Here’s my video interview with playwright David French. It was a real honour to speak with him -I’ve been a fan of his work for literally decades. Enjoy!
Tag: Canadian culture
It was with great sadness that I learned a national radio program in Canada will be ending.
Facing a huge budget shortfall, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation yesterday announced a number of major cuts to its programming. Some I understood -poor ratings, lack of focus, difficult timing -but one cut I could not -cannot -understand is axing Outfront.
For those who’ve never tuned in, get it while you can. Outfront is a unique bit of radio, giving listeners the opportunity to share a personal story. I shared mine in 2006. After several meetings with the program’s Executive Producer and a number of ideas that came and went, rough drafts that were best left unfinished and anxiety over the personal/professional divide (I was working there freelance at the time), I put something together that hit at a fairly deep, dark place. Hitting the send button, I took a deep breath.
When the producer walked down the hall late on a Friday afternoon, he had a small smile.
“We’re going to go with your story.”
I leaped out of my chair and hugged him. It meant I had been given the chance to travel to Hungary to see my father, whom I hadn’t seen in ten years. The trip was tough, taxing, emotional, and important. All kinds of things came up, both during and after my visit. I worked long hours with the (amazing) producer I’d been assigned, choosing clips, narrating, recording, re-recording, choosing music, finding clips, editing and re-editing. The finished piece premiered the first week I was living in a new town, having started a new job. I sat on a stack of boxes, wine glass in hand, listening to the odyssey I’d undertaken only months earlier. Everything had changed.
My father passed away this past December. He never got to hear my work, and I never got the chance to see him again. Without Outfront, there’s a very good possibility I wouldn’t have gone at all. It was as if that “yes” was a divine sign -a marriage of passions and history, purpose and feeling.
Outfront matters because it gives people the chance to share their stories, yes, but it also allows for some vital personal-karma-burning that translates, down the line, into a magic grace everyone who hears it recognizes. The nature of the show -collaborative, inclusive, earthy, real, worn, and lived-in -also points to the symbolism of such a program for a national broadcaster: we’re here, telling your stories, sharing them, because this is yours. And because we think it’s important. It is.
Alas, Outfront will be missed. Kursunom.
Over at the wonderful theatre blog cleverly titled Tynan’s Anger, the idea of the intersection between art and commerce is examined, specifically through the lens of theatrical production. Ethan, the blog’s author, writes:
If you’re in theater, even using the term “commodity” in referring to theater will make you cringe. Yet, the fact that this cringe is nearly universal is a unique thing to theater, in terms of business and even in terms of the arts.
Maybe this is the problem the arts in Canada have: people who stomp about decrying the wasteful spending of their tax dollars see artists turning away from commercial models, from things like Dirty Dancing, Jersey Boys, and The Sound of Music. Sure, on one level, it’s apples and oranges comparing those sorts of shows to, say, something from Passe Muraille or the Tarragon or even Soulpepper, but still, those inside the arts community -not all, mind, but some -turn up their noses, and, to quote Jeremy Kushnier (who’s in Jersey Boys), regard musicals as the dirty cousin of the stage. Hello, unity?
Without getting into an argument about what constitutes either culture or commodity, I have to say, I’m a bit surprised at the amount of shock coming from artists over the cancellation of the National Portrait Gallery. Is it really that surprising? Culture is not on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s priority list. Right or wrong, like it or lump it, it isn’t there. Period. That isn’t going to change.
Ergo, the onus is on us to promote our work in unorthodox, inventive ways. This is an opportunity. It means more than ever, arts companies -including theatre companies, of course -need to be more aggressive than ever to get the word out there -about who they are, what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. To quote an arts journalist friend who has covered this issue extensively, most voters who object to public funding of arts projects have a/ little to no idea of funding structures, and b/ are unaware that funding is less than half of the total operating budget of any project or company.
What does this mean? See above.
To quote Ethan again, “most theater people are introverts” -but it’s time we came out of our collective safety shell of our familiar community and started courting those people coming out of the Royal Alex. Call me naive, but I think it’s worth a shot, particularly since culture isn’t about to be promoted by our own government anytime soon. Just as I refuse to bitch and whine about the arts’ collective victimization in this country, I refuse to believe all hope is lost. It isn’t. Let’s go.
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.
Here’s a note my friend Thom Marriott imported from his own, very-fine blog, to Facebook. It’s worth a read (or two):
In a major cabinet shuffle this morning, Stephen Harper announced sweeping changes to his inner circle and introduced many new faces to some very important positions. The major news is undoubtedly the inclusion of 10 women, representing 26% of the cabinet seats. This is a long overdue move by any sitting government, and the Conservatives should be lauded for this move in the right direction toward equality in parliament. However, I have concerned myself with one specific move – one which actually demotes a woman from a major to minor portfolio.
Josee Verner, MP from Louis-Saint-Laurent, was demoted this morning from her post as Minister of Canadian Heritage, Minister on the Status of Women and Minister responsible for Official Languages to Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Minister for la Francophonie (two minor cabinet posts). This is a fantastic move on the part of the government. Ms. Verner has been an embarrassment in her post of Heritage minister, cutting programs without the ability to defend those cuts and failing to fight for her portfolio and its programs with the same verve that is expected of other ministers in their positions in Industry, Environment or Finance. I will grant that she was overburdened by leading three portfolios, but that simply emphasizes the lack of commitment to arts and culture by this Conservative government. Stephen Harper and Josee Verner have played that portfolio to their grassroots supporters, following the pro-free-market stance of Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in England. However, the English Conservatives have not held power in England since the retirement of Thatcher, and Ed Vaizey, the shadow cultural minister for the Brit Tories, is now pushing for more government funding of the arts, exclaiming that politics has no place in arts funding.
“Government money is pump-priming money,” he says. “Success breeds success. The irony is, if you double the grant to an arts body, you probably end up doubling the amount of private giving to it as well, because people say, ‘I want to invest in something that has the backing of the government.’”
Today, Mr. Harper made a change to the landscape of arts in politics. James Moore, the youngest cabinet minister (he’s 32), has been named to the Heritage post and I must admit that it concerns me. Mr. Moore holds college diplomas in economics and business administration and a university degree in political science. He was first elected an MP at 24, quickly becoming Deputy Foreign Affairs Critic, Deputy National Revenue Critic, Senior Transport Critic, and Vice-Chair of the Commons Transport Committee. After re-election in 2004, Mr. Moore served as Official Opposition Transportation Critic, as well as Amateur Sport Critic in Harper’s shadow cabinet. After the Conservatives took power in 2006, James Moore was appointed to Parliamentary Secretary to both the Minister of Public Works and Government Services and the Minister for the Pacific Gateway and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics. By the time the most recent election rolled around, James had again shifted – this time to Secretary of State for the 2010 Olympics.
James Moore is obviously a hard worker and well liked within the Conservative Party. In his first term, he was named “the best up-and-coming MP” four years in a row by fellow MPs and staffers. His resume is impressive and his education is extensive. However, where are the qualifications to understand the portfolio that he has just been handed? What is his knowledge of the arts industry and its needs? In this time of uncertain economics, do we really have time to wait while a former transport critic learns the ropes of an underfunded portfolio? Will this MP take the time to fight for the support that is so desperately needed in the arts and culture industry, or is he already looking to the next rung on the ladder?
A change in leadership at Heritage Canada is a good thing, and I hope that James Moore is the right person for the job. If so, I leave him with this advice…
Listen to the artists that strive to eke out an existence with meaning; with purpose.
Listen to the songs, the poems, and the plays that attempt to define our identity as a nation.
Listen to the heartbeat of a nation longing for a culture to call our own.
Listen to us and our cultural industry will thrive and be the envy of the world.
So much is possible from the office you now occupy, Mr. Moore. All you have to do is listen.
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.
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.
An interview, that is.
Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched is considered to be one of the finest pieces of Canadian drama. Everyone, from audiences to critics alike, agree it’s an important, vital, and deeply moving work.
The Dora Award-winning Scorched examines issues of war, family, and identity, and is on now at Toronto’s famed Tarragon Theatre, where it runs until September 28th before heading out on a nation-wide tour.
Tomorrow morning on Take 5, I speak with actor Sergio DiZio (best known from the television series Flashpoint about his role in the play, as the troubled, amateur-boxing son Simon Marwan.
Sergio and I will be discussing Mouawad’s work, as well as the playwright’s soon-to-be-famous letter on the recently-announced arts cuts.
Support Canadian culture and tune in, just after 9am!