Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Hate You, You're Infuriating, Don't Change (with apologies to DiPietro and Roberts)

I recently faced a fact. As a director, as soon as the show opens, I hate theatre.

I understand why this is so. Whereas, during the rehearsal process the work is dynamic and ever-changing, opening night means my part in the show's growth is effectively over. I have no power to continue to shape it, no mandate to help it improve. It exists outside of me, beyond my control and I mourn that loss. My husband calls it my post-partum depression.

I also understand that saying I hate theatre is at best only part of the truth. That "hate" comes out of an enormous, obsessive love. If I didn't want the art to be great and the show to be successful, I could happily walk away on opening, content that the rehearsal process was satisfying.

Instead, my focus shifts and I am painfully aware of the difficult things -the hateful things - about this art.

1. It requires an audience. "Without you, all we have is a rehearsal." The audience doesn't merely feed the actors, artistically and literally. When we pour hearts and souls into creating theatre, we are arrogant and foolish enough to believe that the show can feed the audience. So if people don't come, it's like we have prepared a marvelous dinner party and no one shows. Babette's Feast gone to waste. I hate that.

2. It is ephemeral. The last show I directed was dedicated to a dear friend who died earlier this year. I invited her husband to see the show, eager that he should experience this tribute, longing to share our mutual pain at her passing. I contacted him and arranged for tickets. But after the show closed, I discovered that I neglected to confirm with him and he did not come. There is nothing to be done. He can't catch the video, or wait for the remount. The show is over. Forever. I hate that.

3. It needs support. I’m not talking about finances here, though that is certainly true. Theatre also needs people who view the work with loving eyes. I am an intensely critical person and I believe passionately in the importance of criticism in improving theatre. I welcome others to engage with the work I create. Of course, ideally, I want them to like it. But mostly I want them to care, to be willing to ask why and to help me make better choices in the future. Unfortunately, some audience members bring a spirit of negativity that can be destructive to the work itself and to my view of the work. I hate that.

I have often said that one of the few things I know about relationships is that the things you most hate about someone are the flip side of the things you most love. So we need to be careful about changing our spouses; we might lose something that was what attracted us to them in the first place.

Apparently, the same can be said of my relationship with theatre. Theatre needs an audience because it is a communal art. Every person in that room is sharing an experience and shaping that art. Because theatre is live, audience members are participants, not consumers. That’s why Daniel MacIvor compares it to church. I love that.

Theatre’s final repository is the hearts and minds of its audience. It’s hard not to have something tangible at the end of a show, to feel like there’s nothing left. But all the best things in life exist in our hearts and minds. To use another relationship metaphor, it reminds me of whining to a friend when I was planning my wedding. All this effort, all this time, all this money, going into a wedding and when it’s over you have nothing to show for it. And she said, “just a marriage”. I love that.

It really is irritating that theatre – and the arts in general – need positive energy. It seems that we spend a lot of time telling ourselves, and anyone else who will listen, that the arts matter. Next week, there will be another Wrecking Ball event in Vancouver to try to convince politicians. That’s hard. But when people do care, when those who understand why the arts matter get together, it is incredibly exciting. And when their collective positive energy infects others and reverses the negativity, it’s revolutionary. I love that.

Embrace the ambivalence.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Rocks Will Cry Out

When I was a child, my brother had a copy of the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar (the original Broadway show, not the movie). I heard it frequently, committed many of the songs to heart and – like other songs I learned as a child and teen – I still know them. Some of those words came to mind when I saw the Limbo Circus Theatre production of Macbeth this week.

The context is Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem, when the crowd of disciples began to praise God loudly and boisterously, prompting some Pharisees to suggest that Jesus tell them to hush up. The Bible version of his response is in Luke 19 but I like the one set to music:

Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd?
Nothing can be done to stop the shouting
If every tongue were still, the noise would still continue
The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing.

What on earth does such a story have to do with a production of Macbeth, arguably one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies, you justly ask? No one shouts or sings “Hosanna!” and there’s not a whole lot of praising going on.

It’s not the play but the production which brought the words to mind.

Limbo Circus Theatre is a company formed by Studio 58 students who created this show with other students and recent grads from several theatre schools in the city (including Katherine Gauthier from Trinity Western University). The energy and passion is palpable, thickening the very air and enveloping everyone in the room. These are actors whose talent is undampened by cynicism and undaunted by a lack of resources.

The play takes place in a tiny hole-in-the-wall called Little Mountain Studios. Formerly a garage and now mostly an art studio, this is a space only ingenuity can transform into a theatre. For the production, audience is seated alley style, crammed together on folding chairs, filling each possible crevasse and corner. The set is primarily a warehouse-sized wooden door, which may or may not be part of the space itself, and a small platform at one end of the alley.

Overall, the production is strong, with live piano accompaniment, impressive post-modern costuming, and some excellent performances. The pacing is tight, the emotional commitment sincere. Even the cross-dressing (so many more women onstage now than in Shakespeare’s day!) succeeds by not over-striving or over-justifying.

It was towards the end of the show that the words from Scripture/Tim Rice came to mind. If you really love theatre as these young thespians clearly do, nothing can silence you. (I’m not sure how blasphemous it is to compare a love for theatre with a love for Jesus but this whole blog is based on that concept so I’ll risk it.)

Since I saw this show, the theatre community has been hit with another round of funding cuts from the B.C. government. Battered and angry, many individuals and companies are holding a rally tomorrow to protest in hopes of reversing the decision, particularly in cases where promises were broken.

The timing is either ironic or encouraging. On the one hand, those who love theatre will find a way to make theatre regardless of obstacles and that is a beautiful thing.

On the other hand, isn’t it great when there is money to support such inspiring and visionary work?

Let the rocks cry out.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Live Art is Non-Returnable

After a summer with virtually no contact with civilization and truly no contact with virtual civilization, I have been soaking up the noise, activity, and excitement of life in Vancouver since my return. And I have returned to the theatre.

This week I saw two shows, both novel but otherwise very different. Via Beatrice, a self-proclaimed “experimental operetta” from Fugue Theatre tells the story of Diana, a Canadian woman who travels to Rome after her daughter’s death. The challenging music (composed and performed by Peggy Lee) and complex script (by Sydney Risk winning playwright Jenn Griffin) are ably performed by the trio of Lucia Frangione (Diana), Laura Di Cicco (Beatrice), and Marco Soriano (Alessandro). Each actor nimbly switches from major to minor characters and from major to minor keys, while navigating the time-travelling script and unpredictably adventurous score.

The production is raw in that wonderful way a world premiere ought to be. It is clear that all involved are taking significant risks in producing and performing this ambitious work and their fearless creativity is inspiring. Those who came out to see it also took a risk, always true in theatre but even more so with new plays. Whether due to the number of shows on right now, the spectacular weather, or the multitude of entertainment options in the last days of summer, houses for Via Beatrice were small. And that’s a shame because theatre cannot thrive without new works and new voices. The courage of all of those at Fugue deserves to be applauded

The next night, I saw Marsha Norman’s The Laundromat (aka Third and Oak: The Laundromat) the premiere production from Scarlet Satin, a new company formed by TWU grad Diana Squires. Dice is a force and her first venture in the producer’s chair is worthy of her drive and ingenuity. The novelty of setting the show in an actual, working laundromat earned Scarlet Satin press from The Globe and Mail and an appearance on the CBC Radio program On the Coast. The laundromat itself is perfect for the production: Swan Laundry on Burrard is festooned (yes, festooned) with cheery pink bubbles and retro lettering that begs to be in a production set in 1979. The owner Carolyn Currie loved the idea and loves the arts so offered the location for free and it is unlikely she regrets her decision. Not only did Diana’s publicity prowess garner media attention, the show has sold out its entire run (impressive even in the tiny 25 seat venue).

The show itself is delightful. Squires’ DeeDee is annoying and endearing by turns and Brenda Matthews’ restrained Alberta provides the perfect foil. Tamara McCarthy’s direction ensures the small space is used in a way that is both believable and theatrical and the vintage television commercials add a satisfying comic touch. There’s something about watching a show called The Laundromat while you listen to an actual washing machine wash actual clothes that completes the experience.

Sometime between these two shows, I heard a radio interview with Chris Jones, theatre critic for the Chicago Tribune. Apparently, thanks to the largesse of a foundation in the windy city, a recent production there offered a money-back guarantee. Those who did not enjoy the show were invited to step up to a table in the lobby for a refund. I wondered who at Via Beatrice or The Laundromat might have accepted such an offer. My hope is that very few would respond, as was the case in Chicago, and that most would dismiss the concept as unfortunate and pitiable.

Jones rightfully acknowledges the difficulty of commodifying live art. Not only does such an action change the audience response to the production but treating the show as pure product compromises the dignity of the participants (particularly the unfortunate soul who is charged with issuing the invitation.) He also points out that patrons who are dissatisfied are much more likely to miss the time than the money and no one can refund hours and minutes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea, mentally revisiting shows I’ve seen that were only partially successful as well as those that were boring, offensive, or self-indulgent. I keep asking myself what circumstances would move me to demand my money back. But I’ve discovered a big problem.

If you buy a new faucet from Home Depot and realize it doesn’t work with your countertops or suit your spouse’s tastes, you can take it back and get a refund. But how can you possibly return the experience of live theatre? However much I have hated some productions (and I confess there have been a few) there has invariably been something gained from the experience, even if only a sharpening of my critical faculties.

Well-intentioned though it might be, the idea of a money-back guarantee for theatre should die a quick and noiseless death. As something that exists in hearts and minds, theatre’s value cannot be measured by something in your pocket.

Simply said, live art is non-returnable.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Party On!

Oh what fun! Many things make the Jessie Awards a great evening - the glitz, the glam, the giggles, the dancing... But the best thing about the Jessie Awards is that it feels like theatre matters.

I went to the party with a friend who isn't "in the biz" and it was a delight to see the event through her eyes. She wasn't jaded about who didn't get nominated or annoyed by who won. In fact, she had seen few of the shows represented. But she could tell the room was full of intereting, passionate people. She could tell they had gathered to celebrate their great love for theatre. And she could tell there was a lot of great theatre to celebrate.

Frequently, she would ask me to guess the winner. I was successful a few times, but more often I would scan the nominees and be unable to select one artist's triumph over another's. It was clear that there was so much talent in that room and on those lists - it would have been very difficult to choose. I had sentimental favourites that I was rooting for because they are friends, or because the performance or production really touched me, or because it was "their turn". But when the winner was announced, I could not begrudge a single one. The accomplishments represented by each nomination were valid and significant.

In some cases, other favourites were not nominated at all. Rather than causing bitterness, this made me realize again the depth of talent in Vancouver, the breadth of the theatre scene here. Not every good show can be nominated. Not every good performer can win. The competition around here is really stiff. And that's a great thing for all of us.

I would have loved to see Lauchlin Johnson's genius recognized for his set design for Mourning Dove. I would have loved to see Lucia Frangione nominated for No Exit. I would have loved to see The Real Thing receive a nod for best production.

But then I look at some of the categories: how do you choose a "best" performance when the possibilities are Anthony F. Ingram, David Marr, Russell Roberts, Todd Thomson, and Simon Webb? How do you choose a "best" director from Kim Collier, Dean Paul Gibson, Morris Panych, Max Reimer, and Meg Roe? And then there's the "significant artistic achievement" category. Yikes! With nominations for everything from "video design & editing" (No Exit) to "ensemble performance" (The World Goes Round) to "origami artistry" (The Life of Paper), it's hard to even determine the criteria for judgement. And when the Progress Lab wins for "innovative contribution to the artistic community" for Hive 2, how can anyone who experienced the magical madness of Hive have any complaint?

Theatre artists have a love/hate relationship with awards. No one wants to take them too seriously but everyone wants to win. It's popular to say the nomination is what really matters but that position is hard to maintain if you're Sheila White, who finally won last night with her 13th nomination for costume design, or Jennifer Lines who won her first Jessie (for her performance as Ariel in The Tempest ) despite being one of those actors whose consistent excellence is widely acknowledged.

But I defend awards shows like the Jessies because, as I said in my last post, any time achievement in the arts is recognized and celebrated everyone wins. And that's the most fun of all.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Spring Theatre Fever

Recently, I was talking with a friend about the Touchstone/Horseshoes & Hand Grenades/Felix Culpa co-production of Judith Thompson’s Iraq war play, Palace of the End. I realized a number of things during that conversation, not the least of which was how much good theatre I have seen in Vancouver this spring.

Palace of the End is good theatre. The stories are compelling, the topic is relevant, the staging is thoughtful, and the performances are strong. But perhaps most important, it’s good theatre because it does what no other art form can. Three characters based on real people tell their stories directly to us. The urgency of the topic seizes our attention. The conviction of their speeches demands our allegiance. The intimacy of the space prevents our escape. No other art could confront us so directly or engage us so completely. No other art is likely to make us that uncomfortable. And frankly, discomfort gets big points in my assessment of worthwhile theatre.

Antigone Undone also accomplished what no other art form can, though in a completely different way. A creation of the unceasingly inventive Leaky Heaven Circus, this Antigone bears little resemblance to those of Anouilh and Sophocles. You enter a small upper room at the Russian Hall (think: Legion) to find rows of swivel office chairs surrounded by a narrow platform stage. Painted black, the walls hold various props: a pitcher of water, a series of kitchen implements, a hand beater, an egg, a microwave. The techno-pop soundtrack is loud and catchy, inviting patrons to swivel-dance their chairs as they wait expectantly for the magic to unfold.

With lip-synching, cross-dressing, movement sequences, and film clips, the piece could be considered more performance art than play, despite being inspired by one of the Greek masters. But who cares? I was thoroughly entertained, always intrigued, and constantly delighted. And I now know what happens when you microwave a bar of Ivory soap.

Earlier in May I saw John and Beatrice by Carole Frechete, presented by Pi Theatre. A great success last year, this production marks the third remount for the company, a co-pro with Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre. Somehow, I had missed both other rounds and I was determined to see it this time. I’m glad I did. Vincent Gale was a revelation as John, inhabiting the character so completely that I wanted to get up on stage and introduce myself to see who would respond. Patricia Drake took over Karen Rae’s role as Beatrice and although I heard how wonderful Rae was, it’s hard to imagine a more endearing representation of the strange and seductive Beatrice. Add to the inspiring performances an intriguing script that never reveals where it’s headed and you have a most satisfying evening at the theatre.

Many other shows this spring were worth seeing. Tempus Theatre’s 36 Views was a handsome production of another stimulating script and Michael Kopsa’s performance as Wheeler was fabulous. A Theatre Conspiracy and Rumble co-pro, Blackbird by Scottish playwright David Harrower offers new perspectives and insights into sexual abuse in a piece that is both disturbing and moving. The Electric Company remount of Studies in Motion reminded me what I liked the first time. It pushes the boundaries of what can and should be done on stage, revealing spectacular movement sequences that will live in my mind forever. The brilliance of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing was beautifully brought to life in the Arts Club production, by a perfect cast with unusually perfect accents. It made me want to examine my relationships, embrace my husband, and read the play.

Many, many, more shows this spring revealed again what a fantastic theatre town Vancouver is and made me grateful to live here. Tomorrow night, Vancouver will celebrate live theatre at the annual Jessie Awards. Although awards ceremonies – like top ten lists – are a tricky business, I think it is important to hold these events and important to attend them. When excellence in the arts is recognized and celebrated, we all win.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fat is Phat

I've seen a lot of theatre in the last couple months, despite the lack of blog entries. Many shows of many kinds, all with something to recommend them. But tonight, I saw a show that has made it onto my Top Ten.

On the drive home, I thought aloud about whether this show deserved Top Ten status. I had a philosophical debate with myself about the merits and pitfalls of even having a top ten list. It's sort of like a musical group's "best of" album: what makes a "best" song or production? If I continue going to theatre, how do I determine which shows stay on the list and which are replaced? Do they have an expiration date? Is it all at the mercy of my capricious memory?

Despite the obvious difficulties, I will keep my list and I have bumped a show in favour of tonight's offering: Fat Pig by Neil LaBute, presented by Mitch and Murray Equity Co-op at Performance Works in Vancouver. And here's why.

First of all, I love the script. It's engaging, timely, and provocative. Like most great art, it takes a specific issue and uncovers its universal signficance. And perhaps most important, it is both outrageously funny and painfully human.

Thankfully, this production does it justice. Well cast, expertly directed, beautifully staged, it leaves little to be desired. I have never seen Lawrence Haegert in anything before but I will definitely watch for him in the future. His performance as Tom was remarkable. His commitment and transparency were complete, yet contained; always natural, never reaching. It is intriguing that he studied at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Newfoundland, also the training ground for the amazing cast of Tempting Providence and the gifted Stephen Drover (with whom Haegert founded Pound of Flesh Theatre). I must plan a visit to The Rock to see what thespian magic is in the water and to sit at the feet of the masters.

The other actors are also very fine. As Carter, Aaron Craven finds just the right balance of charm and sleaze, surprising us with revelations of insight that ultimately earn our sympathy. Jennifer Mawhinney is fantastic as Jeannie, complementing her flawless body with a flawlessly realized and touchingly vulnerable portrait of the unlikely "other woman". And as Helen, Kathryn Kirkpatrick delivers self-deprecating comments as one who knows their protective power, flirting with Tom and with us until we fall for her. Hard.

Set and costume designer Naomi Sider, and lighting designer Itai Erdal, have created a world that is spare and attractive, the crisp, clean lines an effective counterpoint to the voluptuous excess of the subject.

As a director, I am particularly critical of my own discipline. But Michael Scolar Jr. has created a terrific production in every respect. In addition to drawing lovely performances from his actors, the staging is inventive without being self-conscious, the pacing is spot on, and the comedy and pathos are in perfect balance.

I would have loved to direct this play. I would love to take credit for this production. I would love to see this show again.

For all these reasons, Fat Pig makes my first Top Ten entry of 2009.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

East Dance Shake Town

I saw four shows last week. Four very different shows.

The first was East of Berlin, by Ottawa playwright Hannah Moscovitch. In many ways it’s my favourite kind of theatre; funny, important, intimate. This Tarragon Theatre production (presented by the Cultch as part of the Chutzpah! festival of Jewish performing arts) is solid. As the central character, Rudi, Brendan Gall is endearing and quirky, masterfully delivering Moscovitch’s unfinished thoughts. Some of his physical tics flirt with excess but on the whole, he is an able storyteller, nimbly navigating the depth and humour of the writing. Paul Dunn as Rudi’s teenage friend Hermann is less successful. Given the same pattern of incomplete sentences, Dunn runs out of steam ahead of the script, making it too easy for us to see the words on the page. As Rudi’s love interest Sarah, Diana Donnelly is remarkable, giving one of those completely realized performances that make it hard to see the actor beneath the character. Her emotional commitment to the material seems absolute and effortless, complexly layered and unselfconsciously transparent.

The script is strong in many ways, rendering human portraits and an intriguing story, and the directing and design enhance the experience. But as is too often the case, the play’s ending was less than satisfying. Completely engaged throughout, I felt shortchanged by the final minutes, which provided easy answers to complicated questions. Nonetheless, it was the most compelling of this week’s shows and I am glad to have seen it.

ProArteDanze is another Toronto import, also part of the Chutzpah! festival. They are accomplished dancers and the program was varied and fun. One piece in particular, a new duet choreographed by Kevin O’Day and created for Robert Glumbek and Emily Molnar, was delightful. Athletic, elegant, and fun, it carried us forward, involving us in the world of the dance so completely that we were sorry to see it end. Glumbek’s solo was also evocative and involving. He understands the necessity for dancers to connect to the context of the work, to make the emotional physical. Not all the dancers were equally successful in this regard and the “soundscape” of the opening piece aggravated this problem. Where music might have supplied some of the emotional score the dancers neglected, the techno-industrial sounds accompanying the piece distanced us even farther.

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus has apparently not been performed in Vancouver for more than 100 years. That makes the current production at the Jericho Arts Centre very exciting, a feeling obviously shared by the many fine actors Jack Paterson was able to assemble for his mounting. The magnetic cast is uniformly strong. But whenever a play has not been performed much, the question must arise whether it should be. Sadly, the answer here is likely “no”. Despite creative contemporary staging and dynamic performances, the script does not offer sufficient intrigue or – dare I say it – complexity, to maintain our interest.

I finished the week with a Saturday matinee of a high school production of Our Town. Directed by TWU grad, Robyn Roukema, the show has more than 30 students from middle and high school to people Grover’s Corners. Seeing the work necessary to transform a gymnasium into a theatre and knowing how much Robyn had to do herself was inspiring. It was also a good reminder of why I don’t teach high school. I directed Our Town many years ago but had forgotten what a profound, insightful play it is. Or maybe because I’m farther along life’s path the simple truths could speak to me more clearly.

Each of these shows taught me something; about theatre, about the world, about myself. But there’s something fittingly ironic about seeing Our Town at the end of a four-show week. “Pay attention to your life,” says Wilder, “every, every minute.” I am a hurrier, a multi-tasker, a workaholic, and I am thankful for his reminder to see the beauty of this world in the light of eternity.

I think I’ll go hang out with my kids.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

So You Think You Can GAGA

I arrived in a fairly fragile state. Difficulties with family and friends, lack of sleep, work anxiety, hormones... who knows. But encountering protesters outside the theatre was almost more than I could handle. I waited in the will call line while they chanted slogans like “freedom for Palestine” and “dead children can’t dance”, uncertain whether my political leanings were being compromised by attending Israel’s Batsheva Dance. But I have a problem with the idea of boycotting cultural events to make political statements. My cynical self doesn’t believe the right people will get the right message. I moved into the theatre to get away from the racket.

Inside, I was surrounded by an unmistakably dancey crowd. Different from a theatre crowd, these patrons were somehow both sharp and flowing, with long necks, bright eyes, and extra limbs. The house opened very late and the sensory overload intensified as I read my program in the crowded lobby. When I took my seat, I felt overwhelmed, as my neighbour reminded me sadly of both a relative and a friend. Her earnest enjoyment of the lone dancer’s improvised comic curtain raiser brought tears to my eyes. And as I pulled myself together, I was enveloped by an unusual scent I could only identify as vanilla mothballs.

The opening number was electrifying. An androgynous half-circle of dancers crouched on chairs, leapt to their feet, threw off their hats, chanted in a strange language. The movement travelled from one edge to the other, like a sophisticated, mesmerizing version of “the wave”. Each dancer echoed the actions of the one before, with rapid fire precision and passionate commitment. When the movement reached the final dancer at the end of each sequence, he flew forward onto the floor as if he'd been shot, the only one still fully clothed and therefore clearly different. Memories of the protesters filtered my judgement.

Nothing after the first number quite lived up. There were other lovely pieces, like the male duet near the end of the show, but much of the work seemed self-consciously provocative. An extended segment of solo show-and-tell had a playground bravado that was alternately intriguing and irritating, its creativity marred by a need to surprise in a way that was both unsurprising and juvenile.

Batsheva is famous for inventing a style of dance known as GAGA, a sort of experts’ improvisation which requires more uninhibited spontaneity than refined technique. While several of the evening’s pieces had elements of GAGA, the method was most evident when each member of the company brought someone from the audience to the stage to dance as the spirit moved them. With so many dancers in the audience this exercise was less embarrassing than it could have been but the result seemed equal parts dance event and social experiment.

As a daily regimen of movement training, GAGA has much to teach dancers and actors about listening to their bodies. But in a world where everyone thinks they can dance, the professionals distinguish themselves by meticulous choreography and synchronicity of gesture. And for my $70 ticket I expect more than an evening spent watching people follow their impulses.

I’ll never know how much my state of mind coloured my perception of the performance. I do know that I was excited to see the show, eager to be entertained, expecting to be enthralled. And it was an enjoyable performance, one that improved my mood and enriched my understanding of contemporary dance. Maybe I got my money’s worth after all.

Monday, February 23, 2009

That's PuShing It

I am beginning to think that I simply cannot call myself a blogger. Or say I have a blog. The infrequency of my entries is too humiliating. But I will venture in again, after a long absence, to record my thoughts on shows I saw a few weeks ago.

February is PuSh Festival time in Vancouver, an annual extravaganza of performance for which the sole unifying element is the effort to be unusual. Maybe that’s not quite accurate but it often feels that “conventional” and “traditional” must be the dirtiest of dirty words to the Festival’s producers.

Not that I’m complaining. The opportunity to see a wide variety of theatrical productions, performed by companies and individuals from near and far, makes this my favourite festival. Two of my Top Ten of All Time were brought to town by Norman Armour and PuSh and I am eternally grateful. But sometimes my love of PuSh is met in almost equal measure by hate. (A couple of my never-to-be-published Bottom Ten have also been PuSh productions.) I think that’s evidence that PuSh is producing exactly the sort of provocative work that makes theatre worth doing. And seeing.

This year, I saw four PuSh shows: Ronnie Burkett’s Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy; Nanay: A Testimonial Play from Urban Crawl and Neworld Theatre;Theatre Replacement’s production of That Night Follows Day, and Marie Brassard’s The Invisible.

I had never seen Ronnie Burkett; never quite been able to cough up the price of a ticket, despite the rave reviews that precede and follow him wherever he goes. Billy Twinkle requires agile, transformational acting for Burkett to play all of the characters who live in his remarkable marionettes, and his abilities were stretched by the effort. But the charming show is ultimately a tale of forgiveness and redemption, surprisingly brought about by a conservative evangelical whose ridiculous puppet show is one of the funniest scenes in the play. Burkett manages to invest her simple faith with a level of self-awareness and genuine love that cannot be mocked as easily as her Jesus-puppet Sunday school rap. Somewhere in Burkett’s past, he’s been to Sunday school and he knows that “believing in tomorrow” is a good thing.

Nanay is more treatise than theatre, an earnest attempt to make us care about the plight of those caught in the bureaucratic web of Canada’s Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). In cooperation with the Philippine Women Centre, the story is told entirely in the words of those who have been affected by the LCP – employers, caregivers and children left behind. Their testimonies are stirring and the presentation is informative. But in the end, it is entirely one-sided and so politically correct that it hurts. The direction underlines this flaw in the script-making, rendering the Canadian employers insensitive, neurotic alcoholics, completely oblivious to the value of money, childcare, or compassion. The imbalance made me suspicious of the truth of the one side we did see, so it accomplished the opposite of its good intentions.

The actors in That Night Follows Day are children between the ages of eight and 14 delivering a script that promised to be “smart and bittersweet”, a chronicle of the ways in which adults shape the lives of children. Presented with simple, reader’s theatre directness, the words often lack rootedness and the show relies on the charm of the children to deliver its impact. Thankfully, the casting for the Vancouver production is brilliant; the kids are a virtual mosaic of variation in size, shape, colour, style, and attitude. With that much fascinating diversity, I could have watched them speak anything – or nothing at all – for a very long time.

Whenever a show has a single writer, director, and performer, a red flag pops up directly in my line of vision. But every rule has its exception and PuSh is all about breaking the rules so I chose to ignore the internal warning I saw when reading the website description of The Invisible. After all, Brassard is a frequent collaborator with another solo performer, the incomparable Robert LePage. This misleading fact proved doubly ironic. Not only was LePage’s innovative vision entirely absent, the evening seemed designed as an argument for the necessity of collaboration. Brassard was in desperate need of another voice – an editor, director, friend, who would help her to focus and clarify her work. There were some beautiful moments but they were too fleeting – or conversely, too repetitive – to redeem a disappointing performance.

Nothing I saw at PuSh this year made it onto my top ten but every show generated plenty of food for thought and conversation. That means the Festival itself retains its position as the best part of February in Vancouver.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Any friend of yours...

My brother sent me an email yesterday. He said his movie club had gone to see some live theatre. Festen, now playing in Toronto, was originally a film that he and his buddies had really liked so they were curious to see the stage adaptation.

I don’t know if the presence in the cast of television stars like Eric Peterson and Nicholas Campbell made it easier to convince his friends to go, or indeed, whether they required any convincing at all. But Sean has seen a lot of the shows I’ve directed over the years and has come around to a thoughtful respect for theatre. The production made a positive impression and afterwards he said, “I confirm your claims about the entertainment value of live theatre. It was a huge bang for the buck, especially for downtown Toronto.”

I smiled as I read his email and felt strangely heartened afterwards. It was as if I had asked him to look up a good friend, they had met and he had liked her a lot, if not quite as much as I do. And more, he understood why I love her, why I keep trying to introduce her to others that I love.

It’s a good metaphor, one I had not considered before. I now realize that I am quite the matchmaker. Last week, a student engaged me in a facebook chat from his first visit to New York and I persuaded him to see August: Osage County (rather than Young Frankenstein, sigh). Although I haven’t seen the Tracy Letts masterpiece myself, I keep hearing it’s one of those life-changing experiences we all covet. So I get a small vicarious thrill when I can recommend others take the opportunity that I don’t have “Visit my friend when you’re in her town, won’t you? You’ll like her, I promise. And please give her my love.”

I have often said that I am like a missionary, evangelizing the great masses of those who have not heard the Good News of the power of theatre. Of course, for me it’s a double mission as I believe that power comes from God’s delight in truth, creativity, and story.

So when I have a part in growing a new convert, or can deepen someone’s relationship with theatre, or even plant a seed of curiosity about it, I feel encouraged. And I believe God is pleased, too.

At the end of his email, my brother told me he resolved to start seeing theatre with his wife this year. Now that’s a New Year’s resolution I can get excited about.