Tag: artists

VOPERA: “It’s Always About Authentic Storytelling”

VOPERA, Ravel, poster, Virtual Opera Project, Rachael Hewer, Tamzin Aitken, L'enfant et les sortileges

Rachael Hewer is probably rather tired of the color green. The UK-based director and theatre artist is the founder of VOPERA, the Virtual Opera Project, which premieres its first production on Monday (November 16th), Ravel’s one-act opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Conductor Lee Reynolds (Associate Conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain) leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a re-orchestration of the score for 27 players, and the cast comprises more than 80 performers, all of whom, throughout the course of this difficult year, participated in rehearsals via Zoom and subsequent audio recordings. Hewer constructed a homemade green-screen studio out of their garden shed, using the FX technique to overlay the recorded cast’s singing faces with captured movement in a unique and imaginative operatic form of body-doubling. As it turns out, she spent a lot of time in that shed and in-costume over the past few months. The theatre artist has, in the past, worked in various creative capacities, as a director, actor, and assistant director, at Devon Opera, Glyndebourne, Opera Holland Park, and the Royal College of Music, to name a few. Hewer was also a winner at the International Awards for Young Opera Directors, Moscow in 2019. VOPERA, which marks her first all-virtual production, features the work of British artist Mark Wallinger, show designer Leanne Vandenbussche and cinematographer and VFX Editor James Hall.

With help from her partner, Hewer provided the movement for the many roles within the opera, in a production chock-full of talent in vocal, design, and administrative areas. Producer Tamzin Aitken has extensive experience as an arts manager and creative consultant specializing in the classical music realm. In the past decade Aitken has worked with Glyndebourne, English National Opera, the Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre and its resident London Philharmonic Orchestra (including involvement in an imaginative semi-staging of The Rake’s Progress in late 2018); when the first lockdown struck in early 2020, she was getting set for work in Paris, on a new production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea for Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Hewer approached her at the beginning of the VOPERA journey in spring 2020 and, as you’ll read, the two women (who have yet to physically meet) enjoyed an immediate and very palpable chemistry. They were subsequently able to assemble a brilliant international cast and chorus spread across several countries and timezones. Mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds, who has appeared at Royal Opera House (ROH), Opera Philadelphia, and Opera Australia, sings the lead role (something she’s done previously on the stage of Komische Oper Berlin); soprano Karen Cargill, known for her work at The Met, the Edinburgh International Festival, Glyndebourne, the ROH, as well as the BBC Proms, sings the role of Maman; bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, who has performed with San Francisco Opera, Den Norse Opera (Oslo), Houston Grand Opera, and The Met, sings Un Arbre. The project is presented  in collaboration with the Concordia Foundation, which helps support young musicians and initiates educational programs for kids from under-privileged backgrounds, while creating musical projects and presenting concerts at various London venues.

Ravel, composer, French

Maurice Ravel, 1925. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Ravel’s 1925 opera, his second, was written between 1917 and 1925, and features a libretto (by Collette) filled with surreal elements; it concerns a naughty child who willfully destroys various objects (a clock, a china cup a teapot), throws a tantrum, and is, in turn, visited by said objects (and characters, and animals) and is redeemed by a small act of kindness shown to an injured squirrel. The opera deals with themes of claustrophobia, isolation, connection, engagement, sincerity, and benevolence, themes with intense relevance in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has underlined the need for collaboration, community, and open-hearted goodness at a time when barriers are being erected and widespread closures are happening in ever-increasing numbers, in literal and figurative senses. The opera’s timeliness felt central to both Hewer and producer Tamzin Aitkin as well; the idea for presenting it originated with Hewer herself, who experienced her own brand of restlessness amidst the first coronavirus-related lockdown of 2020.

A vital point in the project’s creation is the extent to which Hewer and Aitken were determined to ensure payment for all involved; VOPERA was not to be a ‘charity gig’ but a fully paid one for everyone involved. Giving temporary employment to over 135 people in total – performers, musicians, technicians, administrators alike – the project is, as its release notes, “ a platform for many to practise and perform in an innovative new way” , a way that includes proper payment. Writing as an artist freelancer for a moment here, I find it very heartening to see how VOPERA’s model (a smart combination of fundraising and sponsorship) is providing an important model of a possible way forwards, underlining with no great subtlety that the “exposure as payment” model so frustratingly common to so many websites and creative endeavors is, particularly in these coronavirus times, both deeply insulting and wholly diminishing – for art and artists alike. Bravo and thank you, VOPERA.

As well as payment, the subject of mental health has been central to the project from its inception. Returning to one’s art form is, as many are learning, not a simple matter in the age of pandemic. From the start, Hewer and Aitken ensured that qualified mental health practitioners were present throughout the entire production process. “Back to normal” isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when “normal” itself feels like such a distant, far-off thing, and it was refreshing (and more than a bit heartening) that, throughout the course of our lengthy conversation last month, all of us could share struggles, self-doubts, and deep-seated anxieties. One thinks of Albert Schweitzer’s quote here, that “(c)onstant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” It applies as much to the “l’enfant” of the title as it does to pandemic life itself; surely what the world needs is kindness, more than ever, and if that kindness is concomitant with creative expression, all the more the better.

VOPERA’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges makes its debut on Monday, November 16th at 8pm UK time on the LPO’s YouTube channel as well as online cultural broadcaster Marquee TV; it will be available to view for thirty days.

Lee Reynolds, conductor, LPO, recording session, VOPERA, Ravel, London Philharmonic

Conductor Lee Reynolds recording L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Where did the idea to produce Les Enfant online come from? 

TA It’s very much Rachael’s baby.

RH It started because I was totally miserable and felt completely lost at not being able to do what I’ve always done my whole life, and I thought, “I can’t be on my own, there must be loads of people who feel the same way as I do” and then, “What can I do about this? I’m not a spokesperson so I cannot lobby government ministers; I’m not qualified or capable of saving a building or organization…  but I can make a show, and bring the best out in people, and get a group of people together to make something.” So it’s about providing a creative focus for as many people as possible, to try and give them something to focus on artistically that will help them not feel as miserable as they were. That’s it. And then I listened to (L’Enfant) and I realized, “This piece is a narrative about what life is like at the moment; it’s a child being educated at home, who reacts to an unprecedented and uncontrollable situation” and… that’s the world.

It’s interesting you chose this, an existing piece, in a year that features numerous new works.

RH It is a masterpiece; Ravel is a genius. I don’t think it’s done enough.

TA The thing that excited me about it is that it takes an established part of the opera canon and totally reimagines how we can work with that canon. And you know, it’s not that it’s a modern production, it’s that the mechanics of how we are making opera have been completely transformed by how this project is working out. I think that has to sit alongside new work and new voices, telling current stories in the first person but this does that as well and speaks to how resilient opera is but also how adaptable it can be. And it was that area which was so exciting. For me personally, and this has been true for everyone engaged in the project, it’s the potency of being able to do your job again… in a curtailed and altered fashion, but it’s extraordinary, to be able to wake up each day and say, “I’m going to engage in making something creative and in telling a story” – which is what many of us had been doing, and then it got taken away from us. That’s what’s been part of the excitement for me.

How did you get involved?

TA Rachael reached out to me through a mutual contact; she’d approached me about something else, and Rachael wrote me a note in… July? I think?

RH I feel like I’ve  known you all my life!

TA We didn’t know each other before, and we haven’t yet met in-person!

RH There are so many people I’ve been working with closely on this project, and I haven’t actually met any of them! I was thinking about this the other day, how I wrote Tamzin a note, and she rang me and I thought, “Oh my goodness, what am I going to say?” being really nervous, because to me, Tamzin was and still is this big and important person who knows a lot about a lot of arts things I don’t know about, and I remember thinking in that call, “What should I say?” and putting the phone down and having this sense of, “Well, who knows what she’ll say about doing this project, but I really like her!”

It’s been interesting to note bubbles – the physical ones, the psychological ones; there’s a real sense this year of people only wanting to be or communicate only with their bubble. But the pandemic has simultaneously burst a lot of bubbles because it’s forced people to reach beyond them, especially in the arts world, which can be very cliquish indeed. I wonder how this might change how you work going forwards.

RH Oh it’s changed me completely. Before this I was really self-conscious, I had terrible self-esteem and I still do, at least to some extent, in my personal life, but I went through my professional life thinking, ‘nobody likes me, nobody wants to be my friend, everybody’s laughing at me’ – that’s what I used to wake up thinking…

This sounds familiar.

RH … right? I know I’m not on my own in this. We’re all ruled by all these irrational emotions. And now, because everybody’s experience of me (in this project) has just been who I am and what I believe in and how I choose to be around people, because I’m not working for an organization, I’m not being watched, I’m not being observed or under review or scrutiny to see if I’ll get the next job – it’s just me, and who I am and what I’m like. I have such amazing feedback from people about this whole thing, the whole process, and that’s really done me a lot of favours, and actually what happens now when I do venture out to the real world, which as only happened a few time so far, people I don’t know at all are saying, “You’re the one doing the opera film, it looks great! What an idea!” And these are people who never would’ve never said that to me before!

TA One of the other things to say about the project, and it speaks very much to Rachael’s leadership, is the exceptionally humane care that bleeds through every element of what’s going on in terms of the emotional support and the authenticity of every exchange that goes on. It feels like a very different way of working. I have worked with incredible people and incredibly supportive teams before, and projects where you feel you’re on your own and you’re asking people for help and it’s all very collaborative – but it feels like there’s a real shift to a way of working and creating art that puts peoples’ emotional well-being at the centre of the process as much as the artistic product and … I don’t think I ever want to go back to working in any way where that is not front-and-center of the agenda.

director, theatre, artist, Rachael Hewer, founder, VOPERA

VOPERA founder and director Rachael Hewer

RH I’m really worried that some people might think of this as a weakness, actually. I am a very emotional person; I have my heart on my sleeve, and I do not believe in this us-and-them thing, even working with my assistant directors. A lot of the time I’m the assistant director, and I know the director is very much like, “You can’t share everything with everybody!” And I don’t know why you wouldn’t, but I’m aware some think of it as a weakness, that you have no self-control or that you’re not a good leader – but I think it takes more strength, I think it takes more determination, and certainly a lot more time and effort to articulate my message in this way, because I have to be completely unafraid to be myself around people I know well, around people that I admire, around people I’ve never met before – like yourself! I just have to have the confidence and the faith and freedom in my own personality – whereas in the old world, you just get into a routine of trying to be like the person next to you, because the person next you is successful, and in order to be successful, you think, “I need to be like just this person because that’s who the people in charge like.”

How much has this project allowed you to embrace the idea(s) of strength through vulnerability, credibility through emotional honesty, with less emphasis on brilliance – which is fine, hurrah learning -– and more on humanity? I admire your mental health support as such a central part of this project.

RH I can’t stop myself from saying this: I think it’s really frighteningly short-sighted to think, “Stick performers on a stage and they will automatically get on with doing what they’ve been missing doing!” – this return to performing is a really sensitive and fragile procedure, and nobody is prepared for that, because everybody will react differently, because we are all different.

TA There was a really interesting piece I read, recently something Monica Lewinsky wrote about the state of mental health right now, and the f-words, fear and fragility, and, wouldn’t it have been astonishing if there was, as well as the daily briefings on health, briefings to talk to us all about how we were responding to the current situation mentally? My experience personally and professionally has been … well, the conversations you start with, “Oh hi, how are you?” – the answers to that question now are much more honest, and people are much more willing to go, “Actually you know what, I had a massive cry; I heard my first bit of live music in ages from someone busking down the street and it made me weep.” Rachael and I have had these honest conversations; we barely knew each other at the beginning of this process but we were incredibly frank about the state of our mental health, because it informs how you are able to work that particular day. To take it out from this into something bigger, I have noticed that across the conversations I’ve been having with people outside of this organization, I work with a charity (Play For Progress) that connects music with young refugees, and everyone I’ve been speaking to, this shift in approach has been really apparent. But it feels really exemplary in terms of the structure Rachael has set up here, and I think it would be a real shame to return to a situation where we’re not being sensitive to other peoples’ well-being in the way that we’re working.

That word “fragility”, even in the arts, is perceived as a weakness; I wonder how much that’s changing and how much work is a form of therapy right now.

RH I need to be accountable, I need to have people relying on me to provide something, I have to have a purpose, even if it’s to empty the bins and put the chairs out – I have to have a purpose. Knowing you were expecting me at a certain time today made me think about this, I had a bath last night and washed my hair. When all my singers were expecting an email or responding to a form or whatever, to have a purpose and be accountable for something means that what I can give artistically has a value, because somebody is waiting for it, somebody needs it and somebody appreciates it. That’s what it is for me.

Tamzin Aitken, producer, arts, classical, London, VOPERA

VOPERA Producer Tamzin Aitken

TA I think it’s interesting that as a culture, and in Western culture particularly, when we meet someone new the question is, “What do you do?” I desperately want to get away from that as a conversation opener, but it’s shorthand for “Who are you?”… I think so much of our sense of self and identity is tied up in our work and particularly where that work has a sense of vocation – and for a lot of creatives, it does, it goes beyond a societal-role thing, it’s identifying you as your work when you’re an artist, at least to some extent – but there are so many people who’ve lost their jobs or had contracts canceled or had no focus at all over these months, that their sense of self and identity has just been really damaged. So with this we’ve had a lot of feedback from singers who said what Rachael has said, that having a focus, something to prepare for, having music to learn and rehearsals in the schedule, having a diary, and also having a date to look forward to, when that work will be shared, has been really meaningful.

RH We had rehearsal schedules, a number of weeks that were packed with back-to-back rehearsals, whether it was French coaching on one laptop or music coaching on another laptop, and I had to generate those rehearsal schedules. And I’ve spoken to performers and they said, “It is not the curtain calls and the opening night’s applause that we miss – we miss getting the emails and the ‘Oh no, I’ve read the callsheet wrong!’ and the ‘Oh God I did that audition!’ and ‘I have to be here at such-and-such time’ – it’s all the stuff in-between. This operation is global, so we’re working with people all over the world, and we had about six weeks’ worth of rehearsal in one way or another, all spread out, and nobody was late. Never. Whatever timezone they were in, whatever problems they were having, not once was anybody late. And I think that shows how much people needed this.

And you were very clear from the beginning that people were to be paid for this. As a freelancer, that’s very meaningful! This attitude that creative work, especially online work, isn’t real wor and that “exposure is payment” are horribly diminishing, but they seem to have proliferated throughout the pandemic. Did you have a payment model from the beginning?

RH There was never any question about it. Because not paying people is wrong.

TA You’ve articulated it well, Catherine – it’s not a hobby; it’s peoples’ profession. And loving your work doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s work. I think… there have been people who’ve said to us, “Oh, don’t worry about paying me, it’s meant so much I’ve been able to do this!” and you adamantly say, “NO, that’s not acceptable.”

RH We chase those people like, “Really, you’ve earned this, you are valuable to us, we needed you!” And we spent a long time fundraising.

TA It speaks to the collaborative, ensemble nature of this project as well, that every single person gets paid and it’s a very equitable structure. I think we can be candid about this, that we have a series of budgets in terms of our fundraising structure; there was a bare minimum we knew we had to meet in terms of paying people, and singers, a lot of the people we’re working with, had their contracts cancelled for a whole year, so that’s 12 months’ worth of work down the drain. This in no way replaces that, but this feels important, that those people get paid first. It’s a very new way for me to work, and we’ve had incredible generosity from a couple individuals and foundations, and then loads of people in the community, those who’ve lost work or those who love the arts, they’ve all made small donations as we go. We’ve got this structure for each bit we fundraise so that everyone involved gets a fee increase, a percentage more as we go up. It’s been really important to say to people, “We know you’re getting hit” – and at a point in time when there’s so much uncertainty with so many people who, for whatever reason, have fallen through the cracks in terms of getting support, when there are artists outside the UK, in America and across Europe, who’ve had various levels of support or had none at all, it feels really important they are able to do professional paid work.

Is this something you could see continuing as a model? 

RH The thing is, it’s the piece, this piece is structured so that there is no more than one singer in one scene, there are a lot of scenes that only have one person in them, so it lends itself very well to how we’ve managed to put this together. If somebody asked me to do a Traviata or Carmen like this it would be very different, and it would be very difficult, but by no means impossible. I had somebody the other day ask whether this is the future of opera, and no, it’s not the future of opera, but, there is certainly a very important and valid place for projects like this in the future of opera. The audience we have – before, they were a theatre-going audience, they’d go to the opera, or concert halls or the National Theatre, that’s what they loved to do, those people now watch content online; we would never have been able to convince them before this happened to sit on the sofa and log onto Youtube. They’d have said “No way i’m not watching an opera on a bloody computer monitor or TV!” – but now they do, and they are very willing to experience art in that way. We’d never have got this audience and we cannot now just say, “Oh, let them go, they’re not our audience.”

TA Being really candid, I applaud all the efforts there have been to put content online, but I struggle with work that has been designed for a live context, that has just been filmed and transplanted onto a screen; I think it’s partly because the exchange of live theatre is so specific, and so personal, that sense of being an individual and a collective in that specific space is really unique to being in a live venue, and i struggle with an art form where i ought to be able to choose where my focus is, or where the artistry of what’s onstage directs my focus but it’s still within my power to look to the right of the stage; I struggle with something that’s been edited which dictates what my focus is or where it should be.

This is precisely the issue I have with so many online broadcasts, that dictation of attention.

TA It’s a challenge. So I think what’s exciting about this is that it’s been specifically designed to be online only; you are not getting a diluted version, it’s its very own product. In terms of doing something else like this, I think we might be in this (pandemic) for some time, it will go up and down as the virus takes its course, so I think this is a way of letting this sort of work continue. I have yet to see anything that’s been made the way this has been made. I’ve seen other things that have been created as a film but i’ve not seen anything like this, and that’s quite exciting.

Whose idea was the green screen process? 

RH it was the biggest idea I wish I’d never had! (laughs) The big reason is that when you perform in front of a green screen to a mobile phone, it is exhausting, far more than anything else I’ve ever done. It is so draining, your energy has to be so focused and so high. And yes, because we can only use our household bubble, my partner Mark, he’s in quite a few of the scenes, he got roped into it, but said yes straight away. He had to learn choreography and all kinds of stuff. It was rather brilliant. The last project I did in the old world was in a production of The Duchess Of Malfi – I was the Duchess. I’d just done this massive Jacobean tragedy onstage and film acting as well, so I thought (in doing this), “Being in front of a camera will be a walk in the park compared to all that” but let me tell you: twenty minutes of green screen work is just as hard as a three-and-a-half-hour Jacobean tragedy.

TA My favorite moment of each day is when Rachael sends me the raw, behind-the-scenes, unedited footage, with she and Mark in a bit of costume doing this incredibly detailed movement work. It’s brilliant, it makes my day!

RH It’s at the stage now where we’re editing it and if we see something that doesn’t work me and my editor go, “Oh no, I know what you’re going to say, go put the costume on, do it again!”

shed, studio, green screen, VOPERA, Rachael Hewer, performance, theatre, creationAnd your studio is a little shed?

RH It’s a tiny little shed! We got green paper from the stationers, stuck it with glue onto cardboard, and nailed the cardboard onto the inside of the shed. Me and Mark cannot stand side by side in there, it’s that small, but people who watch will not know any of this.

So who will watch, do you think?

RH This is always the challenge with directing an opera: you have an audience that has every recording and they’ve come for a specific aria or singer, and then you’ve got another audience who’s never been to an opera before and it all sounds like screaming in another language. It’s impossible to cater for that range of people; it is a universal sort of timeless problem and challenge.

TA It’s a conversation that comes up so often in houses and with any kind of performing company in any structure, and the answer, I think, is it’s always about authentic storytelling. I think the stories you choose to tell then become important, people need to see and hear their own stories being told in the first person but some of opera is so fantastical and weird that nobody’s story is being told, yet you can find narratives that work, which are universal. I do believe in investing in new opera for that reason, but any conversation requires you to speak authentically, and to speak transparently, and to bring yourself to the conversation. With this production, everyone was so emotionally open throughout the whole process, so it’s an emotionally open and honest work, and the production is not only a response to the opera itself, but to the situation we find ourselves in now; it will speak to whoever shows up to it. There’s a job to do in terms of making people feel empowered to show up and feeling they can participate without excluding anyone else who’s showing up. I think it’s about authenticity of communication.

Dance! Clay! Play!

Today I bicycled down to my local summer jazz festival. This little girl caught my attention -and I imagine, the attention of the other onlookers, too. She did some fantastic free, interpretive dance to a jazz trio (a vocal-less jazz trio, I should add), shaking, twirling, hopping, and bobbing her head. It was incredible and inspiring to witness her visceral reaction to a form of music many people find obtuse and difficult.

Watching her also brought to mind the hoary old argument of to-have-kids or not-to-have-kids. I’ve heard a lot of this sort of thing lately, and though I’ve already made my choice, in no way did it take away from my enjoyment of watching this little one rejoice in the incredible flexibility of form and the wonder of sound.

Part of the jazz fest included a street dedicated to artisanal work. There was a section where children could craft their own clay sculptures. Tiny creatures, some imagined, some real, all done with the delicate grace only young fingers possess.

Looking at the sculptures, the dancing figures, the tiny hands on balloons and the wide eyes staring agog, amazed, delighted at the sounds floating through the air, I can’t say I felt any worse in my choice to remain childless, but I also acknowledge the special magic and unique, open energy children bring. They remind us to stop, to smile, and most importantly, to play.

Just ‘Cause

A few items of interest presented themselves today.

The first is a fantastic piece courtesy of the New York Times’ video site detailing a new theatre piece that involves the use of mobile phones and computers. I confess, I initially had a few doubts about this, but seeing the participants’ reactions, thinking about the intimacy being created (especially via modern technology), well… I’m a believer. Check it out.

Still with the Times is a video covering the recent art show in Baghdad called The Art Of Reinvention (along with a written article). Fascinating for the way politics is so deeply interwoven with art -art’s taken on a whole different significance for the people of Iraq. To quote the article,

“Isn’t it pessimistic?” a person in the crowd of visitors asked the exhibition’s curator, Asad al-Sagheer, as he described an unsettling composition of death masks, painted in thick strokes of red and blue. The artist, Halim Qassim, found inspiration in Baghdad’s central morgue, near his home in Babalmuabhm, a place once overflowing with corpses.

“He thinks there’s beauty in the faces,” Mr. Sagheer said, “even after they’ve been killed.”


Closer to home, people are getting the role arts and culture plays in daily life. Apparently the National Endowment for the Arts is getting additional funding as part of President Obama’s stimulus package, and artist Chuck Close thinks there’s no better time than tough times -now -to be an artist, despite his opinion that the Depression didn’t produce especially good art.

“When we’ve had major times of financial distress in this country.. .a lot of people argue that some of the best work was made. I don’t think it was America’s greatest hour; art… the best period for me in American art was the 50s and early 60s… That could be seen as a time when America opened its arms to … immigrants, and we became a beacon as a free and open society, and attracted some of the best and brightest from all over the world.”

Politics. Economy. Art.

One of my favourite pastimes is pouring over the weekend papers amidst steaming cups of tea, with Go or Michael Enright on in the background, nibbling away on bits of toast, egg, bacon or waffles. It was with great interest and more than a little sadness that I read the story of Zakariya Zubeidi in Saturday’s edition of The Globe and Mail:

It was the hardest decision of Zakariya Zubeidi’s life. Slightly more than a year ago, the powerful commander of Jenin’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, one of Israel’s most-wanted for plotting shooting attacks and suicide bombings, walked into a Palestinian security office and handed in his gun.

At 32, he had concluded bitterly that his fight had failed. And he had another ambition: to deter this poverty-stricken camp’s children away from the path of violence by rebuilding a children’s theatre destroyed in the last intifada.

Offered, along with other gunmen, a rare amnesty from Israel, he spent time in a Palestinian jail and swore to remain unarmed. On his release, he pledged to dedicate his time to the Freedom Theatre’s workshops and performances, trying to recreate his own boyhood experiences in drama thanks to the work of a Jewish-Israeli peace activist.

But today his past has caught up with him, illustrating the difficulty of starting a new life after one of violence. The theatre, now thriving under the direction of the original founder’s son, does not want him there for fear that he will scare off much-needed foreign donors in the theatre’s quest to expand.

I wonder if anyone in the Canadian theatre world could imagine this happening. We all understand the importance of keeping benefactors happy, and resorting to sometimes-questionable measures to keep its members happy. Juliano Mer Khamis’ has a point about fearing Zubeidi’s association with the theatre; it may truly harm their reputation, their chances of fundraising, and indeed, their physical safety. Still, to isolate someone whose whole being seems so entirely bound up with theatre feels… horribly sad. Isn’t part of art’s purpose to enlighten? Even re-reading it now, the story puts the role and significance of theatre –and its relationship to politics -in a whole new light.

At a time when artists need to stick together, cultivate community and spread awareness, it’s heartbreaking to see possibilities being ripped asunder by politics and nationalism. I don’t know what kind of a suggestion to offer here, but I’m so grateful to the Globe for publishing this story. Yet another example of how art impacts life, and life impacts art.

In that vein, it was with great interest that I read Mark Vallen’s blog this morning about the impact the global recession could have on the livelihoods and outputs of visual artists. While it’s tempting to tut-tut at art’s role in harsh economic times, it’s equally apt to suppose that (to twist a phrase) “art is the mother of necessity.” History would seem to bear out the fact that harsh economic reality tends to yield some wonderful stuff –and that stuff, whether it takes the form of painting, sculpture, performance, writing or otherwise, is a reflection, examination, and exploration of the economic reality we all face.

Hardship knows no bounds; conversely, its unbound nature allows its expression in many creative outlets. And there’s something reassuring about that.

Isn’t It Ironic… No Really, It Is.


I think even Russell Smith would agree that there was a more than a fair share of irony at work this week in Ottawa. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his new cabinet posed before a huge work of art, done by one of Canada’s best and most recognized artists, Norval Morrisseau. I don’t doubt the appreciation some Conservatives (or politicians of other parties) might have for the work, but to have Harper sitting in the front row, grinning beside Governor-General Michaelle Jean, was quite funny.

You might recall Harper’s mid-election statement referring to artists and their “galas”, saying it “doesn’t resonate with ordinary Canadians” and equating culture with elitism. Hmm. Adding to the irony (or just plain absurdity) is 1/ the fact that Morrisseau was a native artist (and, uh, you may recall the Conservatives’ stance on the Kelowna Accord); 2/ the title of said painting is called Androgyny (and most people are aware of the Conservatives’ stand on gay marriage, right?). I don’t mean to draw lines where there may indeed be none -but all this gives one (or at least me) food for thought.

I’m happy to see this painting being so prominently displayed for all Canadians to enjoy, and frankly, I’m glad Mme. Jean brought it to Rideau Hall. I’m even more proud to see the most recently voted-in government standing before it. I hope they turned around afterwards and had a good look. Art isn’t merely decorative. In Norval Morrisseau’s case, it was his life.

Today is Halloween. It’s a day when everyone embraces theatre, and the world of artifice. Oh, and eats heaps of candy.

In speaking recently with Marshall Pynkoski, the Artistic Director of Opera Atelier, I was reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote -and I’m paraphrasing here -that there is nothing more telling about a person than a mask. Marshall said that when people come to see an Atelier production, they’re constantly being reminded that they’re watching a piece of theatre. To use a Mozartean example, no one suspends their disbelief over a magic flute. And he noted that kids have a much easier time in accepting the fantastic, make-believe world of opera than do adults who come to the art form later in life. It reminded me of all the times I went to the then-O’Keefe in my long dresses. No wonder being a princess for Halloween wasn’t a big deal.

Alas, no outfits this year -unless you count frazzled journalist. Ministry puts it best.

Joy Is For Everyone

Walking up Bay Street at 10pm Saturday night, I couldn’t help but look around in wonder. The streets were jammed, and there was a palpable excitement in the air. It was the third annual Nuit Blanche, and Toronto was staying up late to catch the “all-night art thing.” Whether visual or performance, everyone was curious about experiencing… something. The flashing pixellations in the windows of City Hall were like a beacon for the thousands walking up Bay street, past the lineups of others curious about finding out about being part of a live art installation.

Waiting to meet a friend in the chaotic, crowded madness of Nathan Phillips Square, I had to wonder: “Wow, are we all elite?Stephen Harper’s sad, sadly hilarious idea about art being a “niche” meant only for elite people at galas seemed really removed from the reality surrounding me Saturday night.

And after wandering around the city all night, and taking in the smiling excitement, open experimentation, child-like curiosity, and outright wonder that such an event produces, I can only reiterate my own position: culture isn’t partisan. Like good food, we all consume culture. We all have our tastes, sure, we all have our favourites, we all have the things that work better for us than others. But we still share the passion, curiosity, wonder, and delight. Art isn’t made by, much less for, outsiders. It’s about us, for us, by us. Hallelujah.

In that spirit, I’m excited about the spate of openings coming to Toronto this week and next. Tonight the magnificent Famous Puppet Death Scenes returns to the Young Centre; I saw this wonderful show, by Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, last year, and in all frankness, it changed my life. It changed the life of my 905-dwelling friend, too. Never having been to the Young Centre, much less to puppet theatre, she was so enamoured, enthralled, and inspired, that she’s planning on returning with a gaggle of 905 buddies this year, to introduce them to the wonders of Old Trouts, puppets, the YC, and the Distillery District. Ordinary? Whatever.

The next fortnight also sees the openings of Scratch, a new play by newcomer Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, whose mother, journalist Caroline Corbeil, died of cancer. The play is based those experiences, though it has comic elements. With my own mother starting a second round of chemotherapy this week, there’s a special significance to the work for me. Something about the scenario of a young woman writing and sharing her life and vulnerabilities that I find very brave. Sometimes art helps us make sense of our own lives through sharing experiences. Carrying on the big-up-tha-women theme, Nightwood Theatre launches its fall season with an adaptation of the Helen Humphreys novel Wild Dogs; from the sounds of it, the work is challenging, disturbing, unusual. Good. I like that.

Speaking of challenging, Canstage opens their season next week with Frost/Nixon, a play about the famous interviews between Richard Nixon and David Frost in the 70s. Having already played to great acclaim in Vancouver, I’m looking forward to seeing this Ted Dykstra-directed work, with its timely themes and, from what I’ve heard, excellent performances. Soulpepper, a company Dykstra helped co-found eleven years ago, offers the Toronto premiere production of A Raisin In The Sun next week too, and never having seen it live, I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Amidst all this, I’ll remember the mascots, who were probably my favourite Nuit Blanche installation. It was silly, stripped-down, basic theatre in its most absurd and joy-full state. Called I Promise It Will Always Be This Way, and performed beneath the blazing lights of Lamport Stadium, with Yoko Ono’s enormous IMAGINE PEACE billboard illuminated in the background, the sight of various furry mascots dancing, jumping, and instigating cheers made for pure, unfiltered joy. I looked around at my fellow Torontonians, between snapping shots and dodging the bouncing beach balls tossed into the crowd; everyone was smiling. Isn’t that the point?

Populism, Elitism, 905ism


A few days ago I posted Play Anon’s first official interview. Owing to its length, I decided to publish in two pieces. I interviews Malcolm (in the middle) x, a Toronto theatre personage. In the first half, we discussed artist mobilization, politics, and subsidies for various industries.

The first half ended with Malcolm sharing his view that the $45 million being cut from arts programs is a “drop in the bucket”, when compared to the subsidies other industries in Canada receive. With that, we pick up the thread for the interview’s second half.

Enjoy.

x: What forty-five million dollars, what it does, in terms of promoting Canadian culture, is huge. Mr. Harper lies -he lies when he says it isn’t ideological. It is ideological. They’re cutting it, and they’re on-record all over the place, cause they can’t keep their mouths shut; they’ve said constantly, “We don’t like the kind of art some of these people are doing. We think it’s against family values. I don’t believe the government has any place in that arena.” But if we are a civilized society, we have to allow all the voices: Muslims, Muslim extremists, Christians, Christian extremists, homosexuals, homosexual artists -if, that is, we’re going to live in the kind of society we say we like. Artists should be talking to citizens and going door-to-door. They should say, “I’ll tell you what I do for you. This is what I do for you: I tell you who you are. I hold a mirror up to you. This is who we are. I’m the guy or gal saying, ‘Isn’t it horrible the way we treat each other? And we do it in a way that makes people cry and makes people laugh.’”

me What about people who say, “Well, I don’t go to those things, that’s something I never do”…?

x: Well then you lose that argument with that one person, but go door-to-door until you bump into a certain percentage who say, “Yeah, I do think it’s important.” Then vote. Vote for the party that is going to support art. Name me a great society, a great country, that didn’t have great artists. Name one. And do you think it’s accidental? You think it’s a trickle-down economy?

me: Well, to promote a country for something like its sports alone seems limiting. It’s like saying, “I’m going to go to France for the great skiers, or Australia for the great swimmers.” Even in the States, it’s the culture that is really their biggest export.

x: No, American, market-driven entertainment is their biggest export…

me: … oh, well now we might get into an argument about what art is…

x: … but we should. That’s what Stephen Harper’s questioning.

me: He talked about art as being related to populism.

x: Populism is what appeals to a broad spectrum of the population; there’s this is mind-numbing pap that sells. It’s consumerism –it’s not populist. I think it’s consumerist. I think there’s a big difference between the two actually… but I do think blogging’s being used in a very positive way. So long as it leads to open dialogue, which the jury’s out on, artists actually don’t get hoodwinked but start debating interesting arguments, including a criticism of mainstream art.

me: And yet Harper insists that most people aren’t interested in the arts.

x: Ah, this “people aren’t interested” thing –you say that long enough, they won’t be. Which is why artists need to go door-to-door. I mean, okay, people went down (to the Theatre Centre) and saw Naomi Klein. Big fucking deal! Preaching to the converted. “We’ve read your books, we think you’re fantastic!” –what good is that going to do you? More like, “Excuse me, how many people here are going to go door-to-door with the politician of their choice and tell people why they should vote for arts-friendly policies?” (puts hands up) How many people? Or will you just feel comfortable venting your anger and calling Stephen Harper names?

me: Claire Hopkinson mentioned something interesting. She said to go out, get involved, go to all-candidates events, and she also said, “Go to the 905 areas that are going to determine this election.” And there was this ripple of laughter, and I wondered at that: was it because people knew they should’ve been engaging the 905 all along, marketing to them, telling them what they’re about and why they should care, or was it laughter in that tut-tut way, as in, ‘those ignorant 905ers’… ‘cause there is that attitude.

x: It’s sad that a great number of people feel that way. But why should the 905ers care about you if you don’t care about them? Why should you turn up your nose at them? “They’re ignorant” –what does that mean, “they”? There are people living out in the 905 region that care deeply about the arts, you’re just not talking to them enough.

me: There are the ones who don’t know, they genuinely don’t know, either about the arts in the 416, or about how the funding system works. I’m still learning. I’ve taken friends down to TPM and The Young Centre and such, and they’re all so grateful, they say, “I wouldn’t have known this was on, or that this even existed”. They love it. I think MK Piatkowski’s right when she says artists do a shitty job marketing themselves. I think artists need to start reaching out past the 416.

x: Well how many artists are posting on Conservative blogs or comment boards? Thoughtful people? How many? We’re only going to our own blogs… talk about polarity! They’re all the same people, saying the same things to each other, agreeing… but how many people are going out and reading Conservative blogs? Or out-of-the-way ones? There’s this one, Old Ladies For Dion or something like that. It’s made by a bunch of older women that really believe that Harper is destroying our country, and the only shot we have is the Liberal choice. So they have their own blog. How many artists have gone onto that blog? Or go neo con. Google it: “neo con blogs”. Instead of just provoking people, go passionate. Have people attacking you for your position and start a conversation that way.

me: I was involved in a conversation with an artist on Myspace who thinks the Canada Council should be abolished; he thinks artists should fend for themselves, with no funding.

x: So he’s a market economy artist. And that’s a good argument to have, it’s important. We should be engaged with other artists in these discussions. It would be fantastic to read artists who take other artists seriously. Then you can start a dialogue.

me: But there are so many who accuse arts, and artists, of being elite. Even some other artists throw that accusation out.

x: But what do you mean, “elite”? You go to an industrial bowling alley –it’s elite. Only industrial people go there. “Those are our crowd, we’ve got our own thing”.

me: So it’s a community…

x: Oh yeah! What percentage of our population actually goes to the theatre? It’s very small, but by the same token as the bowling alley, is that a reason not to have it? What it gives birth to is important. There are problems when people in theatre don’t reflect the society they’re living in.

me: People hear and see certain things getting funding and they say, “oh that’s idiotic, that’s just garbage”… but then you’re always going to get bad apples in any taxation system.

x: One of the PC candidates in Kingston, I think, said, when First Nations people wanted to come and speak at a meeting, “Are you sober?” She’s making an assumption, saying, implicitly, that all natives are drunks. Then another candidate said regarding grants to the arts, “Well they’re all freeloaders” –this is the perception that we as artists have to change, because in fact, we are leaders in an increasingly growing area, which is self-employment. Mr. Harper himself is getting a leg among us, with self-employed women especially… He’s recognizing that self-employment is increasingly becoming a major share of income earned in this country. Artists are leaders in this, in how to survive and how to prosper. They’re leaders. I’ve been doing this for many years. I own a house, I have mortgages and loans… am I a freeloader? I don’t think I am. I am certainly not getting a pension when I retire.

me: Well not everyone has the freedom to.

x: No, I know. Mine’ll be “Freedom 88”, at Paul’s Funeral Home.

__________________

The second PlayAnon interview should be up within the next fortnight (as in, two weeks). Between then and now, I’m hoping to attend a number of various arts cuts events and engage in more dialogue with members of all political stripes. Stay tuned!

Credits: The cartoon used above came from this rather hilarious article. Irony? Hmm.

Kudos: Malcolm (in the middle) x. Thank you for your time and your insights.

Welcome

Not long ago, I got into a huge argument with a friend of mine. Our initially-polite discussion about the threatened arts cuts turned into a huge torrent of emotion and passionate debate; I realized, in speaking with this person, that, despite my being an arts writer, I still had a lot to learn about the arts in Canada, and of the nature of the lives of working artists.

The recent announcement (make that non-announcement) of the cuts to the Prom Arts and Trade Routes Programs, among many others, has sparked a heated debate within the arts community. What with the promise of a Canadian election on the horizon, I can think of no better time to foster an ongoing dialogue with artists, as well as those outside the arts world, about the role and nature of culture in Canada.

I’ve started this blog to allow for a more free-flowing discussion, of not just the threatened cuts, but about current affairs issues that relate to arts and culture within this country.

What makes this blog special, or different, from the myriad of others covering the same topics?

I’ll be putting my interviewer skills to work, and featuring artists, as well as public figures, sounding off in their own inimitable way, about current affairs. All interviews, unless noted, will be anonymous. The focus will be on the issue, not the person. Context for the individual (and their views) will be provided.

Look out for lots of talk within the next few weeks. In the meantime, I’ll be re-posting my blog from Arts & Thoughts here, so that everyone can comment, not just those with a Myspace account.

Enjoy.

There’ll be no road too narrow
There’ll be a new day
And it’s today
For us
-Nick Cave

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