exuberant complement to Maya Angelou's proud paean to resolve in the face of massive fear and overwhelming odds.

It may sound pretentious, but I found a new power in his many works exploring black identity in the light of the Haitian tragedy. Basquiat's father was born in Haiti, while his mother was Puerto Rican. What would he think about the events of the last few days? How would he express the magnitude of the calamity that has befallen his father's homeland? Would he look at UN efforts and proclaim SAMO? Or might he paint, in the spirit of Angelou's words, a defiant, fortifying tribute to the indomitable spirit of Haiti's citizens? We will never know. But seeing his works again have, in a strange way, given me a sort of hope the news hasn't, and perhaps, won't. That's okay. Maybe that's part of the beauty -and mystery -of art.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes

And listen for my scream,

If I’m afraid at all

It’s only in my dreams.

I’ve got a magic charm

That I keep up my sleeve

I can walk the ocean floor

And never have to breathe.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Not at all

Not at all.

Jan 13, 2010

Yele


The tragedy in Haiti is unfolding moment by moment.

Anyone who learned of the massive earthquake the country suffered lastnight shared a visceral response; the tragedy is compounded by its location, with a country infused with a painful past that still pollutes the present.

One of the requirements of my position is to put aside the humanist gut-response and stick on my journalist's hat. It isn't always easy. But looking at the footage lastnight and into today, I am fascinated by the ways the earthquake has been reported. As darkness fell last evening, I was transfixed by television updates, though, this being 2010, I was online almost constantly as well. The internet was truly at the frontline of reporting, with people posting photos to Twitpic and the like, showing massive devastation. There were groups set up for families and plenty of links to aid organizations (see list, below). Outlets like CNN and CBC were using the very photos I'd already seen online in their news reports.


The nature of news reporting has changed -widened, expanded, and become far more immediate. Wyclef Jean understands this; his Twitter feed was providing constant information and updates on how to help -particularly through fast, easy, mobile means. It was heartening to see him get on 360 With Anderson Cooper so quickly. The question of a music/entertainment artist also being an activist has many people creasing foreheads and furrowing brows, but I don't think anyone questions Wyclef's commitment and dedication to making his homeland a better place. It's the precise reason Yele Haiti exists.



Along with Yele, here are other ways to help:
Oxfam
Doctors Without Borders (MSF)
Samaritans Purse
Unicef
The Globe and Mail has a good resource page. It's constantly being updated by a continual zipper of information, including phone numbers, stories, facts, and links, including a statement from Governor-General Michaƫlle Jean, who, one presumes (hopes), will be using all the resources available to help her homeland. ONE has a very extensive list of links and statements from aid organizations. CBC also has a thorough list of facts, phone numbers, and ways Canadians can help.

History and politics always play into any aid effort, perhaps nowhere moreso than in Haiti, but let's hope the online world mobilizes people to put those aside for now and focus on the healing.

Jan 12, 2010

5 for '10

A new year always implies a fresh start. Those starts are always available to us whenever we so choose, but there's something so fortifying about coinciding our personal beginnings with chronological ones, as if once a year, people (or those following the Julian calendar anyway) decide, en masse, that they can influence the course of their lives through resolution, faith, commitment, and an embrace of potential. Would that this attitude could last to Easter, when the real promise of renewal has never been made so plain for Western society.

In any case, people seem to love lists -to debate, to ponder, to look back and to measure one's thoughts and accomplishments against. Should that movie be there? Why wasn't that album included? What happened to that book? We measure our lives, our personal triumphs and tragedies, which seem to be both timeless and weighted to a specific moment, against such lists. I was equally heartened and amused to see possibilities for potential laid out in one particular list; some of the items are foolhardy, some are curious, some are inspired -but the spirit behind them all is, I think, genuine, and the spark of springy hopefulness is encouraging in these dour midwinter days.

So, as before, here is a list -a personal one -of things I am looking forward to in 2010:

More Live Music
While I am not a particularly big fan of club gigs (I never really was -comes with being raised in opera houses, I suppose) there are a few acts I'm hoping to see (and blog about) this year, including The Big Pink and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I was introduced to the former by a fellow twitterati with exquisite music taste who saw them in an early-winter gig here in Toronto and was suitably impressed; having heard The Big Pink's stuff on the radio both prior and following that concert, I've become entranced by their marriage of old and new sounds. This is rock and roll you can dance to. I like that. And... BRMC? Dirty, good, loud. I'll take it.

Pop Life
Happening at the National Gallery of Canada in June, this exhibit is featuring works of my very-favourites, including Tracey Emin, Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, and (sigh!) Keith Haring. It's only January but I'm already excited. I can think of no other group of artists who have so changed the modern cultural landscape -and in so doing, altered the way we experience culture and its relationship to the everyday mundane reality of daily life. Thank you, National Gallery!

MOMAhhh
Still in the art vein, the venerable New York City art museum is hosting an exhibit of the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the first in the US in three decades. Exploring the entirety of the master photographer's career, Cartier-Bresson was, and remains, one of my all-time favourites. I recall studying his works in film school many moons ago, and being drawn in by the inherent drama within his photographs. Suitably, MOMA's website calls him "the keenest observer of the global theater of human affairs". Yes, his work is indeed theatrical, but it's also fleshily, gorgeously human and sensuously alive. If this doesn't push me on to visit France at last, I don't know what will.

Prima Donna
Presented as part of the 2010 Luminato Festival, "Prima Donna" will receive its North American premiere this June. Awesome Canadian singer/songwriter/all-around music god Rufus Wainwright channels his own inner diva and his passion for the operatic form in creating a work about the fictional faded opera star Regine and the re-examination of her life choices. When it debuted in Manchester last July, the New York Times called the music "impressionistic yet neo-medieval, tinged with modal harmonies". Hopefully I'll be interviewing the heavenly-voiced Mr. Wainwright about it closer to the opening. Stay tuned.

Toot Toot
I feel like there's a big piece of me I've been hiding away that should probably come out. In that vein, I'm going to be posting my artwork, photography, and video interviews more often. This video is a favourite from last year. It's about the award-winning production of "Eternal Hydra" by Crow's Theatre:



So here's to embracing... everything... which is everything, after all. I think Lauryn Hill expresses it best:
after winter / must come spring / change it comes / eventually

Jan 10, 2010

Boogie On, Darth

As if you needed proof Star Wars crosses every barrier in the universe -social, political, financial -comes this clip, proving it also crosses artistic and cultural worlds. It may be clumsy, it may be silly, but it's earnest, and so clearly trying. Combining Charleston-esque dance moves with pseudo-Martha Graham waves and mixed with a super-hefty dose of 70s tacky factor, this has to be one of the most glee-inducing tributes to the beloved George Lucas flick.



There's also a clearly discernible vibe from another movie that was huge in 1977: Saturday Night Fever. Dancing -good, bad, and everything in-between -combined with popular media like television was a big damn deal back then. Clips like this seem to echo this trend. After the painful, tumultuous times of the 1960s, I think people just wanted to boogie. Who can blame them? And... who knew Darth Vader could wiggle like that? I'm pretty sure the force has a beat -whether or not you can dance to it doesn't matter. The point is, you should try -having a nifty cape or gold jumpsuit doesn't hurt, either.

Jan 8, 2010

He Likes Us



I love this montage of press junkets put together by filmmaker Jason Reitman during his Up In The Air interview rounds. The fun, punchy style of the piece is in stark contrast to the dreary, true nature of junkets.

Having interviewed a few people during TIFF, you do feel as though you're one in a long assembly-line of reporters armed with microphones, recorders, and the standard line of questioning. More than once, I've actually felt bad for the interview subject -if only because they spend their days answering the same, inane questions. Time must surely stop at such moments. I can only imagine how many times Reitman was asked "what was it like to work with George Clooney?" It's easy to forget, amidst the hype, that there is a real human being sitting in front of you. That person has real thoughts, feelings, ideas and perceptions.


It's nice to see Reitman thinks the same of journalists; there's a curiosity about these people, inherent in the fast edits of this clip, that they have lives, too, and those lives aren't always strictly defined by livelihood. The Joe Strummer soundtrack also hints at a punk ethos that doesn't quite gel with the promotional duties outlined by Hollywood, that leaving the human out of such marketing-based interaction robs one of experiencing the true joy of the moment. It's also neat to see Reitman using social media with such flair and creativity; maybe it's a sign of his (our) generation that we understand its deep ability to share and connect in ways that weren't possible years ago. I wonder what directors like Frank Capra or Alfred Hitchcock would do, would that they had today's technological tools at their disposal. It's too easy to forget the humans amidst machines -that there's a real person on the other side of the microphone, the tweet, the status update. Reitman's junket montage, with its myriad of faces and smiles, is a wonderful reminder of the power of connection in today's techno-obsessed world.

Jan 6, 2010

The Outsider

Next month will mark ten years since I've moved back to Canada.

Prior to that, I'd been living abroad, first in Ireland, then England, for close to two years. I learned so much during my time away, though in the midst of it, I couldn't shake the feeling of being an outsider. In my youth, I truly fit the role of a misfit; I was the girl who'd skip class to go to the art gallery or, in elementary school, intentionally forget gym clothes to read Kerouac. But being in a completely new environment presented a new, much more frightening challenge. It was uppermost in my mind to fit in as much as possible with my new chosen countries and their inhabitants, while at the same time maintaining my individuality and identity (which was a very shifting, transforming thing). Keeping balanced amidst those cataclysmic changes was a high wire act I didn't always perform successfully. Never has Dickens' "best of times / worst of times" dialectic been more obviously manifest in my life than it was when I lived abroad.

So it was with a lot of fascination that I read about Canadian theatre artist Maja Ardal's work You Fancy Yourself, a classic fish-out-of-water tale. In the one-woman show, award-winning Ardal uses pieces from her own background as a transplanted Icelandic native growing up in 1950s Edinburgh to tell the tale of friends new and old, memories made and forgotten. I had the opportunity to exchange some ideas around the 'outsider' label with her, and to glean her thoughts around an aspect of theatre that's always fascinated me: the solo show.

Where did the idea for You Fancy Yourself originate? How much of it is personal?
I loved to dress up when I was a kid. My Mum had a trunk full of fabulous forties gowns and blouses. When I put those clothes on, I imagined myself to be completely transformed-as if I was the most glamorous film star in Hollywood. One day, I wore an amazing puffy frilly "off the shoulder" blouse to school, thinking that all the girls in the playground would worship and adore me. Instead, I was ridiculed, and pushed around by a mob of girls who all shouted "Who do you think you are!? YOU FANCY YOURSELF!!"

About six years ago I started to think about those awful childhood moments that throw the cold light of day onto our dreams. I began to write story/poems about other children I remembered from my childhood, and the public humiliations they went through at the hands of bullies. I decided to try turning those poems into a play. The world of the play came alive around Elsa, a little Icelandic girl who has to learn how to fit into the rough world of the Edinburgh playground. As I wrote the play I compressed it all into fictional scenes. When I performed all the characters, I knew I'd made the right choice, as it is truly a joy to perform them all.

What are the best and worst things about doing a one-woman show?
The best things about doing a one person show are that I don't have to compromise to other cast members when we have a gig or a tour, I am free to invent new things on the spur of the moment and I get really fit because the show is so physical! Also, I have an intimate relationship with the audience. I can't hide from them and they can't hide from me, and they start to realise how much I need them to play with me, and frankly their surprise and delight feeds me with joy and energy.

The worst things are that it's lonely in the dressing room -it's lonely when I'm on tour, like in Prince Edward Island and Salt Spring, or Edinburgh, and have no one to share the sights with when I have the flu, and have to pretend to myself that I don't, and just do the show because there's no understudy. I did a run of the show in Hamilton starting with the flu. The bizarre thing is that I would always start to feel better when the adrenaline kicked in, then the next day it would all have to begin gain.

What do you hope audiences come away with?
Having done so many shows and received so many written and verbal responses, I think I can safely say that people come away feeling rewarded, that they were at a play that spoke to them so personally while at the same time making them laugh wildly-and shed the odd tear. The play seems to remind us that when we try too hard to belong we must be careful not to betray those we love.

You Fancy Yourself runs at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille until January 23rd.

Photo credit: Alex Felipe

Jan 5, 2010

One Great Runaway



I'm in the midst of putting together a piece about the National Film Board's animated selections at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which opens January 21st in Park City, Utah. I always associate the wintery film festival with intellectual independent features but it's warming to see a loopy animated short like Runaway be featured there as well. The Cordell Barker work is one of the three animated shorts being shown at this year's festival, the other two being Vive La Rose
and Rains.

Runaway had its world premiere last May at the Cannes Film Festival, and was also shown at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September. Watching it, I was taken back to my youth, when I saw Barker's first animated short, The Cat Came Back. With its zany animation and insanely catchy theme song, the short remains a personal favourite of mine. What's so neat about Barker's works is that he blends social commentary in with the crazy narratives and colourful characters. So Runaway is about much more than a train; it's a not-so-subtle metaphor on class distinctions, consumerism, environmentalism, economics and social responsibility. It's also fabulously entertaining, with a lively score by Ben Charest (the man behind the Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville) and Barker's kooky, charming animation.



One of my mantras for 2010 is "less head, more heart." To borrow a line from Rumi, I'm attempting to stop the forward-pressure of the mind, at least sometimes, and blend it with Duchamp's idea that "the desire to understand everything fills me with horror" -so why try? It feels like such a ciphoning of energy to try to rationalize and square out the details of every little thing, all the time; it feels like an egotistical attempt at control that isn't there in the first place. Head just can't replace heart, and at its essence, this is what good animation (and all visual art, in fact) provides me: a portal into a world where logic doesn't always rule, control is illusory, and possibility is endless. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be challenging or difficult, or contain social commentary and exploration, but I think it's possible to marry the yin and yang together, through skill, and of course, passion. The best animation, for me, goes straight for child-like wonder, universal feeling, and a sparkling joy that is sometimes intertwined with social commentary. The NFB brings all of that wonder, feeling, and joy to Utah this year, in zany colours and deft pencil strokes. Looking at their works, it makes sense the word "art" is contained in "heart." As it should be.

Jan 3, 2010

Gracias, Lhasa

It was with great sadness, and more than a little shock, that I learned of Lhasa de Sela's recent passing. The gypsy-esque, European-influenced singer has become a favourite of mine, with her hauntingly sensual low voice, poetic, surreal lyrics, and open embrace of various cultural sounds, from Latin-influenced to Eastern European, and all genres - folk, rock, electronica, klezmer -in-between



I remember being excited and little nervous when I interviewed Lhasa last spring about her new album. After the rich, gleeful sounds of 1998's La Llorona, and the world-folk sounds of 2003's The Living Road, she wasn't sure people would be prepared for the moody, stripped-down atmosphere of her newest, self-titled offering, recorded entirely live. Our conversation ran the gamut, from background to influences to singing styles. We tossed around the benefit and drawbacks of analog and digital technologies; we talked about soul music, and since visual art played a big part in her albums, we talked about the relationships between music and visuals. I'll never forget what she said: "music is a conversation; art is just for yourself."



Lhasa's music defiantly (fabulously) rejects any easy categorization or definition, in the same manner that many of my favourite artists do, including, notably, Gavin Friday. In these days where pop, rock, dance, rap, hip-hop and country are both more loosely defined and yet more rigorously defined (and defining) than ever, Lhasa's music was (and remains) a breath of fresh air. Curiosity, passion, and an indefatigable spirit to explore new-meets-old sonic territory in unusual, challenging ways is a hallmark of good artistry, and a demonstration of commitment to one's craft (or muse, if you will). Lhasa was committed. Her music doesn't always make you comfortable; it makes you think. It takes you to places where you'd rather not venture, but can't say "no" to. Her voice was a call to stumble, trance-like, up a hill, in the dark, knees bleeding, hands scraping at dirt, and then stand at the edge of a windy cliff, not merely admiring the view but wondering at horrors you left lurking below, and distorting them into shapes you could at least live with -until the next siren song, anyway.

Losing her is upsetting for so many reasons: she was so young; she hadn't found the kind of acclaim at home that she'd found overseas; there's still so much she had to give the world. Lhasa had an uncanny ability to pull her own experiences through the intricate, beautiful webs of tone, timbre, syllables and symbols, rendering the intimate epic, and shrinking the absolute to lacy uncertainty. As she told me in the spring,
That’s one of the wonderful things about music: you can say very intimate things, and they become universal - other people can relate to them. If it was just me singing about me, then I would feel embarrassed. I feel like I’m searching for the grain of something other people can understand.
Ultimately, art is about connection. Getting the chance to connect with Lhasa for twenty minute was a treat I'll always cherish. "Now that my heart is open / there is no way it can be closed or broken."