18% clueless

February 12, 2016

It’s 1973. Six girls inhabit the front rows of a classroom at Jarvis Collegiate Institute, undertaking what some educators have called a Drill and Kill exercise. With a stentorian clickety-clack, the teacher activates a reel-to-real tape recorder. “Mutti, wo ist mein Mittagessen?” inquires a woman’s voice, imitating that of a child.

And we repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

Und oder aber sondern denn. Aus asser bei mit nach seit von zu. Bringen bringt brachte gebracht. Brechen, bricht, brach, gebrochen. Ich weiss nicht was sol es bedeuten. No “Space Oddity” for me. Rather, snippets of German grammar and poetry formed the sound-track of my teens.

I was ausgezeichnet. I was erstclassig. I was fabulhaft. But my status was hard-won. Our teacher was subject to violent bouts of rage. I memorized until late at night, copying out declensions, prepositions and conjugations, and after our weekly quiz, would awake with pounding heart, fearing that I had fallen short of my goal of 99 percent (allowing as I did for one inevitable careless mistake). It was not learning, it was sickness.

The precision of those days is gone. As I write this, my computer underlines many words in tell-tale red. Sometimes it changes the words for me. Reel to real, for instance. And Ich weiss nicht was soulless bedeuten.

But it’s not soulless at all; it’s calming, learning a language. I’d forgotten that. Despite the anxiety at falling short of fabulhaft, there was a meditative quality in copying out charts of verbs, nouns and adjectives. Studying grammar made me feel I could dip down to some essential level of thought which was – lo and behold – manageable. Utterly unlike the terrifying unpredictability of life.

Indeed it’s even more calming now my brain is ageing. Folks, in case you don’t know, brains get old just like joints get old. But deficiency of the brain doesn’t feel like less of anything. It’s like constant noise. Being in school again, I pride myself on being able to tolerate the long hours, the rigours of vast amounts of reading. (Please grant my feeble little body this one smidgen of machismo before osteoporosis sets in!) But language is another story.

Language learning is calming because there’s a right and a wrong answer, but it’s also implacable. I simply … can’t … learn … as … fast. My brain feels awash, the general mush of thoughts forever threatening to obscure the latest batch of case endings. And I’ve become sloppy, willing to let autocorrect take care of the details. Yet this exercise of copying out endings in my still-fair handwriting is so much sweeter now that it’s really, really hard.

Studying makes me feel old in another way. Flashbacks to high school bedamned, in our weekly classes I set aside books and computer and GET IT WRONG, knowing this is an essential step toward getting it right. My younger classmates sit behind their computers, clicking away at Google Translate and flipping back and forth to Facebook. And I want to tell them – Kids! Get it wrong til you get it right! Copy those verb charts! Your memory will never be this good again!

High-tech solutions are not all bad. I’ve been using the Duo Lingo program, which claims to allow me to learn like a native speaker. Where once I sat with an open grammar book, supplemented by the cast of characters on the Sprich Mal Deutsch! tapes — Herr and Frau Topolski and their son, Peter (or in Grade 13, Paul Brightman, voiced by a man trying to make himself sound like an adolescent but succeeding only in sounding like he was weeping) — now I get daily emails headed “GERMAN REMINDER.”  In five-minute increments I translate sentences like: “The ducks eat oranges.” “She has cows.” Gone is the threat of the airborne dictionary, the cascade of invective. Instead I am met either with the green “ca-ching!” of success or the red “blap” of failure. But you always get another chance. Yet another proof that language-learning is so much better than real life.

After each lesson, there’s kind of flourish, and a cute little owl announces what percentage of fluency I’ve achieved. So far, I’m 18 percent fluent, which autocorrect just changed to “clueless.” Can fabulhaft be far behind?




February 4, 2016

I finished an essay this week, which meant I had the treat of dismantling a three-foot tower of books, pulling scores of coloured tabs off the pages and throwing them in Recycling, before returning the books to the library. And there it was at the bottom of the pile, a book I ordered at the start of 2016: Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume One.

I picked up the book and paged through it, glimpsed images of boys on dormitory beds, of girls in white smocks standing in a row kneading bread. I rushed past them, not letting them fully register.

Not yet, I thought. It’s been a hard week, do I have to think about this today?

Isn’t that just the problem?

I get to leave these children’s stories under a pile of more pressing tasks for weeks on end. I can choose to think about them when I’m ready, skip past what is too painful. Most of all, I get to close the book when I want. Lucky me.

I opened the book again. All those rows of beds, the boys lying an identical position with their hands folded over their bellies. Orderly. Too orderly.

A couple of years ago I was in London, a tourist among tourists. A lady I met on a walking tour said, “Canada must be a lovely place to live.”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Such good people.”

“Yes, I mean we used to be, or at least – we used to think we were.”

“You have that mayor …”

“That’s not what I mean.” Where to start? “Have you heard of the residential schools?”


“Children – Indigenous children – were taken from their homes and families.”

The woman looked at me, shaking her head.

“Many of them were – badly treated. They were abused, actually. Sometimes they weren’t given enough to eat. They got sick. It was a crime. It went on for years.”

“In Canada? I’ve never heard anything like that.”

My mother left bombed-out London in the 1950s. Along with many others, she came to Canada for the opportunities it offered. And she came to forget. The Toronto I grew up in was the place people came to start new lives. Scary memories might have hovered over our breakfast table, but soon I made the short walk to Huron school and stood for the national anthem each morning, along with neighbours from Hungary, Portugal, Greece and Japan.

So You Want to be a Nurse! So You Want to be a Stewardess! Sexist: sure. But the covers of these books were so shiny. They offered us possible futures like sweets in bright wrappers. Growing up was a long way away, anyway. For now, all we had to do now was learn and play. School was a safe zone where our right to be children was protected.

I felt good at school – not just comfortable, but virtuous. Having a school like this – knowing everyone could have one – was part of why I was proud of Canada. I never imagined it could be any other way.

Silence: make or break

January 27, 2016

This blog has been afflicting me with panicked twinges of conscience for months!

What if someone looks me up and sees that tired, old entry sitting there? It’s akin to not taking out the garbage, forgetting to shave my legs! There will be whispers in the blogosphere: she’s letting herself go.

Or not. Maybe no one will notice.

Yes indeed, the day has come. What started as a way of taking charge, of making sure my own voice joined the chorus of opinions and ideas resounding through the internet twenty-four hours a day, has become nothing more than an obligation, a chore. Yet another unpaid task I must take on to avoid – what?


And what’s so bad about that?

Why spew out words just for the sake of it? Maybe it’s better to wait until there’s really something to say.

As an artist, I know good things come from silence. As a feminist, I know it’s something I need to fight. As a citizen, I know I need to think critically about the way people are becoming commodified and words are selling cheap. As a writer, I need to practice my craft by producing, yet respect that craft by not giving it away for free.

This year, I’ve considered closing down this blog, saving my time and energy for bigger projects. Trouble is, I don’t have time. It does take time to close a blog and decide what – if any – kind of online presence will replace it. So until I have the time and energy and money to do that, I’m going to try to post 300 words every Wednesday. Try. More trying.

But breaking silence opens the way for conversations. Let’s see how it goes.


Emotional Dramaturgy: Part Two

June 9, 2015

In this section, I ask Fides Krucker for more details about her role as collaborator on the dance piece, locus plot by Peggy Baker Dance Projects, and about the implications of breaking the sound barrier in a dance piece.

What is a vocalographer?  

Me! Peggy made up the word. I love it and don’t know why I never thought of it myself given my love of world play. When I started URGE (a music driven women’s collective founded in 1991) I always wanted us to create as if we were choreographers – on our feet and from our bodies. So the word really captures what I have been doing in different ways for quite some time! The largest cast I have done this on for full evening works is eighteen (Humber College graduating class) and the smallest is three (3 singers opera in Chicago).

I trust Peggy and we get along very well in rehearsal, without much conversation, actually. We just do things with the dancers passing the ball back and forth. I definitely consider her the lead artist and find it easy to flow with that. But at times I would make the dancers take on certain sounds and then wonder if I had wrecked Peggy’s choreography. But mostly she understood my impulses.

If not, she was not afraid to ask for something to be changed and I never felt threatened by this. I don’t remember the dancers ever resisting things but I really worked hard at making sure that it felt possible, through my body’s identification with what I was seeing them do, even if the ‘idea’ of a certain sound seemed a bit out there when I first proposed it.

Hopefully a lot of people reading this will have seen and heard the show, but if not, could you give us a sense of the sound palette you drew upon?

The sounds I use are not verbal. To some people, groans, roars, keening or sighs could appear illogical, but I find this ‘body tongue’ poetic and communicative. I think many dancers choose to dance so as not to speak. They are eloquent through the body and words can betray. So my non-verbal preoccupations might actually be a very good fit! The sounds l am moved by have a very first-degree in-the-body pleasure similar to what I experience watching a dancer move, and imagine they could be feeling too. Both movement and sounding extend in a way that can become artful, artistic. So maybe these sounds are more natural than words and don’t involve switching gears? I know that an extended, sung vowel is to a word what an extended arm is to the idea of reaching. Something mundane is magnified.

I think I caught sight of some gestures familiar from voice classes with you. Were there any other times when one discipline spilled in to another?

Yes. Peggy loved a few of the gestures I would use when teaching them the vocal principles. The gestures use our Peripheral Nervous System to foster new patterns in our Autonomic Nervous Systems. She found it beautiful that they were making such great sound and growing each and every week. So some gestures touched her and she encouraged the dancers to incorporate them as part of the performance language.

The voice drew me in, and created an emotional line that was compelling and easy to follow. I have to admit I often find modern dance pieces too long. Not this one. Fascinating, for a piece that inhabits the seemingly abstract world of math. Math and emotion … care to comment?

I think math and emotion make sense together. I am not good at math but I have a daughter who is. I think there is a sincere logic to math that includes imagination and expansion. I like to think that there is a sincere logic to emotion that includes imagination and hope – which is a kind of expansion. I think math and emotion are both real and a part of being human. So Peggy’s sticking to mathematical principles when making the movement patterns (macro and micro) came across to me as original and fresh when I first saw it in the rehearsal space.

Watching human beings is emotional for me. And a performer invites the external gaze. I breathe along with whoever I am watching (it is also how I teach) and so I felt like I was inside the dancers. Peggy’s invitation to set vocals on them let me want to reveal more about my own kinetic experience while watching and identifying.

The work seemed to hover on the edge of “story.” The vocalizing gave it a strong emotional line without many of the traditional elements of narrative.

I love the men’s duet for that – performed by Ric Brown and Sean Ling. They are busy doing some very precise arm movement that incorporate these huge lunges to the floor, while moving in and out of 4 squares taped out by two crossed lines on the Marley. I could feel that their throats were closed due to the demands of the movement. This led to the opening stuttering sound…a glottal stop repeated over and over again…coming from their throats as if they were trying to get someone’s attention, about to speak, but stopping themselves. Unable to communicate. Between these segments and linked to the movement pattern (sometimes they engaged with each other’s negative space and sometimes they did not) I had them close their mouths very obviously as if any avenue for communication was being cut off. That was usually when they were more ‘on their own’ within the squares.

As the movement intensified, and they interfered even more with each other’s negative space and finally had physical contact, I asked them to increase the voiceless ‘ah’ ‘ah’ ‘ah’ until it broke into a full fledged non-verbal roaring fight, the two men clasping each others’ arms, face to face, leaning and pulling away from each other, and finally falling back to the floor.

Then the vocal fight resumes with the two of them moving through these unusual embraces…based on math! Because the movement was so particular it could not become sentimental even though the emotional sound-thread might have on its own.

When they finally break apart Sean is left with these little high peeps and the opening arm work but is now alone – no longer interweaving with Ric who has stormed away. It is heartbreaking. Are they brothers, lovers? Just what were they ‘wrestling’ over? We don’t know but the underlying math somehow makes having that answered less important. It affords us a kind of ambiguity without a distancing effect.

What we do know is that they are two humans who want to communicate, end up fighting, and then despite their attempts, become isolated. We’ve all been there and get the story. And yet it is not at all predictable in its form and so for me it was not obvious or pat. I can hardly sit still when I watch that segment. The struggle feels real.

Did you have any concerns going into it?

Actually I was nervous when we went to the Canadian Opera Company with some excerpts and again on opening night. I did not question the art making – but I had no idea how an audience would react. Would it be too audacious? I thought I might get booed!


We take our forms seriously. They help us relax into a new piece. So breaking a form out of its mold is a bit risky. I am also asking an audience to take sounds we typically repress as serious and beautiful and communicative. And we love our mouths to make reasonable sounds like words. We think it represents the best of us…our minds…clarity. But I find these other sounds more trustworthy. I did not know if the audience would go on that ride. I did not feel the sounds as an imposition on the dancers but I really did not know if the audience would get into their own bodies while watching in a way that would allow them to appreciate this. Let’s face it, sometimes when a groan or roar has happened in real life it has meant bad things. So we would have good reasons to want to block these sounds.

I work hard to make the context for these sounds, within any piece, really well crafted. I now say, “Singing is impolite.” This thought helps me and as an instruction it helps those I work with.

What’s next?

We will work together again next fall for the piece Peggy is making to present in January. I have suggested that I make vocal portraits of the dancers as a point of departure – as part of the process – to learn more about each of them and develop what is so unique about each of them a little further through voice. I am really excited to take this hybrid work further. Because Peggy believes in creating as much of a company as possible – despite the economic difficulties of doing this right now in Canada – I think this will be wonderful ongoing development for all of us.

Also in June 2016 we will remount the AGO show – land/body/breath – at the National Gallery in Ottawa. I want to give the dancers a bit more to do with their voices! And of course Ciara Adams and I will be singing the hour-long score.

Emotional Dramaturgy — a conversation with Fides Krucker and Sarah Fregeau

May 25, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing locus plot, a full-length work by Peggy Baker Dance Projects incorporating music composed by John Kameel Farah and vocalography by Fides Krucker. Baker found inspiration for the piece in mathematical diagrams, and worked with mathematician and playwright John Mighton to deepen her understanding of them.

The result is an astounding work of collaboration which got me thinking about how breath and sound relate to movement. I had an e-conversation with Fides, and it made sense, as things progressed, to consult with dancer Sarah Fregeau as well. I’m going to post the interview in two parts because it ended up being so comprehensive.

The thing that surprised me most about locus plot was how little it surprised me. Having voice integrated with the dance just made sense. Is that an illusion? Did the two simply flow into each other, or did you have the sense of crossing barriers or even taboos as you collaborated in this piece? 

I am so happy to hear that. The end result feels very organic to me even though I chose or created the sounds that the dancers make. Yes, I did have a sense of crossing barriers but the ground work had been laid thanks to Peggy in order to do that sensibly. I have taught for two years in her summer intensive, held at the National Ballet School, and had also worked with all of these dancers in the AGO project (land/body/breath) in May 2014 so that gave me a good sense of the company … and we had some common language. I had already set a few things on them for land/body/breath – bird calls, moans, some words. We went in with trust and respect for one another. Excitement, too.

Can you say more about the nuts and bolts of the collaboration?

I am very intrigued at what goes on internally in the practice of a dancer and how that might differ from the practice of a singer. I am deeply interested in what is going on in the pelvic floor, the diaphragm, the lungs, the ribs, the throat and the mouth, even the eyes, of anyone breathing – which means everyone!

Peggy had made about half the choreography before I came into the December rehearsals. I thought I was going to be the dramaturge so when she turned to me and said, ‘What sounds would you like them to make?’ I was quietly stunned. I asked to see the women’s trio again and went with my gut. I realized as I stood up to give them instructions that I should choose sounds that would be reasonable to make even if difficult. So whispers and fragments of song and Sarah Fregeau’s extraordinary high-pitched trilling sound flooded into my imagination. It was sparse and very specific with regards to when and how it collaborated with the movement.

Often Peggy would feel something crack open for her after hearing the dancers sound while moving – I think this became a wordless emotional dramaturgy. She would be drawn in and build more movement from there or ask for specific interpretive things from the dancers and eventually from John as he composed the music.

I asked if I could warm the company up each day to further train specific vocal techniques and foster a sense of balance. I wanted them to feel great about what they were doing! Peggy was extremely generous and made time for this.

About a month before opening, she brought Sahara Morimoto back onstage, near the end of the second section, to weave through the other four dancers. I was satisfied with what I saw but Peggy wanted voice here. Immediately I knew that I wanted to hear Sahara’s low guttural roars used as sustained threads of sound … they were emerging more and more from her each day that we trained. The sound made for this unexpected and mysterious counterpoint. So, it was fascinating to watch a method evolve in front of us through the entire process.

As making sound became more ‘normal’ feeling the dancers would no longer ask to rehearse the movement separate from the sounds they were to make – the two had become fused and informed one another. So there was a natural integration that came out of their hard work.

Also, these dancers are real artists. They would go away after rehearsal and sleep on things. The next day the idea I gave them seemed better than it had the previous rehearsal. I loved collaborating with them by taking the evolution of the material in their bodies and hearts as a good thing. The growth of their sounds informed my overall shaping of voice in the piece.

Peggy champions dancers making the movement their own – while maintaining a very clear vision of what she wants. I think this is a healthy tension in art making.

These are obviously top-notch dancers, with or without singing, but the dancing struck me as particularly beautiful in this piece. The word I would use is luminous. Then I realized, of course, that the singing is setting up vibrations from within, and I think they’re actually visible from the audience. They give a shimmering quality, and a sense of fluidity. Were there any surprises for you about the way the vocal work interacted with the dance?

Thanks for saying those beautiful things about the dancers. They were stunning to watch and feel. About a month in, thanks to Kate Holden’s final and exquisite solo and the actual luminosity that required, I realized that I really wanted all of them to stay open inside their mouths and through the area behind the eyes. I wanted this transparency to infuse all the sounds and I could see the difference it made to the movement as well. It is actually part of my technique.

I think working with the dancers helped me take this further and understand it better. But, it is a hard one – as opening night gets closer we all want to lock down – I see this in singers as well – to get it right. I think adrenaline and worry do this quite naturally to a human being. Both Peggy and I wanted the work to stay real and personal and not something external that had to be achieved (though of course the movement and sound score was really really hard and they did their jobs perfectly).

I want performance to invite the audience into the nervous systems of those on stage and therefore into their own watching nervous systems through the mirror neurons we all have. When I credit the dancers with staying connected to one another and to themselves – and from this place of empathy they risked even more opening.

Let’s hear from one of the dancers about this. My next question is directed to Sarah Fregeau.  Sarah, was it easier or harder to vocalize in combination with dance?

Adding the vocals to the choreography did require some internal shifts in what parts of my body I used to stabilize the movement. I found that I had to release certain areas that I had been using to control – mostly around the abdomen and ribcage – in order to produce the sounds we were asked to make.

And of course we had to change how we used our breath. I found it very interesting to learn that my breath had a lot to do with my ability to balance. I’m thinking of a particular moment where I was turning in a piked forward position while releasing sound, and the difference between going into that movement with relatively empty lungs and “closed” soft palette (no sound) and with full lungs about to release made it much more challenging.

These little discoveries were interesting and fit right into my dancers’ daily training life of learning more about my own habits and how to undo or change the ones that are not useful.

The voice work eventually became so integrated with the movement (because of all of the little shifts and accommodations we had made) that it would have been more difficult at that point to rehearse without the sound than with. It would have been like going through the choreography but not using one small part of our bodies – the two had become dependent on each other to function properly.

Would you say that the vocals affected your ensemble work?

I would say that they added a magical element that helped to give meaning – however abstract – to the choreography, which may or may not have brought us more onto the same page in how we approached the work.

Big thanks to you both. More on the role of vocalographer next week.

Precious Cargo in Preggoland

May 13, 2015

Warning: I’m about to say how much I liked the movie Preggoland, and why. To save yourself a number of spoilers you could just go and see it yourself. At the early show on Saturday night, there were only six people in the audience, three of whom I knew. This should not happen in the spring, to a sweet, smart comedy in the discerning city of Toronto. Oh and by the way, it’s Canadian film. See it!

Here’s why.

Preggoland is about a quirky, screwed-up thirty-something woman who’s living in her Dad’s basement. She can’t seem to get her life together. She engages in some dishonest behaviour, digs herself in too deep, and before you know it she’s almost lost the really, really nice guy.

The plot is not uncommon. A couple of other movies spring to mind immediately. Enough Said, for instance (where the character is old enough to know better) and Take this Waltz, where the subterfuge involves an extramarital affair, and Michelle Williams loses the really really nice guy for good.

Preggoland is also about how badly women can treat teach other in the context of the quintessentially feminine rites of passage. We saw this in Bridesmaids, as well, where Kristen Wiig’s character goes gaga under peer pressure, putting the relationship with the really, really nice guy at stake.

These films all culminate in scenes of pitiful grovelling, where the really, really nice guy has to be placated and life as a single woman is portrayed as the worst possible fate.

Excuse my rant – but seeing these vapid female characters in movies while the real world is offering up such young heroines as Malala Yousafzai, where law schools and medical schools alike are teeming with women endowed with self-discipline and a sense of purpose feels like an insidious new wave of the backlash we have been enduring since the eighties.

(And while I’m at it, let me say a word or two about another common plot, which we see in the Sex in the City Movies and in many episodes of the series. In this variation, a young woman who actually does have her life together ends up almost getting free of a guy who was not good enough for her to begin with, but somehow the blame gets shifted on to her for not forgiving him. Cue the grovelling.)

But Preggoland is different and here’s how. It shows – very affectingly – the forces that motivate the unconsidered behaviour in the first place.

In Preggoland Ruth – played by Sonja Bennett, who also wrote the movie — fakes a pregnancy. The concept seems far fetched, until you see her climbing, hung-over on to a city bus pushing a stroller which she’s taking to a friend. The bags under her eyes, her pale complexion are assumed to have been acquired in the worthy cause of motherhood. We watch her begin — ever so gently — to jiggle the empty carriage.

The film has plenty of laugh-out-loud slapstick, but never departs from the true basis of good comedy, and that’s genuine pain, and in this case, pain that a lot of women share. We are chronically undervalued, period. And women in their reproductive years are assailed with expectations and assumptions – most of them fueled by consumerism – which undermine relationships and obscure anything that might have resembled choice.

Preggoland reminds us that these expectations are not good for anyone – even those who appear to “succeed” in obtaining the perfect family. The film is studded with moments of genuine compassion and connection across the whole spectrum of mothering and these stand in contrast to the emotional violence that happens when people slavishly conform.

There’s smart, hard-hitting irony here, too, as Ruth’s perceived value rises in proportion to the increasingly elaborate prostheses she manages to stow under her shirt. We watch her behaviour change when she’s treated with the respect and kindness she deserved to begin with.

When her ruse inevitably goes south — sure — she almost loses the guy. But she doesn’t grovel. When he doesn’t accept her straight-ahead apology, she reminds him how over-invested he was in her lie to begin with. The film ends, not with a happily-ever-after baby carriage, but with the erstwhile control-freak of a boyfriend literally head-over-heels in love with this complex woman who’s ambivalent about becoming a mother.

Preggoland reminded me of In A World, another coming-out-of-Dad’s basement film written, directed and co-produced by Lake Bell (who also plays the protagonist, vocal coach Carol Solomon). Sure, Carol’s having some trouble growing up, but behind it all is the truly infantile behaviour of her father, who undermines her at every turn. In the end, she wins: the great gig, the nice guy, fair treatment from her father — and some invaluable perspective on what success really means.

Let’s have more of these stories that show respect for the real struggles that women face, and let’s see more from the brilliant and lovely Sonja Bennett.

Jet Girls Soar

April 21, 2015

Monday mornings are tumultuous in their own, quiet way. I set out on my walk early, and before heading home to start work, I buy groceries at the Foodland at Pape and Danforth. Pushing my cart around the aisles, deciding between organic and conventional products, I am immersed in an inner stew of gratitude/anxiety/guilt about being able to work at home and buy good food and have it delivered, and resentment/anxiety/guilt about the way household tasks can chip away at writing time.

Imagine my dismay last week when I found a line-up of nonplussed, not-quite-awake patrons snaking through the aisles of a newly renovated Foodland. It became clear my posterior would most definitely not be in the seat by 9:30, as planned.

The trouble was coming from the cash desk. Instead of the women – all middle aged, like yours truly – who manage to commiserate about everyone’s aches and pains as they speed items along their conveyor belts, there was a twenty-something guy on duty. And for some reason, he’d been left alone to check out the groceries of a whole store-full of people, all marinating in their own particular Monday-morning anxieties.

Did this bother him? Not that I could tell. He sang at his work, occasionally stopping altogether to discuss recipes with his customers. He was enjoying himself, looking after himself. In other words, he was a terrible cashier.

And when it finally came my turn, he went over to the stack of new red bins that have been giving my regular cashier-friends tennis elbow, picked one up like it weighed nothing, and danced – literally – back to the till, singing along with the PA system.

Hold the line!
Love isn’t always on time!

I decided I had to love this kid (happily, “not in that way”) and use the delay as an opportunity for speculation. Is this a guy thing? A millennial thing? Or is there just one boy out there who should never be a cashier?

Maria. Paging Maria. Maria to the cash desk please. Of course, it was all my fault the Foodland was going south! I’d better get going … I’d better …

And just then one of the older cashiers came upstairs and opened a second cash desk. Oh, right. There are a lot of Marias in this world. I went home, cobbled together my best approximation of an honest day’s work, and forgot about the whole episode.

Until I had the chance to witness another role reversal on Friday night, in the Jet Girls’ all-female version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at the Red Sandcastle Theatre. It got me thinking, all over again, about privilege and entitlement, and taking up time and space.

In Mamet’s classic exploration of power and greed, a group of men in a shady and very cutthroat real estate firm jockey for position, sometimes confronting each other, sometimes, stabbing each other in the back and sometimes both. They posture, they insult, they gossip, they brag, they bargain hard and make inflated demands. Oh, and they swear.

In the Jet Girls’ version, the characters wear women’s business outfits, but retain their male names. Under the direction of Anita LaSelva, they’re every bit as rude and pushy as the script demands. All the expected ways women have of relating to each other and to the world are banished. The program notes remind us that women are just as capable of aggression as men. I couldn’t agree more. But we’re very, very effectively conditioned not to show it. I like to think we’ve seen the wisdom of collaboration, too. It makes sense that everyone in the play comes to grief.

But oh! It was utterly satisfying to see these women fly in the face of stereotypes, to see them express forbidden drives in forbidden ways.

Satisfying, too, to see a group of actors of such depth and brilliance pour themselves into great roles. Francoise Balthazar made me jump out of my skin in her role as the bully, Dave Moss, Marianne Sawchuk as Richard Roma could very easily have charmed me into signing on the dotted line, and Elizabeth Saunders gave a stunningly detailed performance as Shelly (The Machine) Levine. Robinne Fanfair was brutal as the detective, Julia Brar, an unyielding John Williamson. Somehow, there was nuance beneath the bombast. They were amazing.

The Red Sandcastle is a long, narrow space, and production values were simple. In the first row, we sat so close to the action we had to pull our feet under our chairs to avoid tripping the actors on their entrances and exits.

I’d only ever seen one version of Glengarry Glen Ross – the movie – and I admired it but didn’t enjoy it. Now I know why. The film was just too naturalistic. I was spending all my energy trying to decipher the plot through the rapid-fire dialogue. In the hands of the Jet Girls, the play took flight. The role reversal provided a constant invitation to interrogate both the strangeness – and familiarity – of the behaviour that makes the corporate world go round. I relaxed about the complicated text and just enjoyed the rhythms of the language: the poetry of invective!

To me, the most fascinating and complex moments in this production were those in which the characters express vulnerability. Laurel Paetz’s George Aaronow spends a lot of the play being afraid, Rosemary Doyle’s James Link pleads: “I have no power!” Shelly makes a virtuosic last stand but loses everything in the end. These are very different moments coming from women than from men and the actors have to play them as men whose sense of entitlement is being undermined.

But to describe what really made this show so wonderful, I need to back up (not to my shopping, I promise) but to arriving at the theatre in the first place. Rosemary Doyle, the founder of the Red Sandcastle Theatre, was doing box office and front of house, a task which included grabbing stools from the washroom of the 50-odd seat theatre, and pushing aside some curtains to make more space. Like Mary Poppins with her carpet bag, she kept on producing more seats. It was a packed house! The line-up spilled out in front of the adjacent Value Village Store, and she gamely announced that we were welcome to bring in ice cream from Eds Real Scoop or drinks from the neighbouring bar after intermission. When intermission was over, she poked her head into these establishments to call the patrons back to the theatre. All the while playing her part in the show.

The Red Sandcastle is her brainchild, which she started three years ago in a Leslieville Storefront. When I asked about her motivation, she replied, “I started the theatre because I wanted people to be able to do work they were excited about, when they were still excited about it, without losing their shirts. I also wanted to make it possible for an audience to attend a show, as easily as deciding to go to dinner. Ideally I want theatre to be a part of everyone’s regular life.” Her motto is “everything is possible.” She hosts everything from groups like the Jet Girls to one-night readings, to a “play in a week” camp on March break.

The Jet Girls were created to give opportunities for women and ethnic minorities. As they point out on their web site, “The Hollywood ideal of size zero, male, Caucasian and twenty is very limiting and damaging.  … Rather than becoming discouraged we decided to take action!”

To me, this is the real treasure embedded in this production. The women involved are claiming power not by posturing or backstabbing, but by having a great time, doing what they love.

Active-ist Imagination

March 3, 2015

On a frigid day in February, I had lunch with Sandra Campbell at Aviv, a favourite Annex restaurant. We talked about one of her current projects, A Magical Mystery Tour to the Pickering Lands. A bit of history: in 1972, the federal government expropriated 18,000 hectares of class-one agricultural land north east of Toronto, to build a second Toronto airport. A resident of the area back then, Sandra wrote a book called The Moveable Airport, part of the Case Studies in Community Action series. The airport plan was shelved after a great deal of protest; now it’s back on the table again. This time, though, Sandra is taking a different approach in making her views known.

MM: Why a Magical Mystery Tour? Why not just write your MP?

SC: Many are now turning away from the practices of industrial food production because it is more of a short-term, extractive industry as opposed to a stewardship industry. We’re seeing that our growing lands are rare, a vital resource that we must care for. The arguments for the necessity for land stewardship are all there; but many are blind to its potential not only to feed us well but also to provide good, meaningful jobs over the long term. Too many are still stuck in the mindset that the only source of jobs is to build huge infrastructure projects like roads, buildings, airplanes.

So the rational arguments for changing our practices of food production are everywhere and now we need to energize people for the heavy slogging of making changes in their lives and communities. We get into rutted ways of thinking—that there’s only one way. But making change is not just about saying NO. It’s about saying YES. Our imaginations can spin us out of the ruts, connect us in a heartened way to what really matters.

We’ve — all of us — witnessed the power of heartened imaginations in the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. What drove people and inspired their courage was not so much the intellectual constructs– but intellectual constructs attached to incredibly deep feeling and a vision of difference.

One of the poets I’ve read over the years is Wendell Berry, a grand old man of eighty-five who won a huge award last year and gave an inspiring speech in which he said that the health of our lands depends on our caring for them and that all caring hinges on affection. So I’ve taken the idea that we need to help urban folks become familiar with these lands and in that familiarity build an affection that will enable them to discover their own stories in that land and its potential to guide their own actions to care for it.

The experience of The Magical Mystery Bus Tour is intended to spark people’s heartened imaginations. The trip would begin in downtown Toronto and be animated by poets reading their poetry to awaken people’s memories of their resonant moments in nature. By the time participants arrive at the site they’ve connected to memories of a texture, a sound, a feeling in nature. Then once at the site they will be guided by dancers who will lead them on an exploration of different aspects of the site.

When we go to poetry readings we’re often sitting still, but you’re combining travel with a poetry reading. Have you had experiences of this before?

I went on a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh — me and 1,000 other people — in the Catskills and because there were so many people, we were billeted all around the site of the retreat. Every morning at 5:30 we would be picked up by a school bus and we’d all shuffle out of our motels, get on the bus and it was a silent retreat but on each bus was a Buddhist priest who would read poetry. Some was Thich Nhat Hahn’s poems. He’s a fine poet. After the reading, there would be a guided meditation.

Our bus trip was forty minutes and by the time we arrived at the site we were, in a sense, in an altered state. The day went on with meditation, teaching and walking meditation until ten at night, when we’d get back on the bus to return to our residence and it was the same process: poems read and guided meditation to close the day. All this was done in silence and I found it deeply moving, almost magical.

I have a friend who makes banners out of beautiful paper and I always have loved the idea of Buddhist prayer flags. So I thought that after the dancers people could make some of these flags and put key words on them that arose from their experiences of the poetry and dance. The banners would be to take home to hang in their homes or offices as a reminder of that day.There would be no other agenda than to open participants to nature’s gifts of the day.

You mentioned the Porch View Dances that Kaeja d’Dance put on in Toronto. What element do you want to make part of your project?

As I understand Porch View Dances, they are about enabling people to express their sense of place in an embodied way, to express it with their bodies, and it’s pleasurable. It’s celebratory in a quiet way.

Prior to the dance, dancers interview neighbourhood people to get a sense of who lives what they love, how they work, what animates their days, their friendships, their paths through community.

Do you see residents of the Pickering Lands being the performers?

There’s very few people. The lands were expropriated. People left.

Is there a particular site you have in mind?

Not yet. Still exploring. I went on a walking tour last year, It was a beautiful fall day and a lot of us were in tears because the neglect of the land is sad, and the tears came because we were awed by the beauty of the place. It’s beautiful but it hasn’t been cared for and so we felt great sadness.

This is not just a bus tour in the traditional sense …

I see it as a guided experience for invited guests– people who are working on issues of safe food and water and land stewardship. As we all know, people on the front lines of change get burnt out so it would be to reinvigorate them, to give them an opportunity to reconnect to what they care about.

Why not take someone who’s in favour of building the airport?

Eventually yes, but the first round is to invite the willing pioneers and to reinvigorate them, to give them new energy and renewed vision.


At the beginning of a change process those who are open, who wish to try new alternatives need to be nourished and cheered on. It takes a lot of energy to sustain your vision in the face of nay-sayers.

Yet there’s nothing as infectious as somebody who is totally turned on to an idea, who feels so excited by it. After this trip we hope people will return to their homes, their offices telling their friends, families and neighbours, “You wouldn’t believe this land! It’s so fantastic! We’ve got this huge breadbasket, it could be bountiful, Imagine what we could do.” That’s very infectious energy. It’s has a ripple effect that I’ve seen work time and time again.

When I think of environmental activism I associate it with fear.

Absolutely, yes. And fear contracts. The Bus Trip seeks to counter the contraction. The experiences will enable participants to extend their minds, bodies, spirits to re-engage with nature’s gift, with what they really care about.

For those interested in knowing more, there’s a video here.

Heartbreaking Momentum

February 12, 2015

‘Gruelling’ was the word that came to mind as I watched Marathon, a new theatre and dance piece by Aharona Israel, part of the Progress festival at The Theatre Centre. Gruelling in a good way.

Clad in running gear, the three performers run in circles for a full, hyperkinetic hour. Besides the occasional “change!” signalling a change of direction, they call out words like “traffic!” “remember!” “hora!” “shiksa!” and “grenade!” accompanying each with a stylized gesture.

But nothing changes, really. They just get more and more exhausted. Shoulders slump, footsteps shuffle. For one seemingly interminable passage, they don’t change direction at all. “Are you dizzy?” They ask the audience. Yes. We’re all dizzy. The only place to slow down or stop is the middle of the stage, but the introspection that happens there is unproductive, tormented or both. Best to keep running.

The performers address the audience, and each other; still, the words don’t so much tell a story as create a collage of commonplaces. Punctuating the relentless rhythm of the footsteps, phrases return as they would in an exhausted runner’s mind.

Bathed in an atmosphere of machismo, the lone woman is jostled, pulled and blocked with a jarring lack of deference. At one point she’s herded menacingly into the middle, a place where she does not want to be. She shouts out obscenities with the best of them, yet her speech is marked by a girlish quality as she defines her role as a bereaved relative, a suffering sibling. The rituals of grieving she describes have a formulaic, unsatisfying quality. She offers food insistently, then pinches disgustedly at her trim figure, wherever she can find flesh.

War does not appear as a featured event; it emerges from the prevailing mood. The occasional raids, with their atmosphere of panic and confusion, are not followed by any hint of rest. The race continues, as fast as ever. Thus, momentum itself becomes a heartbreaking plot element. The most disturbing moment comes at the end. Because Marathon doesn’t end. The three performers keep on running, and we have no choice but to abandon them.

Marathon is very much rooted in contemporary Israeli society, but to me, it’s a universal cry for rest and introspection. These individual, exhausted bodies are make up a country, and in our visceral response to them, we can’t help but recognize elements from our own lives.

Small Axe, big shift

January 25, 2015

A few years ago, actor and playwright Andrew Kushnir was with a friend and colleague in their dressing room. The friend — who was from Jamaica — talked about being gay and coming from an oppressed culture. Kushnir, who’s of Ukrainian descent, said something in the order of, “I know how you feel.”

The friend gently and — as Kushnir often reminds us — generously, disagreed, giving rise to Small Axe, an exploration of what white people can and — and can’t ever — know. It’s on at The Theatre Centre until February 1.

Small Axe is documentary theatre; the text is drawn from interviews with lesbian and gay people of colour living in Canada. It’s delivered by five actors standing on platforms mounted on a simple scaffold, with Kushnir, front and centre, at stage level. He starts by telling the audience: “I am white; you are black,” framing the show as a a kind of theatrical address to his friend, but also setting up a dynamic of constantly shifting perspectives. We won’t be able to take any of what follows at face value.

There’s nothing more fascinating than people’s real stories, offered without pretense or manipulation. Having actors present them live provides so many more dimensions than any film; the human voice and body can invoke a whole world.

The initial stories are not-unfamiliar narratives of coming out, but the plot soon thickens to a murky brew of homophobia, racism and colonialism. Each story has an opportunity to stand on its own terms, then instantly, others layer and collide, making facile judgments impossible. Fragments circle back, gaining new levels of meaning every time they’re heard. Without losing sight of the horrors of homophobia in Jamaica, we discern the legacy of slavery that underlies it. The trauma is real, but just as real is the celebration of sexuality infusing all the stories.

“What is between stories?” asks Kushner. He had his own story, and tried to share it with his friend out of a simple desire to reach out to another person, never imagining that he might be opening a wound. And even now — as his respondents point out — Kushnir, the white guy, is the one standing centre stage, holding the microphone, not to mention the funding. He’s the one who gets to shape how the story will be told. It’s not the Jamaican story he’s telling, but his own story about recognizing his part in oppression.

Kushnir spends most of the play listening, and his task as an actor is hard. The stories may be grippingly dramatic; still, the main action of the play is internal. With his face, and some expressive movement as tools, Kushnir needs to convey what teachers of writing often disparage as a “shift in sensibility.” Small Axe is living proof that a shift in sensibility can both important and interesting. This play has been worked and reworked, torn apart and put back together a thousand times. To me, it shows. There’s a solidity and subtlety to this play, that could only have taken years to build.

The play wraps up with a more interactive segment. One of the speakers warns Kushnir against over-simplification. As a white person, and straight to boot, I can’t be the one to say whether he succeeds in avoiding it. I do know that Small Axe is a bid for attentiveness, patience and delicacy of feeling in a time of overblown plots and trite answers. I’m glad to live in a place where this kind of conversation can happen, even if its not often enough.

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