Erin Go Bragh

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I’ve had a long, if somewhat oblique, relationship with Ireland. My English grandfather was stationed in Ireland during the 1920s. He was regular army – not the much hated Black and Tan who came later – and always expressed sorrow over the difficult lives experienced by so many of the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant.

As a teenager interested in fantasy, I was drawn to Celtic mythology much of it based in the legends of Ireland. I still have a copy of Nora Chadwick’s ‘The Celts’ on my bookshelves. Given how often I’ve moved and how many books I’ve given up, that’s an indication of how important it was to me. On the fantasy side, Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish writer, was a favorite.

the celts

Over the years, I read many Irish writers. Some like Yeats and Joyce were readily identifiable as such; others, like Beckett, less so.

In my mind, Ireland was a green land, filled with mist and bog and surrounded by a tumultuous ocean. It was a land of faerie and myth. It was much more than that, of course. Though the common image of the Irish church is one of oppression and backwardness, this was a modern development. Irish monks had been essential to the preservation of much of the legacy of ancient times. While libraries were being burned across Europe, they preserved and protected books and eventually returned them to the mainland. The Irish may well have saved western civilization. Irish theologians were also the strongest defenders of the idea that women had souls – a matter of some dispute in the 9th century.

In the 1990s, I wound up becoming the Artistic Director of the Liffey Players in Calgary and was introduced to the majesty of Irish theatre. I directed half a dozen plays by Friel and Heaney and Keane. I even had a chance to chat briefly with Seamus Heaney – the year before he won the Nobel prize. I wrote a play of my own – thankfully lost now – loosely based on the poetry of W. B. Yeats. The highlight of my time with the company was directing Bold Girls by Rona Munro.

The Cure at Troy

The cast of The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney

A couple of years ago I finally visited Ireland itself – or at least Dublin – where I walked the banks of the Liffey and cruised the many museums and parks that fill the city centre. Dublin was a little down at the heels – Ireland was swept up in the banking madness of the early 21st Century and is still suffering the consequences. But it was still a pleasure to see.

We visited numerous pubs where we heard too many versions of ‘Whiskey in the Jar” but also some great traditional music. Liz and I spent a fun evening dancing to live music in what passed for a pick-up bar in Dublin. We even tried to get the locals up on the floor. The lasses were willing but the lads went so far as to fake injury to avoid participating. At the end of the night, one of the women took Liz’s hands in hers and told her in a beautiful Irish lilt: You’re lovely.

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The River Liffey

Which is pretty much how I felt about Dublin. I look forward to returning to it and the surrounding countryside someday.

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.

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.

Critics

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Everybody’s a critic it seems these days. With opportunities to comment on Amazon or Goodreads, in newspapers on-line editions and a multitude of blogs big and small, it appears everyone has a strong opinion about creative efforts and are eager to express it loud and clear. The more critical one is, it seems, the more people pay attention to you.

Or do they?

People confuse what it means to be a critic. They assume it is the job of the critic to attack (or occasionally praise) a book or a movie or a video game. Not at all. A review – which does both those things – largely is an expression of an opinion, not much more sophisticated than I like that or I hate this. A review is not criticism. Often it is nothing more than a vendetta.

The role of a true critic (and yes, I understand I am about to be called an elitist in this oh so democratic world) is to place a creative work in the context of history and culture and to try to understand what an artist is trying to accomplish within that context and to, finally, judge whether they have succeeded and failed and why.

To be a reviewer, you just have to be there; to be a critic, you have to yourself be immersed in the creative activity if not as a practitioner then as a student of the field and the practice.

In other words, the role of a critic is not to snidely criticize (though many of them do this in a most delightful way) but rather to understand what is being done and, in an odd way, to support the artist in his or her efforts.

Do critics serve a real purpose in the work of the working artist? This is a harder question to answer. In many cases, the critic is examining the final product. The criticism will not unmake the movie or unwrite the book.

In the case of the novelist, the work was largely completed 12 or even 24 months ago (not so in self-publishing but that’s another story). The writer, in many cases has already moved on and unless they are writing a series of books (only common in fantasy or mystery for the most part) they are no longer engaged in the themes or stories of the old work. What then can they learn from a critic? It’s not like it never happens – after all writers do revisit themes on a regular basis – but only in a few cases does a real artistic dialogue exist between creator and critic (unless you consider editors the ultimate critic – which I suspect a lot of writers do).

The critic may play a larger role historically and academically in placing the artist in their proper place in the pantheon or they may – if they are particularly skilled at bringing their strength of criticism into popular reviews – be useful as a guide for readers and watchers as in: if you liked this, you might like that in the way Amazon algorithms never will.

But for the rest? When Hemingway was confronted by an erstwhile young critic and asked if the birds flying up from the gondola were a symbol of sexual consummation, Hemingway responded with: What? You think you can do better?

And that’s ten minutes. (With thanks to Stephanie Ann Johanson for the topic suggestion).

Real Writers

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I was so happy today to discover that I’m not really a writer. Despite having sold four novels (and written five others) and more than twenty five short stories, I am not a ‘real writer.’ Never mind the half dozen plays I’ve had produced — I definitely do not fall into the category of ‘true author.’

For one thing I don’t let real life get in my way. I like real life. I enjoy my day job. I like hanging around with friends. I look forward to grocery shopping and even a clean house. I often find real inspiration for stories in the mundane tasks and ordinary people I meet.

However, I don’t really worry about inspiration. Most of my stories don’t come from those ‘out of the blue ideas’ or thoughts at all hours of the day and night. Generally my stories are generated through a fairly organized process of brainstorming. I create inspiration by actively playing with ideas.

And it invariably happens during daylight hours. I have lost sleep over problems at work or worries about money or the health of those I love. But lie awake all night thinking about writing? Can’t say I can remember it ever happening.

I have been known to stare into space and get lost in thought — but it is as often caused by thinking about politics as story — which occasionally interferes with my people watching activities. In fact, I can’t tell you how often my wife has said to me — did you see that guy juggling knives and I’ve replied: no, when was that? Still, I have been known to find pleasure sitting in a cafe or bar and watching the people walk by — anything as an excuse not to write.

Concentration? I can barely focus long enough to get down a few hundred words. Why do you think I spend my time writing these ten-minute blurbs?

Oh, it is true I have in the past been known to sit and write for hours — I did once win the 3-day novel writing contest, which required me to produce 33K words in three short days — but even that weekend I took one night off to eat dinner and drink my face off with friends. Nowadays, the smallest little thing — a stiff neck, the need to pee, a desire for chocolate — can haul me out of my chair and away from my work-in-progress.

And self-doubt, crippling or otherwise, is not in my nature. Ask anyone who has suffered under the glare of my self-esteem.

So, whew, I’m not a real writer. Though I do write from time to time. But that’s okay. I still manage to put a couple hundred thousand words a year into various projects. And still have a real life.

And that’s ten minutes.

Improvization

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There is an article going around social media about what made Star Trek: the Next Generation special was that in the show everyone’s opinion and contribution is respected. They may be wrong but the assumption is always that they should be listened to and their ideas examined with respect and thoughtfulness. Like all generalizations it is easy enough to find exceptions and pick away at it. Can we all say: Shut up Wesley. Yet it is those exceptions that prove the rule.

There is a fundamental truth to this idea. Value can always be found from the affirmative examination of ideas as opposed to the immediate insistence that other people’s thoughts should be dismissed or at least disputed — just because of the status, gender, race, whatever of the person making the suggestion.

I learned this a long time ago by doing theatre improvisation. The first rule of improv is that you never say: No. If one actor says, “Hey, look at that dog over there”. You do not respond — “you’re wrong it is a cat.”

This is called a scene killer. It is not funny and it leads nowhere. The improv dies and the audience gets pissed off at the actor who is so vain they have to control every situation by refuting the contributions of others.

The proper response to “Look at that dog over there” might be “He sure has big teeth.” Which might lead to “But why are two of them gold?” Each idea builds a bigger and more interesting description of the imaginary dog. Before you know it that dog is playing the piano and reminiscing about his days in the French foreign legion. The possibilities of playing on each other’s ideas are amazing.

The same lesson can apply to organizations, whether in government, business or the non-profit sector. The standard model is hierarchal with the boss having a monopoly on the best ideas and strongest opinions (and rewards). Good organizations encourage the flow of ideas from all levels but everyone knows where the buck stops. These organizations can be effective for certain things but are seldom the most innovative and adaptable. In a rapidly changing world they can fail as the ground shifts beneath them and the pyramid sinks into the sand.

New structures are emerging where the company or division is organized in a flat and circular fashion. There may be a CEO but he or she wields little control over the innovative management practices where each individual contributes based on their own particular set of skills and perceptions. Point of view is particularly valued in companies who realize they are operating in a world where perception can change practice as much as anything else. These flat organizations are spreading and becoming increasingly important and powerful in a variety of sectors.

And they have the advantage of rewarding people in a more egalitarian manner instead of having all the money flow to the top.

But that’s ten minutes.

Costumes

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Halloween is rapidly approaching; the signs are everywhere. Carved pumpkins, snow flurries in the forecast for Friday, and of course, people in costumes.

I’m not unfamiliar with costumes myself. I wore quite a few while acting in interactive murder mysteries with Terry Shane and especially with Pegasus Performances in Calgary, Sometimes I died, sometimes I didn’t but I always had fun, especially when I got to wear costumes. The one attached — of the Duchess Kicken-Butte — brings back particularly fond memories. She was the enforcer at medieval feasts who threatened miscreants with much kissing of the French variety. It worked remarkably well in stopping food fights.

My life with costumes goes back a long way. Of course we all dressed up for Halloween and the associated parties as kids but I actually took it a step farther, engaging in cosplay before I even knew such a thing existed.

At 12 I was a huge comic book fan and collector. Eventually I had over 3000 comics, though they are all gone now. I loved to turn my comic book heroes into characters for the superhero games we played in the neighbourhood. As the chief librarian I was the game master for these live action adventures. This was in 1967 so I think I got the jump on LARPs.

I always had a little money in my pocket (as a kid I was a mad entrepreneur, working at anything to feed my book, comic and movie habits) and when I learned that my friend Alan knew how to sew (he had four older sisters) I immediately proposed we buy some material and make costumes. I can’t remember what we made for him but I was to be the Boy Wonder. Robin’s costume had all the advantages — it was colorful, could partly be constructed from my wardrobe and best of all had a very simple mask (we had no idea how to make a cowl).

Off we went to the fabric store — not a specialized one in those days but part of Margolian’s department store. I’m sure we got a few odd looks as we gathered up bright yellow and red yards of cloth and purchased the right color threads and some needles. But this was Amherst in the 60s where the explanation for everything was “They’re just kids having fun.”

I won’t say the costume was a work of art — Alan’s skills didn’t live up to his brags — but I did wear the final product for plenty of adventures all that summer. Maybe that explains a lot — or maybe it explains nothing at all. Just kids having fun.

And that’s ten minutes.