Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What is an artist, anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the definition of “artist”. Often in Christian circles, people talk about artists as creators and quickly draw a parallel to The Creator, underlining the essentially sacred nature of what artists do.

I’ve always really liked that idea (undoubtedly due, at least in part, to that all-too-human desire to be like God). But as a director, I question whether I can call myself a creator. And if I can’t, can I call myself an artist?

Recently, Theatre at TWU presented a piece called Mythification. Under the direction and guidance of Kris Knutsen, students used the inspiration of the first chapter of Genesis and the form of Greek tragedy to write and perform a work that personified the beginning of the world. A creation about the creation.

My Dean at TWU, David Squires, is a musician and composer, and he responded to Mythification with unrestrained enthusiasm. In a thank you letter to the cast, he wrote:

I am an artist, and I believe that the human impulse towards creating something new is a strong measure of God-likeness. In the imago dei he made us, and we return the blessing, if you will, by making something which hasn’t existed before. And the moment it appears on the scene it is a wonder...suddenly there where nothing had been!

I am an artist, and I believe that the world is a better place because I am made thus, and because I am surrounded by so many others who also speak this uncommonly God-like language.

But I am not sure I can claim to speak that language. The art I make is not created ex nihilo. The plays I direct are written already, whether classics with many performances or new works with few. The theatre, designers, cast, and crew are new; but are we creators?

My friend Lucia makes a distinction between “artists” and “craftspeople” or “artisans”. The artists create out of nothing and the artisans hone the work of others. She claims that the relationship is more of a marriage than a hierarchy – the artists need the craftspeople to see the vision to the end, to collaborate so that the artwork reaches something nearer beauty and perfection.

(It’s no surprise that she is a playwright – the only artist in this scenario.)

Like Dean David, Lucia believes to create means to bring something into existence that was not there before. But in the case of theatre, the definition is tricky. If Lucia writes a play and I put together a creative team and mount a production, did it exist before the performance?

The art the playwright creates is the words only, on the page solely; art, certainly, but written art, as is a poem or a novel. The art of theatre is something else altogether. Whereas music cannot be “read” until it is played or sung, the art of theatre and the art of drama are two separate, intimately related disciplines.

And when we speak of theatre, we must remember that it is, at its core, collaborative. Theatre is a living art and it lives in performance. And the performance of a play – whether the first or the fortieth – has been brought to life by the collaborators. It did not exist before and it will not exist again.

I remember reading an interview with Raymond Chandler once in which he was asked whether he was concerned about what filmmakers were going to do to his novel. His response was (more or less): “They aren’t going to do anything to my novel. It’s sitting right over there.”

That is a fitting parallel for the theatre. While Lucia the playwright is unquestionably a creator and artist, Lucia is also an artist and creator when she dons her actor-hat to embody a play written by someone else. While a piece of music can be "faithfully rendered", each production of a play must be different from those before because of the many interpretive collaborators, the demands of the physical space, and the lack of indisputable guidelines for presentation. Music can be recorded and preserved, while live theatre is impossible to capture, different each performance, non-existent once a production closes. Those who make theatre - the actors, director, and designers - are artists and creators. Without their vision and implementation, the words would remain on the page, artful but lifeless.

While I'm pleased that I've managed to formulate an argument to convince myself, if no one else, it seems fitting to end all this philosophizing with a warning from Mr. Chandler.

The more you reason, the less you create.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Of Rules and Revelations

I love dance. Years ago, while watching Edouard Lock's remarkable Amelia, I had an epiphany of sorts. White-knuckled from clutching the arms of my seat to resist the urge to jump up on stage, I realized that if I had been blessed with a different body type I might have been a dancer.

Tonight, I had the pleasure of viewing a new work by Amber Funk Barton's company The Response. Risk is a piece that "is an observation of how young people act...", an idea that could have spawned something as painful as an exploration of post-adolescent angst or a movement-only rendition of The OC. Thankfully, due to the skill of the choreographer and dancers, coupled with a healthy sense of humour, Risk is a thoroughly entertaining, often inspiring, and sometimes moving work of art.

A month ago I saw another dance piece that did not elicit such praise. In fact, viewing the solo work WhaT,? choreographed by Jennifer Mascall and performed by Ron Stewart, compelled me to come up with a new rule: no more talking dancers. I should probably have known by the pretentious way in which the title is spelled that the work was going to be tiresome. But my primary complaint had to do with the fact that the show's story was narrated by Stewart. There are two problems with this. First, he is not an actor and a monologue of any length that is performed for an audience requires acting skill. Second, speaking takes up a lot of the breath needed to dance effectively so the choreography could not match his skill.

Tonight's show proved the wisdom of my rule; the "story" in Risk was clear and engaging without words. Part of the reason we go to dance is because dancers speak a language most of us do not. Why compromise that ability in order to use the same communication tool we can all access?

(In response to the outcry of dancers who insist they have the right to speak, let me offer this: my prejudice works both ways. Although it is flirting with sacrilege to confess it, during the wildly successful show The Overcoat I found myself wondering how much better that wordless, movement-based piece could have been with dancers instead of actors. Some can do both, I know. Most cannot.)

But for those theatre artists who can't dance, there's nothing quite so inspiring as a great contemporary dance work. The ways in which the performers move teach us about the body's physical potential as well as its capacity to carry meaning. It's a great antidote to Western acting theories' emphasis on psychological realism. Truthful acting requires complete commitment, mentally, emotionally, physically. Observing talented dancers apply the same standards to their work reveals the common goals of both arts and encourages us to learn from each other. And it helps us to remember the importance of the actor's body.

In the introduction to her fabulous book The Body Speaks, Lorna Marshall states:

The body is the direct point of connection between our inner self and the outer world, not merely a transportation or communication device...In a sense, it is the sole mediator of human experience. It is our body that climbs the mountain, whispers in another's ear, trembles with excitement, notices the light change, grips the bag, tenses with fear, laughs with delight. It is our body that actually lives our life.

Theatre artists must understand this better than any others because ours is the most incarnational of the arts. If we are to portray human stories we must understand the human body.

So if you love theatre, go see a dance performance.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gifts Are For Giving

I learned a lesson tonight. It's a lesson I expect to need to learn again (why are there so many like that?!) and one that I would like to share with you.

I had the privilege of seeing a production of The Tempest tonight at Vancouver's Bard on the Beach. What a thrill. It was one of those transcendent experiences when all elements of a production work together to create a world which is delightfully theatrical and intensely true. Every aspect of the spectacle - set, lighting, costumes, and sound - intensified the impact and increased the story's power.

The performances were the sort that made you sure Shakespeare spoke as we do, as the language was so articulate and accessible. But it was not merely the actors' facility with text that made the portrayals memorable, it was their humanity. Prospero's love for his daughter was so clear, Miranda's innocence so complete, Ferdinand's loss so real. And rather than the usual beastly monster, this Caliban was a near-man whose coarse ways made him pitiable rather than frightening, even as he plots his master's death. In an additional stroke of genius, Trinculo and Stephano were women (Trincula and Stephana) which added wonderfully bawdy nuances to Caliban's shoe licking.

The production was accompanied by a string trio (two violins and a bass) that underscored some scenes and guided the sung passages in which Ariel's remarkable voice anchors divine harmonies filled with a pathos all their own. And the spirits Ariel summons are a triad of bare-chested male dancers whose leaps and bends transform their bodies into all manner of enchanted set element.

The wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda was a fittingly other-worldly party, resplendent with lanterns, sparklers, shimmering costumes, dancing, songs, and laughter in a scene so completely celebratory that I didn't want it to end. Never before have I cried in the theatre simply because something was so creative and beautiful. But I did tonight. And it wasn't the only time. Prospero's forgiveness of all who had wronged him was so immense that it enveloped me in a sense of priestly absolution. When Ariel leaves her master for the freedom she has fought so hard to achieve her goodbye is deliciously bittersweet.

So where does the lesson come in, you ask?

This production of The Tempest was directed by Meg Roe. A familiar name to Vancouver theatregoers, Meg is an accomplished actress and sound designer (with partner Alessandro Juliani who gets solo credit for composition on this production). Although her name is well-known, The Tempest is her directing debut.

That's right. This production, which won its way onto my top ten of all time when none of the many shows I saw in London did, was the vision of a first-time director. That's incredible.

The problem is, I have a degree in directing and I've been doing it for a long time but I don't know that I could create a work this accomplished. So for part of the performance I was torn between admiration and dejection - "wow this is really good/wow that's really depressing" -something like that. But by the end of the show (or the end of my drive home when scenes from the play were still bringing tears to my eyes) I knew the real value of what I had learned.

Sometimes I have the idea that there's only so much talent/creativity/success to go around so if someone else gets some, there's less left for me. But when a truly gifted artist creates a work for others to share, we get the present. My life was enriched by the production I saw tonight and as a result, my work will be enriched. When we approach theatre with an open, supportive spirit it does not diminish our own abilities - it actually has the potential to increase them. In the end, it isn't about my petty jealousies or insecurites; it's about the art. And when the work is this good, the art wins.

In Madeleine L'Engle's marvelous book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art she talks a lot about the artist being a servant. In one section, she uses an analogy drawn by Jean Rhys where art is a lake and artists are all the rivers and streams and tributaries of various sizes and significance that feed the lake. She quotes Rhys who says: "I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake."

Later in the book, L'Engle offers more wisdom on the subject. (See what I mean about needing to learn the lesson over again? I've owned that book for years.)

The artist seeks that truth which offers freedom and then tries to share this offering. I am made more free by my participation in the work of other artists, especially the giants. And it is the other artists who teach the rest of us, offering their vision of truth. And if this vision is true, how can it conflict with the truth which Christ told us to know?

Make art, seek truth, share what you find. Feed the lake.

[Additional credits for the production of The Tempest ought to be included in this post. Here they are: Allan Morgan as Prospero, Jennifer Lines as Ariel, Julie McIsaac as Miranda, Darren Dolynski as Ferdinand, Bob Frazer as Caliban, Colleen Wheeler as Stephana, Naomi Wright as Trincula. Set design by Pam Johnson, lighting design by John Webber and costume design by Christine Reimer.) The other performances were all very fine as well.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

London Life Part IV: National Theatre, National Church

Four more days to go. Friday, I decided not to see any shows as we were moving from the manor in Chiswick to a more modest but still lovely abode in Shepherd's Bush. Dave and Michelle were readying to leave early Saturday morning for camp and I would be heading to my hotel. So the day was filled with shopping and packing, with a little time to have lunch with more of Michelle's endless list of friends.

Saturday, I had planned 'A Day At The National'. The National Theatre complex has three spaces and at least five shows running all the time. I was to see a matinee of Never So Good, a new Howard Brenton play about British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan with Jeremy Irons in the central role, in the true proscenium space, the Lyttleton. Then in the evening, I was booked for another new play called ...some trace of her, a multi-media adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot. That show was in the black boxish space, The Cottlesloe. But first, I went for a backstage tour.

It's always risky to go on a backstage tour of a really impressive theatre space because one can easily contract a crippling case of theatre envy. The National is designed to cause an epidemic of this syndrome as it is a complex that seems to provide for absolutely everything. Because most shows run in rep, there must be sufficient room in the spaces adjacent to the theatres to store entire sets (which, of course, must be built in a way that allows easy movement and reassembly). But when you live and breathe theatre, being behind the scenes in such a space is ultimately invigorating and I was grateful for the opportunity.

Never So Good was a marvelous production. Jeremy Irons was fantastic and all the other performances were flawless. (I was beginning to think there's something in that English theatre training.) While I would have benefitted from a greater understanding of the politics of the time, the story was fascinating and the production superb. In addition to expert performances and solid writing, the show had the most impressive pyrotechnics I had ever experienced. During war scenes there were barrels of raging fire, along with smoke that could only be caused by bombs. And when MacMillan is involved in a plane crash, an enormous fireball rolls downstage with enough heat to warm me in the tenth row. I know it's just spectacle but when the show also has substance...

It's hard to describe ... some trace of her. The concept for the show was to use live video to tell the story. So for every dramatic moment there is a film-shot and soundscape, usually accompanied by narration intended to seem like movie voiceover. The soundscape is created as it would be in film or radio, with actors using random objects to create the illusion of a real sound. The most fascinating part of the show was watching the performers race from one set-up to the next, arranging props, focusing cameras, mic-ing sound effects. It was a challenge to watch the video (where the story unfolds) and the live actors (who were working so hard to create an illusion for the film) at the same time. I was reminded of Vancouver's Electric Company and Boca del Lupo, both of which used similar effects in shows I saw last year. In the end, the result was somewhat alienating as the tale is told with filmed images rather than live actors and we were very aware of the illusion used to created those images. In addition, the fragmented style made the story difficult to follow for anyone not already familiar with The Idiot.

Sunday, my theatre was the streets of London. I spent the day walking through parks and by monuments, snapping pictures and trying to suck up as much history as I could. I went to a morning service at Westminster Abbey and an evening service at St. Paul's Cathedral. Both were true soul food for this sometimes-Anglican and I was again aware of the power of transcendent surroundings to give me a sense of the prescence of God and to fortify my worship. At Westminster Abbey I sat in the quire next to the choir and the experience was overwhelming. Sitting under the dome at St. Paul's was also beautiful, though not as stirring, and for the first time in my life I had communion twice in one day. I walked around again afterwards and by dark, I had impressive-building-overload and was unable to be moved by more gothic or Victorian architecture.

Monday was gallery day; so many museums, so little time. I was thankful that I had come to London with a particular plan (see lots of theatre) as there is so much to see and do in London that it would be difficult to know where to begin. I went to the National Gallery in the morning and the Tate Modern in the afternoon. I figured that would give me almost as wide a range of experience as two galleries could offer. I was not disappointed.

For my final show I had considered going to the Old Vic to see Pygmalion. (Start at the Young Vic, end at the Old Vic... an English chestnut of a play, in the English chestnut of a theatre...the Old Vic is the original home of the National...) But at the National on Saturday I realized that another new show there was to be the first play by a living female playwright on the Olivier stage. Not only would this allow me to see shows in all three of the National's spaces but it was clearly a piece of history in the making. I bought tickets to that and also to a Pinter one-act called A Slight Ache that played in the late afternoon in the Lyttleton. (All I have to say about that show is that I might not be as much of a Pinter fan as I thought.)

The evening production was a Rebecca Lenkiewicz play called Her Naked Skin. As it was still in previews, the critics hadn't weighed in yet and so I didn't really know what I was in for. (...some trace of her was also in previews when I saw it). The story involves suffragists at the start of the 20th century whose struggle to gain the vote for women involved more violence and sacrifice than I had realized. Significant portions of the play took place in Holloway prison, recreated as a towering series of metal cages that would roll into place on the stage's enormous revolve to a soundscape of clanging doors. This contrasted sharply with the comfortable surroundings of the House of Commons where the men laughed about the antics of these silly women whose husbands ought to keep them home where they belong.

The riveting story was scored by a live string ensemble and anchored by more flawless performances. I'm still not certain whether I like the central character - Lady Celia Cain - nor am I sure we're supposed to. But the entire performance was one of the most absorbing I've ever experienced and it included the most harrowing scene I have ever witnessed. Women in the prisons would go on hunger strikes to advance their cause and rather than give in or risk their death, the authorities followed a plan of forcible feeding. In one scene, the young protagonist Eve is subjected to this dreadful indignity in which a rubber tube is inserted into the stomach through the nose. As I sat horrified and sobbing I was conscious that this was true to history, true to life, and in some sense truly happening. Despite the nausea such a spectacle induced, I was grateful for the power of theatre to communicate to the core of our beings in a way nothing else can.

(I should mention that not all theatre patrons agreed. The very English couple walking in front of me as we exited remarked: "I don't think that one scene was necessary. Rather nasty, wasn't it.")

As I walked back to my hotel after the show I felt sated. I had sampled a delicious buffet of theatre in London and tasted many varied and delightful treats. I had walked miles, made new friends, eaten great food, and visited places I'd heard about since childhood.

I trust it will not be a lifetime before I return.

Monday, August 25, 2008

London Life Part III: Three Shows in Two Days

After all the waiting in line I did on Monday and Tuesday, I was determined that Wednesday would involve no queues at all. Michelle and I set off for the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, the place you go to get day-of half-price tickets. (A tip to those planning a theatre trip to London. There are innumerable "Half-price Ticket Booths" in central London but TKTS is the only one with all available shows. The others generally have musicals only.) I had checked the day before and was quite sure a couple shows I wanted to see would be available.

With a short wait in a short line that I'm not counting, we got tickets to the matinee of a new play called The Female of the Species by Australian Joanna Murray-Smith, and tickets to the evening performance of a new play called Under the Blue Sky by David Eldridge. Then we had the rest of the day to play. (A note about the definition of "new". As is often the case in New York, plays don't really count until they arrive in the West End. Although both of these shows were billed as new, the first had played in Australia and the second was a transfer of sorts from the Royal Court. But some changes were made and they had not been published before now.)

My days in the beautiful house in Chiswick were numbered, something I knew before I arrived, as Dave and Michelle were going camping. (I can't let that comment go by without a wee explanation. When I say 'camping', what I mean is that they and their girls would be meeting up with others from their church at something called New Wine. An annual event run by the Church of England, New Wine involves tenting in a field in the English countryside with 20,000 other Anglicans, cooking for themselves in groups, and getting together for worship and singing and so forth. I told Michelle that the only way I could understand this idea was to imagine the event being much like the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter. I trust her tent was also magically accommodating.)

So on Saturday, they would head to the country and I would move to a hotel I had booked online months before. Michelle and I thought it would be wise to check out the hotel before I moved in to ensure it was suitable and once we had show tickets in hand, we set off on foot to find the Warwick.

One of the reasons I found the old part of central London so disorienting is that it didn't change. I walked from Covent Garden to Leicester Square to Charing Cross to Trafalgar Square - all places I'd heard of since my childhood - and it felt the same. There was no sense of moving from one part of town to another. (Probably because I hadn't.)

Wednesday's walk was different, taking us through many neighbourhoods and along avenues and through parks. It took most of my visit to get used to how close things are. London is definitely a city seen best by walking and the walk to the hotel was delightful. My directional instincts were intact and we walked easily, consulting the map from time to time only to confirm that we were in the right place.

The hotel was just as it looked on the website, including the squeaky-clean closet-sized rooms and personable staff. Having lived in luxury for much of the trip, I was determined to have a more typical London experience. Michelle said the room was normal-sized for London and the bathroom larger than the one in their first flat. In combination with the excellent location, I determined it would be the perfect headquarters for the solo part of my stay.

For lunch, Michelle and I stopped by a market to buy the fixings for a picnic and settled onto the grass in Russell Square. We remarked to ourselves that we were having a lovely day.

That feeling didn't change at the first show, a raucous comedy that managed to make us both laugh and cry. The central character is a famous feminist author who is confronted in her home by a former student threatening to kill her for ruining her life. Trust me, it's funnier than that might sound. The acting wasn't flawless but it was very, very good and Dame Eileen Atkins was spot-on as the writer Margot Mason.

The only negative element in the day was that I got blisters from all the walking with sweaty feet. (I confess I had not anticipated that London would be so hot. Most of the time I was there it was hot, sunny and humid. When added to the famous London grime, I greeted the end of each day sticky and grey. But who's complaining?)

After exploring and shopping a bit (flip-flops for my injured feet, for one), we grabbed a coffee in a wonderfully air-conditioned Starbucks before the evening performance.

As the lights went down, we were surrounded by the sound of a magnificent explosion. Michelle grabbed my hand and we caught our breath. This was going to be a wild ride!

It wasn't. The play is composed of three, two-person scenes, each involving some sort of male-female love relationship, and all characters are disillusioned teachers at the same school. The first scene had such painful acting that I was conscious of reading the lines on the page. This was further complicated by a set design that was hostile to movement, forcing the actors to sit in awkward places and converse from difficult angles. The second scene had similar set problems. It was quite sexual in content and I felt like a trapped voyeur, witnessing someone's adolescent humiliation. It was unpleasant and uncomfortable, though the acting was much better. The third scene saved the night. The set finally worked, the acting was lovely, and the writing provided some sense of redemption. When this couple decides to risk loving each other the relief in the audience was palpable. The most interesting part of the show was the need of the audience for something to work out well. It was instructive of the power of theatre and the nature of humankind. Satisfying, really.

After the show, Michelle and I grabbed a late dinner and headed back to Chiswick. A nearly perfect day.

The next day I hung around Chiswick with the fambly and then headed to Shakespeare's Globe by myself to see King Lear. For those who don't know, the idea behind the Globe is to recreate the theatre of Shakespeare's time. All tickets are reasonably priced and it's positively cheap to stand in the pit as a groundling, although the ushers do not allow you to sit down, even against the walls, and you will get wet if it rains. Again, I had bought the last ticket available so I was sitting in the north tower, right round by the stage, two balconies up on the stage left side. It was the ideal spot because it allowed me to see the entire space and suck up the pleasure of being there.

Michelle had told me that she loves walking in old London on the brick streets because it is so easy to imagine others on those streets hundreds of years before. The Globe is like that. I was transported by watching the people and imagining the past. Although Michelle has never been to the Globe without being rained on, the sky was a beautiful clear blue that gradually darkened to provide fitting ambience for the production.

I stayed in my seat for the first half (more like the first two-thirds at almost two hours!) and went down to the pit after the interval to experience life as a commoner and to be closer to the stage. That is a plan I'd recommend for the full Globe experience.

The acting was superb once more and David Calder was a marvelous Lear. It is hard for me to know whether my response to the show was the result of the excellent production or the whole experience. Whatever the reason, I was enthralled, delighted, and moved.

As I walked across the Thames from the Southbank, watching the lights glittering on the water, listening to the animated voices of those around me, and reliving the nuances of my evening, I was again grateful for this opportunity.

And I still had four more days!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

London Life Part II: Two Different Days, Two Different Plays

Apologies that it has been so long since installment one. I'm sure the faithful have been checking regularly, bitterly disappointed not to find more excruciating detail about a trip they didn't get to take. Hmmm.... Well, maybe no one is disappointed in my tardiness except me. Nonetheless, I will continue.

The one dark period in my delightful Sunday occurred when I attempted to do some specific planning and discovered that most of the shows I most wanted to see were sold out. Since there are so many shows in London, this eventuality had not occurred to me. I couldn't get complete box office access on Sunday so Monday morning I scrambled to buy tickets, energized by the fear of being forced to see nothing but big flashy musicals. Nothing against muscials (well, maybe a little something) but I went to London to see straight theatre and especially new plays. I was temporarily terrified that the trip would be a mere shadow of my dreams.

I managed to buy the last ticket to a production of Street Scene at the Young Vic. Those who know theatre are saying "but that's not a new show! and it's a musical!" True enough, but it's Kurt Weill not Rogers and Hammerstein (or worse, Andrew Lloyd Webber) and as a rarely-produced piece of history, I thought it would have something interesting to offer. Michelle decided to come along and see if she could nab one of the "returns" tickets that come available about an hour before showtime.

The production was quite interesting. Entirely sung, it featured a cast of about 30 including many children, an orchestra of 25, and a choir of 40 that sings in only two places. Michelle and I determined it could not possibly be entirely professional, but it was fun to see a show of such scope, and the thrust staging worked really well. All in all, worth seeing but not stunning.

The most memorable part of the evening occurred before the show. Michelle and I arrived at the theatre around 6 for a 7:30 curtain to stand in line in hopes that she would get a ticket. As we hadn't eaten, Michelle scoped out the area for food and reported back that there were a couple curry shops on the street but curry wasn't likely a good idea for eating-while-in-a-queue. I agreed but as I had eaten curry while standing in line for a show at Magnetic North and had gotten in, I suggested curry might have good karma attached. (Theatre people are very superstitious, you know. Besides, I love curry.)

Michelle trudged off and returned with steaming containers and lots of extras (since she had charmed the curry seller with her lovely Canadian accent). Shortly after we couldn't resist digging in, she got her ticket. Then we discovered we would need to stand in another line as the theatre had rush seating. The second line was inside a restaurant directly and openly attached to the Young Vic lobby. We checked with a security guy to determine whether it was okay to eat curry in line and aside from wishing he could join us, he said it would be no problem. We stood in line eating our delicious curries and joking with the people around us about our apparent elevation of queing fare ("all I have is a sandwich!"). I decided it was a photo opportunity.

My curry was very hot so I set it down on the edge of the bar behind me while I snapped a couple pics of Michelle eating hers. It took only a couple moments while our new friends in line laughed with us. I turned to retrieve my curry from the bar and it was gone. Aghast, I asked the bartender if it was possible to retrieve it. "No. It's in the bin," he said. No apology. Unrepentant. It was then that I realized he had done it on purpose. The curry was too hot to hold and almost full. He could see us taking pictures. He was just being a jerk.

So please, anyone reading this, don't eat at The Cut, next to the Young Vic, on The Cut, in London. We talked to our friendly security guard at the interval (intermission to those needing translation) and he said the restaurant is not technically part of the theatre. He and all others at the Young Vic were great but that experience will always colour my impression of the evening.

The next day, I set out into town on my own to try to get a feel for the place and to see if I could get tickets to The Chalk Garden, another show that was sold out. I went to the Donmar Warehouse to enquire about returns. While the website said to arrive at 6:30, Chris, the charming Scot behind the box office, said people had been arriving as early as 4:30 or 5 the last couple days in hopes of nabbing one of limited "we have up to four on a good day" tickets.

I knew the notices (translation: reviews) were good enough that I wanted to see the show. I determined to return.

The only unpleasant time I had in London was the few hours following when I wandered around central London trying to get my bearings. I have an excellent sense of direction and I rarely have any trouble finding my way around a new city. London was different. With all these short, narrow lanes, winding in every direction, and no potential to see landmarks that might help me know which way was which, I got very disoriented. And because it is normally easy for me, I found it quite unsettling. I walked around muttering in a whiney voice: "This isn't fun. This is supposed to be fun." I wasn't lost, but I didn't know where I was. I don't like that.

I returned to the Donmar just before 4. Chris agreed to let me sit on the curb rather than stand inside the adjacent mall where the official queue would form. I sat and watched the buzz and took pictures and looked at my map and thought about where I was and eventually I began to feel grounded and centred and calm and no longer lost. It was a gift. That whole "be still" thing worked for me in a way I didn't expect. Around 5:15, another woman came and I moved inside.

To make a long story slightly shorter, Michelle arrived around 6, we got one ticket around 6:15 and another around 6:30, raced out to grab something to eat, and saw the show. It was fantastic! I wanted to see The Chalk Garden because I've known the play for a very long time, assigned scenes from it in my acting classes, and considered producing it. but I've always thought it was rather dated so I wanted to see how it would come off in a production that was so highly regarded. I still don't know that I will ever direct it because the production was magnificent and the acting flawless. Besides which, the show is very English, filled with Wildean humour and references to the aristocracy that play in that country much better than they ever could in the provinces. I'm not sure I'll ever queue for almost four hours for another show but we were very glad I did for this one.

My intention at the beginning of this post was to write about the next three shows as well. But once again, the entry is detailed and the nature of the blogbeast is that these are supposed to be short. Sigh. Maybe I'll work my way up....Last entry - one show. This entry - two shows. Next entry - three shows.

I think I can do that. Check back to find out.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

London Life Part I: Food and Friends

A couple weeks ago I took a trip to London to see theatre. I had every intention of writing blog entries regularly, possibly even while away. I didn't.

I finally figured out why (aside from the usual life is busy/stuff happens reasons). The trip itself was overwhelming and the idea of attempting to capture it in a few pithy sentences in a single brief essay was even moreso.

Therefore, I have decided to report on my London trip in installments, partly so that I can give you a better sense of my adventures and partly so I can face writing this blog. It might be more information than many of you desire but this was one of those "trips of a lifetime" and I want to remember it in detail.

Before last month, I had never been to London. Or anywhere else in England. Or the UK. Or Europe. Or... In fact, I had never flown across the Atlantic. I've been through a lot of the U.S., to Mexico, Venezuela, Jamaica and Cuba. And I have been across Canada many times (though I have yet to visit Newfoundland - that's on my list.) So this was a big trip for me.

I returned from my family vacation in Nova Scotia on Wednesday, July 16 and on Friday, July 18 I left for London. By myself. I wouldn't necessarily choose to have such a quick turnaround but the trip was planned to coordinate with the schedules of my friends Michelle and Dave who are in London housesitting for most of the summer and had invited me to stay with them for part of my trip. They are social butterflies who lived in London for more than six years and attracted an extravagant number of friends. There was one week when they could accommodate a houseguest and Michelle would have time to come see plays. I didn't want to miss it.

The flight to London from Vancouver is through the night and with the eight hour time difference I arrived around 11 am Saturday (3 am Vancouver time). The flight on British Airways was great - made me long for the bygone days of full-service airlines. With the good food, movies, occasional naps and lots of adrenalin, I arrived feeling quite perky. After a short tube ride I was with Michelle in Chiswick, a posh borough in West London.

The house we stayed in was amazing. Worth millions, it was large even by North American standards, set on a beautiful property with a separate garage with games room; front, side ,and rear yards; a beautiful patio; and a hot tub. The house itself was stunning; a brick Victorian three story with all the modern amenities. I think I might have met my dream kitchen - large gas range with side grill; two ovens; enormous subzero fridge; adjacent family room; eating area to seat 10 with French doors onto the patio; heated slate floors... Fabulous.

As we were walking to the house from the tube station, Michelle pointed in the direction of "ArtsEd" the grad school where she had studied acting while they lived in London. "There's a matinee the Masters students are doing this afternoon, if you're up to it," she said. She was only half serious but she was also curious to see what this year's grads were up to. And I can hardly resist a challenge, especially one that involves theatre. So after I settled in and had a snack, we headed out.

The play was a modern adaptation of The Bacchae entitled The Disorderly Women. That I was willing to see a Greek tragedy when I had been up for more than 24 hours testifies to my insanity or my dedication to theatre or both. The production had its strengths but the best things about it were getting to see where Michelle had gone to school and meeting one of her acting instructors who happened to be in the audience.

That evening, after putting their darling twins ("we're five now!") to bed, the social butterflies had a party (ostensibly for Dave's upcoming birthday, though I suspect it was primarily a reason to get together with their friends and eat chocolate). Those who do not know Michelle will want to after the following description. Chocoholics, sit down.

Michelle made chocolate desserts for the party. I will attempt to recall all of them: amaretto chocolate cheesecake; chocolate marzipan pots de creme; mango white chocolate parfaits; chocolate strawberry trifle; fatfree chocolate banana cake; chocolate meringues; chocolate meringue summer berry pavlova; chocolate bread and butter pudding made with croissants; chocolate raspberry torte; and chocolate "shots" - a concoction with secret ingredients that was much like drinking a flavourful chocolate fudge sauce. I might have forgotten something, but you get the idea.

There were only a dozen people at the party.

Understandably, the party needed to go late in order for the guests to have an opportunity to use the hot tub and make several trips to the dessert table (which was in the large formal dining room, not the aforementioned 'kitchen nook'.) I headed to bed around midnight and I think the party actually wrapped around 3 am. Welcome to London.

The next day was a typical Dave and Michelle whirl. We met several of the same people and some others at a neighbourhood greasy spoon for a "Full English" breakfast. I passed on the blood pudding and beans but I did try the famous English sausages and eat some eggs and tomatoes (be sure to pronounce that correctly as you read). After brunch, some of Michelle's friends from acting school came over. Then we went to church.

Dave and Michelle's primary sense of loss in moving back to Canada is that they miss their London church. I understand why. A church plant intended to reach out to non-churchy types in the borough of Acton, it meets in a Church of England high school at 4:30 on Sunday afternoons. The service I went to was quite atypical (a full-immersion baptism in an Anglican church? what?) but I could see why they love it so much. The congregation was young, vibrant and friendly and the service unconventional without being entirely wacky. The vicar and his wife are lovely, unpretentious people (I met them at the party the night before) and the entire atmosphere is warm and welcoming.

It was Dave's turn to go out to the pub for dinner afterwards so Michelle and I headed home to put the girls to bed and, you guessed it, have guests over to visit. (And they have more than two months of this sort of schedule!)

So my first two days in London involved one show, one church service, and lots of visiting. I was aware that the generosity of my friends meant my experience was completely different, more like a local than a tourist, and in many ways much richer, than it would have been if I was on my own. Thank you Dave and Michelle.

Next installment: let the playgoing begin!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

True Confessions

Well, I'm afraid it has happened. I went for three entire weeks without seeing a show.

In my last post (more than a month ago!) I said that I was planning to see an outdoor production of Our Town while vacationing in Nova Scotia. Well, I almost did. One day when we were out exploring, we drove to the remote arts-centre/farm where the production was to take place to find out how the whole thing would work. I discovered that the show was selling well so I should buy tickets ahead, that the location was farther away from our summer home than expected (a full hour and a half), and that the decision to cancel a show due to inclement weather (which they defined as downpour, not merely rain) would be made 20 minutes before showtime.

Suddenly, going to theatre seemed a lot more like work than play. And work is exactly what one is not supposed to do on a holiday. So I decided to pass.

We had a marvelous time in Nova Scotia. We walked down to the Bay almost every day. We ate scallops. We gorged ourselves on local strawberries. We visited with neighbours. We drove to the "South Shore" where the Atlantic is cold and fierce, playing in the waves with our boogie boards, numb and giggling. We spent a day wandering around Halifax, our one city experience. We drove up "Digby Neck", a thin piece of land that stretches up the coast, topped by two tiny islands connected only by ferry. Off the coast of the second (Brier Island) is a colony of Sea Lions and we sat in the sunshine watching and listening to their primal laziness for at least an hour. We went shopping at the best thrift stores in the universe, the humourously-named Guy's Frenchies. We played croquet on the lawn and read on the verandah. We had a holiday.

One of the most memorable events every year is Canada Day. Though the village is tiny they take the national celebration seriously and we see more people on July 1 than at any other time. Among the activities are a parade that goes from the shore up the hill past our house to the firehall, the smallest and happiest parade you will ever see, followed by an award presentation and ice cream. The best part is the evening. All day long, men drive down the hill with flat trailors full of wood scraps which they place in a carefully constructed pile on the rocks at the shore. When completed, the tower is easily 14 feet in diameter and at least 10 feet high.

Around 8:30, the wood is ignited and everyone gathers at the shore to watch the bonfire against the backdrop of the Bay. There are smaller fires around the large one, used to roast weiners and marshmallows on the carefully whittled treebranches that have been prepared. My kids always think that those are the best hot dogs they ever have and I am sure it's true. The atmosphere is vibrant and festive and as the tide climbs closer to the fire, the sun sinks lower into the water.

At sunset, everyone moves up off the rock onto the freshly-mowed field behind to watch the fireworks. We sit on the grass facing the Bay surrounded by approximately 150 others and watch a couple local guys send magic into the sky from their post beside the fire engine. I've seen some spectacular fireworks in my life but even the international competitions can't seem to compare. The excitement and appreciation, coupled with the stunning backdrop and the sound of the incoming tide, make these my very favourite fireworks. When they are over, the crowd applauds and cheers and people make their way home or traipse back down to the rock to watch the tide eat the remains of the fire.

I think I need to correct my initial comment. I did see a show during my time in Nova Scotia, an intimate show with heart, anticipation, beauty and impact. My favourite sort of theatre.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

There's more to life than theatre

This will be my last entry for a while as my family and I leave today for a vacation in rural Nova Scotia. We try to go every summer to a tiny fishing village on the Bay of Fundy where our big excitement is watching the tide come in and playing in the brook behind the house. The house itself is more than 100 years old, filled with memories of my father as a boy, a place I visited often in my childhood. The wood stove that my grandmother used is still in the sunny yellow kitchen but it is merely a countertop now. The hammock in the yard is gone, but the trees that held it remain, even taller than when I was a girl. And you can still see the Bay from the verandah and watch the sun slip silently into the water at the end of the day.

So far away from the bustle of the city, the village does not have a single store (though it does have three churches). Our house has no television, no internet, no phone. We can't get cell reception until we drive a few miles away from the shore, over the "north mountain" towards the Annapolis Valley. Like all great vacation spots, it's very not here.

I am planning to see some theatre while I'm there. A company called Two Planks and a Passion is doing an outdoor production of Our Town, which was once the most-produced play in the world. It might still be. Groundbreaking and filled with wit and wisdom, Our Town deserves its place in American theatre history and on the playbills of high school and college drama programs around the world. It also deserves a place at professional theatres but the large cast prohibits frequent presentation so I'm looking forward to this one.

This past week I saw four shows, a big step down from my Magnetic North frenzy. Two were small musicals with big heart, one was almost pure spectacle, and one was simplicity itself. For pure spectacle, nothing beats Cirque de Soleil, a company whose artistry, athleticism, and aesthetic brilliance can't fail to inspire and delight. I was struck in the performance by the sense of awe that filled that big tent and it was hard for me to imagine someone not believing in God after witnessing such ingenuity.

The simple show was the Pulitzer-prize winning Proof, produced by Pacific Theatre's current acting apprentice, TWU grad Becky Branscom, who also starred as Catherine. It was stripped-down theatre with only a few chairs, evocative music, and stark lighting (designed by TWU grad Lois Dawson) to create the experience.

Except that's not true at all because story rules this show. I have often said that the only element without which theatre could not exist is actors. This production proved my thesis. This is an actors' piece and the actors in this production shine, bringing the humanity of the characters to the surface. Jackie Faulkner is another TWU grad in the show, playing Catherine's sister Claire. This production is a tribute to their talents and Becky's determination and I'm very proud of them. I'm also pleased TWU has included Proof in its 2008/09 season as its truths about relationships, pain, and healing have much to offer our audience as well.

Thornton Wilder's theme in Our Town is an admonition to pay attention to your life, to see the beauty in the simplest of moments. We might think that the mundane activities of our lives are unimportant but he reminds us that each "normal" day is a precious gift, filled with a significance that might not be understood this side of eternity. As I play on the shore with my kids, I will be doing all I can to follow Wilder's advice to live life "every, every minute". I suggest you do the same.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thank Goodness for Good Theatre

Well, I did it. I saw 11 shows in 10 days and lived to tell. In fact, theatre being the energizing force that it is, one could say I am more alive now than I was before (less rested, but more alive). Here's a capsule of what I experienced in the second half of my marathon.

Technically, I saw far more than 11 shows because one of the events was Hive2. This aptly named production is actually a showcase for 11 separate theatre pieces, all presented in some part of the same huge warehouse, none longer than 18 minutes. Audience sizes range from a single viewer who must win a straw lottery (for a show I didn't see by The Only Animal) to 18 spectators for an apocalypic show called something like Comic Chaos.

Because you can't possibly see all the shows in the allotted three hours, and because you need to wait in line for a trip that might be a thrill or a big disappointment, Hive2 is a lot like an amusement park for theatre people. It's got the same buzz of excitement, the same anticipation, the same crush of people. Some of the shows even have the potential to frighten you or make you sick to your stomach. And everywhere is the sense that you are part of something extraordinary, and fun, and - sorry Walt - magical. On top of that, the whole evening ends with a party with live music where you can chat with all your friends about what you saw. I'm hoping they sell day passes to Hive3.

The next day I saw a new Canadian play by local first-nations playwright Kevin Loring. In Where the Blood Mixes, Floyd and Mooch are two small-town guys who seem designed to reinforce all the stereotypes of native men. Except that Loring peels away the layers of bravado, excuses, and agression to reveal the deep pain of hardship and loss, dissolving our easy judgement. It is to Loring's credit that the story manages to focus on race and transend it at the same time. In addition to the clear message about the irreparable damage done to Canada's aboriginal people through the residential school system, the play also offers insights into issues of adoption and suicide and, more important, to tell an incredibly human and ultimately redemptive story. It was not only white man's guilt that filled the theatre with sniffles and sobs before the play was half over. The compelling writing was met by strong performances from the actors and the talented guitarist who provided live scoring.

That evening, Toronto's Volcano Theatre presented an intriguing work entitled Goodness which managed to make it onto my newly created top 10 list. While it's not a perfect piece of theatre (which I would argue Tempting Providence is), Goodness managed to combine many of my favourite things in a single play.

I love theatre that can't be anything else and Goodness could never be a movie. Not only is it virtually furniture-free, it lives in a completely theatrical universe. In a delightfully unsettling way, the narrator breaks out of the story at several points, and in one place the characters mutiny, playing out a scene that he protests never happened and never could happen.

I love theatre that uses your whole mind and Goodness definitely does. In addition to trying to solve the mystery at the core of the play, your senses are aware that the rules might change at any moment and the complicated timeline requires attention to detail.

I love theatre with acting that reveals the humanity of the characters. These actors were not only transparent they could sing, punctuating the performance with stirring a capella renditions of folk songs in many languages.

At the top of the list of "theatre I love" is theatre that has something to say. It can't just have something to say (one of shows I saw last week was a bit too earnest and well-intentioned to be entirely successful art) but it must not be without substance. Goodness is a veritable cornucopia of ideas that throw you to the mat with the boldness of their assault. Issues of responsibility, guilt, loyalty, and twisted love entangle the viewer in a way that makes it clear we are all culpable. One of the play's recurring questions still bounces around my brain: "why do good men rush to do evil?"

Chew on that one for awhile. And be sure to see Goodness if you get the chance.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Theatre is a many-splendored thing

Whenever I talk to someone who doesn’t attend theatre, it takes several attempts to explain my existence. Once I make it clear that what I do and care about is not movies, mega-musicals, or the road production of a Broadway hit, I am frequently left looking at a blank and nodding face emitting an indeterminate sound intended to communicate understanding. We move on to talk about the Canucks or the weather.

I am smack-dab in the middle of seeing 11 shows in 10 days, most at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. It’s quite a wild ride and it underlines the incredible diversity of the art that is live theatre, making me quite sympathetic to my clueless friend above.

In the last five days, I have seen:
A play with live music in which the two performers had boxes on their heads
A show I entered through a refrigerator and after which I ate apple pie onstage
A compelling drama by Shaw remarkable in its simplicity and its strong performances
An audience-pleasing “old chestnut” of an American musical, and
A gripping tale of one woman’s life told by dozens of characters and a single performer

They are all live theatre. And they were all remarkable, meaningful works in one way or another. The audience response varied.

Two shows received almost universal acclaim: the refrigerator show (a multimedia, contemporary circus performance called Loft by Montreal’s The 7 Fingers) and the one-woman show (blood.claat written and performed by Jamaican-born Torontonian d’bi.young). Loft was the most fun I’ve had in the theatre in a long time, although it was almost completely lacking in story. Blood.claat. on the other hand, oozes story: a compelling, total-immersion of a play that baptized its viewers in the redemptive power of its narrative and leaves you in awe of the performer’s abilities as a writer and actor.

The Shaw play (St. Joan at Chemainus Theatre) was sadly underappreciated, more due to the sensibilities of its audience and the wordiness of the writer than to any shortcomings in the fine production. The musical (South Pacific, also at Chemainus), was audibly adored by the capacity audience, as much for the simple story and songs as for the equally fine production.

The fifth show, understandably called Boxhead, polarized the audience.

Next to me sat a woman whose body language made it very clear that she loathed the show. Slouching and stone-faced, she rarely responded to the performers, even though the house lights were raised several times and an actor came into the audience and addressed us directly. At one point, she put her head on her husband’s shoulder, hugging her jacket close around her in a desperate attempt to believe she was somewhere else. At the end, she did not clap.

Directly in front of her were two young women whose experience was exactly the opposite. Completely engaged, they laughed, nodded, and groaned with the tiniest provocation. I could see one girl’s face clearly. Enraptured, her head was upturned slightly, mouth parted in an expression of anticipation. She held her hands in front of her in a posture ever-ready for applause – or prayer – and her fingers frequently quivered with excitement.

While there is nothing quite so satisfying as a performance that is undeniably brilliant – the sort that compels the entire audience to its feet at the end as though riding a tsunami – I also appreciate shows that have this divisive effect.

One of the great powers of theatre is that it is personal. The performers are right there in front of you and their work cannot be filtered or edited or airbrushed. The physical space means each audience member is not guaranteed the same perspective (some theatres capitalize on this) and the uncertainty of the medium means each performance is different.

The room for a range of responses, particularly with new works, is immense. And I think that’s marvelous. As an audience member, part of my job is to think about what works, what doesn’t work, and why, and ultimately to make the art better. Encountering viewers whose experience is different from each other (and from my own) helps keep me humble. Helps me remember my job. And helps make better theatre.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sabbatical, you say... what?

As of May 15, I have officially been “on sabbatical”. I mentioned in the last post that a sabbatical is possibly the greatest perk of teaching at a university (next to getting to know all those amazing, intelligent students, of course.) But exactly what sabbatical means might be unclear to you. You are not alone.

The sabbatical was invented by God Himself, who instructed Moses that after six years of planting, the ground needed a rest. At some point in history, the similarity between profs and dirt was discovered and it was determined that academics need occasional rest as well. Sort of. Whether the sabbatical is actually a time of rest is up for debate. Here’s what Webster has to say: a sabbatical is “a year or half-year of absence for study, rest, or travel, given at intervals, originally every seven years, to teachers at some colleges and universities.”

So my sabbatical means I will be absent from TWU for the next half-year and that I will be resting, studying, and travelling. And directing, and seeing a lot of theatre.

The theatre-going has begun in earnest, as I am in the middle of seeing 11 shows in 10 days, mostly at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. My next post will be an update on what I see.

Sabbatical is a really cool idea (I find God has many of those) and it seems to me that the ultimate goal is bigger than a break from routine. For insight into the higher purpose of sabbaticals, I like these thoughts, which I found on the Boston University School of Theology website:

Sabbaticals are not vacations, but carefully planned periods of time devoted to
study, reflection, rest, and renewal. They frequently become a path to
understanding one's vocation in new ways or as a vehicle for a transformed
sense of identity. This is a time to experience "being" in addition to
"doing"; it should be a time of freedom and authenticity. One of the goals
of a sabbatical is to return renewed and refreshed.
There are many words and phrases in that short paragraph that resonate for me. I’ve got a lot of activities planned between now and December, and my hope is that they will provide both professional development and spiritual renewal. These entries will be a great opportunity to process my experiences.

I might even come to understand my vocation in a new way...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Why irresistible?

As an undergraduate, I studied at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. Those years were a revelation for me, in many respects. I gained a new appreciation for corn, pigs, and pipe organs, and I was introduced to Calvinism. I can’t claim to know much about Calvinist theology but the idea of “irresistible grace” really appealed to me. It seemed true in a way that I understood in my bones more than my head.

That’s my experience of faith. God has a hold of me and, like it or not, we’re stuck with each other. Lord knows I’ve tried to run away at times and I have no doubt that He’s frequently been tempted to dump me in some deep desolate ravine. But here we are.

Theatre is like that for me, too. Not that theatre is my religion – though I certainly understand that idea – but it has a hold on me that I cannot deny, ignore, or wish away. I have tried to escape, dabbling in other careers and occupations, learning to knit and bake bread, reading novels instead of plays. But somehow I always come crawling back, hungry, empty, and tired out from all that resisting.

When I named my blog, I wanted it to reflect my two great, intertwined passions because the theatre-God connection is certain to appear regularly in these pages. I find I can’t easily talk about my faith without also talking about my art and when I am practicing my art, I feel most immersed in my faith.

Over the next several months, I will be enjoying my first-ever sabbatical, a marvelous concept that is arguably the greatest perk of academia. I'll be using this space to talk about my travels, my adventures, my inspirations. And, of course, to rant and rave about all the theatre that will inevitably fill my time and my mind.