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.