January 26, 2012

Joansing: A Return to Saint Joan

Mel Marginet as Joan, photo credit Leif Norman

A couple years ago Theatre by the River produced Saint Joan at Saint Boniface's Theatre de la Chapelle. Mel Marginet (TBTR's co-Artistic Director), the company and I had all been captured by Shaw's adaptation of Joan of Arc's story. It's a complex storm of interweaving politics, religion and nationalism all spinning around - and eventually destroying - a sweet, young girl who just wants to obey the voices in her head.

TBTR's Production of Saint Joan, photo credit Leif Norman

Reading the trial scene (when Joan is condemned to the flames) brought shivers and tears to all of us. What passions would make someone set another human being on fire? What passion would drive someone to embrace that death?

There's a reading of the play this Monday - it's a fundraiser for the Performing Arts Lodge (assisted living for retired theatre artists). Come to support a good cause, come to see a stellar cast (the list is below). But mostly, come to see one of the most moving scenes in the theatre canon.

by GBS

Monday, January 30 at 7:30PM
Crescent Fort Rouge United Church (corner of Wardlaw & Nassau)
Tickets $15 at the door

Featuring: Talia Pura, Cory Wojcik, Glen Thompson, Dean Harder, Ian Ross, Ross McMillan, Matt Tenbruggencate, Omar Khan, Curt Keilback, Karl Thordarson, Ti Hallas, Curtis Moore, Mitchell Kummen, Bill Kerr, David Playfair, John Bluethner, John Echano, Kevin Anderson, Graham Ashmore, Ray Strachan, Kevin Longfield, Kelly Hughes and Brian Richardson

Directed by Stefanie Wiens
Stage managed by Sylvia Fisher

January 24, 2012

Silly Ghosts of Master Playwrights Past

ShawFest is ending with a roast of GBS, but you don't have to wait to have a laugh at some of the scribes from past festivals. As part of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's TribeFest, Toronto improv troupe National Theatre of the World will be bring their show Impromptu Splendour to town January 25 to 29th.

Each night the troupe improvises the performance in the style of a Master Playwright. They'll be doing card-carrying members of the tribe for this run - past festival honourees Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, David Mamet as well as that Woody Allen character. The praise they've gathered from audiences and critics is ridiculous. Check them out if you can.

And here's the program I made for TribeFest. Slowly, my skills, they grow.

January 23, 2012

What is Theatre For?

I was reading the Free Press today and Alison Mayes' review of Lost: A Memoir (now playing at Prairie Theatre Exchange) caught my eye. Particularly some statements on what theatre is for:

"Imagine you met a woman and learned that she'd had a 35-year-old brother who was lost at sea.

Would you find it more moving to look at snapshots of the man enjoying his yacht, or to listen to a unique memory that conveyed the siblings' special bond and something of the vanished brother's character?

Live theatre, when it works best, pulls you into its dramatized reality in a way that's not mind-based. Theatre is not journalism, personal essay, slide show or speaking engagement. Chances are, it's storytelling that would stir your emotions."

I respect Alison Mayes' opinion - she and I have chatted a bit about theatre, among other things - and I haven't seen Lost to form my own opinion (going this afternoon). But I'm a little concerned about the theatrical divorce she's suggesting between the heart and the mind. Or if not divorce, perhaps trial separation?

It's true that plays should resonate emotionally. Good stories tug on your heart, almost by definition. But I've come to see theatre as a forum of ideas and shared realizations, with audience, playwright and actors working together in a quest for some nugget of truth about human existence. In the same way that therapy is less about emotional release and more about an increased understanding of yourself, I think theatre is more about understanding your place in the evolving human story. If that's done honestly, courageously and (here's the tricky part) skillfully, the ideas will pack emotional punch. Just like good journalism, personal essays and slide shows (... maybe not slide shows) can be move the heart.

Perhaps a different metaphor for theatre than therapy would help? Here's a Shaw quote that Leonard Conolly dropped during his "Why Shaw Matters" lecture at the beginning of the Master Playwright Festival (which you can listen to online). As an AWOL son of the church, I absolutely love it.

"The theatre is as holy a place as the church and the function of the actor no less sacred than that of the priest."

What do you think? What's the ideal balance (or symbiosis) of heart and mind in theatre? Did you ever see a play that combined both successfully? How's your ShawFest going?

UPDATE: I've been emailing back and forth with Alison over the weekend on this one. She made the very good point that some plays are more distinctly about certain things - revolutions of ideas or the poignancy of emotion. And she thought Lost: A Memoir definitely filed under the second category, hence her notes. Thanks for chatting Alison - I love the approachability of Winnipeg's media :)

January 21, 2012

The Writing's on the Wall

I went to Village Wooing last night to kick off me ol' ShawFest theatre splurge. There's a lot I could say to recommend the play (had no idea Shaw was such a romantic, among other things) but I'd like to talk about the set. Which. Is. Gorgeous. Local visual artist Eric Lesage has been slicing up dictionaries, then weaving the strips together to make beautifully woven panels of words.

This lovely picture of Eric and his work (by Freep photographer Ruth Bonneville) doesn't do the work justice - it's something you have to see for yourself up close.

You can read Free Press reporter Alison Mayes' piece on the installation (called re: definition). You can find out more about the RAW Gallery (where Village Wooing is taking place).

And you can get yourself down to the show.

January 20, 2012

In a Shavian Lifetime

Something Chuck McEwan (Executive Producer for the Master Playwright Festival) pointed out to me the other day was just how much change Shaw saw in the world during his lifetime (it helps if your lifetime is nearly a century: 1856 to 1950). I took a stroll on the information superhighway (bless you, Wikipedia) and pulled out some milestones that caught my eye, missing many in the process I'm sure.

Crazy, no?

January 18, 2012

ShawFest - Ready, Set, Go

When I signed up for college this year, I knew I'd have to cut down on performing; my class schedule is too intense. And of all years, the year the Master Playwright is Shaw! I love Shaw (at least what I've read) and his epic, witty tacklings of politics, religion, business and the human spirit (usually in the same play). So I was bummed I'd be sitting on the sidelines.

But no! I got the call (or was it a tweet?) from RMTC to blog this year. I get to contribute to your festival experience, you hearty Winnipeg theatre-goer, you!

And I get to be an official cheerleader for the groups participating. Which is good, because these are crazy days they're living. They're pulling together costumes and lights; doing final runs; reaching out to potential audiences. With time running low and budgets thin, the thread is usually stretched to the breaking point.

Now, I love me the RMTC. Their generous sharing of resources, expertise and enthusiasm make this festival happen (and I'm sure their production of Mrs. Warren's Profession will knock it out of the park). But I'm more excited for the indy companies. Not just because shoestring theatre done almost exclusively for the love of art is inspiring. But - to paraphrase a character from Slings & Arrows - I think the most exciting things happen just before the thread snaps.

Welcome to the festival.

January 16, 2012

ShawFest - Get Your Irish Playwright On

RMTC has asked me to blog about this year's Master Playwrights Festival; something I was planning to do anyways, but now there's a pleasant fire under me bum to keep my focus from wandering. I'll be posting on the official Festival website (along with a few other Winnipeg theatre folk) as well as on AutoMattic Transmission.

So prepare yourself, good reader - things are going to get theatrical around here for awhile.

January 11, 2012

Utah Undie Run 2011

Nate and Aimee Porter were sick of Utah's deeply conservative politics (restrictive liquor laws/adoption laws/anti-equality legislation). They were tired of Utah being perceived - both in and outside the state - as an uptight, religious enclave. They wanted to do something about it. So they ran 5 miles across town in their underwear.

With 2,268 other runners.

The 2011 Utah Undie Run was a "Protest Against Utah Being So Uptight" (their words). It started quietly enough with Facebook invitations to 500 people. But those people started inviting other people, until the I'm Attending list reached over 12,000 people. Local businesses that were tied up in quasi-religious red tape came on board as sponsors. Participants were given a dress code (no thongs, nothing see through) to help avoid tickets from the waiting police. And they were invited to write whatever slogan they wanted on their bodies. While the Porters had particular issues that motivated them to launch the event (their stated hope was to register 3,000 new young voters) this was an open source protest.

All 12,000 people didn't run, but 2,270 did, setting an official Guinness Record for Largest Gathering of People Wearing Only Underpants/Knickers. The event received local, national and international press. 1,500 clothing items were donated by runners to a local charity.

Why was did this event succeed so well?

1) Shared Cause + Open Cause   The restrictive, conservative nature of Utah's politics was a banner to rally around, but Undie Run 2011 let people own the event, inviting them to bring their own personal cause

2) Breaking a Taboo  Running around in your underwear is scandalous, sexy and silly all rolled into one. Offering Utahns a chance to break the rules without breaking the law worked.

3) Financial Support   The Porters connected their event to like-minded businesses, receiving the financial support necessary for Undie Run 2011's framework to rise.

4) Massive Media Attention   A Guinness Record is catnip to journalists. A Guinness Record of people running around in their underwear is crack cocaine (maybe even brown-brown). It titillates to see people in their underwear, whatever culture you come from. And the increased coverage would have helped increased participation. And so on...

Undie Run 2012 has already been set for August 25, 2012. Are you interested in taking a trip?

After all, you can pack light.

January 10, 2012


I just finished watching Emilio Estevez's film Bobby; it's a series of character sketches and stories set at the Ambassador Hotel the day Robert Kennedy was shot. Not the greatest biopic IMHO, largely because the effort to cram in their star-studded cast robs most stories of decent playing time.

What the film does do well is convey the level of hope Americans had that Bobby Kennedy would be an answer to their troubled times. He never had a chance to either fulfill or fall short of those dreams, but that doesn't make his calls for peace and justice any less reasonable. Or moving.

Last year Winnipeg broke it's record for homicides. We barely stayed under 40, though not due to a lack of effort.

Here's Bobby Kennedy's address to the Cleveland City Club the day after Dr. King was assassinated. You can read the text here. The context (and slideshow) is American; the sentiment is universal.

January 7, 2012

A BRIC through the Advertising Window

CBC Radio's advertising program Age of Persuasion is undergoing a reboot - partly due to a departure by co-creator/writer Mike Tennant and partly due to a desire to podcast the show (limiting the amount of copyrighted material they can use on-air).

But mostly due to a subject shift. While Age of Persuasion has provided 5 seasons of solid retrospective on how advertising'marketing has arrived at its current incarnation, the more exciting conversation is what the future holds for advertising (especially as marketing shifts from one-way persuasion to two-way dialogue).

Behold the new program Under the Influence. Gifted storyteller Terry O'Reilly talks about the current trends in advertising, who's sharpening the cutting edge and - given advertising's relationship to society - where our civilization is heading.

The first episode just went live - you can read it on the website or download it on iTunes as a free podcast.

The BRIC Nations: How Rising Economies are Taking Over the Conversation
  • the story of a kidnapped Brazilian advertising superstar
  • how a Russian entrepreneur opened a bank to sell his vodka
  • why Nokia sent traveling musical companies through rural India
  • why Chinese-style piracy will soon be the norm

January 5, 2012

Want to Act?

I started acting when I was a kid, read acting technique books in my spare time, did Fringe plays, earned a university degree in theatre and started a theatre company.

And all I really needed was two minutes, twenty-four seconds of advice.

January 4, 2012

My Favourite Jets Fan

I'm not a hockey fan. Or sports fan. Or athlete in any way. But I can appreciate the enthusiasm Winnipeggers have for the return of the Jets. Though my favourite Jets fan actually doesn't live in Winnipeg.

This is my third (or fourth?) cousin Roel, skating behind his home in Broek op Langedijk. The Dutch prefer their speed skaters (hence his skates), but when my father sent Roel this Jets toque, it became one of his favourite things. Mel and I are hoping to send gloves to match.

Winnipeg Jets - meet your Dutch ambassador.

January 3, 2012

A Stratford Actor... almost

It's a brand new year, full of opportunities (and possible Mayan doom). I thought I'd write about a past goal as a reminder to myself to laugh in the face of Failure this year. Because it's never really failure, right? It's just future blogging material.

Who? Me???
You can argue the Stratford Festival is the pinnacle of Canadian theatre. It's the largest theatre festival in the country, it has an international reputation and past stars have included some of the greatest English language actors: Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer, James Mason, John Neville, Jessica Tandy, Christopher Walken, Peter Ustinov...

And me. Almost.

The Birmingham Conservatory is Stratford's school. The late Richard Monette founded it when he was Artistic Director as a way of ensuring Canada has a constant supply of thespians skilled in ye olde school theatre. They used to hold (not sure if they still do) an annual audition tour across Canada for the Conservatory: if you made the cut, you would spend a year studying at Stratford, followed by a summer performing with the company. In the shaky world of Canadian theatre (aka artistic poverty), that's golden.

In 2006, I auditioned. In the cavernous main space at MTYP (when it's just you and 40 feet of bare stage "cavernous" is justified) I did my little monologues for David Latham (Birmingham's Principal at the time). Pieces from Julius Caesar and Wild Abandon. He didn't seem enthusiastic; just a nod and a thank you. I trudged the long walk home and had a drink. Oh well.

But no, not oh well! A few weeks later, I came home from the warehouse (I had a glamorous job stacking boxes) to a message on the machine. Something to the effect of, "We're going to fly you out to Toronto, put you up for the night and have you audition for Mr. Monette. Congratulations."

My response? Something to the effect of, "Ohmygodohmygodohmygod..."

It was a gorgeous July day in Toronto when my flight arrived. Sunshiny. Warm without being muggy. I checked into my downtown hotel, then took a stroll. The bars were full of soccer fans (2006 FIFA cup was on) cheering for their teams; they suited my mood. I headed to the CBC building, visiting its shrine of puppets from Children's Shows Past. I caught the evening Dream in High Park where they were doing The Comedy of Errors - the show my own theatre company had opened its life with. All good omens.

The next day I did some more walking. My audition wasn't until 5pm, so I had the whole day to nervously kill time. I hit the hot tub at my classy hotel; the business people staying there glared (they could smell the free room on me). The hotel gave me the classy boot at checkout time. Eaton Place, CN Tower, Yonge - I wandered randomly, waiting for my big chance.

5pm crept close. I waited outside the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street, scaring pedestrians with my vocal warm ups. I was the very last to audition. They brought me into the theatre and onto the stage, where roughly seven people sat behind two tables. Richard Monette was at the centre.

"Ahhh, let's see (checks papers) Matthew! Matthew, thank you for joining us. What are you going to do for us today?"

"Umm... some Shakespeare?"

"Ha! Haha! That's very good, very good. Right - when you're ready!"

I did my monologues again. I'd drilled them enough that it didn't matter my knees were shaking, my heart was pounding and my palms were sweating. I finished. Richard Monette made some notes.

"Matthew, I want to let you know that - as I'm retiring after this season - this is the very last audition that I will be watching for the Conservatory. And I am NOT disappointed."

A chorus of angels burst through the ceiling of the Elgin, singing and blowing trumpets.

"Now Matthew, if I could just ask one more thing. I see here it says on your resume that you can sing. Can you please give us a little sample?"

Let me explain that while yes, it does say on my acting resume that I can "sing" it's more of a "sing in the background, part of a chorus, not-on-the-spot-in-front-of-the-most-powerful-Canadian-director" kind of singing that I do. So I shouldn't have put that on my resume. Ouch.

My palms burst into waterfalls, my throat clenched and my mind blanked as I tried to think of a song. The one that came to mind was Last Saskatchewan Pirate by the Arrogant Worms. This, apparently, is what I can trust my brain to do in the clinch.

I made it to the chorus, ending on a squeak. There was silence at the other end of the room for the cliched seconds stretching into hours. Richard Monette cleared his throat.

"Well Matthew... thank you."

And that was that. Oh, I held out hope for a few weeks after - rushing home to check the answering machine, sending (what must have been irritating) emails to ask if a decision had been made - but deep down I knew that I wasn't going to make the cut.

I'd sung myself out of Stratford.

January 1, 2012

Spin the Poet

I spent the past week in the countryside - something every Winniperson should do when they get the chance. It's fantastic how much thinking and feeling you can do when the noise fades, your pace slows and you can take a long walk in total solitude.

If, like me, you have a hard time putting your thoughts and feelings (yer contemplatin') into words OR you need a kick-start - don't worry. There's an app for that.

The Poetry Foundations Mobile App (for both iPhone and Android) has hundreds of contemporary and classic poems to get your inner artist on. You can browse by author or title, but the best feature is the Mood/Subject Wheel - you spin two dials (one moods, the other subjects) and poems matching the combination you arrive at are listed.

And it's free. So if you're looking for a late holiday gift for yourself...