Citing “a combination of challenging economic times and an inefficient operating model within the downtown theatre space, and the cost of temporary production facilities”, the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company announced yesterday that tonight’s show will be its last. The organization apparently couldn’t continue to shoulder a rumoured seven-figure debt.
In a city that cannot afford the cultural loss, the institution lasted 49 years. The closure is particularly saddening as, compared to Vancouver’s other big theatre company, the Playhouse had the riskier, more challenging programming. I have fond memories of seeing many great plays there–and less fond memories, too, of less successful ones.
Skimming their impressive production history, they’ve produced some truly wonderful works of the past couple of decades: The Syringa Tree, Copenhagen (my favourite contemporary play ever, as it happens), Oleanna and so forth. I reviewed a couple of shows recently: This and Beyond Eden.
So what’s the bigger lesson we can take from this sad event? Is it the natural outcome of a time-shifting, cocooning culture with more and better entertainment options at home? Is it reflective of Vancouver’s ethos, which focuses on communing with nature or a vodka tonic, but not so much on connecting with the arts? Or maybe there’s no lesson at all, and the company’s closing is the result of over-spending and under-performance?
In any case, I applaud what the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company has done over its nearly-fifty years in the city, and mourn its passing.
“Stop Making Sense”, Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking Talking Heads documentary, begins with lead singer David Byrne walking onto a bare stage, carrying a ghetto blaster and an acoustic guitar. We can see rigging and ladders against the stage’s brightly-lit back wall as Byrne begins “Psycho Killer”. He accompanies himself on guitar and, apparently, a percussion loop on the ghetto blaster. Other musicians join Byrne throughout the set, and eventually screens are lowered to conceal the rear wall of the stage.
The play is unusually staged. The audience and the actors share the set, a 1915 Kamloops home. We sat on benches, in chairs and on cushions on the floor. We become part of the set, sitting at one end of the dining room table and hunker around the bathtub. Beyond us are the three bare walls of the stage, and the closed curtain that separates us from the massive, empty auditorium.
Meg Roe and director Kim Collier. Photo by Michael Julian Berz.
It’s a long play, and a sobering one. It’s also full of movement and songs, and so I wasn’t bored despite its 150 minute duration. Actors Jonathon Young and Meg Roe are the heart of the big cast, and they both turned in delightful performances. I was reminded in particular of Roe’s sweet charisma on-stage. In many ways, her work here feels like a natural extension of her excellent work as the matron in “Penelopiad”.
“All The Way Home” is an intimate portrayal of a crisis that befalls a family, and their grief in its aftermath. Thanks to director Kim Collier’s intimate staging, I was occasionally less than a foot from an actor gripped with intense emotion. It’s an odd feeling, to be observing so closely but not participating. I felt a little like the beta gorilla in the troop, averting my eyes when they got too close. I was, to borrow from Mr. Byrne, tense and nervous.
There were about 20 teenagers from Arts Umbrella in the audience, and it was fun to watch them watch the action. I rarely experience theatre-in-the-round, and it’s rarer still that I do it flanked by so many young people. You could see dreams of becoming the next Meg Roe forming (or, more likely, solidifying) in their heads.
The play won the Pulitzer in 1961, and it feels very much a show from that period. It’s well-observed, and deceivingly simple in its structure, but it doesn’t have much new to say to today’s audience. There is the tiny joy of hearing local place names (though I did wonder whether Merritt had a movie theatre in 1915).
Yet Electric Company Theatre shows are often as concerned with the ‘how’ as the ‘what’. The blend of the modern and the post-modern–the realistic set furnishings combined with the bare walls of the stage–makes for an intimate if not immersive night at the theatre. It has some similarities to their 2010 “Tear the Curtain”, but it’s much tauter and far more fathomable. Plus there’s a terrific third-act reveal that delivers a rare treat to the audience.
Tickets are sold out for this show, but hopefully they’ll extend their run or remount it soon. You shouldn’t miss it.
The Trifecta of Directorial Tricks
This is kind of a footnote, and unrelated to the review. I mentioned that there was a bathtub on-stage. At one point an actor sits on the edge of it, and I genuinely wondered if she was going to get undressed and take a bath in some unbearably cold water. That might have seriously pushed the audience’s comfort level, but you can never go wrong with water on stage. One of my favourite ever shows at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre featured water. “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” has a trough and a bath tub, if memory serves, and there’s a peculiar pleasure in the elemental sound of it sloshing around on-stage.
In thinking about water on-stage, I thought of two other great audience-pleasing tricks. First, you can never go wrong adding a song to a play. It can change a show’s pace and endear us to a singer. I’m not sure why, but I’m never disappointed to hear an actor break into song.
You also can’t go wrong getting the actor’s to prepare food on-stage. I remember another show at the Belfry–the name escapes me–where somebody cooked an entire meal of spaghetti on a functional kitchen. It worked so well as a kind of steamy, sensuous seduction of the audience.
I’m no theatre director, and maybe these are all rote cliches now. Still, the formula for the best play ever might be a dramedy about a cooking show host/marathon swimmer who occasionally sings negro spirituals for her own pleasure.
UPDATE: I was talking to somebody about a show that had the corner of a swimming pool on-stage. It was right at the lip of the stage, and walled with plexiglass, so that the audience could see into the pool. I asked the Belfry Theatre on Twitter, and they reminded me that the show was “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” by Terrence McNally. Here’s a photo from the show:
Prince played Vancouver last Friday night. I was chatting about the fey, left-handed musician with a friend of mine recently. Our conversation went something like this:
ME: Yeah, Prince is really not to my taste.
HER: But he’s amazing, what’s not to like?
ME: I acknowledge that he’s a super guitarist, a great songwriter and a fantastic showman. I just don’t care for his music.
I find myself saying a variation of “it’s good, but not to my taste” all the time. And I often find that people seem baffled or disappointed by my response. I guess it’s because they want me to like what they like too.
But–and here’s where I sound like a you-kids-get-off-my-lawn curmudgeon–I feel like there’s been a decline in the idea of taste in our culture. Or maybe it’s a decline in a respect of different tastes.
You would think that, in a increasingly balkanized cultural landscape, people would more readily accept differences like this. But it’s my sense that the opposite is true. What do you think?
When I was in theatre school, I regularly participated in the ‘collective creation’ process. This involved collaborating with my fellow students to create a short play or scene. There were no directors or playwrights. Everybody contributed to the project, and we reached a consensus on what work to keep and what to throw out. The process was slow-moving, feelings regularly got hurt and the results were unilaterally awful.
The rise of the Occupy movement this fall reminded me of working on collective creations. Occupy Wall Street and its cousins around the world actively eschewed leaders, and relied on a community-oriented consensus model to reach decisions. This ostensibly leaderless approach got me naturally thinking about leadership.
In every project in which I’ve been involved–creative, corporate, volunteer, non-profit–there was always a person in charge. Whether or not that person had an authoritative title or anybody acknowledged it, they had final decision-making power. A group always needs to look to somebody to own big decisions. That’s what a leader is there for.
Whether we’re talking about theatre, an unconference or revolution, there’s always a leader at the heart of things. Like it or not, we’re a hierarchical species. It’s how we get stuff done.
Which is why I’ve been interested in the intentional leaderlessness of the Occupy movement. There’s a cliche about Generation Y that they were raised on teamwork and consensus building, where everybody got a ribbon on Sports Day and nobody counted goals at their soccer games. Does Occupy reflect these values? Or is it merely a coincidence? I suspect that, in truth, each Occupy protest had their fair share of leaders who, at the end of the day, drove and owned decisions.
Here’s another thing about leadership that I’ve learned over the years: most people don’t want to be leaders.
In rereading this little post, it seems like I’m rather aggressively reinforcing the status quo. A feminist reading of this post might accuse me of taking a very traditional, masculine line of thinking. I should emphasize that I’m not writing off other ways of organization, but I can think of very few truly leaderless projects. Can you think of examples?
UPDATE: A friend sent me this interesting article by Micah L. Sifry. It frames Occupy Wall Street as a ‘leader-full movement’. I’d need to read more about this idea to get my head around it. It’s a pity that, in the conclusion, Sifry demonizes traditional leadership by writing “a world of top-down leaders who use hierarchy, secrecy and spin to conduct their business”. He hasn’t earned that claim with evidence elsewhere in the article, and so it cheapens an otherwise thoughtful piece.
I’ve been tardy in writing a review of Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad”, which opened at The Arts Club last week. I’ve been reluctant, I think, because I felt unmoved by the production.
The show is not without its merits. Atwood’s lyrical script retells the Odyssey myth from Penelope’s perspective. She’s stuck at home on Ithaca while her footloose husband Odysseus meanders around the Mediterranean. She has a busy kingdom to run, maids to manage, suitors to stave off and a sass-mouthed son to mother. The plot, as skeletal as certain adversaries of Jason in another Greek myth, doesn’t really get started until the second act. The script isn’t exactly ripe with gripping drama, and feels a little padded out by a number of songs.
Meg Roe is luminous and regal as Penelope, telling her story from Hades. Through much of the play, her role is passive–she recounts events as a kind of Greek Stepford wife, all smiles and warmth. The supporting cast, ten women who play Penelope’s favourite maids, as well as sundry other roles, were also strong. I did wonder a bit about the decision to cast all women in these roles in 2011. It felt like a rather 20th-century, Top Girls kind of stunt casting. Colleen Wheeler was suitably gloomy and masculine when she played Odysseus, but why cast that role as a woman? Perhaps I’m alone in this, but Wheeler and Roe’s most intimate scenes were inevitably overlaid with my constant awareness that “she’s pretending to be a he”. Obviously that was Atwood or director Vanessa Porteous’s intent, but I couldn’t glean why.
Other production elements–the nautical set with a floating platform that doubled as a marriage bed, the watery lighting and the on-stage sound design and music–were all cohesive and well-executed.
Nowadays, most of us don’t have maids, but, especially in our blessedly peaceable land of Canada, are we really aware of the impact we have on the “invisible ones” whose lives we touch? The people who make the clothes we buy; the people “downstream” from us, as they say in environmental circles; the people who live in countries far away, the mothers and sisters and daughters of the nations with whom we are in conflict?
That’s a dubious question to ask of Arts Club attendees in 2011. They’re locavores, crafters and sustainability connoisseurs. From Slumdog Millionaire to The Story of Stuff, few groups are more aware of how their consumption or their country’s politics impacts people in the developing world.
In short, The Penelopiad was a well-made play that wasn’t to my liking. It’s plot was too turgid, and its themes too tired for me to find it particularly engaging. As the Internet kids say, your mileage may vary. The play runs through November 20 at the Stanley Theatre.
On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, a Quaker from Baltimore, drove to the Pentagon with his baby daughter. He poured a jar of kerosene over hmself, and immolated himself below Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s office window.
This ferocious moment is the inciting incident of Re:Union, the latest provocative and intellectually rigorous play at Pacific Theatre.
Playwright Sean Devine sets the main action in late 2001, weeks after the events of September 11th. Morrison’s daughter Emily (Alexa Devine) is all grown up with a child of her own, and has retraced her father’s footsteps to confront McNamara (Evan Frayne). Early in the play she says “I am the daughter of my father’s fire”, and is bent on getting the elderly McNamara to speak out against the messy conflicts the US is about to enter into.
Photo by Emily Cooper. Pictured (L-R): Andrew Wheeler, Evan Frayne, and Alexa Devine in Re:Union.
Their scenes together reminded me a little of David Mamet’s Oleanna, if only for the way a younger woman and an older, more powerful man engage in high stakes if cerebral debate in an office. These are counterpointed by flashback scenes in which Morrison (Andrew Wheeler) lectures–for he apparently taught ethics at the college-level–the audience about Kierkegaard, Hegel and the Old Testament. While these scenes weren’t dreary per se, they did ask a lot of the audience.
The performers were all very strong–their work adds up to three subtle portraits in self-doubt. In addition to a demanding, wordy script, they had the challenges of interacting with a lot of on-stage technology. This is by far the most technically sophisticated show I’ve seen at Pacific Theatre. There were projections on multiple surfaces that displayed archival footage, set decoration and feeds from on-stage cameras. Director John Langs seems very excited by the possibilities of these devices. Emily routinely speaks into a tape recorder or one of the on-stage cameras, and the director uses a complex sound design to, on occasion, affect the speed of the on-stage performances. Actors ‘speed up’ or ‘rewind’ accordingly.
This stage technology still feels fresh, but it can become a distraction from the action or a crutch for the actors or playwright. Re:Union avoids most of these pitfalls, though there are a few flame effects which feel clunky, and invite unflattering comparisons to similar effects from film and television. In truth, I was also excited to see experiments with projections. As in Tear the Curtain and, to a lesser degree, Ride the Cyclone, they seem to be coming of age in the theatre.
One tiny technical quibble: ages ago, my lighting design professor at UVic, gave me some practical instructions on pre-show lighting of the auditorium. I’m not sure why I still remember it, for I gave up lighting design quite a while ago, but he said that this particular lighting only has two purposes: to enable the audience to find their seats, and read their programs. I had a hard time doing either before this show.
I come, lastly, to Sean Devine’s script. He’s taken on challenging material here–both Morrison’s act itself and the ideologies that surround it–but mostly succeeds on the strength of the three characters he’s drawn. I did feel the play’s inertia falter early in the second act, and thought Morrison’s lecture scenes in particular could bear with some tightening up.
I also wondered if the playwright was asking the right questions of the material, or whether he’s placed the emphasis on the right ideas. The play touches on the selfishness of Norman Morrison’s act, but doesn’t explore it in any depth. Additionally, I identified a certain smug certainty in Emily and McNamara’s conversations about the Vietnam War and the forthcoming conflict in Iraq. Nobody dared to defend the righteousness of these conflicts, not even a little. I felt like Devine confidently assumed that the audience was full of peaceniks.
If the defunct HBO show Carnivale mated with Glee, their love child would be Atomic Vaudeville’s Ride the Cyclone. The musical tells the story of…ah, here, just watch the trailer:
It’s a macabre, imaginative cabaret filled with fun, clever songs and terrific performances. While the whole cast was very strong, both Sarah Jane Pelzer and Elliot Loran stood out. The production seemed very tight and well-rehearsed for an opening night. The show is full of choreography and finicky business with props, so I was struck by how smoothly the cast handled all the staging minutiae.
It’s really more of a series of delightful songs than a play or musical in any formal sense. Like a good episode of True Blood, it’s dark and sexy, but you don’t exactly dwell on its story structure or themes. The characters worry about the claustrophobia of small town life, but the show doesn’t have anything fresh to say on that topic.
I had a couple of minor quibbles with the staging–the set and props were all a little too Etsy for my taste. I’d also have excised a few date-specific details from the script. Mentions of YouTube or Christina Aguilera interrupt the timeless quality created by the fairground setting and musical choices.
It’s a great date show–90 minutes without intermission. Bringing a boyfriend or girlfriend to Ride the Cyclone would make you look a little edgy, and there’s lots to talk about after the show.
Last night I told a story at Raincity Chronicles, Vancouver’s answer to The Moth. I was last on the docket, and humbled by the great storytellers I shared the stage with. I was also really impressed by the organizing, wrangling and general finessing by Raincity organizers Karen and Lizzy. I’ve been an organizer, speaker or attendee many times, so I know how much work it takes to get all the little details right.
On a whim, I used the Voice Memo app on my iPhone to record my story. It worked out surprisingly well, considering that it was sitting on the arm of a seat in the middle of the venue. The auditorium at the Museum of Vancouver has a kind of clinical lecture hall feel, but it has superb acoustics.
My friend Rachael snapped a photo of me, so I combined the audio track with the photo and posted the story to YouTube. It’s audio only, and the sound isn’t great, but feel free to give it a listen.
The Written Version
As I sometimes do when giving talks (particularly those outside my comfort zone), I wrote out the story first. We were supposed to tell a story five to seven minutes in length, and my first version of this story was 1500 words, about 500 too long.
For some reason, knowing that I’d have a strict time limit made me extra-judicious in editing. I was reminded of a lot of trusty rules of rewriting–start as close to the end as possible, end as quickly as possible and, most painfully, you almost always have to cut out the bits you love the most.
Here’s the written version of the story.
Julie’s Black Tongue
The day my wife almost died began with a boat trip. We arrive at our jungle camp in Costa Rica, after a morning of river-rafting. We’ve been backpacking through the country, and are staying over night deep in the Costa Rican wilderness.
We arrive at this clearing that’s been cut into the jungle at the river’s edge, revealing rustic huts on platforms. It’s the off-season for tourists so, with the exception of our guide, a Costa Rican native Indian named Paco, we’re the only people staying there.