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.