Find Yourself “Through the Gaze of a Navel”, April 23 -27

Emilia Symington Fedy, performer Photo: Tim Matheson

Emilia Symington Fedy, performer.  Photo: Tim Matheson

Have you ever gone in search of yourself only to become lost amidst a sea of self-help literature, West Coast mysticism, wheat grass, and yoga pants? Have you ever wished that you could have a guide in this quest for self, someone who’s tried everything, someone who can help you sift through the affirmations and the crystal healings and maybe, just maybe, answer your most burning, pressing question:

Is this all a bunch of navel gazing?

For a limited time this April, storyteller, theatre artist, and self-proclaimed advice expert Emelia Symington Fedy will be sharing her wisdom in The Chop Theatre’s Through the Gaze of a Navel, presented as part of Boca del Lupo’s Micro Performance Series. Part theatre performance, part yoga class, Through the Gaze of a Navel promises to irreverently but unflinchingly explore the fuzzy line between enlightenment and navel gazing, and ask audiences what it is they are really searching for.

Having watched Symington Fedy perform before and having read some of her writing on her website, Trying to Be Good, I was incredibly excited to hear a show like this existed. I was also incredibly excited that Emelia Symington Fedy agreed to answer some of my questions about the show:

You have been described as a “professional seeker”, who “has been obsessed with making [yourself] better since [you] were a kid”. What made you decide that now was the time to share your experiences? 

My co-artistic director Anita Rochon and I were talking one day about how incredible it actually was that I’ve spent so much time and money on “healing” and spiritual pursuits. We realized that I had over the course of 20 years become somewhat of a “professional” at it. Satire is usually a comedic style we like to play with, so considering Vancouver and the overabundance of spiritual practices here, we decided that my personal investment in the material along with living in lotusland made a perfect match and a show began to take shape…

I’m very interested in the shared territory between popular self-help and enlightenment practices and performance. As a theatre student, we did yoga and pilates, we meditated, we had ritualized ways of entering and leaving a performance. What parts of your self-help life have you found performative? What parts of your work as a theatre artist have you found therapeutic?

All of the practices I’ve tried are performative in some way. Searching for an answer is inherently dramatic and the rooms are lit well and the stakes are always high. As well, all of my artistic endeavours have been in some way therapeutic. I make art that I’m personally connected to and means a shit load to me. That’s what makes it good. That doesn’t mean I figure my emotional state out on stage. I’ve figured it out a long time beforehand and now I’m playing around with it; which makes it safe for an audience.

Judging by the almost outrageous amount of self-help literature available on the Internet and on bookstore shelves, and the number of classes, seminars, and gurus advertising paths to wellness, it’s obvious that “self-help” is a lucrative business. Ironically, its success as a business model relies on people not actually finding what they’re looking for. As someone who has explored several different self-help paths, what has been your experience with the “business” side of enlightenment? And why do you think people keep coming back?

I call it “Spiritual Capitalism” and it’s the really disappointing side to a meaningful path. People try to make money of our longing for God and what can I say, it sucks.

There is a part of me that wants to name and shame and blame the folks involved in turning someone’s vulnerable and authentic search into personal gain but then that makes me part of the problem too–so instead we make a play that points satirically at a few of the dark parts in the community. With a light hand we turn the mirror on the audience and laugh together at the struggle of never being satisfied. We are not mean spirited in any way, but I play a character who thinks she knows a lot about yoga and meditation and enlightenment, and really, who can say that they know a lot about that?

In terms of why people keep coming back…we want answers. Why are we here? What is my purpose? Will I get a book deal? And we are willing to pay anything for it.

In grade 8 I studied a pyramid chart called the “Hierarchy of Needs”. At the bottom of the pyramid were needs like food and shelter, and at the very top of the pyramid was a need called “self-actualization”, which could not be sought for until the needs below it were met. With this in mind, do you think the modern journey towards enlightenment is primarily a luxury of wealthier countries, or do you think the quest for inner fulfillment and enlightenment is universal?

You can’t gaze at your navel if you are hungry. Yes, on one hand our ability to focus on “self actualization” is a product of being very lucky and being born in the right country. On the other hand, some people say that humans rising into a higher state of consciousness is our only way to transform and save the earth from extinction. So, like most things, it’s probably not simply good or bad. Folks who have the privilege to study spiritual pursuits are both helping the planet through learning how to raise their awareness and also possibly wasting precious time when they could be digging a well. You know what I mean?

[Yes, I know what you mean, Emelia! Cripes, you're pithy. And now for a couple of logistical questions...]

I understand Through the Gaze of a Navel will have limited seating. Do you have an additional limit on the number of people who can participate in your yoga class portions of the performance, or are all audience members able to join in?

Everyone is welcome to do yoga. There are seats for folks with mobility issues and anyone who is shy but I have a strong sense that you will be on the mat soon enough when you see that it’s fun and I’m not pointing anyone out. I HATE audience participation when I watch theatre, so I make my shows really friendly and easy to be involved in. The goal is you find yourself saying “I cannot believe I’m doing this, and it’s so. much. fun.” Also, it’s built as a beginner class so everyone can access the poses.

Is there anything the audience members wishing to do the yoga should bring (yoga mats, water bottles, etc.)?

Wear comfy pants.

Having gone swimming with cosmic dolphins and even tried vaginal weightlifting classes, Emelia Symington Fedy is more than qualified to guide you in your search for your centre (whether that centre is spiritual fulfillment or just your own belly button). Remember, spaces are limited so book your ticket early and WEAR COMFY PANTS.

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Through the Gaze of a Navel will be performed at various times, April 23 – 27, at The Anderson Street Space (1405 Anderson St., Granville Island). Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online.

Notes: Boca del Lupo contacted me to inquire if I would be interested in writing about this show (and I definitely was). The decision to interview Emelia Symington Fedy, as well as to write this post, was mine. I would like to sincerely thank Emelia Symington Fedy for her time and her thoughtful, eloquent responses.

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Dining in the Peanut Gallery

Empty plate with fork and knife.“How do you stay so slim eating steak and potatoes?”

This question came out of nowhere in the lunchroom yesterday at work. To put this remark in context, two coworkers were sitting at one end of the lunchroom table, having a conversation. I was sitting at the other end of the table, eating my aforementioned steak and potatoes (leftovers from dinner the night before) and reading my Maclean’s. Basically, I was minding my own business and really enjoying my meal. Until one of my coworkers decided to interrupt the conversation she was having to remark on the food I had chosen to eat for lunch.

My answer to her was the same answer I usually give in situations like this, “I guess I have a fast metabolism.” And then I added, by way of apology, “I’m sure it won’t last.”

The other coworker said, “You should have seen her at last year’s Staff Appreciation Breakfast.” To which I replied, by way of apology, “Yes, there was REAL WHIPPED CREAM and I just couldn’t help myself. It was amazing.” And that coworker remarked that I “sure can put away food.”

While we’re on the subject of the Staff Appreciation Breakfast, the next Breakfast is coming up next week. I look forward to the Staff Appreciation Breakfast at my workplace every year. It’s a day for the bosses and managers to acknowledge the work done by administrative staff to keep the department running, and it’s a morning of REALLY good food. Hashbrowns. Pancakes. Blueberry compote. Real whipped cream. The works. Sadly, the event has been ruined for me.

I DID eat a lot at last year’s staff appreciation breakfast. I filled my plate and then went back for seconds and thirds. As I said, the food was amazing. What wasn’t amazing, however, were the remarks my (female) coworkers made last year: “You’re going up there again?!”, “Oh wow, look at Lauren!”, “Someone’s got a sweet tooth!”, “Just wait until you’re our age, you won’t be able to eat like that anymore!”

I was humiliated. No one likes to be made self-conscious while they’re eating, especially not a woman. I felt put on the spot, and I felt that my coworkers had decided I was an acceptable target for this kind of shaming because I am thin. No one at that table last year would have dreamed of remarking upon the plates of any of my more curvacious coworkers, and my coworkers at lunch yesterday would never have said what they said to a larger woman, so why did they think it was okay to do it to me?

I had just begun to get over the squirmy uncomfortable embarrassment I’ve felt every time I thought of the Staff Appreciation Breakfast. I was starting to look forward to next week’s event. I thought surely no one but me would remember how much I ate last year (I certainly have no clue what anyone else ate), but yesterday’s lunch was a reminder that I will not escape scrutiny. If I don’t watch what I eat, other people will do it for me. Apparently there’s a sign on my back that says, “Go ahead and comment on how much I’m eating. Don’t worry, I’m thin, so it’s not rude.”

Except of course it is. And it hurts my feelings.

I think I should take this moment to acknowledge that Fat Shaming (i.e. shaming or making fun of people who are overweight as if their bodies are your business) is pervasive, dehumanizing, emotionally damaging, and completely wrong. I cannot believe the emotional abuse and humiliation people think is okay to heap on someone because of their weight.

This is not to say that thin women (or any women really) have a free pass, because obviously they don’t. What I eat has been a subject of scrutiny for my entire life. When I was a kid, it was because I was a picky eater (foods I wouldn’t eat included onions, peppers, mushrooms, cooked peas, cooked carrots, mashed potatoes, zucchini, whipped cream, spinach, avocado, yoghurt with peaches, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, cheese from a lunchbox, and anything else I had determined was icky due to texture, mostly). I cannot blame my parents for wanting me to eat more. It was their job to make sure I ate enough nutrients to be healthy and I know that they worried about me.

That said, they were my parents and they loved me and needed to make sure I didn’t get scurvy or Rickets or something. Everyone else can go suck on an egg.

Like the gymnastics instructor who pulled my little sister and me out of class to show her assistant how skinny our arms were and to have a good laugh about it (this is the same gymnastics instructor who missed presentation day because she was hungover and needless to say she never instructed in my town again). Or the complete stranger from my first week at a new school in grade 10 who, when I declined some gross-looking English potato chips said, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you eat ANYTHING?” (this person had literally never seen me eat a meal so I don’t know what her problem was). Or the dweeb I dated briefly when I was fifteen who, after he badgered me into disclosing my struggles with disordered eating (that’s a story for another time), responded by saying, “No. You eat a LOT.” and then told me the story of the time he got meningitis which was obviously way more interesting than a bit of wonky dieting and some purging now and again.

Or the boyfriend in third year university who told me I got the flu because I don’t eat enough vegetables (which remarkably I didn’t find very comforting, in addition to it not being true, but at least he apologized later). Or the coworkers who’ve asked me how often I bring cheese and crackers and an apple for lunch (answer: almost every day, for four years, and I like it very much thank you). Or the countless numbers of women who have told me, with a hint of malevolent glee in their voices, that someday my metabolism will slow down and my eating habits (or at the very least, my eating habits as perceived by people who really don’t know a thing about them) will “catch up with me”. Basically, I’m damned if I don’t want to eat a lot (because then people think I’m “dieting”), and I’m damned if I do.

I have tried to tell myself that I should be flattered, that having people remark on my weight or my lunch because I am thinner than them (as opposed to larger) is not an insult, and that maybe they’re just jealous. It is very little comfort.

I don’t want anyone to be jealous of me, I want them to leave me alone and let me eat my damn lunch. I don’t need any warnings that someday my sinful ways will “catch up with me” and I’ll be fat and feel bad about myself; every woman who has ever been a teenaged girl is already afraid. And I shouldn’t have to justify my diet or describe it to ANYONE. But since so many people seem so bloody interested, I am going to say this once, and then never again:

I EAT JUST FINE.

Sure, I indulge at a free bonanza like the Staff Appreciation Breakfast. Why the hell not? Good food is one of the joys of life and, in the absence of allergies or other medical considerations, I see no reason to deny myself. For the most part though, I pay attention to the food groups, try to get in enough fruits and vegetables (though it’s hard), eat my fibre and my protein, never drink Coke or Pepsi or coffee, have primarily switched to organic meat and milk, enjoy cooking and baking, and yes, like most people, I have a sweet tooth that sometimes gets the better of me. I also take the bus to work which means I get a good 40-50 minutes of walking in every weekday, train in aerial silks, take Ukrainian dance classes, and like being active outside (though the city makes it harder). I know my genetics play a huge role in the shape of my body and my ability to maintain muscle, but I don’t eat poorly and when I do I don’t rub it in anyone’s faces.

And even if I ate fast food every damn day and never touched a vegetable, it still wouldn’t be any of your business. I don’t expect other women to apologize for their bodies so stop trying to get me to apologize for mine. I have the same insecurities you have and at times in my past they have cost me my health. I should not need to justify my desire to feed myself to you.

The next time some random person tells me I’m eating a lot maybe I should look at them coolly and say, “Don’t worry, I’m going to throw it all up later” and just keep eating with a weird smile on my face. That’d probably shut them up.

Or maybe (since eating disorders aren’t a joke even though I would find that hilarious) I should just look at them coolly and say, “That isn’t any of your business.” and leave it at that. I’m done apologizing for what I do and don’t eat. I’m done with acting like I should feel flattered by what is obviously negative attention, and I’m done with explanations. I NEVER notice or remark upon what other women are eating (except to occasionally say, “That looks/smells delicious!”). Humiliating me at the table serves only to patronize me (as if I were your child and not your colleague) and it won’t make you feel any better. So please focus your energy on enjoying YOUR lunch and let me do the same.

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“AFTER” – Hilarious, Awkward, and Close to Home

AFTER-Poster-FinalThe premise of Martha Herrera-Lasso’s new play, After, is fairly simple: four young people navigate the murky waters of love and lust, all through conversations that take place after sex. While the premise may be simple, the emotional situations explored are anything but, rife with humour, heartbreak, and devastating shades of grey.

If you like sharp, fast-paced dialogue, nuanced performances with rapid-fire timing, and recognizing the awkwardness of your own life onstage, you will not want to miss dream of passion productions and Excavation Theatre‘s co-production of After, running at the Havana Theatre until April 5.

When it comes to intimacy and matters of the heart, once the moment of passion has ended few of us are secure enough with vulnerability to simply be. Instead, we protect ourselves: we make jokes, justify, feign nonchalance, contradict ourselves or lay blame. Many relationships are not what they seem, and the biggest fools are usually the ones with the front-row seats.  Herrera-Lasso’s intelligent, funny, and honest script requires performers who identify with their characters, even as they hurt others, hold tight to things they don’t want, hide from their partners and hide from themselves. Luckily for us, under the direction of Excavation Theatre’s Jessica Anne Nelson, the ensemble of four actors (dream of passion’s Stefania Indelicato, Al Miro, Jane Hancock, and Matthew McLellan) deliver tight performances that never miss a beat. Both perfectly natural and perfectly rehearsed, no gesture, line, or inflection is wasted as the performers feed off one another and carry the audience through an incredibly quick (but incredibly satisfying) 80 minutes.

What strikes me most about  After is the characters’ extreme lack of self-awareness, even as they are acutely self-conscious (whether due to insecurity, like the verbally incontinent Jackie, or narcissism, like the incorrigible James). Unhinged by their moments of vulnerability, these four young people fumble towards and away from one another, wanting both the satisfaction of intimacy and the safety of independence. After the Friday-night show, we overheard another audience member saying he had been all four of the characters at one time or another, and I think this is the play’s real strength. For my part, I certainly recognized myself in two or three of the characters (I won’t give myself away by saying which characters or why) and it is this familiarity and recognition that elevates a simple (rather comedic) premise into something much more impressive and special.

After plays at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Drive) until Saturday, April 5. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets. Shows are at 8:00 p.m.

Disclosure: My TC and I attended Friday night’s performance courtesy of Excavation Theatre and dream of passion productions. My content is my own.

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“Ghosts in Baghdad” and the Vulnerabilities of Heritage

Sarah May Redmond (Malika) and Alec Willows (Khalil). Photo: Tim Matheson

Sarah May Redmond (Malika) and Alec Willows (Khalil). Photo: Tim Matheson

What would you do to protect your life’s work? Your country’s heritage? When does an object stop being a “thing” and become a treasure worth risking your life for? How far will you go to protect the treasures you hold dear?

These are the questions posed by Ghosts in Baghdad, a new script by playwright and Working Spark Theatre founder Michelle Deines. Inspired by a New York Times article by Roger Cohen, Deines’ script centres around the complex decisions faced by Khalil and Malika, two fictional museum directors who continue their work in fear and isolation ten years after the 2003 American invasion and the looting, destruction, and subsequent closure to the public of the Iraq Museum. With thousands of ancient historical and cultural objects still missing and the Museum open only to government officials and foreign diplomats, Khalil walks the empty halls alone, dreaming of the day he can throw open the doors and share his country’s history with its people. Malika, meanwhile, hides away in her office, hunching over a piece of stone tablet she has been translating for over a decade, and while she tries to decide if her affection for country and colleague are enough to keep her in a city still so dangerous and full of sorrow. When a desperate young boy appears claiming to have found the missing Mask of Warka, his arrival threatens to unravel the delicate webs of secrecy and betrayal that have sustained what is left of the damaged Museum.

The Little Mountain Gallery, which houses this production, is a spartan venue that certainly has its difficulties (I’ve performed there myself so I know first hand). Working Spark has done an exceptional job of transforming this space, building a new and larger platform for the actors and bringing in more comfortable multi-level seating for the house. That said, the space has its challenges. The performance I attended was the Thursday-night preview and it was clear, both from director John Murphy’s comments before the show and the slightly tentative energy of the performers onstage, that there were still a couple of kinks to be worked out in the space. Without a conventional “backstage” in the Little Mountain, the transitions between scenes seemed to be a particular challenge for this particular performance. However, I trust these transitions are going more smoothly during the actual run of the play, and also recommend simply choosing the seats in front of the shallow thrust stage (rather on the left or right side) where the “offstage” movements of the actors won’t be as visible.

Still, the actors fill their roles with natural ease and without pretension (Gili Roskies’ performance as the youth Dawood is particularly arresting) and Deines and Murphy made important choices in the writing and direction that support this ease. The actors’ voices are without put-on accents and their dialogue is as casual and full of expression as any other English dialogue. These choices (i.e. the choices NOT to have the actors use accents or speak using phrases or expressions that are different from those we would use in everyday English) are tremendously important in that Working Spark has managed to set a play in Baghdad without casting the characters as “the Other”. Of course there are no special accents–Iraqi people are not “foreign” in their own country. Of course there are no unfamiliar expressions–the expressions used by native Arabic speakers would not sound unfamiliar to other Arabic speakers. The point is not to exoticize Baghdad or to pass any kind of judgement on its culture, before or after the American invasion. The point is that culture is important in itself.

What Ghosts in Baghdad shows us is the way in which society’s treatment of historical, natural, and cultural artifacts is a measure for the condition of its people. When looters storm a national museum and force its closure to the public, they steal not from an enemy force but from themselves. Only extreme circumstances would create that kind of selfishness in most people–circumstances whose immediacy renders centuries and millennia of artistry miniscule. You can’t eat a statue, or live in an ancient vase. An artifact in a display case can’t protect you from bullets and heritage can’t buy your ticket to a safer place. But if money could do these things–and you could find the right buyer–could anyone blame you? Sadly, these treasures once lost are usually lost forever, and a people whose history has been stolen and who are unable to take pride in their collective culture will find it that much more difficult to heal–but what can they do?

In Ghosts in Baghdad these questions are turned back on themselves, as those champions who have sworn to preserve their cultural artifacts struggle to protect them from the desperation of poverty and fear–and also from themselves.

Ghosts in Baghdad plays at the Little Mountain Gallery (Main at 26th Ave.) until Sunday, April 6 (no show Monday, March 31). Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets.

Disclosure: TC and I attended the Thursday-night preview courtesy of Working Spark Theatre. My content is my own.

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Grey Days and Gratitude

Picasso's "Woman Ironing"

Picasso’s “Woman Ironing”

Maybe it’s because it’s March, and I don’t like March. Maybe it’s because I’m in the thick of a busy busy week. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to plan a wedding for the summer and do not always feel very good at that kind of thing. Maybe it’s because the collapse of human civilization will be “difficult to avoid”, according to a recent NASA-funded study, and it’s all our fault. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I don’t yet feel confident, wealthy, or wise enough for the journey. Maybe it’s because there’s rabbit hair all over my couch despite my best efforts, or maybe it’s because that aforementioned “civilization is ending” report makes me feel like an asshole for being sad about anything else. Maybe it’s because I’m overwhelmed by everything I see, hear, read, and feel responsible for (it would be hard not be overwhelmed in the face of either wedding planning or our impending self-imposed destruction).

Whatever the reason, there have been some grey days lately. Days where doubt slowly drip-drips like icy water through your heart and you wonder what the hell you’re doing, who the hell ever made you think you could have everything you want, and how the hell you’re going to pay for all your dreams, because like it or not, most dreams have their price. Days where you worry–about your future, about your choices, about your ability to live in the future you made with your choices. About the situations in which you have no choice. Days when you feel that you’re running full speed just to stay in the same place. Days when the destination is far far away.

You don’t want to feel grey. You want the sun to break through those clouds to light up your path, with angel choirs fluttering past carrying banners that say “You’re on the right track, baby!”. You want to see Results, you want to make Progress, you want the future bright and your heart as light as air.

But that’s not today. Grey is what you have today. Maybe grey is what you have all week, or all month. Maybe that grey is so heavy right now, so persistent, that it deepens and settles in your stomach and then you have the Blues. This week, that’s my lot. I dealt with the usual culprits–I’ve been resting, I’ve been reading, and I’ve been out in the sun–but still I feel a little cloudy on the inside, whether I want to or not.

Back in August 2011, I wrote a blog post entitled And Now the Case for Being Happy. In the post I discussed happiness and the fears and struggles that came with it at that particular time. Of gratitude, I wrote, “To spend your life being merely grateful that things aren’t worse is not joyous living.”

But sometimes gratitude is all you’ve got. For most of us, it simply isn’t possible to be living joyously All The Time. Every day will bring its challenges; every sky will have its clouds. Perhaps I needed to be easier on myself. Perhaps I didn’t anticipate then some of the challenges I would have now. Perhaps there’s no one-size-fits-all, “Ten Habits of Happy People” Buzzfeed-list solution to how an individual human being might feel at any given time, when faced with any number or combination of obstacles. Perhaps feeling gratitude is the best I can do for myself right now.

Am I happy today? Not especially. Was I happy yesterday? No. But was the world beautiful? Was I loved? Am I grateful for it? Yes and yes and yes. Am I still worried? Yes. Do I have any solutions? Not today. But even when I crawl into bed at night with worry gnawing at my chest, I am crawling and worrying next to somebody I love, and I know I wouldn’t trade my problems for anyone else’s.

 

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Dancing Monkey Presents: “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: an Irishman, an Englishman, and an American are chained to a wall–

swwomlogoNo, this is not the set-up for some lame stereotypical joke, but the premise for Frank McGuinness’ searing play Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, a story set not against the backdrop of the Lebanon Hostage Crisis, but chained deep within its dark belly. Under the direction of the luminous Julie McIsaac, the players of Dancing Monkey Presents wade neck deep into the waters of fear, despair, madness, and hope that threaten to overwhelm us when we are, quite literally, hostage to forces beyond our control.

Though the play runs over two hours (with a short intermission), McGuinness’ script is witty, biting, and fast-paced, taking its characters careening between the polemic and the playful, the religious and the ridiculous, between anger, insanity, honesty, and love. Though the Lebanon Hostage Crisis and its casualties are, of course, deeply rooted in the political realm, McGuinness’ story does not dwell on this, choosing to focus on the human beings beneath the hostages, in all their fear, self-righteousness, and unexpected kindnesses, rather than on condemning or excusing either the hostage-takers or the governments who may or may not have done all within their power to secure their citizens’ safe release.

McIsaac’s staging of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me is simple yet effective. Three men are chained in a small bare room, lit by a single dangling bulb. We do not know what time of day it is, or where they are, and neither do they. Against such a sparse backdrop, the performances of Jay Clift (Adam), Ashley O’Connell (Edward), and Kirk Smith (Michael) truly shine as McGuiness’ script races them, and us, through an emotional labyrinth at break-neck speed. Each character is a pressure cooker, roiling with physical energy they cannot expend, anger they cannot unleash, and fear they cannot relieve. The script, which is actually quite funny at times, swings each man from tears to laughter and back again, relentless and unflinching.  The skill that lies beneath the delicately controlled performances delivered by Clift, O’Connell, and Smith is not to be understated.

Though 1980s Lebanon is worlds away for most of us, McGuiness and his characters strip away the layers of distance and time that separate us, the comfortable audience, from them, the men waiting to find out if they will live or die, if will they ever see their families again, or if anyone even knows what has happened to them. In the isolation of a cell, with the possibility of madness an ever-present companion, three men encounter the same fears that gnaw at most of us–that it does not matter where we are from, how educated we are, whether we are good or bad people. Things will happen to us that we do not understand and cannot control. We will not know why. We will not know if there is even a why. What we will know is what our reality is, in the here and now. We will know what the darkness is and we will have to decide how to live with it, no matter how short or long our captivity. In the darkness there is loneliness and helplessness but also humanity.

If I were to have a complaint about the evening it would be that the intimate seating still contained several empty chairs and Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me deserves to play to packed houses. With a ticket price of $16 (affordability being part of Dancing Monkey Presents’ mandate) a script this good, and performances this strong, there is really no excuse not to see it if you can.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me plays at Renegade Studios (125 E. 2nd Ave., Vancouver) for one more week, March 18 – 23, at 8:00 p.m. each night. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door (though the house is small so booking early is advised). NB: The vents are turned off during the performance and the space does get a little cold during that time so dress appropriately!

Clockwise from top left: Jay Clift, Kirk Smith, Ashley O'Connell

Clockwise from top left: Jay Clift, Kirk Smith, Ashley O’Connell

Disclosure: My guest and I were provided tickets courtesy of Dancing Monkey Presents. My content is my own.

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The Troika Collective Presents Belarusian Dream Theater Vancouver

Poster design by Liam Griffin

Poster design by Liam Griffin

On Tuesday, March 25, The Troika Collective, in association with Ensemble Free Theater Norway (EFTN), will present the Vancouver iteration of the Belarusian Dream Theater project in Studio 4270 at SFU Woodwards.

From the announcement of the project in the Belarusian Review:

Belarusian Dream Theater [is] an international performing arts event supporting freedom of expression in Belarus, conceived by Brendan McCall, Artistic Director of EFTN.

On 25 March 2014, Belarus’ Freedom Day, partner theaters will present readings and/or performances of new short plays about Belarus simultaneously in Australia, Belarus, Denmark, Canada, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Poland, Ukraine, and the United States.

[...] The hope is that this coordinated cultural event will stimulate a greater knowledge and interest in Belarus by international audiences, journalists, and artists.

So why is it important to know about what is happening in Belarus? Before becoming involved with this project, I must admit that I had not thought about Belarus in a long time (perhaps not since passing through it on a train when I was ten years old). I have, like many people, been keeping an eye on the political situation in Ukraine. Meanwhile, news from Belarus has been comparatively quiet.

As it turns out, that is because the Belarusian government has, for many years, severely restricted independent expression through a combination of legislation, intimidation, and force. Based on information from Amnesty International, the protests that have rocked Ukraine in recent months would likely not be possible in the political climate of Belarus today, especially given the country’s “Law on Mass Actions”:

In 2011 weekly “silent protests”, where groups of people throughout the country would stroll wordlessly, applaud or use their mobile phone alarms simultaneously, saw participants beaten, sentenced to administrative detention or fined.

The largest demonstration in the country’s recent history, following the presidential elections in December 2010, was suppressed with unprecedented violence. When police moved in to disperse it in the centre of the capital Minsk over 700 people were detained and many, including by-standers, were beaten and wounded. Four prisoners of conscience Mykalau Statkevich, Pavel Sevyarynets, Eduard Lobau and Zmitser Dashkevich remain in prison in connection to the demonstration to this day.

[...] Peaceful protesters are frequently sentenced to fines or short periods of detention for violating the Law on Mass Actions or for minor offenses such as swearing in public. Pavel Vinahradau, a member of the youth political movement Zmena (Change), spent a total of 66 days in detention between 30 December 2011 and 12 December 2012 on eight separate administrative convictions, all for minor offenses such as swearing or violations of the regulations for public meetings and pickets.

And it isn’t only protesters who are finding their freedoms of expression curtailed. Citizens wishing to join or create an independent organization (for support, to express an identity or opinion, etc.) must be sure the organization is registered with the government and meets the government’s strict registration requirements. Activists who have been deemed to be acting on behalf or as part of an unregistered organization face prosecution.

So where does Ensemble Free Theater Norway, the Belarusian Dream Theater playwrights, The Troika Collective, and the rest of the companies participating around the world come in? Well, though many of these plays could not be performed in Belarus (or at least not without considerable risk), they can be performed here in Canada, our actors and directors can speak without fear of reprisal, and we can listen. We invite you to join us for an evening of theatre, music, and hopefully, social good.

The Vancouver performance of the Belarusian Dream Theater project will take place on Belarus’ Freedom Day, March 25, at 8:00 p.m. in Studio 4270, SFU Woodwards. Admission is by donation (though no one will be turned away for lack of funds), with proceeds benefiting the Troika Collective’s operations. If you wish to support free expression in Belarus, proceeds from the sales of the plays being read/performed around the world as part of this project will go to Amnesty International. You can also make a direct donation to Amnesty International online at Amnesty.ca.

Disclosure: I am the co-artistic director of The Troika Collective, along with founding co-artistic director Aliya Griffin. The Troika Collective is a registered non-profit.

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My Rights to Write (and What)

Broadly speaking, at least here in fairly progressive, egalitarian-ish, freedom-of-speech-y Canada, my right to write just about whatever I want, however I want, is not in dispute. Which is great for me, because when I cannot communicate or am not being listened to, I shrivel up inside and a little part of me begins to die.

Which is why it is important to consider both what I legally have the right to write and/or publish, and what I should MORALLY have the right to write and share.

Legally, I have the right to publish just about anything except hate speech, another person’s work, recommendations that people cause harm to themselves or others, or slander. Fair enough. I don’t want to write any of those things anyways.

Morally, the waters of artistic freedom become quite a bit muddier. Do I, for example, have the moral right to incorporate recognizable traits of real people in fiction, in doing so assuming or inventing their motives and private thoughts? What parts of a person truly belong to them? Their life story? Their thoughts/feelings? Their physical appearance and behavioural ticks? What parts of a real person, place, or experience am I allowed to use? Assuming that some of my work will always adapt or be influenced by people, places, and experiences that I encounter either in my own life or through the media, what would be the more moral course? Representing people, places, and experiences exactly as I perceive them (or exactly as they perceive themselves), or using artistic license to transform these things, creating something that I can bend to my narrative? What are the responsibilities that come with my rights to write, and to seek publication of this writing?

I think any conversation surrounding what I, as an artist, have an ethical green light to incorporate into my work needs to begin with a recognition that I am writing from a place of comparative privilege. Though I am a woman, and young (two strikes against me in a western literary canon still dominated by old males), there are many cultural privileges that go along with being white, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle class, and dare I say, reasonably photogenic. Because of this, there are also some limitations as to what I can ethically and skillfully represent in my work.

For example, can I ethically or skilfully represent (in fiction) the experience of a culture or race different from my own? Maybe, but doing so would require not only careful and comprehensive research, but also an examination of my own motives for telling a story that is not mine. Do I want to tell this story because I feel a kind of personal connection to it, and feel that this is the story that is burning inside me to be told? Or do I want to tell this story because I want praise for writing about a “difficult” subject, or because I just want to expose the “beauty” of the Other, or because I believe that the true owners of the story are not equipped to tell it themselves? If my motives fall into any of the latter categories, I am not “engaging” with material or “exploring” it–I’m exploiting it. And that’s not okay with me. As I mentioned, when I cannot communicate or am not listened to, part of me shrivels and dies. Many cultures and marginalized groups have for centuries had the stories ripped from their mouths, and I don’t want to be part of the machine that consumes others’ stories, but never listens.

In some ways this is very freeing. It liberates me from the paralyzing idea that good or provocative writing cannot come from inside me, that it must be centered in a world (real or imagined) that is more “exotic”, more action-packed, or more thrilling than the one I inhabit. It also liberates me from the idea that my writing must contribute to some kind of social good by deliberately telling the story of a marginalized group. Don’t get me wrong–stories that have been relegated to the fringes need to be told, however, as my old theatre school chum (and literature PhD candidate) Lucia Lorenzi pointed out recently, what makes us think these marginalized groups aren’t capable of telling their stories themselves? If I want to do social good through my engagement with literature, it may, in fact, be a great idea for me to get out of the way and let people tell their own stories, and then, to make sure I read them. It is not necessarily for me to be the privileged mouthpiece of an unprivileged group. Maybe I just need to listen.

That said, I still want to write about that which intrigues and moves me. And even if I take some obvious topics out of the equation (at this time, for example, I do not feel even remotely equipped to tell a story about Indigenous people and the legacy of colonialism, or about the slave trade, or the effects of racism in the southern United States), I still find there is so much to explore that I haven’t personally experienced. I don’t personally know what it is to be physically or mentally ill. I don’t know what it is to be pregnant. I don’t know what it is to experience physical violence. I don’t know what it is to grow up without a parent. I don’t know what it is to be a parent. I don’t know what it is to be a man (or a boy). I don’t know what it is to be elderly, or to look a different way, or to be illiterate, or to be homeless. Does this mean I cannot tell stories that feature characters that have had these experiences? Am I relegated only to stories of white middle-class navel-gazing?

I hope not. I hope that when I write the empathy that I feel for my characters will allow me to tell their stories with fairness and grace, neither sanctifying nor condemning them, never relegating them to the role of the “mystical African American/Indigenous person/elderly Asian person/prostitute with a heart of gold/homeless person” who swoops in and solves the whiny protagonist’s personal crisis with some grand/folksy/poetic pronouncements on life. I hope that my ability to feel pain, fear, doubt, shame, anger, disappointment, love, joy, and grief will guide me through, even through those stories I’ve never experienced myself. If they can’t, I can’t see how I will grow as an artist.

I must remember that no one (not even a biographer) writes real people. They write a representation of them. There is art there. And art, at least in my practice, comes with both aesthetic and ethical responsibilities that I have no desire to eschew.

Nope. Not a pipe. Just an image of one.

Nope. Not a pipe. Just an image of one. Magritte is the bomb.

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“Nothing But Sky” Delivers Nothing But Promise

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From now until March 2, The Only Animal invites you to step into the world of their latest production, Nothing But Skya comic-book world of heroes and villains, lovers and underdogs, flesh and ink. Written and directed by Kendra Fanconi, Nothing But Sky explores the true story of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the artist and writer behind the legendary Superman, and Joanne Kovacs, the original model for Lois Lane.

Feeling small and powerless in a big and uncaring world, Joe and Jerry dream up Superman–the ultimate champion of the underdog and protector of the weak, a man who can catch bullets in his bare hands and who disguises himself as a regular schmuck (i.e. bespectacled Clark Kent) to avoid discovery. Together, the pair create a hero stronger, better, and braver than they are, and dream of blue skies and smooth sailing for themselves and for their creation. Unfortunately for the friends and artistic partners, nothing is as black and white as their comic-book fantasy: DC Comics (to whom Joe and Jerry sell the rights) wants to control Superman (and his profits), and both men find themselves in love with their Lois Lane, a model named Joanne Kovacs. For Joanne’s part, she wants to be loved for who she is; a person in her own right and not just a stand-in for a paper and ink character.

The most breathtaking aspect of Nothing But Sky is most certainly the blending of comic-book animation with live staging. Projections create both the “real world” of the characters and the world of their creation. Eventually, for artist Joe especially, the lines between the world he has drawn and the world as it is begin to blur until we are not sure where he truly lives. The execution of this unique and challenging staging by the actors, artists, and technical crew is a laudable accomplishment. Nothing But Sky certainly does deliver promise–the promise of new horizons in theatre and new worlds to explore.

Unfortunately, not all of the play’s promises are realized. Though the performances are sharp (the comic-book action sequences especially), the story of Nothing But Sky seemed bigger than the four-person cast’s ability to carry it. Huge amounts of time (i.e. years) pass in a moment, with very little to anchor the audience or prepare it for this leap forward. Most notably, the character of Jerry Siegel comes off as sexually aggressive, socially selfish, and possessed by a delusional perception of his own artistic abilities. With so little to like about this character (despite actor Robert Salvador’s best efforts) I found that I cared very little about the betrayals and injustices he experienced, which is, I think, contrary to Fanconi’s intentions.

That said, Nothing But Sky is still absolutely an experience worth having. The production is a fantastic achievement by everyone involved, by turns magical, humourous, and sad. The technical wizardry alone is worth a look, but the way it is used to support the play is what makes it matter. With such an interesting story, such a beautiful set, and such solid performances, I really really wanted to feel my heart leave my chest. Though it didn’t happen as often as I would have liked, there are moments that truly drew my heart from my body, and those moments are definitely worth watching.

Nothing But Sky is playing in the Faris Family Studio at the Scotiabank Dance Centre until Sunday, March 2. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students on February 26 only) and can be purchased online.

Disclosure: My guest and I attended the opening night performance courtesy of The Only Animal. I was not asked for a review and of course all content remains my own.

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Nifty Reads: “Tuesdays with Morrie”

417px-Tuesdays_with_Morrie_book_coverThere is a small stack of books in the lunchroom at my office topped by a paper sign that says “Free” (it used to be a larger stack but it seems people, myself included, have been taking advantage of this anonymous book donor’s offer). One of the books was a small, unassuming paperback of Mitch Albom’s bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie. I knew the book was famous, I knew its size was perfect for easy carriage in my work bag, and I liked the look of it. So I took it, and I read it, and I guess I’m glad I did.

The book is both a memoir of the author’s relationship with his subject, and a series of life lessons imparted by the author’s late professor (and beloved friend) Morris “Morrie” Schwartz, collected on weekly (Tuesday) visits as Morrie’s body succumbed to ALS, a fatal and debilitating illness with no cure.

To be frank, a triumph of literature this ain’t. The language is so simple a fifth grader could read it. The book offers no literary surprises, no elegance, and only a very loose structure to keep it all together. As I began reading, I thought, how simplistic. How sentimental. How weird (this one was in reference to Morrie’s strange teaching methods in his sociology courses at Brandeis University). And yet….and yet.

This is a book the author approaches with no ego, only a tremendous love for his friend and respect for the ways in which he chose to live and chose to die. Yes, the book is simple. Yes, the book is emotional. But Albom is so earnest about this project, so sincere in his desire to share what his professor taught him, that Tuesdays with Morrie, the pair’s “final thesis” together, managed to win me over despite my snobbish cynicism.

I won’t bother sharing Morrie’s lessons here. To list them out as separate from the conversations that engendered them really would over-simplify them, and make them appear to be nothing more than the usual “love thy neighbour, love thyself” philosophies we encounter on motivational posters and internet memes and in self-help books every day.  The fact of the matter is that nothing Morrie had to say about life was anything I had not already heard or read before. The important thing is that he said them while he was dying, while his body was literally decaying from the legs up. Facing imminent death preceded by incredible pain and complete helplessness, Morrie still believed in the importance of love, gratitude, and forgiveness, and believed that he was a lucky man.

For me the significant and profound parts of the book are not to be found in what Morrie said, but in the ways in which Albom’s interactions with him in his dying months demonstrate the principles he wished to share. During his first Tuesday with Morrie, Albom is sheepish, not having seen his old professor in more than a decade (despite promising, after graduation, to keep in touch). By the final weeks of Morrie’s life Albom is massaging cream into Morrie’s feet (paralyzed by ALS but still, cruelly, perfectly able to feel pain and discomfort). He is helping his friend get comfortable in his chair (no small feat once Morrie is unable to move his body on his own), learning to hit his professor’s frail back to help dislodge the phlegm that threatens to choke him. Albom learns not to be disgusted by the smell of his friend’s dying body, or by the colostomy bag that sits on the floor beneath his chair. He hugs his friend, holds his hands. He kisses his old prof’s cheeks, without embarrassment or awkwardness. No money, status symbol, or prestigious career could have given Morrie the love he received at the end of this life. It was there for him because he was loving.

As I look forward to my wedding in August and the marriage that will follow it, I think about what it truly means to love and support another person, as if their joys were my joys and their pain were mine. I think about the fact that there is no way of knowing what the future will bring and although I hope for a bright one, there will almost certainly be dark times (not too dark if I’m lucky). Throughout the book, Morrie continuously, almost feverishly, quotes the poet W. H. Auden: “Love each other or perish,” Morrie says, and I’m beginning to understand it now. We enter life completely dependent upon the care of others, and many of us will exit in the same condition. Without love, how could any of us survive?

Now that I’m finished reading the book I understand why its language is so simple. Tuesdays with Morrie is an accessible book, and it should be. I don’t know if I will ever read it again (it was quite sad) but I’ve decided to keep it around. One day, maybe I’ll have a teenager I can give it to. I can say, “Here, read this book. It’s not long and it’s not hard. When you’re done, you tell me if your allowance is so important.” I look forward to it.

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