Wednesday, November 21, 2012

SKYFALL: Bond in Autumn

I have a confession to make:  I am not a Bond junkie.  I've never particularly been a Bond fan.  I think that might just have changed.

Last week was a rough one and I needed a distraction .  Sometimes there's nothing quite like a big screen movie to take you away from your troubles, especially one that just churns out plot, jumps around from one exotic location to another and features an impossibly handsome, contained and somewhat troubled cipher at its core.  Off I went to see SKYFALL, the most recent installment in the seemingly tireless Bond franchise,  in a packed theatre at the Varsity.

After half an hour of trailers and commercials (seriously?) the film finally started. It was completely worth the wait.  It's a very well-crafted script that draws on the history of the series of films but is at the same time, a very contemporary story about a man coming to terms with his place in the world and his relationship with his own past as he enters the autumn of his life.

The title sequence was gorgeous and scary, drawing the audience deeper and deeper into a world where death and dark forces are constantly present.

It is the 50th anniversary of  the Bond franchise and this feels very much like Bond in autumn: confronting the frailties of a body that is beginning to fail him, ghosts he has avoided seeing and feelings and fears he has avoided facing.

The film proper begins with an electrifying chase though a famous bazaar in Turkey that leads, if not exactly to the death of Bond, at least to a moment where he comes in perilously close contact to his own mortality.  Afterward, he takes a time out on a beach, but duty calls in the form of a terrorist incident in his hometown of London.  He puts down the bottle and returns to face a series of demons from his own  past and from the pasts of other friends and colleagues.

Daniel Craig is a great Bond, bringing depth and resonance to a character that could, in the hands of a lesser actor, descend to parody.  Javier Bardem makes a terrific nemesis, carefully walking a razor's edge of menace, humour and pathos. He is a devil for who we can actually muster some sympathy.  The stellar cast includes Judi Dench as "M", Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney.  Dame Judi outdoes herself as a lady who is not for turning.

There are two "Bond girls" but they feel more like colleagues than arm candy and the film is pretty tame in that regard. People were there with quite young children, though I certainly wouldn't recommend it.  The story is too complex and the film is frankly too violent for a child under 11 or 12.

If you only go for the exotic travel locales, you'll still have fun.   I particularly enjoyed Macau.

It is when the film journeys to the bleak and austere beauty of a Scottish highland, however that the picture truly comes home, literally and metaphorically. This is not just a battleground where old scores need to be settled or where good must defeat evil, but one where certain ghosts from the past must  finally be laid to rest.

I don't want to say more, for fear of spoiling the plot.  If you need a good distraction for a few hours, as I did last weekend, this is time well wasted.  The trailer assures us Bond will be back for more and so will I.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The MASTER : false gods and feral idols

Last Sunday afternoon, I had one of those experiences in a cinema  that sometimes happens when a famous and well-regarded director makes a big film about a tough subject.  My friend and I arrived with high expectations and saw a film that is  gorgeous, thought-provoking, wonderfully acted and ultimately disappointing.

In THE MASTER, director Paul Thomas Anderson ( Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) takes on the American fascination with and devotion to quasi-religious cults. What creates the mental and spiritual void in some of the most privileged people on Earth that allows them to became sucked in by charismatic charlatans time and time again?  What kind of narcissistic swindler manipulates the emptiness and longings of his fellow humans for his own sexual and monetary gain by setting himself up as a demi-god with answers to unanswerable questions?

Joaquin Phoenix  plays  Freddie Quell, a drunken sailor home from the war with mental health issues, advanced alcoholism, frustrated sexual desires and a hairpin temper. Phoenix gives an achingly brilliant portrayal of a man who is in turns both affecting and terrifying.  He's at sea: drowning in a toxic soup of rage, sexual frustration and existential loneliness he seems powerless to escape.

After being fired from one job as a department store photographer and fleeing another after murdering a man with bad homemade alcohol, Quell stows away on a pleasure boat where he meets  Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the finest performances in his stellar career) who offers him a father figure in an ersatz family of souls adrift.  Drawn into his quasi-religious cult that offers people a chance to redeem both their present and their past lives through a system of brain-washing called "processing" Freddie becomes both a defender of the faith and a fish caught in a net he neither understands or is able to escape.

Dodds  is as full of  rage and repressed desire as his protege, Freddie.  In the end the Master is as much a slave to denial and carnality as any of his followers.

Men wrestling with each other occurs over and over in the film.  It is his repressed homosexuality Dodds is really trying to come to grips with as he swindles women so he can hang out with men. His wife (a terrific Amy Adams) gets who is but desires the facade of the 50s marriage and status it confers too much to accept the truth about her husband in any real way.

There is a beautiful  recurring image in the film of wake churning up behind the boat. It evokes all kinds of things:  floating hearts, Rosarch blots, the nebulous dreams and desires that churn up in the wake of consciousness. The film is lovely to look.  The quality of the performances give it moments of great emotional resonance.

The  problem with THE MASTER isn't the subject matter, which is intriguing especially given Hollywood's love of Scientology, The Work, twelve-step meetings and all manner of quasi-spiritual psychic cure alls. It isn't the acting, which is stellar or the cinematography or the compelling score.  It's not that Anderson has nothing to say, he does: about the effect of the war on men who came home from it lost and psychically damaged, about alcoholism, about fantasy and longing and desire and repression, about the emptiness of the lives of people who want for nothing material and live in a spiritual and emotional vacuum.

Like his antagonist Dodds, I felt that Anderson was making it up as he went along with no clear picture of where he wanted to end up. He too has a position to maintain as a great commentator on American mores. This time however, like the cult followers he's trying to portray, he has foundered and lost his way.

I can't agree with the critics who have said Anderson offers no easy answers or fails to spoon-feed the audience and tell them what to think. He clearly understood the interior lives of his characters and the environment that created them but he hadn't figured out the story he wanted to tell with them. The problem  with THE MASTER is Anderson doesn't know what he thinks.
In the end, THE MASTER  is as frustrating and slippery as the leader of the cult it is ostensibly about.Go for the acting but don't expect to be compelled by the story.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Between The Sheets: new play on a hot topic opens Nightwood's fall season

First off, I want to apologize for my absence these past few weeks.  My holiday this summer did not, as it often does, include a sojourn at one of the major theatre festivals.   I saw stars and mountains and butterflies and Montreal cafes.  I saw my sisters and few dear old friends and had long, in-depth, catch-up conversations. I went midnight skinny-dipping in a bath-tub warm pool.  I ate a lot of great dinners and saw some beautiful Quebec countryside but I saw no films and no theatre.

Then I came back here to a few fairly grueling but extremely productive weeks at work.

While I was in the midst of that, the film festival flew past and the fall theatre season began in Toronto. I needed a fix. Today I zipped off to the Tarragon to catch Nightwood Theatre's season opener at the Backspace, a two hander called "Between The Sheets" by first-time playwright and recent National Theatre School graduate Jordi Mand.

Spoiler alert:  below there are some plot details, though nothing about the great twist of an ending.

Two women, a high-powered parent in her late 40s, and a pretty, organized and almost stupidly confident grade three teacher in her late 20s have an unscheduled meeting in a classroom after-hours on parent-teacher interview night.

This mom isn't there to interview the teacher about her son's progress in school: at least, not only to interview the teacher about her relationship with her son. She is there to confront  her son's teacher with evidence she has unearthed suggesting that the teacher's relationship with her husband, the student's father, is more than professional.

It's a brilliant premise that just churns out conflict. Sex, power, money, home-wrecking, kids and how to raise them are all on the table in this one hour drama.  While the script is better in some places than it is in others, there are two great actresses onstage to make a meal of a high-stakes confrontation loaded with controversy and they do.

Susan Coyne is quite possibly my favourite actress in the country. I'd watch her read a phone book.  Her intelligence and the depth of her skill and craft shine in everything I have ever seen her do. In this she is four steps past fabulous as Marion, the high-powered executive and harried parent of a difficult child, struggling to hang onto her long marriage to a depressed slacker of a husband.   Sporting slick black boots and a steely power suit, she's like a lioness with a kill in that cage of a classroom as she paces and grills her adversary.

Christine Horne does a fine job of making Teresa,  an idealistic and self-righteous prig of a school-teacher into a compelling and sympathetic character.  It's to her credit that the twist ending holds the resonance it does.

The play is well-directed and the realistic setting works well with the story. In this school, everyone learns a lesson.

I didn't love the musical underscore at the beginning of the action.  Under the blackout, it might have been a mood-setting device but placed where it was I felt as if the director was trying to tell me how to feel off the hop, never a good thing.  The script sags in a few places and strains credulity in a few others, but on the whole it's a very fine first effort:  thought-provoking and mostly well-constructed.

Whether you're in the 20-something camp or with the middle-aged women living with or divorced from Mister mid-life crisis, you'll certainly have plenty to discuss in the bar after the show. It is probably not your best bet for a first date.

This is absolutely worth seeing for the script's spirited look at a tough subject and two terrific performances.

Next week:  CLEOPATRA and hopefully, Michael Healey's new and controversial play, PROUD.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

HUFF at Summerworks: Tragedy and Hope from one to watch

I saw a workshop of Cliff Cardinal's story of a dysfunctional and profoundly damaged family on the Rez back last fall. I was excited by the funny writing, the realistic and well-voiced characters, the great story-telling and by Cardinal as a performer.

HUFF arrived at SUMMERWORKS off good press from Winnipeg where it was part of the Fringe.
I wanted to see how Cardinal had managed to distill all that story and all of those characters (around 20, including a skunk and a dog) into a one-person show. With a tight story driven by a central character, excellent direction, a wonderful, atmospheric set and an astonishingly grounded and assured performance: that's how.  HUFF is bleak and blackly droll, sharply observed and excruciating to watch.

Huff is a euphemism for sniffing gasoline and other solvents.  It causes hallucinations which the show brings vividly to life. It also cause irreversible brain damage.

Cardinal the writer unrolls the story with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Substance abuse and all of the ills that attend it, is rampant on Shit Creek reserve.  You can't grow up in Manitoba and not know a place like Shit Creek, you can't live in Winnipeg and not see the consequences of growing up the way Huff is growing up on Shit Creek.

Cardinal shows the legacy of inter-generational substance abuse and the awful despair and destruction that attends it as the Trickster's reign of folly. In less skilled hands, this would be another exercise in hand-wringing. Cardinal simply shows the audience what is and lets his characters have their own voices, their own power, their own tragedies and sorrows, their own dreams, their own hope.

There are places where things could use a little space between character shifts, a slight slackening of the pace:  just a little more room to breathe.  Cardinal's ease and confidence on a stage and his committed presence in the moment more than made up for any minor technical issues.

"The Creator gives everyone a gift".  Mr Cardinal has clearly been given a few gifts. He's still quite young. If this is any indication of what he's capable of at this tender age, I can't wait to see what he does next.

It was a fine night of theatre.  I hope it gets a remount and a tour across the country.

Friday, August 3, 2012

I Won't Hatch! and the mad road to Edmonton

On Wednesday night, I went to a fundraising preview of I WON'T HATCH! at the Alumnae Theatre here in Toronto.  A cast of 10 game young people is taking this comedy about fear, phobia and catastrophe to the Edmonton Fringe for a run in the festival.

It was a big hit here in 2009 and I could see why.

I had a great time the other night.  They are still in previews and it is fresh, tight, funny and well-observed.  The ensemble work, the staging, the design and the use of music are all terrific.

They are also taking a mad gamble. 10 people in a Fringe show on tour is financial suicide.

The reality of taking 10 people to Edmonton is this:  the performers pay $700 to be in the festival, they pay to get from Toronto to Edmonton, which cost me $400 last year so multiply that x10, they pay for posters, they pay for fliers and a set and costumes and a sound and lighting design (usually not much and often on spec) and they pay for ten people to eat in Edmonton. They have rehearsed for months for free.

The HATCH crew raised about $1600 plus the bar on Wednesday before expenses by my head count in the house.  I have no idea what they paid to rent the venue that night or if they got that as a donation.  That amount will fly 4 people to Edmonton and back, max. Even if they sell out their 300 seat theatre for their entire run, at about $10 a ticket, they will be lucky to break even.

"I hate one person shows" I hear from people who have never made one or done one, to which I want to say, "Really, you don't like Daniel McIvor? How about Elaine Stritch?  Or Ronnie Burkett?"

I generally restrain myself.  I generally say "Well, like every other show it depends on the acting, the writing and the direction" which is true.

I desperately want to tour a larger show with a cast of three. We would also need a stage manager.  I have talked to some great actresses and a good director and they are nervous but game.  I have a script I feel pretty happy about.  All I need is money. Right now, I think that money is 2 years away. I also know, and so do they, that we will be damn lucky to break even.

Here's the thing:  even when it's just you and the wonderful stage manager you pick up in whatever town you play in, you can still lose your shirt on tour. If there is just you and you have a hit, at least there's a chance you will come back with enough money to front your Fringe fees in October for next year and be able to live somewhere for the winter while you make your next show.

So for those of you complaining about solo shows on tour:  just try this, just once:  then complain. And by the way, a lot of them are pretty damn good.

As to the I WON'T HATCH  crew who got it together to take 10 people on tour: my hat is off to you.  You are brave and talented and maybe just a little bit crazy.

A few weeks ago I had someone say to me, "You're crazy! Talented but crazy! You need to be less crazy!"

I am not the kind of crazy he meant.  I don't need meds, I have a job, I pay my bills, I live somewhere and my psyche and soma are mostly in good balance.

I am of course, a kind of crazy. I need to be crazy to turn myself into another person in front of a room full of people who are crazy enough to spend a night watching me put my head and my heart and whatever skill I have on the line in order to share a story,

I need to be crazy or I'd take my next grant and march into a secretarial course and go get a proper job. Wait, I have a proper job.  I manage a store for people who are crazy enough to run a dance company.  They let me leave work to take gigs and write. I'm not too crazy for them or  for my many friends and family who support me in my mad choice to make theatre and film.

You have to be just a little bit crazy to try and do this for a living.  Sane people get business degrees and go to law school and then take their hard-earned money to watch us fools make them merry, make them sad, make them feel, make them think, make us be fully human and alive together in the communion of a theatre. We are the ghost conjurers, the shape shifters, the truth tellers, the dream weavers, the makers of magic.  It is our job to channel divine madness and share it with the people crazy enough to give us their hard-earned money.

So here's a toast to all the other crazy fools on the road this season from a fool who wishes with all her heart she was there with you.  May you be kissed by divine madness and may the Fringe Gods be with you! As soon as I've got the cash, I'm back out there right beside you.

If you are in Edmonton go see I WON'T HATCH!  The show is both divine and mad and they need your ten bucks.

Friday, July 27, 2012

MAGIC MIKE and the Tantulus of easy money

The record-breaking temperatures in Toronto this summer have made movie theatres a welcome refuge.

Last Saturday night, my friend and I decided to go see MAGIC MIKE.  Channing Tatum, who stars in this picture, co-wrote the script based on his personal experiences as a male stripper.  The demi-monde of ambiguous and tawdry sexual relations ( Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Girlfriend Experience) is a place filmmaker Steven Soderburgh has visited before. In some ways, this script and his talents as a director and a shooter are a natural pairing. Here, he runs sexual desires and economic desperation together in yet another uneasy and unholy alliance.

The film begins with a scene of financial emasculation.  Adam is a 19 year old man who has shown great promise as an athlete.  Accepted to university on a football scholarship, he gets kicked out day one for hitting his coach. Now broke and sleeping on his sister's couch, he is reduced to scrambling for day labour as a roofer.  The pay is crap, the work is brutal and the boss makes Scrooge look like a reasonable guy.  With little education and few skills, our young hero's journey toward better prospects is not going to be an easy one.

Fellow roofer Mike is saving to start a custom furniture business .  To facilitate this, he has a second job at night, taking his clothes off in front of women. It's fairly lucrative and easier than roofing. Adam starts peeling for a living and his nice boy good looks and buff bod make him an instant hit with the college girls and middle aged ladies who come to watch his act in Tampa. He becomes a professional party boy in a tourist town that loves a good time.

This role reversal: mostly young men stripping for mostly young women initially gives the film a kind of innocence.   Soderburgh, perhaps wanting to curry favour with a straight(er) audience or perhaps wanting to ignore the fact that gay or straight, it is mostly men who pay for sex of every sort, avoids that territory entirely.

As the story progresses, the level of dis-inhibition required by such a public display of sexual desire on the part of both the spectators and the dancers is frequently arrived at through the use of drugs.  This leads to the usual unhappy and dangerous consequences.

The sinister and overheated glow Soderburgh bathes much of the film in taints everything it touches with the nasty chemical patina of a fake tan. The heat is on and it is both seductive and hellish.

Mike and Adam make a deal with the Devil in the form of strip club owner, Dallas. Matthew McConaughy  is riveting in the role of the MC/owner. He's the degenerate glamour of evil personified.  I've seldom seen a better depiction of a certain kind of narcissistic male: superficial charm on the outside and a sucking hole of need and entitlement on the inside that no amount of cash, coke or sexual adulation will ever fill.  The only person in the film old enough to be a parent to any of the young men who work for him, Dallas is a bad Daddy indeed.  He dangles the possibility of partnership in the club in front of Mike, then Adam with no intention of ever making them equals.  Dallas is as emasculating and enslaving as the business he's in. When he tears off his leather pants and flings his gilded body on the edge of the thrust stage of the nightclub, allowing girls to cover him with caresses and money, we feel the both his thrill in tantalizing and his terror. His performance is an act of supplication to the sure knowledge that he is at the end of his ephemeral and vacuous power, the thrall of his impossible and rapidly decaying beauty.

In MAGIC MIKE, all the jobs working class men used to do to command worth, respect and social currency:  the cowboy, the fireman, the construction worker, the cop, the military man are on offer as impotent parodies of themselves. Even the rebels, the biker boy and the beat box dancer, Magic Mike himself, are up for sale at the club.  The bad boys have become someone college girls and working women buy for the night before they go home to a boyfriend or husband with real career prospects.

When the military act comes onstage on the 4th of July, the U.S. Army is reduced to a tease, The men in uniform are a display of  hyper-masculinity that is really about currency extraction, as evidenced by the stuffed g-strings that end the dance. The film's metaphor is complete: this is America as strip club, a glossy, sexed-up spectacle of ersatz male dominance, offering only an illusion of power, the tropes of masculinity devoid of potency or command.

Of course the army is the only other real employment option for these young men and the theatre of war is no jiggle show. However there is no more moral certainty in taking up the gun abroad than there is in pretending sexual desire for money. The choice on offer for these men is a choice between rings in hell.

Soderburgh does a bit of a tease here himself.  He sets up all kinds of interesting questions.  What happens to a man when he divorces himself from his own sexual desires to service the desires of others? Is the wash of money in certain businesses as addictive as the drugs?  He then, sadly fails to answer them or even fully explore them.

Mike's attraction to Brooke, Adam's grounded older, working class, medical admin sister gives the film its heart. Both Tatum Channing and Cody Horn's performances are great.  Horn makes a meal of being a shrewd and silent observer of fools who think anything in life worth having will be easy or cheap. Channing shows us the suffering of a man who is not valued for who he is, a kind, hardworking and generous person, but rather  for what he looks like. There's a great moment in a bar when Mike runs into a girl he's been sleeping with who is out with her fiance.  He's one down, the dirty secret, the piece on the side, as disposable to this woman as last season's party shoes.

When Mike steps up and protects Adam from thugs after a drug deal gone awry, Brooke is finally able to see his moral worth and they have a tenuous but hopeful, human connection. Like Mike and Brooke, the audience is invested in Adam.  The ending is so ambiguous with regard to his fate, it fails to satisfy on any level.

The film ends up evoking much more than it delivers. MAGIC MIKE is a great tease and fun to look at, but in the end, like the strippers at its heart, it promises much more than it delivers.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Winnipeg Fringe: AQUA BOOK BYOV Shows Moved to the Conservatory

A quick update on a venue change: all performance scheduled to be at Aqua Books ( 123 Princess) are now at:

211 Bannatyne

This is a well-known Fringe venue from years past, so patrons should have no trouble finding their way there. Performers who have shifted down the road include:
BREMNER DULTHIE  - kabaret '33
Bremner and Melanie's joint effort  - BREL AND PIAF...

If I missed your show, please FB or tweet me and I will update this post.

Kudos to Chuck McEwan and the intrepid Winnipeg Fringe for resolving this so swiftly and so well. What could have been a disaster has just been a very temporary set-back. The Conservatory is a nice air-conditioned venue, a short sprint from the beer tent.  Get out and support your touring Fringe favourites!

I posted on FB about this earlier today but I am just going to say it here: this is NOT the fault of the Winnipeg Fringe.

Aqua Books is a BYOV. and has been for the past few years.  Kelly Hughes, who has been a great supporter of the live performance scene downtown made Aqua a popular venue for readings, theatre and music. Aqua relocated this spring and  Kelly has been busy renovating his new location at 123 Princess.  I am not sure how this happened, but no occupancy permit for Aqua was obtained from the city by Aqua for the festival and so city officials shut it down opening night. Apparently, the same thing happened at Aqua during the Jazz Festival in Winnipeg a month back.

Mr Hughes is not a neophyte at this.  He must surely have known a permit would be required.

I would really like to know if  the failure to obtain the permit was an oversight on his part and the city was just being ham-fisted about paper-work or if the space was not completed and substantially not up to code and so he hoped to just dodge the inspection?

Fringe performers often pay up-front for a BYOV venue at least in part, so it is quite possible they are out of pocket on two counts:  lost revenue for cancelled shows plus paying for a space they are now not using.

I know running and moving a small  shop is a hand-to-mouth business, especially a bookstore in the current climate.  Renovations are never cheap. We all want to see Mr. Hughes succeed with his venture. However none of this makes renting people a space they can't use acceptable.

Someone needs to get to the bottom of this.  Either the city needed to cut Hughes some slack and let the shows go on or Hughes knew some time ago he could not be ready in time and owed it to the performers and the Winnipeg Fringe to let them know it advance.

It's a sad story, but at least the performers got a happy ending.  Things are looking less certain for Aqua.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Winnipeg Fringe Envy or Stuff I'd Be Seeing If I Were There...

The Toronto Fringe is now done for another year.  I ended my festival as I traditionally do, seeing the winner of the 24 hour playwrighting contest and then heading off to the beer tent to say good-bye to my friends who are heading down the road to other festivals or back home.

The pre-show line-up chats  this weekend were almost as entertaining as the plays themselves.  The week ended well.

Sadly I'm not heading down the road to Winnipeg.  If I was back home this week, I'd be trying to see the following shows:

Stuff I've seen here or elsewhere and would recommend:

OF MICE AND MORRO AND JASP:  just brilliant, a favourite show of last week
JEM ROLLS :10 STARTS AND AN END:  great performance poetry from a master wordsmith
TJ Dawe in MEDICINE: TJ at his most personal, moving and thought-provoking.
THE BALLAD OF HERBIE COX directed by Jonno Katz, which got great buzz here and deserved better houses.
THE FIRST CANADIAN PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES for its smart script and fine performance by Priscilla Yakelaishek.
ELLAMENTARY was a light, feel-good musical, perfect for teen-aged girls.
LAVINIA was in Winnipeg a few years back features the wonderful Tara Travis and works for kids and grown-ups alike.
TEMPLE OF KHAOS:  comedic mayhem and political satire.  Fun.

Stuff I haven't seen with performers or writers whose work I know and like:

7 WAYS TO DIE:  a mask-work show written by Workshop West GM and darn talented Keltie Brown ( daughter of Ken Brown)
THE ADVERSARY:  Andrew Bailey writes and performs and if his last show LIMBO was any indication this will be moving and smart.
THE BIRDMANN:  we met in Victoria last year. Trevor does a show combining magic, comedy and physical theatre like no other.
BREAKING RANK:  Howard was in Victoria with his true story about fighting the US military post-Vietnam. It's a great story well worth hearing.
FOOLS FOR LOVE:  I saw Rocket and Sheshells at the Toronto Clown Festival and adored them. Battle of the sexes at its charming and ridiculous best.
HUFF:  I saw a version of this script back in the fall and was very impressed with Cliff Cardinal's writing and acting.  A powerful, darkly humorous and disturbing story.  He was picked for SUMMERWORKS here, a hotly contested juried festival which bodes well.
KUWAITI MOONSHINE:  Tim Murphy is telling a true story and he is a charming and engaging writer and story-teller.
LITTLE ORANGE MEN:  I've sadly managed to miss this show in both Victoria and Ottawa.  She sold out in Victoria and had great buzz in Ottawa.  It looks great.
LULU:  a wonderful cast of Winnipeg actors including Andrew Cecon and Claire Therese tackle a great 19th century classic. Good play, good actors:  how can you go wrong?
MINDING DAD:  Ken Brown (SPIRAL DIVE) and Jon Patterson (HOUSE, among others) are doing Ken's play about a father-son relationship and how that relationship is affected by Altzheimer's.  Sure to be one of the highlights of the week.
MORE POWER TO YOUR KNITTING NELL:  Melanie Gall has a fabulous voice and this is a  show to take your mom to during the Fringe, featuring songs from WWII and knitting! She had buzz in Ottawa.
NE ME QUITTE PAS:  Bremner Dulthie and Melanie Gall do the rep of Piaf and Brel.  They both have international careers as performers for good reason.  Bremner was one of my fave things in Ottawa last year.
PETE AND CHRIS:  they killed in Toronto and Victoria, they have made me laugh hard in the past and I like their style of comedy.
SHELBY BOND:  THE POOR MAN'S GUIDE TO BEING RICH:  Sound and Fury alumnae Bond can do no wrong on stage. This will be charming and funny.
STRETCH MARKS: two of the crew I did BREAST FRIENDS with ( Kim Zeglinski and Heather Witherdon) are joined by some other moms in a comedy about sex after children. Looks fun!
SOUND AND FURY: DIRTY FAIRY TALES:  Richard Maritzer and friends are cheeky, naughty, irreverent and hilarious.
TEACHING HAMLET:  Keir Cutler will give you an English class you won't soon forget.  Always love him for his dark, smart, passionate stories and well researched scripts.
TIL DEATH DO WE PART:  Ryan Gladstone takes on the Six Wives of Henry VIII.  This will be funny, physical and informative.
THE TOURING TEST:  talented Winnipegers Scott Douglas and Ross MacMillan are headed into the future.  I'd love to go too.

THIS TOWN:  Carol Lee and Jonathan had a big hit in Edmonton last year and this is a good script.

THE WATER IS WIDE:  Randy Rutherford sings beautifully and is a consummate story-teller. This will be wonderful, I'm sure.
WINGS OF DARKNESS:  Columpa Bobb, a fine actor, writer, comedian and theatre teacher wrote this and I'd love to check it out.
UNDERBELLY:  Jayson (GIANT INVISIBLE ROBOT) MacDonald brings a new show to Winnipeg.  Jayson really connects with audiences and I've liked all his other work.
VERRSUS SAYS SURPRISE:  Ottawa audiences loved this show, including my friends Brian Carroll and Barb Popel.  Another show you can take your mom to about slowing down in a faster and faster world.

Between this, the outdoor stage, street performances, beer tent food, libation and gossip and your own random discoveries of new talents form Winnipeg's great pool of actors and writers and new people from away you should easily be busy for the rest of the week. Have a blast!  I'll look forward to hearing about your adventures in Fringing at Winnipeg's 25th fringe.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Toronto Fringe: Process, Plot Problems and Perfection

The Toronto Fringe is heading into its final, usually frantic weekend.  The weather has held, most of the reviews are in.  There's now a stereo playing very quietly in the performers' bar.

The Fringe is a week to see theatre but it is also a social week for me.  I've had great times late night hanging out with old friends and meeting new ones in ticket line-ups and at the beer tent before biking home under the stars.

I've managed to see one or two shows a day most days.  Last Friday night, it was TEMPLE OF KHAOS. Saturday, I saw PORN STAR.  Sunday, I saw THE FIRST CANADIAN PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. Monday, I saw Soup Can Theatre's production of Sophocles' ANTIGONE.

The Fringe is a place for people to develop new plays and new ways of working. It is one of the truly exciting things about the festival.  The above list is an interesting sample of some of the kinds of work on offer this week.  I would describe all of the above shows as work in process, for a range of reasons.

Do people bring fully polished work to the festival?  Of course:  there are many seasoned performers who make their living preparing and then touring a polished gem of a show to an audience who comes to see them, knowing their standard of work is consistently high. I'll speak more about some of those people later.

Other people come to the Fringe to experiment:  to develop a large cast musical that is a few workshops away from being in a bigger theatre.  I saw DROWSY CHAPERONE for the first time at the Toronto Fringe and I preferred that version to the Mirvish hit.

I see people trying out styles and ideas and developing as groups years before they hit mainstream theatres. This is true of many improv comedy troupes.  New writers present first plays here.  More seasoned writers try riskier ideas here.  Theatre practitioners who want to try new methods of working or work in a different medium or create more experimental work  using clown or hybrids of dance and theatre or dance and poetry or site-specific work or a radical take on a classic text they are not able to do in the constraints of the season of a traditional theatre come to the Fringe to develop their shows.

Some experiments work better than others. I saw four shows this week that come out of this tradition of using the Fringe to experiment with  style, technique and process. None were perfect but they all held my interest.

TEMPLE OF KHAOS is a four-person show, mixing clown and commedia techniques to tell a tale about the folly of war.  The performers are changing the show as they go along each day, refining physical business and altering the script.  I loved the premise and I enjoyed much of it. There's some sharp social commentary here and some very funny character work and physical business.  Be warned: this is absolutely work in progress and it has that messy feel, not inappropriately for a show with KHAOS in the title.  Worth seeing, as long as you are OK with things on the loose side.

THE FIRST PRESIDENT....features a very smart, very dark, social satire in the form of an address to a university graduating class in the future (2084 to be exact) delivered by the hot, but not too sharp future President of a United NA, a certain Ms. White-White.  Priscilla Yakielashek gives a very nuanced and beautifully detailed rendering of a woman whose ambition, good looks and lack of critical faculty has allowed her to be manipulated into running the free world according to certain elite (male) interests.  Jem Rolls wrote the script, which is wickedly droll and blackly well-observed, although there may be more thoughts on the table than an audience can absorb in the time allowed.  I enjoyed it, but I wanted more space between ideas. Worth seeing, especially when you're done with brain candy and dumb comedy and want some smart laughs and food for thought. At Venue #7, St. Vladimir's.

Soup Can 's production of Sophocles' ANTIGONE is set during some unnamed G20 riot. Sadly, this badly conceived update lowered the stakes in one of the great tragedies ever written in any language.  The game cast displayed acting skills ranging from barely amateur to Stratford-worthy fabulous.  The young ladies and some of the young men were not well seated in their voices and were tough to understand, especially in the first third of the play.  The chorus looked menacing in gas masks in a great visual, but we never got to experience their vocal power to great effect. The director piled on unnecessary stage business, taking off Antigone's boots during another character's speech, for instance, simply undermining the great text and splitting focus in a way that hurt, not helped the play.

I found myself waiting for Creon and his son to reappear for more debates after what proved to be the most galvanizing scene of the play. Both their performances were terrific.

I have no problem with updating a classical text and repositioning it in a contemporary environment.  Palestine, Afghanistan, Egypt's Tahir Square, Syria would all have worked better than this "First World problem" G20 take.  I'd like to see this again in a better version, but it is worth a look for a chance to see a rarely produced great play. At Venue #4, The Randolph Academy (the former Bathurst Street Theatre).

Chris Craddock, a very witty, political and talented writer had a massive hit here at the Fringe a few years back with BASHED, THE MUSICAL which was brilliant.  PORN STAR predates it and it is not as strong a piece of writing.  There are too many plot digressions and far too many issues presented for any one, strong narrative to carry the day. Moreover, the weakest and least credible story is the one that drives the plot.

I'd previously seen PORN STAR in Edmonton as one-woman show and the weaknesses of the script were less evident when one person was doing it.  Here, four terrific actresses including Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis of "Morro and Jasp" fame have taken it on and their uniformly fantastic work  underlined every problem with the script.

The stuff that works is great. The gay love story ( I don't want to give away too much plot here), the naughty librarian's imaginary sex life, our time with a dead angel in Hell are all fabulous: moving, hilarious, human. The stuff that doesn't work:  the hash of religion and politics that lead to a climax that feels forced and tacked on, equating freedom to watch porn and reproductive choice as issues of equal weight (no, absolutely not) stick out like sore thumbs.

Audiences are loving it and it is 100% worth seeing for the acting alone. Try and ignore the convoluted and unfocussed plot and dodgy sexual politics and go for the laughs, the warmth and the feel-good ending. Whether or not I agree with his every thought, Chris Craddock is always damn funny and this crew delivers the play's heart and humour. At Venue #1, The Tarragon Theatre.

Then yesterday, I had tried and true Fringe nirvana:  Jem Rolls doing 10 STARTS AND AN ENDING and TJ Dawe in MEDICINE.  Polished, meticulously rehearsed performances and elegantly constructed, intelligent, heartfelt and witty writing came together in two very different shows that reminded me why I do this:  to try and hit that bar and make work at the level I saw yesterday.

Jem is a performance poet from the UK.  He's been touring the circuit since 2001.  He is an energy force field onstage, hitting the audience with wave after wave of words,visions, ideas, controversies and a full range of human emotions.  I ended my time with him holding a mental picture of being in an all you can eat ice cream bar in Thailand.  I went many other places in that hour, including across Canada in one minute, revisiting many of the places I have been to in my own summers of Fringe touring.  It was for me, as it always is with Jem, a wonderful trip. He wasn't sold out yesterday:  he should be. At Venue #6, The George Ignatieff Theatre.

Then on to TJ Dawe, who took me on a trip of a different kind: a psychotropic one.  TJ goes to the heart of a B.C. forest  with Dr. Gabor Mate and a couple of shamans on a quest to heal a traumatic psychic wound. The journey he takes us on is both intensely personal and profoundly universal. Last night, I plummeted, as if in a dream, to the bottom of the performer's unconscious and the depths of his all-too human soul. The writing was beautifully observed, sensitive and resonant and the elliptical structure of the story was masterful. Much of the audience was moved to tears. This MEDICINE is truly cathartic. Line up well ahead of the curtain time or you won't get a seat. At Venue #8, The Helen Gardiner Phelan Theatre.

I'm going to have an early night in preparation for a weekend of more theatre and socializing.  I'll see those of you who are here in a line-up or at the beer tent.  Have fun!  I know I will, as I have all week.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Day 2 at the Toronto Fringe: Thought provoking clowns and an entertaining history lesson at the TARRAGON

My first Fringe show last night was poignant and bitter-sweet for many reasons.  The wonderful clown duo of Morro and Jasp opened  their adaptation Of Mice and Men last night: OF MICE AND MORRO AND JASP.

The lights come up on the duo with their battered touring suitcases.  At Jasp's prompting,  Morro takes out her pink ukelele and sings "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" with a hat in front of them.  Our beloved clowns are flat broke and down on their luck:  the costs of mounting their last production have left them impecunious.  They are busking, sleeping in bushes and forced to abandon their own creative endeavors to join a carnival and be with scary, not nice people doing scary, not nice things.

They dream of owning a clown farm:  a happy place of creative freedom and bucolic bliss but that dream  is going to take some serious cash and they are down to their last loonie.

This latest offering is the duo's take not only on Steinbeck's classic tale but also on the touring performer's nightmare:  you take an artistic risk, end up broke with no place to live and are forced to back-burner your dreams and take whatever work you can get. It's happened to almost everyone I know at some point, including me.

I am not going to tell you what happens in the end but I will say that their observations about touring tragedy and people's desire for a happy ending certainly resonated for me on several levels. It's a brilliant show: risky high-stakes work from two fine performers at the top of their game.  The ending moved me to tears and laughter as these two so often do.  I'm glad I went when I did because this show is certain to sell out. 

The second show I saw last night was PIECING TOGETHER PAULINE.   Chris Coculuzzi and Roxanne Deans have collaborated on a play about the life and times of opera singer and performer Pauline Viaradot.  Intellectual, accomplished and ambitious, Viradot knew many of 19th century Europe's greatest talents including Berlioz, Chopin, Clara Schumann, Georges Sand, Liszt and Gounod who all figure into the story.

The play is a thoughtful and well-researched exploration not only of the life of Viradot herself, but of the lives of women artists in the 19th century.  It was amazing to me how many of the same issues continue in the 21st century.  One reason so few women over 30 tour on the Fringe circuit is childcare, which was a problem in the 19th century.  Apparently some things don't change.

There was great and palpable stage chemistry between Kirsten Zaza as the younger Viradot and her husband, her lovers, her friends and  her admirers. Elva Mae Hoover does a great job of making the older Viradot sympathetic and compelling.  The natural chemistry between all of the actors really added to the enjoyment of the show and made the characters feel real and human. The staging is simple, clean and effective.

With a cast of 14 in a period drama spanning several decades, this is certainly one of the most ambitious productions staged this Toronto Fringe season.  There's some fine acting work both comic and tragic. A number of the actors do double duty as two characters. It's a tribute to the production that everything and everyone in the complex story was clear.

This is a 90 minute show. I know there are always concerns with running time in situations like these but there were a few moments last night I felt could have been allowed to breathe a bit more, especially the dropping of the curtains for the death scenes. Some of the musical bridges could have run a little longer. Also, if we are to have the leading lady change onstage, she needs a period slip under her period costume.

These are minor quibbles with an engaging production that gave me an entertaining history lesson, something I always enjoy.  It's well worth checking out.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Toronto Fringe: nice plays Dudes but where's the party?

The Toronto Fringe opened on Wednesday night.  It is one of the largest Fringes in the country, 155 shows in a city that is one of the largest in the English-speaking world for theatre.  The range and quality of offerings here is always high and I look forward to my time in the stalls this week which begins tonight.

For one of the largest theatre festivals in the country, Toronto has one of the smallest festival sites.  This is in part due to the fact the festival is quite spread out, but not entirely.  Winnipeg and Edmonton have very spread out performance venues now but there is a major festival central in both cities.

On the small festival site in Toronto, there is a visual Fringe with people doing mini-performances, art installations and interactive performance art. It's very nice and creative.  That part of the festival takes place on Honest Ed's parking lot, where the festival beer tent used to be.  There is also a lecture series on various aspects of the business of theatre:  very useful and we appreciate the help.

What there isn't is a party.

Before the beer tent was in Honest Ed's parking lot, it was beside the Tranzac Club and moved inside at 11:00 pm.  There was a cabaret and a DJ and dancing until the wee hours.  It was the best week of the year.  No more.

Last night, after we had our 9:00 pm  free ice cream (thank you), a bunch of earnest young things in matching t-shirts  that said they were "The 100", dutifully herded us into the alley beside Honest Ed's  where we were allowed to stand and drink quietly:  no music, no cabaret, no karaoke.  Apparently the neighbours complained about noise so the party aspect of the Fringe has been cancelled.  I figure the real reason is the surrounding bar owners decided the actors, staff and festival patrons should be spending their  beer tent money with them and used noise as an excuse to shut the party down.

It feels as if the festival organizers got together and said " what is the least we can possibly do to throw a party we don't want to have and make it as little fun as possible so these people will just go home or to a bar down the street?"

I 'm sorry dear festival managers and powers that be, but the "party" aspect of this year's Fringe totally, completely sucks. It reminds me of the small-minded, uptight Protestant, no fun, Type A anal retentiveness of Toronto that never, ever goes away, the Women's Christian Temperance aspect of this town, the pursed lipped parsimony that makes me long to be somewhere people actually like to have fun, say Montreal or Winnipeg.  It is the real reason Toronto is a hated place in the rest of the country.  Those of us from elsewhere know that unless we are  totally focused on work 24/7 here, we will be seen as lazy, shiftless slackers. 

In Montreal, the Just for Laughs theatre is the performers' bar and party space and it stays open until dawn and there is music. There is also a park with a beer tent, performances and a hang-over brunch Sunday with Crisco Twister. In Edmonton, the Fringe has an entire market square with a stage for street performers and street performers all over the site. The Festival hosts a nightly cabaret and throws the performers, staff and volunteers a party with food closing night. There are also two private bars that stay open until the wee hours during the Fringe on either end of the site.

Ottawa, tiny in comparison has a park with food, drink, a cabaret and dancing.  Their opening night was an actual party that went until 1:00 am.

In Winnipeg, the festival has a park with free public performances day and night, a street market with many kinds of food and merchandise and a combination of festival-sponsored and private enterprise (Jay and Mae, I missed you last night) and 3  bars on site, two festival run and one private.  There is music, drinking, food and dancing until 4:00 am.  The theatre festival is big and loud.  People do circus acts with fire in the street at 1:00 am. The Fringe gets a special license for a street party on the first weekend. The performers put on  a private cabaret after midnight in a private bar near the Fringe that sells out every year and is one of the highlights of the Festival:  it is rude, cheeky, naughty and fun.  And yes, people live in Winnipeg's theatre district in really expensive condos.  In Winnipeg when you throw a street party, the neighbours come join you.  If they wanted to be in a dry religious commune where you have to drink secretly in an alley, they'd head  back to Altona.

If PRIDE can have a 4 day street party in a residential neighbourhood in Toronto with three deafening stages, 4 parades, public drinking and naked people on leashes marched through the street without incident why can't  the theatre community of Toronto have a DJ after 11:00 pm? If it's  because of the neighbours, it's time to get different neighbours.

Here's a thought:  move this party to the Factory Theatre or inside Honest Ed's where we could have drinking and dancing and music and performances like they have in Winnipeg and Edmonton and Montreal during the Fringe and we could have some actual fun.  The current set-up sucks. This festival can do better and it should.  We have world-class theatre here.  Let's have a world-class party to celebrate.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Who's in Charge Here? Ken Gass and Board of The Factory Theatre

I am not going to review anything in this week's blog post.  I am going to weigh in on the Factory Theatre debacle on this Canada Day weekend.

Last Wednesday night, the  Factory Theatre's board of directors decided to oust the theatre's long-serving and founding artistic director Ken Gass.  Mr. Gass created the Factory Theatre in 1970 to produce Canadian plays.

The link below will take you to the Factory Theatre's webpage.  A link to the board's rationalization for this decision is on the left hand side of the page, appropriately:

A petition signed by close to 2500 members of the theatre community is currently in circulation asking the board to reinstate Ken Gass or to resign.  Many prominent members of the arts community  have signed including George F. Walker who pulled his play from the Factory's upcoming season in protest.

I signed and here's my reason why.

I loved some things I saw at The Factory this season ( HIS GREATNESS was outstanding) was less keen on others (The REZ SISTERS ) but that could fairly be said of most of the theatre companies in town that mount a season.  Some stuff works better than other stuff. Not liking a production is no reason to fire the Artistic Director of a theatre that runs in the black and fulfills its mandate as the Factory has done under Mr. Gass's stewardship.

Apparently the board has dismissed Mr. Gass over a debate about the direction and cost of needed renovations of the Factory Theatre building.

The theatre needs work and I speak as someone who has performed there and produced there during the Fringe in 2007 and again in 2009.

As a board member, and I have been a board member as well as a director of development and a general manager of of more than one arts organizations, it is the board's job to help the staff manage the organization, to help raise money for the organization, to ensure the company's long-range goals and objectives are being achieved in the best way possible and to advise the artistic staff in areas where they, the board members, have special skills and expertise.  This is why many arts boards try to have one accountant and a lawyer:  to help with legal and accounting matters.

As a board member, one can have legitimate concerns about the organization incurring debt and about board liability for debt.  Most larger incorporated arts organizations protect the board from certain liabilities with insurance.

If you would like to be better informed about rules and regulations governing non-profit boards, this link is very useful:

Interestingly, according to the information provided above, one of the instances in which a board or its members can be sued and held liable in a non-profit is wrongful dismissal.

It is my understanding, that in no small part thanks to Mr. Gass, who returned to the Factory in 1996 when it was in serious hot water and rescued the place from collapse with $5000 of his own money, The Factory now owns the building it is housed in, a building and a piece of property worth millions of dollars.

This is no small achievement.  Further, The Factory is in the enviable position of having this valuable land and building to leverage when it needs to go for the financing of things like renovations. With the current low mortgage rates and the value of real estate in that neighbourhood, this is a great position to be in.

The board of the theatre would need to be pathetically risk-averse to not support needed major renovations at this time, given the Factory's situation with respect to the value of its real estate assets.

The Factory could mortgage its building to renovate and then fundraise money to pay off that debt.  The renovations would enhance the value of the property and enhanced facilities would generate more revenue in rentals and from a proposed restaurant.  How often have I wished I could get actual food in a theatre before a show when I've rushed there from work.

In firing Mr. Gass without cause, the board has quite possibly opened the theatre up to being sued for wrongful dismissal. If Mr. Gass is not in breach of his employment contract with the theatre, assuming he had one,  he may well be in a position to sue the board, although given his unswerving devotion to the place, he's unlikely to do so.  Boards are sometimes legally indemnified against liability but this is not always the case.  It likely they counted on Mr. Gass' finer feelings protecting them from the suit they deserve.

Mr. Gass offered to have a mediator come in and negotiate.  The board refused.  This is like an abusive, controlling spouse who refuses to go to twelve-step or see a therapist.  In the face of their shabby treatment, trying to pretend they weren't firing him by fobbing him off with some token "emeritus" appointment, Mr. Gass quite reasonably took the high road and the door.

Tort issues aside, the Factory board's conduct last week has damaged their credibility in the arts community beyond repair.  They have lost the community's respect and trust. 

The board is guilty of mismanagement and abuse of power and they must be held to account.

As Richard Ouzounian pointed out in his article in The Toronto Star earlier this week, government funders, not the board provide the aggregate of the Factory Theatre's funding.  Since no one else can or will, the funders need to force the board to comport themselves in a responsible fashion.

Mr. Gass should be reinstated and as he proposed, a mediator should be imposed on the organization by the funders.  The Chair of the Board and the members who decided to fire Mr. Gass without valid cause for dismissal should step down and be replaced by people who shares the artistic community's support of Mr. Gass and the audience's support of Mr. Gass and his vision for the future of the Factory. He's done a pretty good job so far which is more than I can say for the board.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Collective Consciousness: The Wrecking Ball and The Encampment

All art requires at least two people:  someone to make it and someone to see it.  My beloved ex John Huston used to say "without an audience, actors are just lonely people in a room, talking to themselves."

This week, my experiences as a spectator have been focused on two acts of creation that took many artists working collaboratively to bring to them to life.

The first was THE WRECKING BALL which, in this installment, took place in Toronto at the Theatre Centre.  It was a sweltering plus 35 outside and the theatre was packed to capacity.

Small wonder:  Brad Fraser, Jason Sherman, Djanet Sears and Cliff Cardinal among others wrote blistering political satire about incendiary issues so current it felt like eavesdropping on a backroom - or bedroom, in some cases, conversation. Censorship was a focus of much of the work, not surprising given recent events in the Toronto theatre community, particularly Michael Healey's recent departure from The Tarragon Theatre over his political satire PROUD.

The evening was a benefit for the Actors' Fund of Canada as well as the closing night of the Edward Bond Festival.  Bond himself was in attendance and read poetry he had written especially for the occasion.  It was a fitting tribute for a man whose career as a playwright never veered far from political controversy and a very exciting night of theatre.

This past weekend, I visited THE ENCAMPMENT at Fort York.  The collaboration was devised by Tom Sokolowski and Jenny-Anne McCowan, who put 200 tents and more than 200 artists together to share stories from 200 people who lived through or died during the War of 1812.

The show is open from 7:30 pm to 11:00 pm until today, June 24th.  I spent two evenings there this weekend with my friend Alex.  As the sun set, the sky turned pink, then red, the quarter moon rose and slid behind the clouds and darkness descended, we went from seeing the exhibit in daylight to experiencing it by the light of Coleman lamps under a night sky. As we stood on the ramparts of the old fort beneath the stars, we could feel the heat of the sun held in the stones as we looked out over the field of white, glowing tents.

"Dear Captain, I will marry you as long as there is enough of your body remaining to house your soul."
A wedding dress hangs in a spider's web with this love letter at the door of Anne Prevost's tent.

Two hundred years ago, Canada was a colony, not a country.  Americans, British subjects and Mohawk Indians owned African slaves and slavery was legal, an awful fact brought vividly to life in several of the exhibits. An account of three men 'subduing" a woman who had tried to escape her awful fate, dragging her into a boat and taking her to be auctioned was horrifying for its straightforward accounting.

There were public duels.  There was bravery and gallantry in battle and tragic loss. There was also treason which garnered brutal retribution from the State.  An alcoholic husband murdered his wife and five of their children in the family bed, I learned in a tent hung with blood stained sheets.  He was hanged.  There was fair commerce and fraud, social climbing and gossip.  There was love and there was loss and there were letters, dozens and dozens of letters:  between sons and mothers, between sweethearts and spouses and outraged editorials in newspapers.  No text or emails here:  letters were written on paper by hand and delivered by hand, often taking months to arrive at their destinations.

In one tent: Surrender:  a low white table with that word writ large in red and seven jars each labeled for something surrendered in a lost battle: pride, hope, respect, love.  You knelt before it like an altar and bowed your head to read, in supplication, on a tiny card suspended above it of the loss of a battle by a General who signed the treaty forfeiting the land he loved at his own kitchen table.  We were invited to write on a blank card and surrender a personal loss to one of the jars. My friend and I were both overcome with emotion.

Alexander Wood, a judge in Upper Canada, I learned, inspected men's genitals for scratches in search of a rapist and was accused of being a "Molly"a 19th century pejorative for a homosexual man, for his efforts to get a woman justice. Wood was gay and Toronto's thriving gay community will celebrate Pride next weekend on his former tract of land.

The installation was a part of the Luminato Festival as well as a commemoration in honour of the bicentenary of the War of 1812.  It was an experience of history inventively imagined, deeply felt and writ large.  Tonight is the final night sadly.  If you have a chance, by all means go.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Hands of Time and the Positions of the Heart

I have been in Ottawa for a few days at Canada Dance, The National Gallery and The Ottawa Fringe.

The trip included perfect summer weather and a stay with my friends Barb Popel and Brian Carroll and their cat Zorro, who kindly shared his library sofa bed with me. I had morning coffee while fat pollen coated bees sated their industriousness in beds of lavender and bee balm.

After dinner and wine with my lovely friends ( planked coq au vin!)  I headed off to the National Arts Centre to watch Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers perform 97 POSITIONS OF THE HEART, a lyrical and poetic theatre/dance hybrid based on the life and work of writer and free spirit Elizabeth Smart.

Smart lavished her love and devotion on British poet George Barker and bore four children by him out of wedlock at a time when that was seen as disgraceful. Smart could not be disgraced. She gave the feckless and philandering Barker a dog's loyalty and lived a dog's life in return. She made extraordinary art out of this self-imposed turmoil and eventually came to realize you don't need a bad boyfriend to have decent material for a good poem.

Both dance and text were sensitively and passionately performed by the company who conveyed the emotional intensity and the lyricism of both Jaik Josephson's writing and artistic director Brent Lott's choreography.  Dean Cowieson's lovely lighting and simple but effective design supported the work without getting in the way. Rachel Brown who founded the company and died this past week would have been proud of Lott and the fine dancers who carried on the company's tradition of ground-breaking work in fine style despite her sad loss.

The next day, I went to the National Gallery of Canada. I have made a summer pilgrimage there most years since the new building opened with a Degas retrospective more than 2 decades ago.

This summer, the blockbuster show is VAN GOGH UP CLOSE, a look at his landscape and flower paintings and the influences of Japanese printmaking and the then-new medium of photography on his work. I had last seen Van Gogh in Paris at the Musee D'Orsay.  The Ottawa show is well-curated and the paintings were beautiful.  I enjoyed the Japanese prints and marvelled at the early nature photography. On the downside, for $25 there wasn't a ton of work on display and the exit through the gift shop was just disturbing when I thought for even a minute about Van Gogh's life and walked past nasty 3D postcards (Why 3D? why?) and $48 starry night t-shirts. I escaped the wave of nausea that always hits me when I see great art reduced to vulgar hucksterism and retreated to THE CLOCK.

I first heard about this work of art from a filmmaker friend who was in Venice during the Biennale this fall.  He gushed over it and he is not a gushy guy.

British modern artist Christian Marclay won the Golden Lion, awarded to the best artist  at the Venice Biennale for this piece and it is mesmerizing: extraordinarily, magically, incredibly wonderful.

Marclay and his team have created a 24 hour clock, run in real time, comprised of clips from hundreds of films and a few television programs. The soundtrack is not only that of the film clips but a carefully orchestrated use of other sound to pull you through the visual edits.  I saw half an hour in two 15 minute segments and I had to tear myself away.  Every human emotion passed before my eyes while the clock ticked on. Moments I had forgotten about in old movies I adore (Audrey Hepburn at the train station in SABRINA, Humphrey Bogart getting the letter in the rain from CASABLANCA, Michael Douglas as a psychiatrist) washed over me.  It make me think: about how time crawls and races in life, about those frozen moments where a few seconds can feel like an eternity, about how you get lost in a film in a way you get lost in few other experiences.

THE CLOCK is coming to Toronto to the Power Plant this fall.  I will be there to see as much of it as possible.  It was astonishingly fantastic.

I then headed over to the Ottawa Fringe Beer Tent, had my first beer tent dinner of the season, chatted with old friends and had moments where I was pulled back in time:  thinking about other years I had been in this place with these people and the many adventures, joys and sorrows we had shared. Even though I am taking this season off to research a new show, the Fringe still feels like my artistic home.  My fellow Fringers:  artists, administrators, technicians, staff, volunteers, billets, critics and dedicated audience members have become my family on the road.  It is a room in which I feel accepted, happy and safe. To work there had been a privilege and being part of that community always makes me feel richly blessed.

My first show of the year was Katherine Glover's DEAD WRONG.  I met the Minneapolis based Glover last year when she toured BURNING BROTHELS about a legal whore house in the state of Nevada.  In addition to performing, Glover is a professional journalist and her excellent research and story-telling skills were on display in her new show.  Based on several true stories, Glover focuses on a wrongful conviction case of rape. She takes no easy outs and offers no pat solutions.  It was a one-two punch of powerful and thought-provoking story-telling and absolutely worth seeing.

I then headed off to see a late-night cabaret.  POLLUX DANCE did a preview of HETROLLECTUAL ( love and other dumb ideas) that was wonderfully funny, well-performed and very accessible, magician Christopher Bange pulled out his audience engaging suitcase of tricks and LOST BEAR creator (and former G-MAN) Ray Besarah hosted the antics and did a great bit getting pointers from the audience on improving his fliering technique.

I then drove home with Barb and Brian who are both reviewing for FULLY FRINGED and stayed up burning the midnight oil to get their reviews done for the morning.

My Ottawa time ended with a lazy morning in the kitchen, discussing what we'd all seen the night before and then lunch and a walk around Dow's Lake before I went to catch my train.  My only regret was not adding one more night to my trip.

Earlier this week I lost a cousin: he died by a misadventure but he had struggled with mental illness for a very long time.  I thought about how time had been stolen from him by illness and then by accident. A week like this made me think hard about how much people lose when their time here is up.

In the end, time is really all we've got. My time this week was magical and God willing, it's not over yet.  Have a great rest of the week and if you're in Ottawa, check out the Fringe Festival and the National Gallery.  It's time well spent.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Public Protests and Prizes and the Festival Season

It's June in Toronto.  The roses and the honeysuckle are in bloom along with the peonies.  The garden at my domicile is an explosion of colour and fragrance in a week when we've had rainbows after a tempest, a Transit of Venus and a full moon. Wonder and beauty abound at every turn.

This week also brought a flurry of awards nominations.  The Dora Mavor Moore Award nominees for theatre presented in Toronto were announced this week, as well as the nominees for the Canadian Comedy Awards.

It was exciting to see a few friends get nominated for great work.  Pamela Sinha for CRASH, Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis for MORRO and JASP: GO BAKE YOURSELF and Jim Mezon for his riveting performance as Mark Rothko in RED.  A lot of women were nominated for writing, acting and directing as well as performing and that was gratifying. I'm hoping the award nomination for THE PENELOPIAD means the company will get a remount next season.

There are always a few surprises (really? a jury thought THAT deserved a prize?) and great shows that don't clock onto the radar. I SEND YOU THIS CADMIUM RED did not receive a nomination for best production.  I certainly thought it was one of the best shows I saw onstage this season.

The festival seasons in both theatre and film are in full swing.  The Fringe circuit has begun its tour across the country.  Next week I'll be in Ottawa for the end of Canada Dance, the largest dance festival in the country and the start of the Ottawa Fringe. Here in Toronto, Luminato has begun, with an amazing line-up of theatre and and free, live, outdoor concerts.

On the film side, festival season has begun both here, and abroad with Cannes last month and in Toronto with Hot Docs and this week, the World Wide Festival of Short Films presented by the Canadian Film Centre.

Tonight I biked over to the newly renovated Bloor Cinema to see a screening called "War What's It Good For?" centred around themes of war and its effects. There was documentary, drama, animation and montages of  music and images mostly on the subject of war and its effects on the lives of ordinary people.

I was fascinated by the way the subjects in the films, whether soldiers, citizens, domestic animals or the land itself were mostly seen by the filmmakers as victims or observers rather than actors in their own dramas.

Only two directors saw their human characters as having conscious choice or free will.  Andrew Kelm's GOLDILOCKS NATION used the famous fairytale as a jumping off point to have psychologist June Lawson talk about an American culture of entitlement and a refusal to grow up as a justification for invading other people's houses (or countries for that matter) and taking their stuff. In PASSING THROUGH THE NIGHT (one of my favourites of the program)  the Slovakian filmmaker used a bus full of animals: actors in mask, with human clothes and fur heads and two very human hunters to look at complicity, victims and predators.

BELLUM showed two Danish soldiers waiting to go away to a war zone.  It depicts a night of nihilistic debauchery and an effort to drown terror of the impending atrocities with sex and drink by two young men with bleak prospects but with no acknowledgement that the characters had other choices available.

I often hear the phrase "the theatre of war". We make heroes of soldiers who volunteer for service and indeed many are heroic. Of course wars everywhere are rife with hapless victims of conflicts not of their choosing.

For those who sign up to serve in the military, being an actor in a theatre of war is a conscious choice. Not one film last night spoke about conscientious objection or pacifism as a real choice in the face of violent conflict.

Our government chose to send troops in to support the American invasion of Iraq after 9/11.  Canada has consciously had voluntary troops in Afghanistan for over a decade. We don't have conscription at present.  All of those who serve have volunteered to do so.

I have seen student protests in the streets in both Montreal and Toronto this week, under heavy police escort.  I believe it is right to peacefully protest incursions on free speech in our democracy.   I also believe we as a society need to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions and own when and where, of our own free will,  we have directed our feet on a course of action that fails to respect the rights of others.

Our continued oil dependence causes environmental degradation and yes, war, both here and abroad. Our insistence on living at an unsupportable standard, far beyond our means and encouraging global aspiration to a similar standard of living is taxing the planet and throwing the global economy into chaos. It is also bringing misery to sweatshop workers around the world making stuff most of us could well live without.  To pretend we have no choice in this is false.  We are actors in this as much as we are victims.

The last film of the 90 minute short program had a haunting image near the end:  the wolves were howling at the door as a child tried to protect his senile grandmother from the encroaching onslaught as they sat in front a jigsaw puzzle on Christmas Eve waiting for guests who would not come. The house is in an abandoned American suburb. The former haven has become an abandoned dystopia.

I thought of all those images of street after street of abandoned homes in cities where work has dried up and real estate is under water in the U.S.  When mortgage interest has usually hovered around 10% who in their right mind buys a house if they can only afford to live in it if the debt interest remains at 2%?  Yes banks are partially to blame.  So is our culture of bottomless entitlement.

Please go distract yourself from the grim news about horrible crime, war and economic crisis that has dominated public discourse this week by enjoying the beautiful weather and a festival near you.  You're certain to see some great work and you'll be making a conscious decision to support your local arts community.  If you walk, ride your bike, car pool or take public transit you'll be burning less oil and helping the environment.

I'll bring you some musings on the start of my summer festival going next week.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Send in the Clowns

Gentle Readers,

I am sorry to have missed you last week.  Moving really cramps a girl's style.

This weekend, one of my favourite events on the theatre calendar takes place:  The Toronto Festival of Clowns

Last night I attended the opening cabaret:  The Red Nose District.  This year, the theme was Apocalypse.  Hosted by the ever-delightful Morro and Jasp, people were invited to bring canned goods so we could hole up for the end of the world in the Pia Bouman Studio Theatre.

Last night all of the clowns worked  " in nose" that is, wearing the traditional red nose we associate with circus clowns.  This style of clown work owes as much  to opera and commedia de'arte  as it does to circus.

Like opera singers, dogs and children, clowns wear their hearts on their sleeves.  A great clown performance is a moment of emotional transcendence.

There was a broad range of fine, engaging character work last night:  Mullet, the black nosed zombie clown with the punk/goth aesthetic and the poet's heart, Moo, who got the audience to help him decorate for the end of the world, Janet Cardinal who gave "desperate housewife" a whole new meaning, Rocket and Sheshells who engaged in a completely endearing  battle of the sexes over sofa supremacy, Pluk and a mad cheerleader with a Latino disco dance partner both did completely different turns taking food hoarding to new levels of hilarity and Botchie Bobbie invited the audience to help her take the masturbatory aspects of the drum solo to new heights. There were a few characters, Princess Penelope and Jasp who wanted to lose their virginity before the world came to an end. Jasp was more controlled about the whole thing, but Princess thought the world might end before she found true love.

In the end, God - an elderly lady who looked like a cross between Queen Elizabeth and the Statue of Liberty put the Rapture on hold with a Swingline can-opener (you had to be there) and singing, dancing, hugging, and the consumption of junk food ensued.  It was the most fun I've had in  a theatre in quite a while. I went home to my sunny yellow sheets and slept in my happy place.

There are several full-length clown shows this weekend as well as a number of cabarets.  Park your preconceived notions about bad birthday clowns and go see some excellent theatre.  The festival runs all weekend and the link above will get you to the schedule of performances.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

THE SAMARITAN - a gritty thriller set in the Big Smoke

Full disclosure:  David Weaver who co-wrote and directed this picture is a guy I know and like.  This is his third feature and I 've known him since he came back here from grad school and was trying to make his first.  He is a nice guy, a smart guy, and a talented guy.

Last night, a screenwriter friend of mine and I attended one of his opening weekend screenings.  It was Friday night at twilight at Dundas and Yonge.  There were break-dance guys with a floor and a ghetto blaster dancing on the corner.  There was a mime dressed as Batman letting tourists take pictures with him for donations. There was a guy doing masterful chalk drawings.  The TV screens and the neon lights flashed overhead.  It was warm, the first night of the first long weekend of summer. The city felt packed and rocking.  I said to my friend who is now a young mom  "You know, it feels good to be out here on Friday night.  We should do this more often." 

Inside, the mall and the multiplex were big and weirdly quiet. I guess a lot of people did go to the cottage after all.  Once the film started, we were back where Toronto feels like a pulsing place.  THE SAMARITAN  is a slick, good-looking film with a plot turn a minute.  Samuel L. Jackson, who anchors the film and gives it heart, plays a man released from prison after 25 years who wants to just get on with having a normal life.  He was a con artist who murdered his partner when a scam they were pulling went South.  The sins of the father are revisited on the son who turns up at Jackson's apartment trying to lure, then coerce him back into the con game.  Seems his father's murder failed to deter the son from going into the family business.

In theatre, we talk about"willing suspension of disbelief" .  You need a certain amount of that to get pulled through the labyrinthine plot-turns to the bloody conclusion of this picture.  The film has a noirish look and the troubled young woman at the centre of this owes a debt to certain noir dames from the past but this is more action-packed thriller than anything else. There are car chases, dead bodies, violent fights, crap bars, diners and gun-play a plenty.

This much plot in a film tends to be a bit at the expense of character development. The cast is good and engaging but like the stylish and slick Marivaux I saw last weekend, the film appealed more to my head than it did to my heart.  I loved the look of the picture.  It held my interest and unlike many  films I see, it had a clear start, middle and ending. I see way  too much stuff where I  get to the end and think," How the hell did we end up here?"  It's  a slick, enjoyable ( if you like gritty violence and messed up relationships) well-constructed genre picture.

Given how hard it is to get a feature film made in this country, I'm prepared to give a medal to damn near anybody who manages to get it done.  Weaver's made three now, which puts him in a realm with few people in English Canada. I was glad to have seen it and I look forward to what Weaver will make next.

After the past two weekends, I've had way more than enough crime and violence on stage and screen.  It's time for some romance and some comedy.  I will try and  take you to a happy place with me next week.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

CRASH and some thoughts in the aftermath...

This afternoon, on the last afternoon of her run, I went to see Pamela Sinha's one-woman show CRASH. Written and performed by Sinha, and directed by Alan Dilworth, the show is about shattering loss: the loss of a father, the loss of innocence, the loss of faith, and the near-loss of sanity after a horrifyingly sadistic sexual assault.

The show has had uniformly great press and a sold-out run.  No wonder: Sinha was nothing short of electrifying.  Today the audience was full of her old friends from theatre school.  The narrator and the "girl" she speaks about are two sides of the same person:  the one before the assault, and the one who remains afterward. There wasn't a dry eye in the house at the end of today's performance.  With brilliant use of slides, two sets of stairs, a milk crate and a door, Sinha has transformed a tale of terrible trauma into a powerful work of art.

I wanted to see Pamela's show and I dreaded seeing this show.  Dreaded it because a woman I've known since we went to the same high school together was going to stand there and talk about a character that had sexual assault change her life. I can relate.

"Girl" in the play and I are not alone. The most recent Stats Canada report on sexual assault (2007) contains some fairly disturbing statistics. About half a million people a year are sexually assaulted in Canada.

The random stranger assault is the least common: 18%  - and most likely to get a conviction. If you are the victim of a level 3 assault by a stranger (your life is in danger) 68% of charges will result in a conviction when there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. For the most part, they are the ones you hear about in the news. That still means 32% of those guys are on the street somewhere.

Girl tries desperately to remember what the assailant looked like but she can't.  She does figure out who did this to her, but it is uncertain he can be arrested, that he can be caught.

Most victims however, over 80% are sexually assaulted by someone they know. Remember, these stats are for REPORTED assaults, where the victim went to the police, and tried to press charges.

4 out 5 reported sexual assaults happen to women, but that means 1 in 5 happen to men. It is estimated that one in four women and one in six men are sexually abused or assaulted in their lifetime.

The authors of the Stats Canada report that 97% of sexual assaults reported to police are committed by men.

Half the sexual assaults reported to the police occur to children. The next biggest cohort is 15-24. Rape is a crime of power-over, and the younger you are and the smaller you are, the less power you have. Most victims, 80% are assaulted by someone they know: a parent, a teacher, a relative, a co-worker, a date, a neighbour, an acquaintance, a sibling, a coach, a family friend.

Half of sex offenders are married or in a relationship. They are not drooling mouth-breathers.  They are frequently quite seductive, and charming, and good-looking. That is how they lure their prey. They seem nice.  They are not nice, not at all.  They are masters of deceit, blame-shifting, and coercion.  They pick young people, vulnerable people, and trusting people, because those people are easier to manipulate.

Even when victims can get past their fears, self-blame, and embarrassment, go to the police, and report these predators, maybe losing a job, or a family, or their home, in the process, it doesn't mean anything is going to happen to the perpetrator. That's not the fault of the police.

When they are reported, without hard evidence, like a rape kit, or a wound from a weapon, or a dead body, there are rarely charges, never mind a conviction, in a sexual assault. Of the 1 in 10 cases of assault that are reported, only in about 37% of the cases is the evidence deemed sufficient to CHARGE the perpetrator.  You don't see that on LAW AND ORDER. 

More than 60% of REPORTED sexual assaults NEVER even lead to charges.  If you are charged, you have about a 50% chance of being convicted.  Conviction rates in sexual assaults are among the lowest of any for violent crime. 

Nine out of ten sexual assaults are not even reported.  Again, according to Stats Canada, the rate of REPORTING has declined steadily for ten years. Why don't people bother to report?  Think about what those conviction numbers mean.

Of reported sexual offenders, only 15% ever get convicted. 85% of reported sex offenders and 100% of unreported rapists and gropers and child molesters get away with it, consequence-free. Perpetrators know this full well:  if they slip their victim a pill-laced drink, or get him or her really drunk, or are a little too hands-on with their staff in a bad job market or a highly competitive field, or groom that neglected or battered kid into silence with gifts and attention (“he gave me toys"one grown man said to me about the man who abused him as a 12 year old) or physically/verbally/emotionally abuse the financially dependent partner/kid into zero self-esteem before they sexually abuse them and tell them if they were "good" this wouldn't happen, or refuse to stop at a kiss good night at the door, and push the girl into the empty house, or use physical force on the immigrant maid, or the 23 year old journalist  in the hotel room, or violently rape, and then dump in a ditch, the prostitute or the street kid they paid for a blow job, they will still, in 2012, probably get away with that sexual assault, or two, or ten, or more. For the most part, sexual assaults go unreported, and unpunished. 

For many young people their first experience of sex is an assault. A whole lot of men and women are violated and abused sexually and emotionally when they are very young. Their trust is shattered.

The pain and fear and rage in the aftermath are indescribable, and never completely go away.  Sinha showed that so viscerally today, it was impossible to remain complacent.

In an age of global travel, and job mobility, men can go around the world, and have sex with kids, or commit violent sexual assaults, and only in rare circumstances, ever get caught, and even more rarely, convicted. Graham James was in Mexico working with kids, when he was arrested the second time, after he'd already been convicted in Canada for sexually assaulting minors.  The Catholic Church simply moved priests who molested children around from parish to parish ,where they carried on molesting more children.

By letting 95% of sexual assaults go unpunished, we are teaching young people that one of the perks of power, mostly adult male power, is the ability to physically and sexually abuse less powerful people with impunity, and no consequences. This is how rape culture is perpetuated, and serial rapists get to carry on, leaving broken people, and shattered lives, in their wake.

Our crap conviction rate says, loud and clear, that with a few, rare exceptions, no one will be punished for using and abusing your body, against your will.   

Like Sinha's brilliant show this afternoon, Theo Fleury's book gives a great overview of the aftermath of sexual assault and its long-term effects on victims.

In his case,  the abuse he experienced as a young hockey player led to substance abuse, tanked marriages, emotional damage, and a legacy of pain and rage. Fleury gives an insiders' look at the Graham James case, and the number of people in professional hockey who covered for James, while he continued to abuse boys.  Penn State U is the same thing all over:  ten boys, fifteen years, and a total wall of denial from the accused:

The Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings on the residential school system and the Pickton Inquiry are still ongoing, with generations of survivors telling their awful stories of violence and betrayal by both perpetrators and the justice system. Meanwhile, there are more than 79 missing aboriginal women in Manitoba, right now, and not one person charged.

According to Stats Can ,you are most likely to be assaulted if you are between 15-34, female, and work at night. Every night you go out, ups your chances of being assaulted.

When I was in that age group, and worked at night, I was groped more times than I care to remember, followed home from the bar where I worked (I had a big male room-mate who was home that night, thank God) and sexually assaulted twice: once in my room in the rooming house where I lived, by a male colleague who drove me home from a work dinner, and didn't take no for an answer when I asked him to leave, and once, coming home on the subway. 

Luckily for me, the violent subway attacker didn't succeed in knocking me unconscious by grabbing me by the hair and hitting my head on the tile floor of the subway station, which was his first move. I fought like hell, managed to escape with my life, and bruising all over my body, and ran screaming up the stairs to the conductor,who called the TTC police.  He did not manage to rape me, but he did scar me for life. For months afterward, I had handprints on my body. My palate was so bruised from him sticking his arm in my mouth to stop me from screaming, I couldn't drink a hot beverage for months. I bit him, and that was when he dropped me, and that's how I escaped.

Like the character in CRASH, for years afterward, I couldn't remember what he looked like. The police were really nice, and they really wanted to catch the guy, but I couldn't identify him. I lived in terror that he would come back, and find me one night, on a bus. I cut off my hair.  I moved back to Winnipeg, and lived with my parents. When I came back here, I moved into a high security building with guard dogs and cameras.

Every time I see the” 50 Shades of Grey “ poster when I come from home from my job at night these days, with the handcuffs on the subway next to the  television monitor with the warnings about an assault at Downsview station this past week, I feel upset and angry. I got home last night from work, and the author was being interviewed on the radio.  The Globe and Mail has run three articles on the damn thing.  I called the TTC and asked that the posters be taken down and told them why.  They did it.

In a society where women and men are routinely sexually assaulted, with few if any consequences for the perpetrators, I find linking sex to violence both horrifying and repulsive. 

I have a real problem with promoting the idea of sanctioned sexual violence. Given the reality of sexual assault, glamorizing violent power-over sex between men and women is both stupid and socially irresponsible.  Women die to be tied up and hit alright.   Robert Pickton, Paul Bernardo and Russell Williams all tied up their victims, and beat the crap out of them, and that is a fact, not a sexual fantasy.  There’s a pile of dead bodies to back me up.

The RCMP is currently investigating an internal sexual abuse scandal. 

Sure let's encourage more men to think what most women want is violent, aggressive, coercive, power-over abusive sex. Violence against women and children domestically and socially, abuse of power and sexual abuse aren't problems anymore. Loosen up.

This is a load of dangerous bullshit and perpetuates the myth that women "ask for it" or "secretly want it", that is, want their boundaries and bodies disrespected, and trammeled over, want assault and abuse. "50 Shades of Grey" isn't about a long-term couple who are financial and social equals deciding to try something different one night.  It's about a man who is older than his girlfriend, a man with more power, and more money, sexually dominating her.  This sounds like an old-school, misogynistic abusive fantasy to me, and yes, I know a woman wrote the damn thing. I fail to see anything sexy about a rich, powerful man beating a stupid kid with Daddy issues, with or without her permission, and plenty wrong.

As a culture, we need to stop making excuses for sexual abuse, and physical assault, by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. We need to untie sex from violence and power-over, not further entrench the notion that sex comes with with violence, physical abuse and "dominance".  There's way more than enough  "I am bigger than you and more powerful so I can do what the hell I want" going on out there sexually now, as evidenced by a half-million sexual assaults a year. 

If we really believed in “safe, sane and consensual” it would be dead easy to convict for sexual assault, not bloody nearly impossible.   Women who "bottom", that is, agree to be dominated, in the BDSM community are speaking out, and saying assault is a real problem in their community.  This will come as no surprise to anyone with two synapses.

If the BDSM "community" is serious about being "safe, sane and consensual" they will stand at the vanguard of outing every single abuser in their community, not abet concealing them. Until this happens, we as a society are well to be wary, really, really wary of  encouraging a fetish of violent sexualized, male aggression, domination and degradation of women. We have plenty of uncharged rapists running around already.

Two weeks ago, The Globe and Mail online was full of letters from men saying the outing of Strauss-Kahn as an accused (but not convicted) serial rapist was a play by Sarkosy, a political move, to discredit  the Socialists by the Americans.  No:  it was a move by women he'd raped, and tried to rape, to speak up because many men and women are tired of the "power equals a license to abuse" equation, and the police can't help much, try as they might. 

Strauss-Kahn's lawyer referred to him as a “libertine”.  NO:  Strauss-Kahn is a sexual predator. The journalist he tried to rape was a friend of his daughter's. The journalist's own mother discouraged her from reporting the assault. How do women condone the sexual abuse of other women?  How is this OK?

“Outing” is a controversial practice but it did a lot to end hypocrisy and double-speak around society’s attitudes to homosexuality. We need to start “outing” rapists and sexual predators, and guys with a track record for domestic violence: not have women telling other women that powerful men abusing women and kids is something to put up with.  Strauss-Kahn and Graham James are, to me, a start.

I have nothing but admiration for the men and women brave enough to out sexual predators.  Theo Fleury, Tristane Banon, Sheldon Kennedy: you people are heroes.

I'm not as brave as Fleury or that young Tristane Banon who reported, even though Strauss-Kahn is off, scot-free. I never want to see the man who assaulted in me in my house again, ever.  Inspired by Pamela Sinha, I am speaking out here today against the notion that violence against women is OK, as a way of trying, in some measure, to right an old wrong. It sure as hell isn't OK with me, nor is it OK with most men and women I know.

I called the rape crisis centre in researching this post and found out it is possible to make a thing called a"3rd party report".  It is a report for people who are assaulted by someone they can't charge, and reporting in that way is safe and anonymous. It is a way to maintain a paper trail on predators.  We need to make sure every victim knows they have this right, and encourage them to use it.

We need to treat sex as what it is: a privilege of adult life that we take away, along with your liberty, if you use it to abuse others. Dating safety and sex education need to go hand in hand.  Young people need to be taught at school, how to talk about sexual boundaries, how to enforce sexual boundaries, and  how to report sex abuse.  We need to teach young people safe ways to handle aggression and how to manage anger. They need to be taught what an abusive relationship looks like, and what sexual coercion is.

Since so many people now date using internet websites, I'd like to see all dating sites legally compelled to keep  “bad date” lists, and ban reported abusers, as well as convicted sex offenders. As to all these worries about "false reporting":  again, according to Stats Canada, an estimated 2-4% of sexual assault reports are false. It is a criminal offense to make a false report.  Believe me, it is not easy to report a sexual assault.

Sexual assault is sex-negative. Without consent, it is sexual assault and it is criminal.  Kink should not be used as yet another rationalization, or cover, for sexual abuse. Enough already.

Sexual relationships of any kind are often far from completely safe, or sane. According to Stats Canada, 50% of sexual assaults occur on dates, and only 2% of date rapes are ever reported, in large measure because it is so tough to get a conviction. Most women are raped at home. If you’re alone with someone who out weighs you by 50 to 100 pounds, and is half a foot to a foot taller than you are, you’re in a plenty high-risk situation as it is. 

I can tell you from direct personal experience that sexual assault messes you up for the rest of your life. After years of therapy, I still struggle in the aftermath.

I'm not in favour of anyone hitting anyone ever, except in self-defense. Keep your 50 shades of amoral rationalization to yourself.

I hope Sinha's harrowing, brilliant play gets a remount.  It will haunt me for a long, long time.