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.

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Fighting Chance presents “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Jesus Christ Superstar presented by Fighting Chance Productions in association with Renegade Arts Company at the Waterfront Theatre (Granville Island), now until August 22.

Photography by Tegan Verheul.

Photography: Tegan Verheul.

Whenever a popular show, especially a smash hit, is resurrected, directors, producers, and critical viewers like myself must ask themselves, “Why this play? Why now?” When the show in question is over 40 years old, enjoys worldwide popularity as both a theatre production and a film, and is presenting one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian faith to an increasingly secular audience, this question becomes even more pertinent. Why Jesus Christ Superstar, I wondered, why now? My first exposure to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s gospel-based rock opera was during a North American revival in the 90s–my parents went off to the city to see the show and came home with the soundtrack, singing “Hosanna” in the living room and generally failing to impress seven-year-old me. Having been unable to shake my own original impression of Superstar as a fuddy old relic, and being aware that the show has, over the last four decades of popularity on stage and screen, amassed a following with deeply entrenched ideas of what it should look and sound like, I was intrigued by a relatively young company’s decision to mount such a well-known production, and one so potentially burdened with expectation.

Fortunately, Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar does not feel dated at all, nor does it make any attempt to reproduce the iconic performances of Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson (who played Jesus and Judas in the film version of the show and in the 90s Broadway revival). Rather than set the story of Jesus and Judas in 4 B.C. Jerusalem, directors Ryan Mooney and Anna Kuman have placed it in a world and time very much like our own, in a distinctly urban setting (represented by metal scaffolding) where social media, smartphones, and selfies not only exist, but help play into the “rise and fall” celebrity culture in which Jesus and Judas find themselves entangled.

I must confess I was skeptical at first when I saw the screens mounted on the scaffolding, and read about the directorial vision to include 21st-century technological trappings in the show, but it works. The presence of media in this production presents a direct challenge to Judas’ assertion (in the song “Superstar”) that “If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation/ Israel in four B.C. had no mass communication,”  the assumption being that an increased ability to spread his message and have his motives understood could have saved Jesus from crucifixion. Fighting Chance’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t so sure (and neither am I)–when we look at the way celebrities of today are worshiped one day and vilified the next, stripped of their privacy, legacy and livelihood by the social media mob, do we really think a Christ-like figure would have any chance of escaping our scrutiny, caprices, and, eventually, our wrath when they fail to meet our extraordinary expectations? The result of this directorial choice gives Fighting Chance’s Superstar an authenticity that a more faithful visual reproduction would not have had and allows it to reach for what the original Jesus Christ Superstar was always meant to be–a refreshing vision of an old story, and an examination of the ways celebrity can destroy our best intentions.

And the music! It’s just SO GOOD! As a lyricist, Tim Rice’s achievement is not to be understated but Andrew Lloyd Webber is a bloody genius. In true (rock) opera form, Jesus Christ Superstar has no spoken text, but it hardly matters when the music is so electrifying  and expressive–the subtle shifts into minor harmonies in otherwise joyful pieces like “Hosanna” foreshadow the fickleness of the mob and the enormity of the burden they are placing on one man. And indeed, the Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar, whatever connection he may have to his unseen god, is never more than a good man, and Judas, whatever the outcome of his decisions may have been, is never less. As our troubled world waits for the next revolution, we would do well to remind ourselves how often we destroy those who would be our saviours, and how easily they, or we, can be corrupted.

As for the performances themselves, they leave little to be desired from a vocal perspective. A colour-and-gender-blind casting process for Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar gives us Hal Wesley Rogers (an actor of colour with an incredible falsetto) in the title role, and actresses Sara Mayer and Lisa Ricketts as Peter the Apostle and the High Priest Caiaphas respectively. Lovers of the film version may take issue with Caiaphas’ low notes (heard in the film in Bob Bingham’s surreal bass) being bumped up a couple of octaves for Rickett’s menacing and sometimes shrill soprano portrayal, but for me it worked. Vocally, I thought the entire ensemble was strong (together with Rogers, Ray Boulay as Judas and Vanessa Merenda as Mary Magdalene made for a dynamic and engaging trio), but I did want to give props to three cast members with smaller roles that I thought delivered outstanding performances not only vocally but also dramatically in bringing their pieces of the story to life: Sean Anthony, required to fight his better nature in order to uphold Caesar’s law as Pontius Pilate, Riley Qualtieri as the bombastic apostle Simon, and Myles McCarthy as the deliciously sinister and slithering High Priest Annas.

As much as I enjoyed the production, I did not leave the show without regrets. The first is that the live band was not visible onstage but instead played the show from the wings. I know the scaffolding of the set took up a lot of space and that staging a singing and dancing extravaganza like Jesus Christ Superstar in a smaller theatre requires tough decisions and sacrifices, but if the show is ever remounted, I would love to see the band incorporated into the visible stage area. Live music in theatre really adds something special to a performance and I hate to see it hidden. My second complaint is an issue I have experienced in a couple of other Fighting Chance shows–audibility. Off the top of the show, the sound levels seemed a little out of whack, especially in Judas’ more instrumental numbers (with the band often drowning out Judas’ words), and there were some microphone issues in both acts. It’s frustrating as an audience member to see a performer singing the hell out of something, and be able to hear how great their voice is, but be unable to make out what they’re saying. The plot of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t exactly unfamiliar, but it would have been nice to have had a more full appreciation of Rice’s take on this ancient story. I sincerely hope that for future endeavors Fighting Chance will be able to obtain whatever resources they need to overcome these sound issues (more tech time? better mics?) because these kinds of barriers to audience enjoyment or comprehension undercut the otherwise incredible work being done on the stage.

Apart from those issues, I enjoyed myself immensely. The music has been in my head ever since the performance and it seems that despite my childhood first impressions of the musical, Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar has definitely made a convert out of me.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs until August 22 at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.

Disclosure: I attended the opening night performance of Jesus Christ Superstar courtesy of Fighting Chance Productions.

I Don’t Like van Gogh’s Sunflowers (and other cultural confessions)

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_127I don’t like Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I don’t. I think they look puffy and pregnant and mildewy and sick–and all kinds of wrong, like furry alien appendages poking out of vases that couldn’t possibly be large enough to hold them upright. The paintings are a rotten-artichoke coloured assault on my eyeballs and I just don’t like them. So there.

I like to think I’m about as cultured as any other middle-class North American with a university education, who grew up with creative and left-leaning parents and an abundance of white privilege. As a child, I didn’t have “fine art” all over the walls and we weren’t at the philharmonic or the opera every week Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_128but my young life did include some rare and exciting trips to the ballet, theatre, museums, galleries, etc. and the rest of the time I had access to a huge amount of recorded music (both in my parents’ collections and on CBC Radio), prints and posters, good films, music lessons, SO many books of course, and assistance in pursuing post-secondary study. All this is to say that I had more than enough opportunity to become familiar with and learn to appreciate the Western Canon of art and culture as well as important contemporary artistic, literary, and cultural figures and objects.

But sometimes, I just DON’T. Appreciate them, I mean. And sometimes, instead, I appreciate absolute total crap. I’m a traitor to my learned middle-class compatriots, perhaps, but that’s just how I feel about some things. For example:

DANTE’S INFERNO

I understand that Dante’s ideas of the punishments of hell really infiltrated the Western imagination (a lot of what people imagine hell to be like actually comes from Dante, not the Bible) but otherwise, come on! Most of Inferno rattles off the names of political and artistic figures that Dante was familiar with (often personally) and which he had the audacity, or the pettiness, to place in his fictional hell (some of the people he mentions weren’t even dead yet when he wrote about their divine punishments). There are some interesting things going on in this text but for the most part, I feel like there are more enjoyable books to be read.

Mona_LisaLEONARDO DA VINCI

A genius, certainly, but not always my cup of tea (with the notable exception of Lady with an Ermine and MAYBE The Last Supper). His depictions of the Christ child are creepy monstrosities, and most of his women look like clean-shaven men with dresses and no eyelashes. And the Mona Lisa? I’m pretty sure she’s smiling so mysteriously because she’s actually just Leonardo da Vinci in a wig. Given da Vinci’s incredible talent there’s really no excuse for not getting women right (and he could, as his drawing of a female head, “La Scapigliata” shows, so I’m not sure why he didn’t).

MICHELANGELO’S CREATION OF ADAM

La-Creazione-dellUomo-di-Michelangelo-Cappella-SistinaDon’t get me wrong–Michelangelo was another genius of the Italian Renaissance. His statue of David is absolutely breathtaking. But the famous “Bearded Man in the Sky touches finger of Naked Man Lounging on a Hillside”? No. Adam’s head looks tiny compared to his body. Nitpicking aside, I’m just not moved by the sight of all these corpulently-muscled naked males lounging around in pretentiously-affected poses. In a frozen scene, as in performance, the sight of what could be an energetic line broken by languor, weakness, or a simple inability to follow through and complete the image is absolutely maddening. God is reaching down and TOUCHING you, Adam! The least you can do is look excited about it and carry that through-line of energy into your hand and out that index finger that is touching GOD. Instead, Michelangelo’s Adam listlessly proffers his hand like a past-her-prime Elizabeth Taylor getting a manicure. Eugh. Could you look any less thrilled to be here, Adam? Is there something more important that you were doing before you were CALLED INTO BEING?

THOMAS MORE’S UTOPIA

Um…it’s not a nice place. Just read the book. It’s not a place most of us would ever want to live in and I’m not sure what More’s point was when he conceived it. Some things, like food and medicine for all, sound great. Other things, like a life sentence of enforced celibacy for having premarital sex, seem arbitrary and cruel and add little to the Utopian concept except to reveal More’s Catholic bias (a bias he seems to really try to set aside in other parts of the text but which certainly comes out here).

GERTRUDE STEIN

I know many people far more intelligent than me have confirmed her brilliance, so I’ll have to take their word for it, but I spent two semesters studying Stein’s work (and performing it) and I just couldn’t get there. Most of it (the exception being the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas which is totally conceited and self-praising but still very good) just seems like nonsensical garbage to me. And whenever an academic or a poet or another smart kind of person tells me that they see something in the texts, that Stein had some kind of goal or purpose in her work, I think they’re lying. If she had wanted us to know what she was talking about her readers wouldn’t have had to hypothesize about it for a hundred years. The fact that no one has ever actually been able to tell me that they actually KNOW what any of her work was about (even in a general sense) is enough for me. Gertrude, you lived a very interesting life and your support of the artists around you was incredibly important but good god, woman. Did you have to write Four Saints in Three Acts? Did you? Because I had to READ it, and I can never have those hours of my life back.

J. D. SALINGER’S THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

I’ve already written a little bit about why I found both Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby a bit irritating, but really, this book just made me sad and impatient. Get it together, rich boy! If I have to read Salinger, I’d rather read Franny and Zooey even though in many ways it is equally frustrating.

THE GRADUATE

What is there to like about this film? Were you all on drugs? See point above about being sad and impatient while watching directionless rich boys failing to get their poop in a pile.

LED ZEPPELIN

It’s not that I don’t like Led Zeppelin, I’m sure I actually do. But if you played me their most famous song, one I’ve probably definitely heard so many times, and said, “Whose song is this?” I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I’m sorry. I’d have no goddamn clue.

MAYA ANGELOU

This makes me feel like a monster because it’s MAYA ANGELOU for goodness sakes–a courageous, inspiring woman of colour whose incredible career in literature and the arts expressed the realities of an incredible, and not always easy, life. But whenever I read her poems (or her line of greeting cards), my response was always kind of, “M’h”. Which says more about me than about Angelou I think. What kind of cynical bum doesn’t like to be inspired? Me, apparently.

MARGARET ATWOOD’S PENELOPIAD

People apparently liked this book SO MUCH they turned it into a play (which I haven’t seen, because I was iffy on the book). I just felt like I could sense Atwood on every page, winking at the reader (or perhaps herself) and saying, “Tee hee. How clever I am!”. I don’t know. Maybe I should give this one another go.

THE ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING FILM THE ARTIST

I wanted to like this film. I really really did. Jean Dujardin is a charming actor and the film was full of old-school whimsy but like most of the feature-length films from the actual silent movie era, it was just too damn long. It wasn’t a very complicated story. It didn’t need to take quite that long to tell it. All the good will I had when I began the film evaporated pretty quickly watching the confused and despairing Dujardin emoting for the umpteenth time.

I know I’m not as talented as any of these artists or writers or musicians or filmmakers and that nothing I will ever make will be as important as even the least of their works. I know it’s easy to be a critic, and I know I shouldn’t indulge in trashing things I have not taken enough time to truly know anything about. But sometimes, I get tired of trying to be educated, and it is an immense pleasure to get some of the bitterness out of my system.

And it’s not that I automatically reject great work either. I love Vivaldi and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky ballets and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”. I love Greek tragedies and Shakespeare (sometimes) and Alice Munro and the Beatles and Leonard Cohen and the paintings of Botticelli and also Marc Chagall. And I do try to learn to love, or at least like, the more difficult works for what they can teach me, and how they can inspire me. All is not lost for my liberal arts education. As for poor maligned van Gogh, while his sunflowers are gloomy to me, his Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum most certainly is not. Has painted light ever looked so warm?

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The Troika Collective Presents “Chernobyl: the Opera”

Poster design by Arthur Yee

Poster design by Arthur Yee

From May 14 – 19, the intimate Carousel Studio Space on Granville Island will play host to stories of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The Troika Collective‘s Chernobyl: the Opera, conceived and directed by Aliya Griffin and composed by Elliot Vaughan for accordion, cello, and seven voices, weaves physical precision and haunting melodies together with verbatim text taken from interviews with survivors of the disaster. The results are at once poignant and strangely beautiful.

If you’re wondering if you’ve heard of Chernobyl: the Opera before, it’s probably because you have. A shorter iteration of this piece was performed in last year’s Hive: the New Bees 2 to critical praise. The Georgia Straight’s Colin Thomas was impressed by composer Elliot Vaughan’s “sophisticated score” and called the piece’s execution “terrifically precise” (Georgia Straight theatre reviews, May 25, 2012). Following the success of New Bees 2, Griffin and Vaughan have added both to the cast and the music, filling out the sparseness of the New Bees version while maintaining its specificity and non-sentimental quality (I watched a short preview of Chernobyl: the Opera at a Troika Collective fundraiser two weeks ago and was very impressed with the changes I saw).

Troika Collective_BWChernobyl: the Opera will run from May 14 – May 19 in the Carousel Theatre Studio on Granville Island. Tickets for the May 15-19 performances are available online through Brown Paper Tickets.

The May 14 performance will be a pay-what-you-can preview, with all proceeds benefiting the Veronika Children Leukemia Foundation. Following the May 14 performance, Grigori Khaskin, Research Associate in the Biology Department at SFU and a former Chernobyl Liquidator, will be giving a talk.

All in all, Chernobyl: the Opera is an exciting new work from an exciting emerging theatre company. It is not to be missed.

Disclosure: I was a performer in the New Bees iteration of Chernobyl: the Opera. Though I am no longer involved in the project (and not because I was kicked out or anything scandalous, just boring time issues), many members of the Troika Collective are my friends. Friends or not, Chernobyl: the Opera is a damn good show by a company that has earned my respect and support.

PuSh 2013: Opening Gala (Crossing the Line)

unnamedOne of the things that I’ve always admired about the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is that, well, they push the arts. They push culture. And Vancouver’s arts community is the better for it. Nowhere is that so obvious than during the PuSh Opening Galas, fun events that incorporate music and interactive performances with libations and dancing. The PuSh 2013 Opening Gala was held this year on Monday night at Club Five Sixty on Seymour.

At this year’s Gala (more than at any other PuSh Gala I think) I actually paid attention to the opening speeches (did it have anything to do with the fact that one of my favourite musicians, Dan Mangan, was an MC? Possibly). From Dan Mangan himself, and Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson, and PuSh Executive Director Norman Armour, the message rang loud and clear: the arts are important and we should protect them, fight for them, and (dare I say?) fund them. With the closure of the Waldorf in East Vancouver on our minds (not to mention other high-profile closures in the past year, including the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company), it seems to be a dark time to celebrate “crossing the line”, as the PuSh Festival is asking us to do over the next two weeks.

So why do they do it? Why spend a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money on a two-week international performing arts festival? Because we need it. Because festivals like PuSh represent a coming together of the very best of the performing arts community, and a commitment to refuse complacency, refuse mere satisfaction with where the Vancouver performing arts scene is today, and to push to the envelope (there’s that word again), and audiences, into new territory, artistically and geographically (with productions from as far away as Taiwan, Argentina, and Belgium). Only by seeing what we’ve never seen can our arts community strengthen and become what we’ve never yet been–safely sustained, more than hand to mouth, more than dependent on the capricious whims of provincial and federal funding.

More than just a seat-warmer for an eventual condo development to move in.

One of the PuSh Gala’s interactive performances this year, Open Book (inspired by Human Library, a production brought to PuSh 2013 by Denmark’s Stop the Violence), is an excellent example of performing art’s capacity to “cross the line”, and to bring its audience with it. In the eerie Club Five Sixty basement, my TC and I had the opportunity to check out a “human book” for a 10-minute conversation. I checked out Patti, a psychic, who explained to me what being psychic means to her life (it makes it calmer, she says) and who believes that all people have the capacity to tap into their intuitive and psychic abilities. TC had a conversation with Bruce, a legally blind painter who uses acrylics to create highly textured works and who paints the irregularities of his limited vision onto his pieces. A performance like Open Book is not traditionally what one would consider theatre–and yet it is live, it is an experience, it is not designed to be therapeutic or necessarily educational but simply to push us, through the power of a simple conversation with a stranger, into a new place (in this case, another person’s, a real person’s, experience).

Of course the Gala got me excited about What To See. What to see, what to see? Every year I have to make tough choices and every year I miss something amazing, simply because most of the festival is amazing and I can’t see even half of it. Every event at the festival (and Club PuSh) seems intriguing, new, virtuosic. Two pieces in particular are calling to me–Ride the Cyclone (Atomic Vaudeville, Victoria BC) and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (National Theatre of Scotland, Glasgow). TC’s top pick: Reich + Rite with pianist Vicky Chow (Music on Main, Vancouver). But there’s so much more, always so much more, and so many ways to cross the line.

To see what the PuSh Festival has to offer this year, and decide how you want to cross the line, visit the PuSh website at www.pushfestival.ca. For more about specific PuSh events (plus the event calendar and program guide), visit the Festival Events page.

Disclosure: My TC and I received comps to the PuSh Gala this year, as I have every year I’ve gone, because I have blogged and tweeted, and continue to blog and tweet, about the Festival.

Hive: The New Bees 2 (Get your buzz on May 24-26)

Are you in need of a great night of arts and culture, but can’t decide what to see? Do you wish you could have the opportunity to experience a variety of work from a variety of theatre companies, without having to leave the venue? Do you wish that instead of watching one two-hour show, you could watch ten-minute shows, have a drink at the bar, and then just keep watching more bite-sized pieces of theatre? If so, Hive: The New Bees 2, produced this year by Resounding Scream Theatre, may just be the show for you.

In 2009, Simon Fraser University BFA Theatre graduates Aliya Griffin, Gina Readman, Natalie Schneck, and Caroline Sniatynski organized and produced the original Hive: The New Bees as part of the 2009 Vancouver Fringe Festival. The mission behind the original New Bees was to showcase the work of recent Vancouver-based theatre graduates from SFU, UBC, and Studio 58. This year, Catherine Ballachey and Stephanie Henderson of Resounding Scream Theatre have taken up the mantle to produce Hive: The New Bees 2, showcasing the work of 12 emerging Vancouver theatre companies (many of which had participants in the original Hive: The New Bees).

For those of you who have never been to either Hive: The New Bees or to any of the three Hives produced by Vancouver’s professional companies in past years, you are in for a wild and fun night. You can stay as long as you like. You can see as much or as little as  you want to. If  you want to try to watch every single show, you can! If you want to watch one show again and again and again, you can! If you want to sit by one of the two bars and watch roving performances or our musical and comedic guests, or simply stare into your beer all night long, guess what? YOU CAN!

I’ve been to two of the professional Hives and I performed in Hive: The New Bees in 2009 (shameless plug alert: I am also performing next week, as part of the ad hoc company The Troika Collective). It’s always a fun night and I’ve always been able to walk away with at least one gem of artistic creation that really blew my mind (in addition to the other theatrical work I enjoyed).

The 12 emerging companies (and ad hoc companies) participating next week in Hive: The New Bees 2 are:

After each company is finished performing for the night, New Bees 2 will present after-show entertainment for those who like to party. For more information on the after-show acts, please visit the show’s event page.

Hive: The New Bees 2 runs May 24-26 at 8:00 pm at Chapel Arts (304 Dunlevy  Avenue). After-show events will run from 10:00 pm to midnight each night.

Tickets are available at the door or can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets. Tickets are $20 for the whole evening or $10 for the after-party.

Emerging theatre companies often suffer from a lack of exposure as much as a lack of funds. We’re here! We’re theatrical! Come on down and get to know us!

[MORE SHAMELESS PLUGGING: The piece I am performing in is called “Chernobyl: The Opera,” directed by Aliya Griffin, with music for four voices, accordion, and cello composed and arranged by Elliot Vaughan. We’re a talented bunch (if I do say so myself), and plus, you get to hear me sing!]

UPDATE MAY 25th: This just in! Colin Thomas of the Georgia Strait had good things to say about the pieces in New Bees 2 and about the Troika Collective as one of the particulars! Read all about it!

Dan Mangan & 100.5 The Peak’s “Secret Show”

I’ve been a Dan Mangan fan since 2009 when I heard first heard the song “Robots”. The sweet-beard-faced Vancouver boy with a voice like rusty angels and lyrics that mix humour and heart managed to convince me that “robots need love too” and I was hooked.

I sang along every time one of his songs was played on 100.5 The Peak, the kickass radio station I listen to at work (listen online at thepeak.fm).

I listened to his album, “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” in my rocking chair in my old apartment many times, or in bed when I wasn’t feeling well. The music lulled me and I thought to myself, “Here is a young Canadian artist I like as much as Hawksley Workman. Possibly more.” Which doesn’t happen very often.

I saw Mr. Mangan in concert last November at the Vogue in Vancouver and was struck by what a warm, talented, and gracious performer he was. His audience loved him and he loved us and even though I was not having a great autumn I had a great evening.

Then I began to feel like I was hearing his music on the radio TOO much. I would hear the opening chords to “Road Regrets” and sigh to myself. I began to lose faith in Mr. Mangan, and wondered if he would ever light my fire again.

Then the Peak began to play a song from his new album, “Oh Fortune”. I realized that I enjoyed humming along. I thought to myself, “I suppose I’d be interested in seeing him in concert again. He was quite delightful.”

THEN the Peak said that they were having a FREE secret show with Dan Mangan on Saturday, September 24 and all I needed to do to find out the exact time and location (which would be revealed two hours before the show began) was either follow their Facebook or Twitter pages, or sign up to be a Peak VIP. I was already doing all of those things!!! PERFECT.

Turns out, Dan Mangan was performing in the Olympic Village at 1:00 pm that day. Holy banana, TC and I could ride our bikes there! So that’s what we did. And it was great. Dan Mangan is just as talented and just as gracious as I remember him. He made sure to introduce his band mates and also mention the other musical projects they were working on. His voice is, if possible, even stronger live than it is recorded. And even though I wasn’t able to sing along because I didn’t know all of it yet, his new stuff sounds lovely (“Oh Fortune” was released yesterday, BTW). And don’t worry, he played all the oldies but goodies from “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” too and I bopped the afternoon away.

Mr. Mangan kindly made my day awesomely complete and neatly bookended my Dan Mangan experience to date by finishing up with “Robots”. Nice man that he is, he noticed that two girls standing at the back had made elaborate robot costumes and he invited them to join him onstage, so they did.

This concert was simply a wonderful way to welcome the autumn on one of Vancouver’s last mild Saturdays. “Secret shows” like this help to cultivate what I think both 100.5 the Peak FM and artists like Dan Mangan are going for: a community of fans that simply love Vancouver, good music, and sharing these loves with one another.

Dan Mangan at the Peak's secret show. Photo credit: my TC

My Hot Night with Maria in the Shower at the Waldorf Hotel

Friday night. Pre-Rapture. The dance floor in the boiling hot belly of the Waldorf on East Hastings. I was there. That’s right: Friday, May 20, 2011, I absolved my sweaty sins with Maria in the Shower, celebrating the release of their latest CD, “The Hidden Sayings of Maria in the Shower” with the kick-ass, virgin-tempting show they called PANSTEREORAMA.

My first brush with the glory that is Maria in the Shower was in 2008, when I went to the Ukrainian Hall to see the Dusty Flower Pot Cabaret‘s magical production, “Valley of Ashes”.  I recall marveling at the spectacle, the rusty sorcery, and the puppets. I also remember thinking to myself, “Hot diggity, this music is great.” I then became interested in something else, I dunno, university or whatever, and forgot to ask myself where some of that music came from.

As it turns out, some of that music came from Maria in the Shower, so when I saw them for the first time doing a set of their own at this April’s ArtsWells Fundraiser at the Rickshaw Theatre, and then again last Friday at the Waldorf, I wasn’t seeing a new band so much as bringing into focus musicians I had already experienced through attending Dusty Flowerpot productions. And holy petunia, it was worth it. Wonderful as they are as a component of a larger theatrical production, on their own these musical men are overflowing with showmanship, theatricality, and a pure and unadulterated love for what they’re doing.

Photo credit: Brayden McCluskey

Before Maria in the Shower, I had never seen someone play an accordion and a trumpet at the same time. I had never seen anyone play a stand up bass while standing on their stand up bass. For that matter, I had never seen anyone playing a trumpet while standing on a stand up bass that someone else was playing. Trifling logistical details perhaps, but the kind of details that make me shout, “Holy F—” and scream a LOT.

All of this would have been cheap razzle dazzle had Maria in the Shower not had the musical chops to back it up. And they do. I got swing, I got jazz, I got a bit of Klezmer, I got trumpet and accordion (which are two of my favourite instruments after cellos), I got songs of burning hot passion and just plain fun. Poetry, love, death, religion, sex: I got it all with music I could dance to, sing to, feel through, that was at once totally irreverent and totally sacred.

At one point, I remember seeing the band onstage, with all their fey and sweaty fans dancing below, listening to a song about love that sounded like a cry from the most wounded man in the world, and thinking that THIS is exactly where I should be. This is exactly the kind of place and show I should be at when I am 25. I am idealistic, I am full of romance, I am nostalgic for a history I never had, I have energy and sensuality and a thirst for a performance that’s so damn good it makes me grit my teeth.

Maria in the Shower is so damn good they make me grit my teeth and fantasize about running away to join a gypsy caravan. I’m pretty sure I left the Waldorf pregnant through immaculate musical conception (totally appropriate pre-supposed-Rapture) and through the raw sex appeal being created all over that stage by musicians who are very good at what they do (and is anything more magnetic than that? No.).

I just hope the baby plays the trumpet. Fingers crossed.

June 2011: East Van Culture In the House

Music. Dance. Circus sorcery. Puppets. Beautiful East Van homes in the Commercial Drive area opening their doors to the public. Is this some eccentric real estate fantasy? No, it’s the return of the In the House Festival invading living rooms with its unique brand of community and magic in East Vancouver.

I have spent so much time lamenting over the hard knock life of those working in the arts that when Mads, an intern from the festival, asked me on Twitter if I would be interested in writing a piece about this year’s In the House Festival, I jumped at the chance to help promote a festival I have enjoyed in the past. I asked Mads if I might be able to ask a festival representative some questions for the post and was immediately put in touch with Myriam Steinberg, the Artistic Director of the In the House Festival, who has been involved with the festival since its inception in 2003. Myriam was so obliging and her answers so detailed I’ve included them here. [My questions are in bold, Myriam’s answers in italics]

The idea of an entire festival dedicated to bringing performers and audience into people’s homes is quite unique. What particular Vancouver cultural needs do you feel the In the House Festival addresses? There are a couple. Vancouver has a dearth of venues that are either financially accessible, or that are open to a variety of disciplines. It’s also difficult to find a venue where people will have focused attention on the performer. At In the House, we provide the space where the audience is 100% paying attention to the artists, the artists can do their thing, explore their genre, test out new material, interact directly with the audience and get paid more than the average “pass the hat” situation that they encounter in lots of bars and coffee shops. On a community level, In the House brings people together in intimate settings which create a trust and hopefully builds friendships and dispels stereotypes about neighbourhoods.

Photo credit: Diane Smithers

Are acts chosen for the festival based on the East Van homes available to the festival, or does the festival recruit homes based on the artist line-up already determined? We recruit homes based on the artist line-up primarily. Of course because some houses are smaller than others, we have to make sure that we don’t put the circus acts in a narrow living room, but instead put something like spoken word or other one person acts [in that space].


How does this year’s festival differ from years past? What are you particularly excited about this year? What have you learned from past years?
This is the 2nd year where we’ve added a 3rd night to the festival. We’ve [therefore] been able to add four more shows to the line-up. This year, we are featuring a bunch of upcoming youth in amongst the seasoned performers. Travis Lim does a killer Michael Jackson. I’m really excited to see him perform. At age 9 he’s already won 13 medals for dance! The Whitridge Brothers (11 and 15 years old) are jazz musicians who are included in the already stellar line-up. I think it’s important to give a voice to kids who have amazing talent. Age is no marker for talent.

I’m excited to watch the Cabaret so Mignon (magic, bellydance, music, clowning), to learn how to swing dance in Swingin’ Times, and of course I’m always looking forward to the finale. This year it’s a Blues Circus.

I guess the most valuable lesson I have learned from organizing the festival is to plan and organize well ahead of time and to keep expanding the network that surrounds the scene. It is thrilling to see so much great talent out there, but also to see how many people are willing to help volunteer during these festive days.


Tell me about the performance spaces (the homes). Are audience members permitted to use the washrooms? Are many of the homes wheelchair accessible/can arrangements be made to accommodate an audience member with disabilities? Any other amenities offered by the spaces (food available to buy, etc.)?
One of the most important parts about the shows is the fact that they are taking place inside people’s living rooms. It gives the shows an intimate and much more engaging atmosphere you would not find in a lot of other places. We do have port-a-potties available by Festival Central [Napier and Victoria] which we encourage festival goers to use, instead of the house washrooms, but of course people are generally allowed to use the washrooms of the houses during a show. However, they are not allowed to go explore the rest of the house outside the performance space and the bathroom. It’s really important to respect the privacy and safety of the homeowners who are so generously donating their space to a show. The backyards are generally wheelchair accessible, and about half the shows are in a backyard. Some of the houses are as well, but less so. We do have a ton of volunteers though who are available to help [or] we can also install a ramp if we have enough notice of someone in a wheelchair coming to a show. We certainly don’t want to exclude anyone from the In the House experience. In terms of food, there will be snacks and non-alcoholic drinks to buy, although we encourage people to use the “dinner hours” to explore the nice restaurants around Commercial Drive.  

If I were a Commercial-drive area home owner interested in opening my home to the festival, where could I go/who could I contact for more information? You can contact me, Myriam, at info@inthehousefestival.com or 604-874-9325. The website also has information about the shows we put on and what it means to open your home to a show.

How can artists apply for/submit their work for consideration for inclusion in In the House? They can email or mail me a demo of what they do. I prefer to hire performers from the Lower Mainland.

And finally: Do you have any important information/tips for audience members to make their In the House experience go as smoothly as possible? If you want a guaranteed seat, buy your tickets in advance. Shows tend to sell out. Also, if you’re buying your tickets on site or have a pass, get your tickets from the box office [Napier and Victoria] as early as possible. Seating is first come first served so if you want a good not squishy seat, get your place in line early.

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I am a big fan of the idea of meta-theatre, and the idea that the experience of a performance is not confined only to what is happening on the stage space. The concept of this festival suggests an openness of spirit on the part of performers and audience and a huge amount of trust on the part of those who have turned their homes into a venue for performance. Is this the kind of experience you wish to participate in/support? Check out the festival.

The 2011 In the House Festival runs June 3-5 in the Commercial Drive area.

To purchase tickets through PayPal, click here.

For schedule information and to learn more about the Festival’s performers, click here.

Thanks Mads and Myriam for giving me the opportunity to learn about and promote this special kind of East Vancouver culture. It sure beats the hell out of whining over the sorry state of the arts. 🙂

Lucia di Lammermoor: My trip to the opera

 

Vancouver Opera Poster. Artwork by Leonard Dente.

Yesterday was the day I had decided I was going to write a new blog post. About what, I didn’t know. I had planned to write about whether or not Carole James should step down as the leader of the BC NDP, but then she went ahead and did it and saved me the trouble of pondering whether it was going to happen.

I had already changed out of my respectable work clothes and into my “comfies” and was just settling in with my lap top for a promising evening of procrastination when my phone rang. A friend of mine who works at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre had been given a free ticket to the Vancouver Opera‘s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (an Italian opera set in Scotland! How quaint!) and wondered if I would like to go. Free opera? You bet. I was out of my “comfies” and back in my “look respectablies” in half a tick and out I went into the wind and the rain.

I’ve been to the opera before, but not in Canada. A few Christmases ago I was lucky enough to see La Traviata in Bassano del Grappa. The only problem was that Italians don’t need surtitles to understand Italian operas so I didn’t really get much past the general gist. I was excited to be seeing an opera that provided surtitles so I’d know what the heck was going on.

I would like to state that the acoustics in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre are excellent. I was sitting pretty high up in the balcony and I could hear every sound onstage. The man unwrapping his candy three rows down sounded like he was unwrapping it in my head (thanks guy! You really made Act II for me!). Most importantly, of course, the incredible voices carried.

It always annoys me when Famous Old Shows (like this one) are full of men with only one main character being played by a woman. But what a woman! In this production, one is all you need. I know nothing of sopranos, even less about “coloratura” sopranos, but I thought that Eglise Guitierrez was exquisite as Lucia. She was a powerhouse who carried the show for me. I’ve always imagined that high notes are shrill for everyone, even if you can hit them, but every sound from Guitierrez was as smooth and pure as a crystal bell. Her voice didn’t sound like it was coming from her mouth, it seemed to be coming from the entire theatre. She sang her ass off and made it look easy. I was awe struck.

I’m not a big opera buff and when I see classical performances like this I’m always worried that I’ll fall asleep or be bored stiff (even if the music’s great) but I really enjoyed myself.  Obviously, the vocal athletics helped, as did the surtitles which were sometimes a little funny (“Oh. I cannot contain my anger. My blood blazes.”) but were sometimes downright poetic. It may have been my hormones but when the betrayed lover Edgardo crashed Lucia’s wedding to another man, and the surtitle to his part read, “I am a martyr to a deceiving heart” I was moved to tears. Oh Edgardo! It’s all a misunderstanding! If you would just listen! But no, he didn’t listen. He threw his ring at poor Lucia and sang something scornful and Italian at her before fleeing the scene. Epic.

The highlight for me was the Mad Scene, when the blood-stained Lucia entered and began to sing Il dolce suono.  A thought stuck me: I know this one! Why do I know this one? Well folks, I know this one because I have watched the movie The Fifth Element a gajillion times and Il dolce suono is the aria the blue diva starts singing before she goes into her Techno Opera. You learn something new every day. Sweet.

Not your grandmother's Lucia

While I had a lovely time and am extremely grateful for my free ticket, I’m not sure yet that I’m the kind of person who should be a regular opera-goer. Even though my heart went out to Lucia in her madness, I couldn’t help grinning as brother Enrico awkwardly moved her unconscious body a foot or so upstage because she had “fainted” right where the scrim was going to come down. When Lucia’s dying lover Edgardo gave his last fatal flop and collapsed at the end of Act III it was just too much for my silly little soul and I emitted an audible snicker (carried far and wide by the beautiful acoustics). Whoops. Sorry everyone. I really am moved, it’s just…  tee hee.

Despite not being sure that I’m mature enough for the opera, I had a top-notch evening and if tragedies and good music are your thing I heartily recommend Lucia di Lammermoor. The last two performances are December 9 and 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Queen E. I have heard good things about Vancouver Opera’s season so far so please check them out at www.vancouveropera.ca if you are an opera lover or are thinking of giving it a whirl.