Reunions

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It’s been a good week for reunions. I’m up in Yellowknife, a place I lived for seven years and where I frequently go as part of my job as policy advisor to the Senator to the NWT. It’s not surprising that I would regularly run into people I know. But this week was special. The new government in the consensus system was being selected so there were a lot of people from all over the NWT in town for that. Others were attending a major conference on Aboriginal Wellness and there was the usual flux of people out and about simply because it is dark and cold and Christmas and staying inside seems a bit like hibernating.

As a result I saw people I hadn’t seen in years – including one former colleague who I lost track of when I left in 1991. He spotted me in the gallery of the legislature and was kind enough to come over and say hello – taking time out from the drama of finding out if his son was going to become Premier. He didn’t though he is in Cabinet. At lunch yesterday, I had not one but two former Premiers of the NWT stop by my table to wish me the best of the season. I’m sure that other people were staring at me, wondering who the hell I was. Reflected glory is still glorious.

Not all reunions take place in person. I recently reconnected with a friend on Facebook who I hadn’t seen in 20 years. This was an acting friend rather than a political one; we did a few shows together in the early nineties. You can read about one of them here. In any case, we have now reconnected on Facebook and I drew his attention to a photo from the night we won the one-act play festival in Calgary. Before long, almost every other member of the cast had weighed in and we had a fun time remembering the night and some of the antics we got up to in celebrating the win. It was a virtual reunion but one that almost prompted me to propose a reunion tour of the play – though I suspect adding twenty years or so to the characters in that story would make for quite a different play. Still, it was fun to all get together once more and remember when we were young. Well, some of the crew is still relatively young – you know, in their forties – but we are all still more mature. Well, I’m sure they are.

This weekend – once I’m back in Ontario – I’ll travel down to Burlington to reunite with family I don’t see often enough and then it will be time for all the Christmas and New Year get-togethers. It is the season I guess for remembering old friends and, whenever possible, touching base even if you can’t actually touch hands over the miles.

I hope all your reunions are going so well.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

The Classics

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Whenever I see a book or movie advertised as an ‘instant classic’ I shake my head in wonder. How could they possibly know? What the heck is a classic anyway? Similarly, when I see lists of must-see films or must-read books, I wonder who exactly is trying to impose their taste on me. Because, of course, what is or is not ‘classic’ is simply a matter of taste – or worse yet, a form of cultural imperialism. When I see lists of classics that exclude women or cultures other than English (or even European) I suspect some heavy duty filtering is going on.

Of course, to be fair, the vast majority of people only read competently in one language. Mine is English. Technically I can understand written French but I can’t catch the subtlety and nuance of the literature. I suppose that lists of classics published in China might have a similar problem of inclusiveness.

But back to the original question: what is a classic? Most people believe or have at least been told that Shakespeare’s plays are classics. But that’s merely because they are relatively old and happened to survive. Half of his plays are pretty bad and are often first drafts to boot. Coriolanus is a practice run for Lear; Titus Andronicus’s bloody ending is echoed much more brilliantly in Hamlet. And really when you line them up by date written, Marlowe was doing better work than Old Bill. But he died young (or was murdered by a jealous rival?). And then there is Aphra Behn.

The plays of Shakespeare were popular enough in his time but largely languished for a hundred years until revived by an ambitious actor in the 18th Century. If he hadn’t popularized them, would students today be studying them in schools?

Still, the test of time has to be part of what we consider important. Dickens has survived and thrived into the 21st century while the much more popular Bulwer Lytton is remembered only for a bad writing competition. Chinua Achebe is recognized as one of the greatest writers but how many other African writers have been unfairly ignored? In genre, how many of the hundreds of writers of science fiction from the thirties and forties are remembered now? Even aficionados can only name a dozen or so – the general public, probably none at all. So can we call anything from that era and field classic?

Maybe. But who am I to say? I suppose the real test of a classic – why some of Shakespeare’s plays deserve the title – is whether, long after it was written, dramatized or filmed, a cultural work retains its ability to shock, amuse, move and change the person who views or reads it. Many works are life-changing but only speak to the moment they were written and the audience they were written for. Most of those are soon forgotten or relegated to the status of ‘interesting cultural relic.’ The works that continue to change lives – now that is what a classic does. It may be as simple as a laugh or a moment of poignant understanding or it may speak to the deeper places in the human psyche.

I guess I can’t define a classic but I know one when I see it.

And that’s ten minutes.

Careers

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While I’m not quite done yet, now isn’t a bad time to think about where my career has taken me and where it might lead next. Not that I’ve had a single career. Like many people I’ve had multiple occupations. Sometimes I focus on one and sometimes another and sometimes, like the last fifteen years or so, they have run in parallel.

Though I had a very brief career as a chemist consisting of a degree, a couple of summer jobs and one publishing credit in the Canadian Journal of Chemistry, my work has mostly been in public policy and in the arts. Skipping the former for the present (it’s hardly linear in any case) I’d like to spend a few minutes looking back on the latter.

Even as a teenager I had a tremendous interest in amateur drama and, of course, writing bad poetry. Though I didn’t pursue it professionally, the lure of the theatre was always there and when the opportunity came to again try my hand at acting, I jumped at it courtesy of the active community in Yellowknife. I had a few choice roles and a lot of bit parts before I realized my real skill was as a writer. So after writing a few scripts – one of which took me to the National Theatre Festival in 1989 – I left Yellowknife to pursue a career in the arts.

It was a – modest – success. I did some semi-professional acting and directing (that is I got paid though not a lot) but mostly began to write. I had some early successes, plays at Lunchbox Theatre in Calgary and, later, at a number of venues around Alberta. I won a few play competitions and then the 3-day-novel contest. A few short stories – literary ones on CBC and SF ones in a number of markets – followed. But eventually it became clear I wasn’t going to make much of a living as an artist so I turned to teaching and arts administration. I kept writing and was rewarded with regular, if not frequent, publication.

Then I went back to my other career in government. The pay was better and there was a possibility for a pension. That’s when my writing career really took off.

Three novels later and I was hitting my stride. I edited one anthology of short fiction and, after buying Bundoran Press, two more. I also edited six novels (with another soon to follow). The photo above shows all the books I’ve written or edited and all the magazines and anthologies I’ve appeared in. It doesn’t show the digital pubs of course, nor the plays. Those are more ephemeral. Nor does it show the dozens of workshops I’ve given, panels I’ve spoken on, or the conventions or conferences where I’ve been a featured guest.

Not bad for 25 years as a professional artist – though paltry compared to some of my more successful friends.

And from here? Well, my life as a public servant is almost over (except perhaps as a public intellectual) – I can see the exit from where I’m sitting – but I’m certainly not done writing or editing. I’ve got two mystery novels looking for a home as well as several stories on the market. And I’ve got a notebook full of ideas for more. Maybe that’s the best thing about a career in the arts – it can really go on forever. Even death may not stop it.

And that’s ten minutes.

Collaboration

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Years ago I started – along with half a dozen others – a small collaborative theatre company. We all joined for various reasons; some wanted opportunities to act, others to direct. Some like me wanted to write plays while still others had interests in stage management and design. It was a pretty interesting group.

We came together out of the Calgary one-act play festival. I had written a piece and eventually found a group of actors and technicians who wanted to try their hand at a new work. We were pretty successful – in part because most of us were not very experienced and were willing to listen to and learn from each other. A couple of the people had theatre degrees but no real professional experience. One had been a ballet dancer in Australia. Several went on to decent careers in theatre and I’ve kept in touch with some of them over the years.

After the one act festival, we decided to try to do a show as a collaborative troupe. We selected 4 short one-act plays, one of which I had written, and put them together as “Dangerous Times” performed at the Pumphouse Theatres. Swearing and nudity was featured heavily. Members acted in one piece, directed another and contributed backstage in yet another. We brought in a few more people for roles we couldn’t fill in-house. They subsequently became members of the troupe. Everything was on a cost share basis – if we made money, we split the proceeds and if we lost, we shared the pain.

As it turns out we did neither. The after expenses box office was something like $50, which split among a dozen people would barely buy a drink at the bar (this was a while ago when you could get a drink for $4). We decided to leave the cash in the kitty for the next show.

Over the summer we sat down to plan our fall production; we read a bunch of plays and picked out our top three. I had to be out of town for a few weeks so I left the details to another – seemingly reliable – member. When I returned she had bought rights to an obscure play – sold to her by the agent who had the rights to our first choice but refused to let us have them.

Some of the troupe was keen enough; others were furious and refused to take part. I, having been away during casting, was handling promotions and administration. I did what I could but frankly no-one wanted to see this show. And I don’t blame them. The acting was half-hearted and the sets and costumes (the play was historical and really demanded a real budget) amateurish.

We lost a bundle – though it only amounted to about sixty bucks each. Still for actors on the edge that was a bit of money. A few dutifully paid up, while the rest – including the person who selected the piece and directed it – wouldn’t even answer my calls. I picked up the tab.

That was the end of my first collaborative effort in the arts. I’ve done a few since with better results but it pretty much explains why I insist that all the details are agreed beforehand and put in writing to boot.

And that’s ten minutes.

Performance

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The first time I went on stage I was thirteen — a grade eight boy who only got involved in drama to escape a whole class detention. I remember how nervous I was. In the play, I was supposed to light a cigarette (imagine smoking on stage in school) but my hands were shaking so badly, I couldn’t keep the match lit. That was when I discovered I had a knack for improvisation. On my second try, I said. “You know, I think it’s time I quit smoking.” We incorporated it into subsequent performances.

The reason I remember that day so clearly is because it has been repeated every time I’ve had to perform, give a speech, do a reading or appear in public. When I was still doing improv murder mysteries, I would swear for an hour before the show started that I was never going to do another one. Even as I prepared for my one hundredth such performance (and two hundredth) I made the same assertion.

What I discovered was that once I was out there I had no problems. I always knew my lines, could improvise when others didn’t know theirs, could connect with an audience, and could in fact perform. Most people have no idea how I feel before the start because they never see it when I’m actually doing it.

When the show or the appearance is over, I’m generally pumped, as excited after it’s done as I was anxious before it began. Still, I’ve never felt the post show high was worth the pre-show jitters. At least I didn’t vomit before every show like a friend of mine. He didn’t last long in the performance game.

Why on earth would anyone put themselves through that? Well, we do it for the moment of magic. While the post-show excitement didn’t outweigh the pre-show pain, the moment of magic, when you hit just the right note, catch the perfect emotion, connect with one person or a whole audience. It is in some ways better than writing because there is no mediation. It is your body, your face, your voice, your emotions — right there, right now — and there is no possibility of re-writing or second guessing. It happens and then it is over. Until the next time, when you know it will be different. It might be worse or, magically, it might be better.

That is why people who are scared do what they do: because they want to be bigger than their fear, bigger than they imagine themselves to be. So the next time you feel overwhelmed by the feeling that you are not good enough, maybe you can think of that scared 13-year old up on a stage he never aspired to be on. He made it through and maybe you can too.

And that’s ten minutes.

Stupidity

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This week I’ve been sampling a number of TV series on Netflix and Acorn TV. For the most part I haven’t managed to get through a single episode. The reason is simple: stupidity. Apparently, when you can’t think of a clever plot device, you can always fall back on stupid. In some cases, it is a case of portraying a group of people as buffoons — a village of idiots, for example, with our hero as merely the brightest of a bad lot. This is bad enough — a form of offensiveness that is akin to racism. The stupid as stereotypes. Most people aren’t stupid but they can be easily portrayed as such (or made to act that way).

But what really irks me is stupidity portrayed as any number of supposedly sterling qualities. It may be determination — the need to forge ahead based on firmly held principles, despite there being obvious evidence they are wrong. It may be portrayed as bravery or as rebellion against authority. All reasonable characteristics in fiction but, usually it would all fall apart if someone simply asked a few questions. Does that make sense? Is there an alternative explanation? Have you thought about how things will look tomorrow? Don’t you think that is unnecessarily risky?

These types of questions — requiring rational analysis and careful consideration of future consequences are never asked. The heroes and villains blunder forward and I switch to another channel.

I so wish I could do that in real life.

There is a current in popular “intellectualism” (and, yes, the quotes are ironic) that suggests reason isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that we would make better decisions if we relied on our instincts  and came to conclusions in the ‘blink’ of an eye. This is often called common sense (nothing so uncommon as). Not surprisingly these “ideas” are often put forward by people with remarkably right wing opinions on most things.

First thoughts are not always the best ones. There is a highly successful means of treating depression called cognitive therapy. What it shows is that our first thoughts are driven by our emotions and instincts — our moods — and most often lead to depression, anxiety, rage and guilt. Sounds like a formula for Tea Party membership, doesn’t it?

It is true — reason is hard work, it is time consuming, it can make mistakes but ultimately it is the only tool w have that will let us live together in peace and solve the big problems that a mass society will inevitably have. Reason is the basis of science, after all. Which may be why so many conservatives hate science.

Instinct is great if you live in a state of nature — the war of all against all where life is nasty, brutish and short. But, frankly, that doesn’t interest me any more than stupidity.

But that’s ten minutes.

Naked

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I can remember when you couldn’t go to the theatre without seeing naked bodies all over the stage. Some shows, like O Calcutta, seemed to exist merely as an excuse for everyone to strip off and show the world the beauty of the human body. And they all were beautiful — men and women alike. Other shows, like Hair, used nudity to prove a point rather than it being a point in itself.

And of course there were lots of examples of nudity serving a larger dramatic purpose. The final scene in Equus, recently recreated with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead, comes to mind. At the fringe festivals, nudity was much more in your face — quite literally since the stages were often only a few feet away.

Nowadays, we seem to be beyond that — at least in most mainstream theatres. I don’t go as often as I used to and maybe I don’t go to the right theatres but nudity — even when it would serve the purpose of the play — doesn’t seem to be used as one of the ‘tools of the trade.’ Or maybe I need to go to different theatres.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I do recall though how I felt about all that stuff years ago when I made my one and only naked stage appearance.

It was the early nineties and I’d formed a small company with a friend, Rob Turner, which we so cleverly called Trenholm Turner Underdrive — soon shortened to TTU productions.

For our second effort we produced an evening of one-acts called Dangerous Times produced at the Pumphouse in Calgary. I forget all four titles now but I do recall being in a short Tennessee Williams play about dysfunctional drunks and organ harvesting and in a short piece I wrote which consisted of a six scenes about political oppression.

It was quite experimental and it required three of the four actors to disrobe at one time or another in the 25 minute run. One of my reasons for doing the piece was to show that you didn’t have to be beautiful to be naked on stage — that is to say, it was a natural thing and shouldn’t be used only for titillation.

One of the actors was in fact a beautiful young woman but the other two disrobers were me and a very tall (6’5″) and very thin young man. He wasn’t unpleasant to look at but he wasn’t quite the picture of masculine beauty either. As for me: I was nearly forty and had never been mistaken for gorgeous.

Still, I looked my best that opening night. There is nothing like knowing you have to bare all to motivate you to lose 30 pounds and spend a few hours in the gym.

The critical response? Not much — it was a small theatre and a short run and the local critics didn’t pay much attention to little new companies. But I did hear two older women speaking to Kelly at the reception afterwards. They told him: You certainly gave us something to talk about on the drive home.

And that’s ten minutes.