Unsettling this Settler (a prologue)

3925A couple of weeks ago, I read Paulette Regan’s Unsettling the Settler Within for a class I am taking on the nature of forgiveness and apologies. Dr. Regan is a scholar, a Canadian “settler” (i.e. like me, and probably most of my readership, she is not First Nations), and acted as the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This book was written prior to the start of the TRC’s mandate and deals with the legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools and, in a broader sense, the disastrous effects that Canada’s colonization has had on the Indigenous people who have lived here for thousands and thousands of years–long before the first British flag was planted on this so-called “empty” land. More to the point, she emphasizes the urgent need, not for First Nations people to reconcile themselves to their present situation, but for settler Canadians to reconcile themselves to Canada’s violent, intentionally racist, colonial history, and to recognize the ways in which these colonial structures and systems are still very much active in present-day Canada.

Unlike many of my fellow white Canadians, I did not grow up completely ignorant of residential schools or of violent policies like the “Sixties Scoop” (in which First Nations children were forcibly removed from their families and adopted out to white parents, in many cases actually sold to American families as if they were livestock). Since I didn’t learn about any of these events in school I can only assume I knew of their existence because my parents bothered to tell me (thanks Mom and Dad!). Beyond this starting point, though, my path as a settler who calls Canada home and wants to be part of a nation I can be truly proud of (a country that keeps its promises and actively upholds EVERYONE’S human rights) is not clear.

There is a step (or rather a long series of steps) beyond being simply “aware” of the history. What we do with this step is important. Regan cautions that well-meaning Canadian settlers are all to quick to pity Indigenous people, and the discomfort this pity arouses causes us to try to find quick fixes for “their problems”–in other words, to continue to disenfranchise and ignore the agency of First Nations people themselves. So if I’m not supposed to “fix” things, what can I do?

I sense this is a question (or rather a long series of questions) that I will need to ask myself as I move through my life, but for starters, I can let go. I can let go of cherished ideas based on lies. I can let go of the convenience of the status quo.

For me, today, this means two things:

  1. Acknowledging that what Indigenous people experienced at the hands of the colonial (and later, the Canadian) government was genocide. First Nations people were forcibly removed from their homes and lands, killed, starved, forbidden from participating in cultural traditions like the potlatch and the sun dance, and removed from their families and taken to Residential Schools where they were abused (physically, sexually, and psychologically), underfed, inadequately cared for, and prohibited from speaking their own languages. Until relatively recently in our history, Indigenous people in Canada were unable to vote, become professionals, or, in the case of women, marry a non-Indigenous person without losing their native status. For more than a hundred years, the government of this country enacted policies and programs with the specific intent of attempting to wipe out “the Indian problem” and make First Nations people and culture disappear in Canada. This is genocide, as defined by the United Nations. The fact that First Nations people are still here and that parts of their cultures have survived is a testament to their resilience, not our benevolence.
  2. Supporting BC First Nations if they want to change the name of the province of British Columbia. West of the Rockies, colonial agents stopped bothering to make any treaties with Indigenous tribes (not that the government honoured the ones they had made farther east but that’s another issue) and simply took the land they wanted. BC is unceded First Nations territory, and as such, to call the land of this province either “British” (i.e. belonging to the British) or “Columbia” (after the  “Columbian” district of this part of North American, which surely takes its name from genocidal rapist Christopher Columbus) is inaccurate and insulting. The name of our province was chosen by Queen Victoria (a monarch who never set foot here), but the land was never hers, or ours, to name. We did not buy it. We did not pay for it, trade for it, or treat for it. We have no right to insist on a status quo based on theft. Obviously, if BC’s First Nations ultimately decide that they’re fine with the province’s name as-is, that’s cool with me, but I don’t believe settlers’ wishes should be prioritized in the matter.

I called this blog post a “prologue” because these thoughts, these considerations, are just the very very start of what will presumably be a life-long project of identifying and acknowledging my colonial biases, the benefits my status as a settler has brought me, and trying, ultimately, to do something about it in a way that is respectful and effective. My own humanity is implicated in the ways I choose to respect or ignore the humanity of others. I’ve a long road ahead and I’m just getting started.

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THIS MATTERS: Colin Thomas has been fired from the Georgia Straight

wuxtry_black“I just got fired from The Georgia Straight,” Colin Thomas (arguably one of the most thoughtful, thorny, and experienced critics in the Vancouver theatre scene) wrote on his blog yesterday morning, “Thirty years. No warning. No compensation.” While Thomas’ higher-ups at the Straight seemed reluctant to give any particulars as to WHY his theatre review services would no longer be needed at the weekly arts and culture paper where Thomas’ writing was the keystone of their theatre section, the feedback he reports to have received hints at a couple of things:

  1. There is pressure at the paper to “find fresh ways to do things” (this is usually a euphemism for “find ways to make more money).
  2. Thomas’ critical reviews, much appreciated by the Vancouver theatre world, have been considered, well, too critical.

This news comes just as I am learning that Maclean’s Magazine (a respected Canadian news magazine to which I have a print subscription) will switch from a weekly print edition to a monthly one. (Meanwhile, Rogers Media, which owns Maclean’s, will keep its low-res, poorly composited entertainment rag Hello! Canada as a weekly publication). Whoever heard of a news magazine that only prints monthly?! Sure, new digital content will be available online each week, but it’s just not the same. The internet is opinion. The internet is this blog post and this blog and the millions  of other blogs where people with something to say and time to say it hammer it out every once in a while. The print edition of Maclean’s is, for the most part, a well-researched, thoughtful, and balanced publication. It is not a blog post. It is a goddamn Canadian institution.

News of Thomas’ ouster also comes as Nick Mount, U of Toronto professor and also (former) editor of fiction at high-brow Canadian magazine The Walrus quits his post over the magazine’s push for more “family-friendly” content in its fiction section. The f*ck? Um….are children reading The Walrus? Are people really worried that a piece of fiction published in THE WALRUS could possibly be more corrupting than the violent porn and hate-filled vitriol literally at the fingertips of every kid with a computer or a wireless device?

All this is to say that this is a sad, and scary, time in Canadian print media. That a theatre reviewer of a major Vancouver arts and culture publication (really, THE theatre reviewer of THE arts and culture publication) can be fired, just like that, for doing their job to the best of their judgement and considerable expertise is nothing short of disturbing. Thomas writes:

Janet [Smith, arts editor at the Straight] also said that “there have been complaints from some companies.” “What complaints?” I asked. “You know: that you never like anything,” she answered with a laugh. I replied that it’s very hard to do good theatre and that I figure, if one show in three is worth recommending, that’s a good average. Then she added that some unnamed complainants feel that I am sometimes too hard on younger artists. (There is nothing I enjoy more than championing younger artists.) She gave an example. It was one of the worst shows of the year.

Thomas isn’t being facetious when he says he enjoys championing young theatre makers. Though generally difficult to please (his presence in an audience makes for a nervous performance, I can tell you), Colin Thomas is notoriously supportive of emerging artists. [Full disclosure: Thomas once reviewed a show I was a performer in (an early version of Chernobyl: The Opera), and called it “most impressive”. A few years later, he reviewed a show I wrote (Olya the Child) and raked it over the coals for being “unrealistic”. Though I disagree on the finer points, overall, he was right on both counts: Chernobyl was solid in both concept and execution, whereas the script I wrote had holes. I had a good cry about it and moved on. Like an adult]. While you might not agree with Thomas’ opinion about a specific show, he isn’t malicious–even when reviewing a total train wreck, he will praise this or that aspect of the production if praise is due. Most theatre artists who have commented on Thomas’ firing on social media, many of whom have been on the receiving end of both positive and negative criticisms, have said his comments have not only helped them to grow as artists but also to learn to handle criticism constructively.

I honestly don’t know what kind of credible arts and culture paper would take complaints about a solid reviewer being “too critical” seriously, and I don’t know what kind of “younger artists” do not yet understand that thick skin is a prerequisite for survival in this very difficult game. Yes, Thomas sometimes misses the mark, and yes, ultimately, his reviews are just his opinions. But they are informed and passionately defended opinions, based on a love of good theatre, a drive to hold it to a high standard (albeit his high standard, which may not be the same as yours), and not on elitism or malice. You don’t have to agree with him, but the fact remains that for thirty years, Thomas’ sometimes provocative reviews have provided great jumping-off points for wider discussions about theatre in Vancouver. This is a good thing.

Canadian print media is the going to be the poorer for its recent attempts to make its publications more profit-driven, more friendly, more “feel-good”. And The Georgia Straight is certainly the poorer for losing Colin Thomas.

 

Excavation Theatre and dream of passion productions presents “Ithaka”

Ithaka presented by dream of passion productions and Excavation Theatre at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr.) now until May 14.

Ithaka-Final-SponsorsUpadated

When we, as a society, ask soldiers and other military personnel to deploy into a war zone, we are asking them to face the dangers and near impossibility of an extreme environment. If they survive their deployment, they are asked to do something equally, if not more, impossible: to return to their previous lives as if nothing unusual has happened.

The struggle of veterans to find “home”, even after the fighting is over, forms the core of Ithaka, written by American playwright Andrea Stolowitz and directed in its Canadian premiere by Jessica Anne Nelson (artistic director of Excavation Theatre). Stefania Indelicato (artistic director of dream of passion productions) stars as U.S. Marine Elaine “Lanie” Edwards, recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, who finds she has brought the terror, guilt, and alienation of the battlefield home with her.

Seated in an alley configuration in the Havana Theatre, audience members are physically confronted by the emotional weight of the play’s subject matter with an immediacy that is as overwhelming as it is moving. However, the symbolic/surrealist set of Rafaella Rabinovich (a small wheeled platform resting on a line of railway track) fills the tight playing space, creating an inconvenient obstacle for the actors, who are for the most part delivering realist performances. This physical difficulty can be read symbolically, I suppose, but if that is the intention I found myself wanting more out of the staging and the transitions between scenes, many of which are handled purely logistically rather than used as opportunities to explore the Odyssean metaphors present in the set and script, or to utilize the supporting cast members whose dialogue otherwise may not require their presence onstage. As for the performances themselves, the intensity dial is consistently turned right up to 10, giving us the full force of the script where the scenes call for it, but also, for me, overruling some of those quieter moments that could have played well in such an intimate venue.

But make no mistake: as a performer, Indelicato is an absolute powerhouse, fully capable of carrying this play through any challenges it may have. Her unflinching portrayal of a veteran grappling with PTSD and the inane normalcy of civilian life dares you to remain unaffected. Both the production and the performers show their strengths in the script’s dialogues, in which relationships are created, remembered, and blown up (a favourite scene of mine is a particularly heated exchange between Lanie and her civilian husband Bill, played by Adam Lolacher). One senses that the actors are truly listening to each other, even if their characters (sometimes) are not.

As the audience began to applaud the conclusion of the play, the lights came up to reveal several people wiping their eyes, and I overheard a woman in the bathroom tell another woman in line that she thought the show was “amazing”. At the end of the day, it is the stories we tell and hear that move us, and that remain with us long after we’ve left the theatre. The story of Ithaka is important, compelling, and passionately told.

 

Ithaka runs until May 14 at the Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive. Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets.

Wounded Warriors Canada is listed as a community partner of the production. From their mission statement:

Wounded Warriors Canada is a non-profit organization that supports Canada’s ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces members, Veterans, and their families.

Through a wide range of national programs and services, Wounded Warriors provides a spectrum of care that is focused on mental health and, particularly, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

If you would like to find out more about their work or make a donation, please visit woundedwarriors.ca.

Disclosure: I attended last night’s performance of Ithaka courtesy of dream of passion productions and Excavation Theatre.

April 26, ONE NIGHT ONLY – the Troika Collective presents “Voices from Chernobyl”

Voices From Chernobyl poster image

April 26, 2016 (this Tuesday) marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Pripyat, Ukraine. To commemorate this event, and in support of the Veronika Children Leukemia Foundation, the Troika Collective will be presenting a one-night-only concert performance of their bewitchingly tragic song cycle, Voices from Chernobyl (previously staged as Chernobyl: the Opera).

From their website:

Set to the haunting yet beautiful contemporary music of composer Elliot Vaughan, Voices from Chernobyl tells the stories of survivors of the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor as well as of those who have chosen to resettle in the region despite the dangers to their health. Using verbatim text taken from interviews and sung by an ensemble of seven, Voices from Chernobyl uses music and projection to explore the horrifying and heartbreaking yet compelling history of a nuclear disaster.

I first encountered this project several years ago when I performed in a short, four-song, four-voice version of Chernobyl as part of a larger event.  Since then, the show has evolved into a stand-alone cycle for seven voices and remains one of the Troika Collective’s most popular productions. I reached out to Aliya Griffin, Artistic Director of the Troika Collective and co-creator and director of Voices from Chernobyl to ask her a few questions about this show and its journey.

A question we were asked in theatre school was, “Why this play, why now?” Obviously, you are mounting Voices from Chernobyl right now to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, but why is this subject important to you?

I think Chernobyl captured the imaginations of a lot of people when it happened and for years after. It was the first time since WWII and the first time in peace-time that we saw the horrifying possibility of nuclear power when it goes wrong. I of course personally have a connection to Ukraine, so that is part of my interest, but really the fascination came in reading the verbatim text of interviews taken by Svetlana Alexievich in Voices from Chernobyl, the book. I have a passion for non-fiction and verbatim text and these stories were so compelling. The stories are at the same time alienating, in that these people were dealing with a situation that was unprecedented, and also heart-breakingly relatable in their humanity and honesty. I think I also have a profound desire to understand the “other”, to know why people do the things they do and to help share stories that I think other people far away from the storytellers need to hear. I am not a politician, or a writer, but I use my theatre, and in this case the music of Elliot Vaughan, to help share these stories. The 30th anniversary of Chernobyl is of course the specific reason for this remount, but this music and this show have stayed with me and these stories still beg to be told. 

This show has had a long journey since it was originally conceived several years ago. Could you talk about the process of creating the song-cycle, and about what continues to hold your artistic interest after all this time with it? What makes Voices from Chernobyl so unique?

I think initially it felt like a really big undertaking. I tend to create shows from beginning to end in short creative time periods. This project seemed like a big endeavor and we weren’t sure how it would be received. The short four-song version [we premiered] as part of Hive: The Newbees 2 was a chance to try out our aesthetic and see how it worked. It ended up being really successful and people seemed to be into what we were doing, so it gave us the confidence to move forward with more stories and a longer stand-alone show. Along with everything I mentioned above in terms of content, I’m also really interested in playing with form when it comes to verbatim text. In all my pieces, I tend to have a bit of a choreographic quality. I like playing with rhythm and accented movement (everyone who works with me will tell you about my obsession with sharp head turns). I find with verbatim text the honesty and humanity of the stories is built right in and you don’t need to over-play that with naturalistic acting. Voices from Chernobyl of course lets me really play with this choreographic aesthetic because it is entirely music. (For this concert version however, we are really letting the music speak for itself and the blocking and choreography will be minimal).

In your interview with Emelia Symington-Fedy on her Roundhouse Radio show, Trying to Be Good, you talked about visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on a recent vacation with your mother. How has visiting the actual site of this disaster affected your relationship with this piece?

To be perfectly honest, I was expecting something really profound to happen when I visited the site, especially considering how intimately we got to know these personal stories. I was struck by how beautiful the region is, but also by how mundane it all is. I didn’t feel a lot of fear going into the zone. It might be in part because we entered the zone with two bus loads of mostly British soccer fans who were visiting Ukraine for a big match. Since being opened for tourism, the site has definitely lost some of its sense of isolation and mystery. Also, there are dozens of workers in the zone, not just tour guides, but also those helping build the third sarcophagus that is meant to cover reactor number 4 and contain the radiation for up to 100 years. The tour was of course fascinating and visiting the iconic, abandoned town of Pripyat and the famous amusement park that was never opened was really interesting, but overall it felt more touristy than I would have liked. 

On the website for the Troika Collective, it says that proceeds from the event will benefit the Veronika Children Leukemia Foundation. Could you talk about their work and about how the Troika Collective became connected with the Foundation?

While creating the full length version of the show, I stumbled across an article in the Georgia Straight about the Veronika Foundation and its founder Svetlana Khashkin. I always knew I wanted the show to have a charitable component, but I thought we would likely go with a more internationally-known charity. To meet people in the lower mainland who do work directly related to the legacy of Chernobyl was exciting. My mom and I met with Svetlana and her husband Grigori at the Eastern European food store they own in Coquitlam and they were very excited about the project. We also discovered that Grigori had been a Chernobyl liquidator and he eventually ended up being a guest speaker for a post-show Q&A after one of our shows. The Veronika Foundation does all sorts of work in supporting children living with cancer in Eastern Europe (and I highly encourage [readers] to check out their website at veronikafoundation.org) but the most interesting to me is their work towards establishing a bone marrow registry in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Lastly, is there anything else you want to mention about Voices from Chernobyl or about the event in general?

I guess I would just like to encourage people to come out and support this event. It will be a great night of music, not just with Voices from Chernobyl, but also with a set from Eastern European and Balkan a cappella group Vostok. I really think it’s going to be an engaging and enjoyable evening. And of course it supports a great cause!

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Voices from Chernobyl will be performed ONE NIGHT ONLY Tuesday, April 26, 8:00 p.m. at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre, 805 East Pender, Vancouver. Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets. Tickets will also be available at the door (cash only for the box office and bar).

Disclosure: In addition to being a friend of several people involved in the show, including Aliya Griffin, I sit on the board of the Troika Collective and am a member of Tuesday’s opening musical act, Vostok.

Kathleen Stewart’s “Ordinary Affects” is an Extraordinary Book

978-0-8223-4107-9-frontcoverWritten by anthropologist Kathleen Stewart and published by Duke University Press, Ordinary Affects may seem, at first glance, unremarkable and perhaps even pretentious, just another academic text published by an academic press. But Ordinary Affects, a collection of more than 100 vignettes and observations of “ordinary” American life, quietly unpacks the everyday occurrences and relations that constitute this “ordinary” in ways that are unsettling and profound. If Ordinary Affects were a work of fiction I would greatly admire it. That it is not fiction makes me obsessed with it.

Though Stewart (who refers to herself as “she” and “her” in the text rather than “I” or “me”) is present in many of the vignettes, one does not get the sense that she sees herself as a stand-in for the Everyman (or “Everywoman”) of contemporary American life. She is a woman, she is white, and she is an anthropologist. Her observations are necessarily filtered through these lenses, however, the majority of the stories collected in this work are not really about her, per se–some are about people she knows or has spoken to–an ice fisherman  or a Vietnam vet or a homeless person whose friend was struck by a train, some concern stories she has seen in the news, handwritten signs, towns she has visited, experiences remembered and relayed to her by friends and family. There are deaths, violent crimes, injustices, accidents, yard sales and traffic jams, domestic disputes and grocery stores, acts of protest and (American) dreams. Within small fragments of text bearing headings like “Dryer Sheets”,  “The TV Repairman”, and “Suburban Apocalypticism”, Stewart gently and relentlessly pursues the ordinary, revealing it as trembling with potential, multi-faceted, twining and entwined. One senses there is more there, blurry and difficult to pin down.

“The ordinary” Stewart writes, “is a moving target. Not first something to make sense of, but a sense of sensations that incite. The possibility that something will snap into sense or drift by untapped” (93). Many of Stewart’s vignettes involve those moments where that something does indeed “snap into sense”, if only for a moment, a flash of recognition, of a happening, that soon dissolves back into the shuffling and shifting landscape of everyday life. In a segment called “Pipe Dreams” (98), a group of striking miners waiting in a West Virginia health clinic have realized that their strike has failed. One of them begins to fantasize about looting the governor’s mansion–“Power grows palpable in the image of high brick walls that can be breached by a potent, collective, working-class masculinity.” A something fills the room, then is gone.

As a student in an anthropology class, Ordinary Affects (written in a lyrical prose reminiscent of the way French poet Francis Ponge wrote about objects), is a refreshing addition to the more dry theoretical texts that often dominate the curriculum. As a writer, this book is an absolute gift.

Ask Nifty: Sage Advice for Fictional Problems

Hello, dear readers! I’m feeling a bit whimsical today and I love to give advice, so I thought I’d dispense some common-sense solutions for some troubling fictional problems. Happy reading!

Dear Nifty,

Weird stuff happens around me all the time, but I never got my letter from Hogwarts! I’m in my thirties now, but still feeling really bummed about it. What gives?

–Sad Muggle, Birmingham, England

Dear Muggle,

I get the sense that you are feeling down on yourself and questioning your abilities. I know it’s disappointing not to get into the schools you want, but remember, when one door closes, another opens: if you’d become a wizard, you’d never have gotten the probably very exciting job you have now, right? RIGHT? On a more serious note, if you turned 11 in the 1990s, it’s important to remember that the English wizarding world was experiencing great upheaval due to the events of the Second Wizarding War. The Owl Post Office would have been in disarray, Hogwarts was at that time undergoing several rapid changes in headmasters, and in that dangerously prejudiced political climate, it simply would not have been safe to accept new Muggle students into magical society. The fact that you didn’t get a Hogwarts letter is not a judgement of your magical abilities and you have nothing to be ashamed of.

I never got one either.

I never got one either.

Dear Nifty,

I was so excited about having my first real guest for tea that I accidentally gave my bosom friend currant wine thinking it was raspberry cordial, and she drank three tumblerfulls! Her mother thinks I got her daughter drunk ON PURPOSE and won’t let us be friends anymore. I’m in the depths of despair. Why do I keep getting into these terrible scrapes?

–Lady Cordelia, Avonlea, P.E.I.

Dear Cordelia,

Anyone who gets to a third glass of anything before she realizes she’s drinking wine probably isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer–you might be better off without her. This would give you more time to focus on your intellectual pursuits and be top of the class at school.

But if you still miss your friend, don’t worry. I have a feeling that in an emergency your “bosom friend” would be about as useful as a box of hair. Eventually her annoying younger sibling will get the croup and you’ll come out of THAT scrape looking like an effin’ rockstar. Just make sure you have plenty of ipecac on hand.

Derp derp.

Derp derp.

Dear Miss Nifty,

I am the third of five unmarried sisters who are all out in society at once. My two older sisters are very beautiful, capable and graceful and I just can’t compete. Meanwhile, my two younger sisters don’t seem to care about anything but men and parties, and my mother just encourages them! There’s always so much chatter at our house, but whenever I want to say something, nobody listens to me! I don’t really feel like I have anything to connect to (apart from my piano forte) and no one seems to take much notice of me. What should I do?

–Mary B., Hertfordshire, England

Dear Mary,

Don’t take it personally, but you seem like a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. Is it possible that’s why you’re feeling ignored? No one likes a party-pooper, Mary! Maybe, instead of focusing on whether or not other people take notice of you, you should focus on finding ways to be happy with yourself.

In the meantime, it’s likely that your family situation will improve on its own. If your older sisters are as beautiful and competent as you say, they’re sure to marry rich, saving your family from poverty in the event of your father’s death, and saving YOU from having to marry out of desperation. Also, if your two younger sisters are really that silly and man-crazy, there’s a good chance at least one of them will go off and do something stupid, trapping her in a loveless marriage, yes, but also helpfully removing her from your day-to-day existence at home. Don’t use this occasion to gloat; rather, see it as an opportunity to forge a better relationship with your remaining sister and to set a good example for her.

Wow, Mary, you sure look happy to be here.

One of these things is not like the other ones.

Living Life Beyond the Lens

I love photos. I do. I love taking photos, and looking at photos, and being in photos. I love family photos, and travel photos, and funny photos, and using photos as a way to share a moment in time or remember a happy day gone by.

But I think we’re all getting a bit crazy with it, don’t you? When a baby dolphin dies of dehydration at a beach in Argentina after being pulled from the sea and passed around for selfies, and two peacocks die of shock after visitors at a Chinese zoo (who are allowed to walk among the birds but not touch them) pick them up and pull their feathers to take photos with them, I think it’s time to recognize that our obsession with being photographed, in the frame, at all moments of our lives, has gone too far.

From MVD, a Russian website for selfie safety,

From MVD.ru, a Russian website for selfie safety,

The internet has been in an uproar about these incidents, and rightly so. I suspect the deaths of these animals is especially galling because they were perfectly innocent–unlike the victims of the absolutely tragic but totally preventable selfie fatalities of recent years, these creatures are completely blameless. They didn’t want to be photographed, and they definitely didn’t want to die helpless and terrified in the arms of smartphone-toting tourists. Their beauty and the rarity of their presence in our lives is all the more reason for us to leave them alone, and if we must attempt to photograph them, to do so at a safe and respectful distance that endangers neither human nor animal.

I get it. Seeing a wild animal is really really special, and being close to one can be an almost spiritual experience. When TC and I were in the Galapagos Islands, we took dozens of photos of sea lions, giant tortoises, albatrosses, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, Darwin finches, and whatever other lovely creature was close enough and still enough to be photographed. Being near them was incredible, and it was an experience we were only able to have because the tourism industry in the Galapagos has a very strict policy about the flora and fauna: DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING. No picking the flowers, no taking a seashell home in your suitcase, and definitely NO TOUCHING THE ANIMALS. The unique geology and location of the Galapagos Islands means that the animals evolved without human contact, and without a fear of humans (this was a trust that led to the devastation and extinction or near-extinction of several species of Galapagos tortoise when the archipelago was first explored and settled, but a trust which the human population of the Galapagos has been working hard to re-earn).

sea lion slide

Me laughing sheepishly after this fine fellow barked at me for getting too close. Boundaries are important, whether you’re a person or a sea lion. Photo: Brayden McCluskey.

So yeah, we took dozens of photos–after all, we were on vacation in one of the most extraordinary places in the world. But there were also lots of beautiful moments we didn’t photograph–watching baby dolphins leaping from the water alongside their parents, swimming with sea lions and turtles and rays and a shark and multi-coloured urchins, coming up for a breather only four feet or so away from a Galapagos penguin on a rock, seeing the stars from the deck of our ship at night, and so many other flashes of beauty or clarity that made us pull back from the frenzy of our fellow tourists clambering over each other for a good shot of Whatever-It-Was and say to each other, okay, this is just for us. And why isn’t that enough?

It’s high time we remembered how to seek out and appreciate amazing moments for their own sake, and not for the approval of others. Our experiences are ours to keep even if a camera didn’t capture all of them. It’s nice to have photographs to remember important moments, or even just a nice every-day moment, especially if we want to share them with loved ones who are far away. And it’s nice to have photography as a hobby or interest–if you want to learn and practice the art of taking beautiful pictures, you go for it.

But there is no art in allowing a wild animal to die in your hands, just so you can prove you saw it. You don’t need to “own” these moments–just have them, like so many others, and don’t worry about whether or not they’ll look good on Instagram. The camera cannot see what you can and the quest for the perfect photo often destroys the experience. Be open to the fleeting magic of life – hold on tightly when you find it – then let it go. Don’t let a lens come between you and your human experience, or your human decency.

On Being Afraid of the Work (Flowers and Toads)

Over the weekend I read (for class) an excerpt from a book called I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Mainly My Own by Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig. In chapter 2, Taussig discusses the failures of written notes at recording and communicating his experiences in the field and the ways in which he has found drawing pictures (quick sketches, diagrams, etc.) to be more immediate and fruitful. What he describes as the failure of fieldnotes can, I think, be applied to any attempt at a faithful record of events or expression of an inspiration–in the transcribing, something is lost or changed; what is important remains elusive and what is unimportant intrudes on the page (or the canvas, or the stage, etc.) in a rather unsatisfactory way. Taussig quotes the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé: “the flowers that fall from my mouth are changed into toads.” *

This, I think, is one of the chief reasons why I have so far failed to really really commit to my work as a writer. Sure, I’m writing, I’m writing papers and blog posts and the occasional stage piece for a friend, but this is not my work. I do have a specific work, (images lodged in the back of my brain, sentences scattered across notebooks and computer files) but it is always the very last thing I attend to. Of course, I am good at coming up with reasons for why this is so, the main one being that all of the other writing I do has deadlines and my “work” does not. Only I will know if there is still something owing, and it is likely only I will care. And I get busy. And I get lazy. And the only person I’m letting down is myself, so I don’t do the work.

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that I would do the work if I were braver, even if it was time-consuming. I obviously don’t mind writing–I’m writing right now!–but I do mind failure, especially when it comes to something that, while it remains little more than a shadow with a few defined edges, has been internally nurtured and kept safe for a not insignificant period of time. I feel a responsibility to get it right, to do justice to whatever whisper found its way to me. I know what creative failure fails like, and it is sour, and it is indelible, and it stains the beautiful ideas that had given themselves so perfectly and trustingly to me. I am in possession of delicate buds that I hope upon hope will burst into bloom, but I am afraid to touch them lest they turn into toads in my clumsy hands.

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

[* Sadly, I could not find this quotation on the Internet so I do not know from whence in Mallarmé’s oeuvre it came.]

Theatre Terrific’s “BEING Animal” is a profoundly human experience

Theatre Terrific’s BEING Animal is currently running at the Vancouver Fringe. The final three performances are this Friday (6:00 p.m.), Saturday (2:00 p.m.) and Sunday (2:00 p.m.).

beinganimal_fringeimage

“Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears and nostril–all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness.”

David Abrams

Inspired by the work of author David Abrams and created by Theatre Terrific’s ensemble (under the directorship of Susanna Uchatius and James Coomber), BEING Animal uses music, mask work, puppetry, and physical stage choreography to explore and help forge our connections to our natural world, and each other.

Theatre Terrific’s inclusive casting and creation practices provide professional theatre opportunities for performers with drive and talent, regardless of physical or cognitive (dis)ability; their resulting productions dissolve prejudices about ability and art, while reaffirming the inherent dignity of the human spirit. But BEING Animal is so much more than a great mandate. It’s a beautiful and immersive theatrical experience. The audience sits along the boardwalk behind Performance Works, the stage is a grove of trees, and the backdrop is a peekaboo view of the sea and the city. The matinee performance I attended was quite windy, but that only added to the other-worldliness of the show, allowing me to feel both a part of the city and outside of it at the same time, both immersed in nature and participating in the distinctly urban experience that is an afternoon at the theatre. With its sparse use of text and reliance on stage picture, physical choreography, and musical cues to move the show forward, watching Being ANIMAL is akin to watching contemporary dance–lulled by James Coomber’s ethereal score, I simply allowed the event to unfold before my eyes, startled from my reverie now and then as a new image or moment settled into recognition.

One of my favourite aspects of this show is its use of masks–I’ve always loved mask work and I find that masks both remove barriers to an audience’s relation with a character, but also accentuate what is particular or idiosyncratic about a performer’s body, turning what some may see as a performance liabilities into unique physical gifts. In masks, individuality is erased, but humanity is accentuated.

As much as BEING Animal uses ideas of “the natural world” thematically, at its core it is startlingly human. It’s not about having an open mind, but about having an open heart–recognizing our shared frailty, our longing for communion (whether with nature or with each other), and our strength.

Photo: Chantele Fry

Photo: Chantele Fry

[I don’t want to give too much of the show away but during one specific section both my companion and I were moved to tears–not because the play was sad but simply because the moment we were watching was so beautiful. That’s something I don’t get to say a lot.]

BEING Animal plays at the Vancouver Fringe, in the Sculpture Grove behind Performance Works, from Friday to Sunday (see Fringe website or top of post for performance times). Tickets are $14 (must be accompanied by $5 Fringe membership or valid pass) and can be purchased online at VancouverFringe.com.

Disclosure: I attended last Sunday’s performance of BEING Animal courtesy of Theatre Terrific.

The Troika Collective presents “Olya the Child”

Olya the Child presented by the Troika Collective as a site-specific production in the Emily Carr Parkade as part of the 2015 Vancouver International Fringe Festival, now until September 20.

Poster design: Sonja Kresowaty

Poster design and illustration: Sonja Kresowaty

Shameless plug alert: obviously my promotion of this play is a little biased as I wrote the script and my friends are in the company. But you should see it!

From the press release (which I also wrote):

The company that created and performed Chernobyl: The Opera for sold-out audiences and brought Torsten Buchsteiner’s Nordost to Vancouver for its North American premiere presents Olya the Child, an original play that explores the meaning of family through the eyes of a Russian orphan.

Performed as a site-specific work in the Emily Carr parkade on Granville Island, Olya the Child draws parallels between tales of feral children (children raised without human contact) and the unique challenges of international adoption. Ten-year-old Russian orphan Olya Kadnikova (Jessica Hood) has been taught all her life to wish for a family, and for a home outside her state orphanage. She is surprised to be adopted by Canadian housewife Deborah Johnson (Jalen Saip), who hopes that a daughter will bring love into her failing marriage. When adjusting to their new relationship proves more difficult than expected, both child and adoptive parent must examine their illusions, motives, and emotional capacities to decide if the beauty of their old dreams can overcome the challenges of their current realities.

Featuring collaborative physical storytelling by an ensemble cast, by turns both whimsical and bleak, Olya the Child takes its audience from the concrete jungle of a state orphanage in Moscow, through the efficient metropolis of the Frankfurt Airport, to the sometimes claustrophobic comfort of suburban Vancouver as it questions the nature of love, family, and the fairy tales we tell about them.

I think I knew my life as a performer was never going to materialize the first time I saw a script I wrote onstage. Don’t get me wrong–performing was intoxicating, and every so often my heart longs for the feeling of being onstage, for the camaraderie of waiting in the wings, mouthing the words of the scenes as my fellow actors performed them, listening for the audience response. In the intensity of that kind of focus and stillness, one show could feel like a whole week of living. But when I saw this event from the other side, when I sat in the house and listened to the actors instead of the audience, speaking words I wrote, reacting to the situations I created, interpreting a story of my imagining, I knew there was no help for me. I didn’t want to be this character or that one every night for a couple of weeks–I wanted to be every character, and their circumstances, and their language, and their rhythms, and their world, always. So I pulled myself away from performing, gently but painfully, and I kept writing.

Luckily for me, when I was studying performance in my bachelors degree I managed to establish relationships with wonderful theatre artists that I am still happy to have as collaborators and friends and who, for whatever reason, are willing to stage my plays. Friends like Aliya Griffin, founder and Artistic Director of the Troika Collective and director of Olya the Child. It was Aliya who said to me one night over drinks, “I want to stage a play about feral children, but also about Eastern European orphans. Do you think you’d be interested in writing it?” and I said yeah. We discussed the issues with one another, watched the same documentary (as well as conducting our own research), and knew the piece would be staged in a parkade, but apart from that I had complete freedom to create the story as the cast of characters grew and shrank depending on the draft I was working on, and the amount of Russian I would require the cast to speak shrank considerably from the first draft to the current one (I don’t speak Russian myself, and it’s not an easy language).

Knowing that everything you write needs to be performed in a real physical space is a major restriction for a playwright, but I’m very familiar with Aliya’s work as a director and I know what she is capable of when she has the right cast, that is, a cast that is willing to play and explore and help create physically what the lines I wrote can only say verbally. I don’t usually get too involved in rehearsals for the pieces I write, but I had the opportunity to participate in the auditions this time and to catch a sneak peek at some of the orphanage and airport scenes in rehearsal and I am very excited, and very grateful.  I think it takes a certain leap of faith to write a script, and assume that other artists (directors, actors, even graphic designers) are going to be interested in putting as much of their energy and their talent into as you did, and it is the most humbling and gratifying experience to watch it happen.

Though I’m listed as the playwright on this piece, I don’t feel that I wrote it alone; Aliya was reading drafts and providing feedback every step of the way. One of the interesting things about writing plays as opposed to other kinds of creative texts is that the collaborative process (which occurs in almost all creative writing no matter who is listed as the actual author) becomes visible onstage–the words may be mine but the work of art is collective. And if I do say so myself, I think my collaborators and I have examined a complicated and sometimes thorny subject with gentleness and care, opening a conversation rather than closing a door, and I hope, of course, that you will come and see it.

Olya the Child runs at the Emily Carr parkade on Granville Island September 10 – 20. Tickets are $14 (plus a $5 Fringe membership) and can be purchased online through the Vancouver Fringe website (ignore the note that says “Coarse Language”; the play is, in fact, family friendly).

P.S. Check it out! Olya the Child was recently featured in local paper The Source: Forum for Diversity [“Complicating the FairyTale: Play casts a spotlight on international adoption” by Simon Yee]