PuSh 2011 – “Floating” at the Arts Club Revue Stage

On Thursday I decided to put the “international” in the PuSh International Performing Art Festival and take in Welshman Hugh Hughes‘ fantastical theatrical event, “Floating“. “Floating” is produced by Hoipolloi, created and performed by Hugh Hughes and Sioned Rowlands, and presented at the Arts Club New Revue Stage January 20 – February 5.

Using slides, flashcards, flip charts, video, magazines, and other helpful props and pieces of furniture, Hughes and Rowlands tell the not-so-true story of Hughes’s homeland, the Isle of Anglesey, breaking away from the Welsh mainland and going adrift in the Atlantic. The set itself consists mainly of the aforementioned props and visual aides, creating an effect not unlike the way a very large supply closet in a community centre might look.

I believe a hoity-toity description of the night I had would be “meta-theatrical”, in that I never once forgot myself. I did not transcend. I was not “swept away in the magic”. Hughes stressed time and again (using a laminated sign he kept in his pocket) the importance of making a connection with us, and the importance of our decision to come to his show. I suppose it would be hard to truly connect to an audience, as individual people, as members of a group, if our emotions were usurped, if we were stolen away to other lands the way I often am at the cinema or at a different kind of show. Hughes and Rowlands talked to us, gave us props to hold and to pass around, noticed what was happening in the audience (and remarked upon it) and never once forgot we were there, or resided in a stage world that did not include us.

We were included to such an extent that after I was not chosen as the lucky audience member to get to use the “clicker box” to keep track of the story’s episodes, I was invited, in the middle of the show, to help Rowlands clean up the water that had been splashed onstage. I thought I was just being humoured because I’d missed out on holding the clicker box so I said (stupidly), “For real?” and Rowlands replied, “Well, if you come up here it will be real.” So I did. The opportunity to be that much more involved with the show was too good to pass up. I took a towel and helped mop up the stage. When I was done I gave a self-conscious little bow, hopped back down to my seat, and the story continued. It pretty much made my night.

The show is clunky, inviting, funny, generous and enchanting (in a very unmagical, “I can see the strings you’re pulling” sort of way). Yes, the story is a fantasy. Yes, the open structure and the acknowledgment of the audience is good-humoured and gracious and made us all feel warm and fuzzy. I got the sense however that lurking underneath this mythologized episode of Hughes’ life is something very true, and incredibly sad, if only we could stop laughing long enough to realize it.

The "harness of oranges"

While I enjoyed the show, and I enjoy the Arts Club as a venue, I do not feel that “Floating” was best served by being presented at the Arts Club Revue Stage. “Floating” is an incredibly intimate and incredibly open piece. The friendly and flexible nature of Hughes and Rowlands is what makes it work. It is not glossy. There are no thousand dollar set pieces or period costuming. I would have loved to see this show in an elementary school basement, or somebody’s garage, or in my living room. I feel this would have been more appropriate to the spirit of the piece, and actually would have enabled me to reach an even higher level of engagement.

There are certain things one expects when they pay $40 to see a show, and certain things one expects when they see a show at the Arts Club. One expects that money has been spent on high-tech effects (like in the Electric Company’s “Tear the Curtain!”), or on a celebrity appearance (like Eric McCormack’s role in “Glengarry Glen Ross”). These productions are impressive and worth every penny but they are distanced from the audience. Another world is being created “onstage” and we are “in our seats” and that is that.

“Floating” asks us to break down that fourth wall and be with Hughes and Rowlands, at heart if not physically, and it is hard to do that when you’re sitting in a structured audience space, feeling a little miffed that you paid $40 for a seat with sight-line issues. On Thursday I also found myself in an audience who did not seem to be, based on the lobby conversation I overheard, “kindred spirits” in terms of the art they enjoy (compared to what I find engaging) and I felt that some of the laughter during “Floating” was patronizing amusement (“Tee hee, what a funny Welshman. What IS he doing?”) rather than actual pleasure. This barred me from the sad truth that I felt was in the piece somewhere, that I wanted so desperately to find, and I believe this kept the audience from being able to make the true connection Hughes tries to emphasize with his work.

I also think that the audience that would be most appreciative of a special piece like “Floating” are those who are turned off by “fancy” theatre and special effects and just want to be in a room with a performance. This type of audience is the least likely to realize that there is a show they should see at the Arts Club, and probably less likely to be able to afford a $40 ticket.

I am not trying to denigrate the Arts Club (or its subscribing audience) in any way. I have seen very good work on the Arts Club stages (“The Black Rider”, “Tear the Curtain!”, “The 39 Steps” to name a few). But these are special treats for me. I choose each show carefully and have always been rewarded by high-tech wizardry, elaborate sets, great music and/or almost impossible physicality. I understand where the extra money goes (to put it in perspective I seldom pay more than $20 for a ticket to anything at any other venue–there were meant to be $25 tickets for this show but those were no longer available when I bought mine). I attend Arts Club productions I am very interested in when I can afford it and I have never been sorry. I am afraid, however, that the choice of venue (and the ticket price that goes with it) for this particular show will keep away the audience that would have appreciated it most of all.

Which is one of the reasons I felt it was important to write this review. For those of you who don’t frequent Arts Club productions, now is the time. Do not be put off by the fancy lobby or the ticket price. Go see “Floating”. It’s the type of art I’ve always wanted to make. It’s the type of art you should see at least once. You have until February 5.

PuSh Fest 2011: Neworld Theatre’s “PodPlays”

The setting is Vancouver. The characters are the voices in your ear, and you, alone with your thoughts and your city. You and your fellow audience member(s) are made both identifiably together, and incredibly separate, by the headphones you’re wearing and the mp3 players in your hands.

You’re attending “PodPlays – The Quartet”, an aural theatrical experience offered by Neworld Theatre as part of this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. The 70-minute walking tour of Vancouver is accompanied by the voices and music you hear as you listen to the the PodPlay score on an mp3 player. The helpful Neworld representatives will give you a map before you head out but you’ll hardly need it since the PodPlay track will tell you where to go and when.

I was able to attend a preview of PodPlays on Sunday, January 16. It did not rain on me.

The show itself consists of four separate pieces, thematically bound together by Vancouver itself. I enjoyed some pieces more than others, though I think this had more to do with my subjective preference for certain themes and styles than any difference in the “goodness” of the pieces. One story in particular did arrest me, stop my breath for a moment, and make me fight back tears as it pulled me through Gastown, guided by those bodiless voices. The whole 70 min of walking really came down to a few exquisitely painful or beautiful moments like that one.

I have been living in the Lower Mainland since 2005, and in Vancouver proper since last spring. Podplays showed me parts of Vancouver I had never seen before, and even things I have seen hundreds of times over became new– illuminated and imbued with meaning by the stories in my ears. It helped that the sun was just breaking through after a rain: everything was wet and glistened like it had just been made (and all for me!) and the grey old world, just for 70 min, was unbearably bright. I fell in love with Vancouver all over again.

More than just being directed to passively listen to the pieces as presented and follow the PodPlay directions, I felt the show was an invitation to indulge in my own thoughts and memories of Vancouver. An invitation to remember, for the rest of the time that I live here (and any time I visit should I ever choose to leave), that every piece of Vancouver that I have ever walked in has its story: the people who’ve walked here before, the buildings that used to be here before the ones that are here now, the forest that stood before that, and my story, only five year’s worth but no less important to me than any other.

I’m sure not everyone will have the same experience I did, though rain or shine you’ll certainly have an experience. The best way to find out what it will be for you is to go.

Go to PodPlays!

PodPlays run Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, noon – 4 p.m., January 21 to February 6. To book tickets call 604-602-0007 or e-mail podplays@neworldtheatre.com.

Neworld’s website has a description of each of the four pieces and more information about the show. I invite you to click here.

Things to remember if you are going to see PodPlays:

Call ahead to book a departure time. You may use your own mp3 player and headphones but if you do you will need to be e-mailed the sound file. If you want to use Neworld’s mp3 players and headphones, make sure they are available for the departure time you want.

PodPlays involves 70-minutes of walking, including stairs. If you have any concerns regarding this, I recommend contacting Neworld. Most of this walking takes place outside so check the weather forecast and bring an umbrella (unless you’re one of those hard core Vancouverites who don’t believe in umbrellas).

Full disclosure: I was able to see a preview of PodPlays because I will be volunteering as a route monitor for this Sunday’s performances. I was not asked or paid to blog about PodPlays, and I’m pretty sure no one at Neworld even knows that I have a blog.

If you do see “PodPlays – The Quartet” I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment about which pieces you enjoyed the most (and why) or drop me a line at twitter.com/niftynotcool.

PuSh Festival Opening Gala (Part 2)

Unfortunately can't remember the name of this troupe!

Sorry PuSh fans, I am no longer live-blogging from the PuSh Gala. Unfortunately, the wireless in Club Five Sixty went out so, seeing as I am a little behind the times and sans smart phone, I could neither blog nor tweet.

I took some beautiful photos with Lois in the booths downstairs, took in Theatre Replacemcent’s “Weetube” which is always a Vancouver favourite, and lugged my laptop and tired little self home because I work early tomorrow.

As I left, I believe the band “The Zolas” were setting up, small theatre performances were under way in the lounge, and I’m sure the party hadn’t even peaked yet. I also saw Gregor Robertson near the photo booths tonight but I was too shy to say hello. Maybe next time.

If you want to follow the gala and other PuSh Festival events on Twitter, the hashtags that I believe were most commonly in use tonight were #PuSh2011 and #PuShFest. You can also follow the folks at the PuSh Festival itself at twitter.com/PuShFestival.

2011 PuSh Festival Opening Gala (Part 1)

Through some kind of combination of Twitter, dumb luck, and the awesomeness of Zaira Petruf, the Outreach Coordinator for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver, I am typing in the VIP lounge of the oh-so-cool Club Five Sixty at the 2011 PuSh Opening Gala.

I am here tonight as one of the bloggers for the event: live-blogging, tweeting, interneting all over the place. My apologies to those who have e-mail-subscribed to NiftyNotCool, I’m going to be posting several times tonight. I’m also drinking wine. Sorry.

First up, the club. Club Five Sixty is MASSIVE. And groovy. Never seen a place like it. The whole basement is a bathroom. And a bar. And a coat-check. There is a massive main floor. There is a VIP lounge upstairs. There are labyrinth-like hallways. This place is full of theatre artists and theatre lovers and bucket-loads of nifty AND cool people.

Gregor Robertson: Mayor Extraordinaire

A big highlight for me so far was watching Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson make his opening remarks. I knew he was a nice-looking fellow but he is even better looking in person. He also seems to be very supportive of arts and culture in Vancouver in general. I appreciate a politician who is. I wish this attitude could carry more into the Provincial and Federal levels.

I have also run into major Vancouver bloggers Raul (Hummingbird604) and Rebecca (Miss604). Theatre blogger Lois (Lois Backstage) is typing next to me. I’ve also seen people I recognize from Neworld Theatre, Theatre Replacement, and Leaky Heaven Circus. I feel so VIP’ed.

I regret I must leave you all for a moment to partake in those crazy basement facilities. I’ll be back before you know it. xoxo