Month: March 2010

Oscar Cool

Oscars: fun, silly, big business.

However, you choose to look at them (and all the itinerant outfits), you can’t help but choose a favorite moment when the little golden man makes his appearance every March. My personal favorite segment was short, snappy, and very stylish: Tina Fey, in sparkling black one-shoulder dress, and Robert Downey Jr. rocking a bow-tie and Warhol shades, presenting the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (it went to the entirely-deserving Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker, fyi). The two shared a comfortable, natural chemistry; their deadpan delivery of tacky lines, with Fey’s sarcastic cheery-chipper-yay-team-ness, and Downey’s sourpuss antics, easily became my top Oscar moment. Kathryn Bigelow taking top director honors, and her incredible film winning big, were different kinds of joys entirely, but for smart, smarmy, smirking entertainment, Fey & Downey were tops.

What a deliciously refreshing moment of two supremely funny, smart people, their awareness of the ridiculousness of the spectacle they were involved in (and indeed, work daily in) writ large on their expressive faces. What a joy, to witness their playing with the absurdity, mocking and milking the fatuous fabulousness of big gowns, big hair, bright lights and booming music. Downey’s later appearance on Jimmy Kimmel‘s post-Oscars show was every bit as entertaining; he seems supremely aware of his position within the Hollywood game, and is content to play into it, while keeping watch to not be played by it.

Here’s to the artists who make these award shows -and their post-mortems -so entertaining, while reminding us there’s sometimes a very creative brain behind the box office buzz.

Folk, Present And To Come

Future Folk is a challenging title; it implies a vision to the future, but also a glance to the past. The play, now on at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, centers on the lives of Filipino nannies who come to work in Canada. Produced by Canadian company Sulong Theatre Collective, the show is a reminder of the silent caregivers who populate households and often endure terrible treatment in order to support their own families back home. The word “sulong” means “battle cry” in Tagalog and is a suitable match for the show’s angry undercurrent; it’s described as a piece that “shouts, wails and screams on behalf of brown women everywhere“.

Great, but there’s been some criticism that the play is too agitprop in its depiction of live-in nannies’ struggles in Canada. One Canadian newspaper recently ran two interesting pieces contrasting actual nanny reactions with their theater critic’s view; it was a good insight into the ways celebrated slice-of-life theater isn’t always reflected with exuberant critical acceptance. Not that Catherine Hernandez cares.

Sulong Theatre Collective’s co-founder wrote Future Folk without worrying over whether balance was being served. As she told me (below), balance and truth aren’t always friends. Hernandez is a feisty one-woman theater dynamo whose first play, Singkil, was nominated for an astounding seven Dora Awards. She’s worked with a bevvy of celebrated Canadian theater companies, including fuGEN, Buddies in Bad Times, Native Earth, Aluna, and many others. Hernandez set out with the intention of challenging stereotypes and shaking people out of their comfort zones -all while remaining respectful (read: loving) toward the original women’s stories.

How much of Future Folk is based on direct experience?

All of it is based on direct experiences of women we interviewed. Most of these women were still in the caregiver program, others had just completed it.

Any specific inspirations?

The use of Filipino folk arts to tell the story of Filipinos now. I realized there were so many “harvest” dances in our dance canon. I wanted to see if we could use the same vocabulary to tell the story of our women harvesting money for their families back in the Philippines.

What was the main challenge in theatricalizing nanny experiences?

First, it was actually speaking to the caregivers. I would book time to speak with them on their day off, only to have their employers cut their day off due to their own busy lives. Next, was to be absolutely honest about our -as in the collective’s -position of privilege. We had to remember that we were not them. Although I worked as a caregiver, I was never live-in, nor was I a mother at that time wondering about the safety of my children while caring for others. When we admitted this to ourselves, we were able to delve deeper into their experiences with curiosity and open-hearts instead of assumptions.


How do you balance the bad experiences with the good ones in the work?

This is one of the major comments about our work: the balance. Hmmm… I think it’s telling when every caregiver I met has complaints about the power struggle with their employer. It’s even more telling when people outside of the caregiving community and those who are employers bring up the “good” side. What it means to me is that there is an obvious disconnect with the realities of these women. I had a conversation with playwright Maja Ardal about this, and she said, point-blank, that it matters little to show balance. What matters is giving voice to the voiceless. These women are definitely voiceless. So balance be damned. I am not in the business of making people feel okay about themselves. I am in the business of helping people be self-critical. Balance doesn’t do that. Truth does.

Who did you write this for?

I wrote this for both the caregivers and for those outside of the caregiving community. For caregivers, I wanted them to see their story onstage and to know that their lives were remembered and honoured by someone… I wrote this for the average Canadian who might have a range of emotions seeing the show, anything from “I’m not like this” to “These women are so lucky for the chance to be here -why complain?

How have you felt at various nannies’ reactions?

It has been overwhelming. When we first performed a ten-minute excerpt at the Kultura Filipino Arts Festival at the Kapisanan Centre, we had two caregivers in the audience. They came backstage sobbing and thanking us for portraying them. We knew we had to continue, no matter what. When we perform on March 7th, we will be performing for free to a house full of caregivers. That’s when I feel our job will be done.

What do you hope audiences come away with?

I want each audience to come home that night, look right inside their hearts and ask themselves what they truly think about migrant workers. They’ll probably be surprised by what they find. We, as the collective certainly were. Throughout this process of development, I can’t tell you how much respect I have gained for these people. I will be forever humbled.

Future Folk runs at Theatre Passe Muraille through March 13th.

Photography by Alex Filipe.

Radiant

I had the opportunity of seeing Tamra Davis’ film about her rather-talented friend recently. Jean-Michel Basquiat is, and remains, one of my all-time favorites.

I’ve written about Basquiat in the past, especially in relation to his part-Haitian background, as I feel that’s an important part of understanding and appreciating his work. But Davis’ film, with its combination of interviews, old footage, music, and visual effects, added much to my appreciation. The balance between the epic and the intimate was achieved with a light, loving touch; footage of her interview with Basquiat sang and shimmered in beautiful harmony with other footage that documented his meteoric rise in the bitchy New York art world of the 1980s. I loved the way she coordinated shots of his art with his bebop (his favourite music), a technique that vividly reflected the kind of energy that so exuberantly exists in all his work. Her interviewees (including Fab Freddy, Kenny Scharf, and Tony Shafrazi, among many others) all offer a unique insight into Basquiat’s special brand of genius.

In watching Radiant Child, I was also struck by the creative possibilities extant in New York in the early 1980s; rent was cheap and art -of all styles -was everywhere. Young people wanted to explore their contributions to the cultural diaspora (though they’d argue they were just as much out for a good time and a hot meal). Cable access shows, indie radio, zines, graffiti, DIY bands… NYC was an incredible cultural stew of punk, rap, dance, and industrial. Everything’s changed since, of course, but as Radiant Child wrapped up, I couldn’t help but think of what Basquiat, a great cultural explorer, would make of the digital revolution. Reinvention, reinterpretation, cultural appropriation, intellectual piracy: what would Jean-Michel say? How would he react? How much would he take/borrow/steal in order to create? How would the ease of digital technologies influence his output? or indeed, his input, his perceptions of the world around him?

I thought about this in reading previews of Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates (University of Chicago Press), Adrian John‘s latest book. To quote the University of Chicago Press’s description, the book “ultimately argues that piracy has always stood at the center of our attempts to reconcile creativity and commerce—and that piracy has been an engine of social, technological, and intellectual innovations as often as it has been their adversary.”

The term “piracy” with its pseudo-romantic (if seriously flawed) notions, can be just as potently ascribed to the world of visual art as to other cultural artforms. Think of the Emergency Broadcast Network, who made video work patched together from a sea of other, seemingly-unrelated clips. In Radiant Child, Davis draw clear lines between Basquiat and his influences -literally, by showing the original inspiration (say, something by Picasso) and Basquiat’s interpretation. How would he respond to the copyright claims brought about via the digital revolution?

It’s a question worth pondering as one considers the genius on display on Davis’ work, and the various threads used to weave beauty in any age. Artists are cannibals, it’s true, and often the best creations are in fact re-creations. It’s the individual artist -mixmaster, curator, interpreter -who takes the clay forms of the past and moulds them into something meaningful -for themselves and others -in the present. When it come to the greatness that touches some artists like Basquiat, they created, re-created, and inspired for their time, and forever, and their works live on, on the canvas, and online. Radiant indeed.

What Goes Around


WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?

These simple, powerful words could be a Holzer truism, a piece of graffiti, a philosophical query, or all three.

It’s a sign worn by actor Peter Donaldson, playing a woebegone father in Canadian playwright George F. Walker‘s latest work, And So It Goes. The work revolves around Ned and Gwen, a couple who must deal with their mentally ill daughter’s demise and eventual death; their downfall is where they come to know themselves and one another in new, sometimes disturbing ways. It’s a powerful, moving piece of work with solid performances by its cast of four, who are directed with great sensitivity by Walker himself.

The title of the work is a reference to Kurt Vonnegut, who figures into the happenings by way of being the imaginary mentor to first Gwen (played by Martha Burns) and later Ned, as the play progresses. Vonnegut’s saying from Slaughterhouse Five -“so it goes” -is, according to The A.V. Club, notable for “how much emotion—and dismissal of emotion—it packs into three simple, world-weary words that simultaneously accept and dismiss everything.” The character of Vonnegut (played by Jerry Franken) is especially poignant considering the writer’s own son was schizophrenic; the “sh*t happens”-esque stance takes on a whole new meaning when placed within the context of the dark world Walker creates.

The playwright is known for his gritty depictions of down-and-out people in desperate circumstances (the Suburban Motel series is a good example), but I’ve always found much of his work to have an equal acidly dark humour. None of that humour figures into And So It Goes, however. The work is as much about survivors as it is victims; incidents are presented as simple facts of life, with minimal fanfare, for maximum emotional effect. Director Walker has wisely chosen to use music (by John Roby) strategically, allowing actors time within the wide, long parameters of the Factory Theatre‘s stage to reveal a deeper emotional reality. Daughter Karen (Jenny Young), sitting saucer-eyed, frightened, and dirty, looks especially alone in such an environment; the effects of her illness on her -and her family – is made especially visceral. The need for connection couldn’t be made more plain.

The role of connection figures prominently when the Karen returns in the second act, along with Vonnegut, offering insights, observations, and… silence. She simply hears Ned and Gwen out, and that’s important. If The A.V. club is right, that Vonnegut’s “so it goes” saying “neatly encompasses a whole way of life“, it’s also accurate to note how that encompassing involves acceptance, because that’s the work’s overarching theme. By the play’s end, the once-affluent pair have accepted their daughter’s passing, their role in her demise (in that they could not prevent it), and their current circumstances. Who is responsible? Everyone and no one, all at once and nevermore. So it goes.

And So It Goes has been held over by popular demand at the Factory Theatre to March 6th.

Photography by Ed Gass-Donnelly.

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