May 31, 2012

Reflections on Festival Season

Summer is arriving in Winnipeg; festival season is about to bloom. Winnipeople will soon flock to the many festivals that fill this city’s sweet, sunny months, enjoying our town’s neighbourhoods, cultures and arts. It’s rich living for the Heart of the Continent – especially for Winnipeg’s artists.

Because even if they aren’t the sole focus (they often are), artists make up a huge chunk of a summer festivals’ programming. They’ll be strutting the stages, painting the buildings, playing music in the parks with the blessings and backings of established, branded events.

And audiences will come. Not just the season subscribers, culture vultures, and die-hard enthusiasts who attend the arts all through the year (If there is a god, may she richly bless each and every one of you). But crowds of people. Masses. Sometimes the whole city shows up. That’s what festival season is for artists: a chance to bite into the sweet fruit of all out, balls-to-the-wall support. It’s not guaranteed, but festival season is the best chance to be celebrated – really celebrated – as an artist.

I’m looking forward to festival season, even as I plan a career change away from ‘artist.’

Almost seven years ago, I cofounded Theatre by the River with a number of young actors, mostly new graduates from U of W. We looked at Winnipeg’s theatre scene and saw (rightly) that there wasn’t much work for young, local actors. So we made our own, showcasing our talents in the hopes of eventually moving from occasional gigs to full time careers. We’ve produced some fantastic shows in seven years (he said so himself) with deeply relevant messages for Winnipeg audiences. I have a treasure chest of memories from each production and I’m hoping to gather some more this summer (TBTR is presenting a staged reading of Transit of Venus at U of W on June 5 and 6 – shameless plug!).

But I haven’t snagged the career I hoped at. Which I’m willing to chalk up to lack of talent or effort. But I look around at the undeniably talented dancers, painters, musicians and actors I know and see very few wearing the title of full time, professional artist. Winnipeg only has a handful of people under that banner (most working in arts admin). That’s the reality. And now, approaching my 30th birthday, it’s hard to pretend otherwise.

There is a window of opportunity for self-exploitation; a handful of years when the sleepless nights can be shrugged off, the small turn-outs celebrated for their intimacy, and your empty wallet made into a useful prop. You’ll work yourself hard and outrun the consequences. Throttle the living daylights out of this time.

Because the window narrows, then shuts. You will, eventually, get tired of working hard for few material rewards. Your inability to make a living solely doing what you love (your ‘calling’ you’ll say among sympathetic friends) will become frustrating. You won’t want money, but the nice things money buys...

There are ways of propping that window open, however, and the real point of writing this piece is sharing that advice. That treasure chest of memories you fill as you go about your business? Go through it, not just once or twice, but often. The young boy, the teen goth and the senior, laughing together at a Shakespearean joke; the friend who references your play as he copes with a new group home opening on his street; the normally quiet kids shouting down the bullies as you hold an extended kiss with a man – these are victories. They’re worth remembering.

And when summer comes, bite into it. Happy festival season.

This piece first appeared in The Uniter.

May 30, 2012

Next time...

Aaron Zahara and Owen Swinn demonstrated that they are kings among men by introducing me to Next Time on Lonny. Haven't seen it yet? Let's get you hooked up...

May 27, 2012

Out of the Box in a Big Way

At today's Theatre by the River core meeting, I spoke to my fellow actors about changing up our regular style of theatre. We do plays - relevant, provocative, well written plays. We're proud of the shows we've done. And there's nothing wrong with the very traditional form of theatre we're doing - audience sits in the dark, actors perform a story, audience considers story. It has, after all, worked for a thousand years.

But I feel a desire to mess around with the form - the way we tell a story. Not only to more effectively convey ideas and feeling about the human experience, but to grab attention in an irresistible "I have to go see that!" way.

Which reminded me of French company Royal de Luxe. They do giant puppet shows. Giant in scope, giant in length and giant in physical size. A show featuring their building high puppets last several days and traverses whole towns, dwarfing the everyday life that tries (and fails) to bustle around them.

The Atlantic has some beautiful photos online of Royal de Luxe in action.

I don't think TBTR will ever become a giant puppet company, but I wonder: how can we take the traditional form of theatre and give it a funky twist. Thoughts?

May 23, 2012

Exploring the Music Spectrum

This fall I'm starting up my Winnipeg-arts-focused radio show Heartbeat. It's going to require me to interview local musicians (among others) which is something I don't feel entirely comfortable doing. I'm not a very 'musical' person (tunes carried but bucket required) and my hope for Heartbeat is to approach interviews from a place of knowledge. And not cheese off local musicians (I hear drummers are trouble... or is that just when you're dating them?).

I'm reading music reviews and interviews this summer as prep, but I'm also open to advice. Do you have any tips, suggestions, pet peeves or sacred cows when it comes to music interviews? Or useful graphic aids, like the one below?

May 15, 2012

Adventures in Winnipeg's Core!

I'll preface this post by saying how much I love living downtown. I do. A lot. I am in the heart of the city with a hundred different places to go (theatres, cafes, parks) just a few minutes away (less by bike). I don't have to commute long distances to work, passing over clogged bridges. My mortgage and taxes are suspiciously low.

And really, any neighbourhood has its problems, from flooding to hoodlum teenagers to hoodlum grannies. The downtown doesn't need another person beating up on it, especially someone who loves it.

But you always hurt the ones you love...

Stop taking our recycling bin. You live two houses over, negating your chances of a clean getaway. We would recognize our recycling bin just from its unusually large size and make, but we also spray-painted our house number on the side of it; the number you only partially scraped off, giving up at the 25% mark. Your lack of moral fibre is matched only by your laziness. How did you expect to hide your crime when you have to put the bin out every week for collection? Or did you have other plans for it? Coffee table? Baby crib? Cubist lampshade?

Okay. Okay... Nobody likes boring, unimaginative cynicism. So here's some creative cynicism (via HeroMachine).

May 11, 2012

Strangers in our House aka Billets

For a number of years, Mel and I have billeted performers and travelers when they're passing through Winnipeg. It's win-win: they get free digs and we get to hear their stories (which we rejig and later claim as our own).

The Winnipeg Fringe Fest is looking for billets for this year's festival (139 people are coming to town July 18 to 29) and if you've got a spare room, a couch, and/or a blow up mattress, I suggest you sign up (details below). These performers are deeply grateful for a place to stay, are usually out and about promoting their show and work very hard to earn the title of good house guest (they can't afford not to: the Fringe circuit spreads news faster than Twitter). Plus you get a free pass to see several shows (you lucky dog, you).

What kind of people should you expect when you billet? Here are some of our past guests:

Die Roten Punkte aka The Red Dots aka The King and Queen of German Punk

We were a little worried when we heard punk rock comedians were going to be staying with us. Otto and Astrid are rockstars here at the Winnipeg Fringe and we worried they'd be coming in at all hours, ride a Harley through the living room, shoot the television - you know, the usual stuff.

The secret truth - they're sweet kids. The most quiet, hardworking vegans we've ever met. The only scare we had was when we asked if they were traveling across Canada by train. They both froze up and got super quiet. Then we all went for smoothies - problem solved.

Rob Gee

Before we moved to the house, we had a crummy little apartment. And Rob Gee slept on the crummy little couch (actually he spread the cushions on the floor). And he never complained, channeling his rage into his performance poetry (we assume). He did like to stay out and party, but we never heard him come in at night. Quiet as a mouse. I would just see him asleep on the living room floor the next morning. Totally knackered (his phrase) and smiling.

Juan and Luis

The YMCA-YWCA of Winnipeg runs Camp Stephens (an island near Kenora) and they've had students from Spain come to stay with them nearly every summer. We've hosted two of their students, Juan and Luis, on the bookend days of their Canadian visits (as they come in from or wait for flights) twice. Really great kids, very polite, a bit shy but well behaved. I don't have pictures of them, but here's Spain winning the World Cup in 2010: an event they were so excited about that Camp Stephens set up a television on the island so they could watch the final match.

Sara Tilley and Ruth Lawrence from 'MonaRita'

We first met Ruth and Sara at the Toronto Fringe (along with cast mate Mark White and playwright Shannon Bramer) as we tried to find cool people to hang out with in Tdot (and deal with TO Fringe wackiness... grumble...). Jackpot. Absolutely fantastic performers from Newfoundland and Labrador with a very funny show about two codependent women clinging to each other. Little did we know a couple months later we'd have a chance to welcome them to our home when they rolled in for Sarasvati's Femfest. It never ceases to impress how small a world we live in.

Gapsters aka Australian Exchange Students

But not really students. In a number of countries, students are encouraged to take a year off between high school and university (a gap year) to travel the world and work. Something to help them get perspective before they earn a degree and get to work. In Australia's case, the government subsidizes the hiring of these kids, so a Canadian employer (like Camp Stephens) is attracted to hire them.

We've had Gapsters stay with us a couple of years. Our favourite (yes we play favourites) was Jonathan Tilse. Really nice guy and a great sailor, but all left feet when he's on dry land (even I don't walk into that many walls). And as a young man whose mother did a lot for him growing up, we had to teach him a few things. Like how to cook noodles...

Cam Davis aka Technician for 'Alphonse'

Traveling theatre shows often bring roadies with them; the quietest, shyest roadie in this case. Here's an example of billeting someone and hardly ever knowing they're there. If we hadn't taken Cam and Alon Nashman (pictured above) out for a meal, we might not have gotten to know these two great guys. So pro tip: set up at least one meal with your guests.

Tanya Pillay

Tanya is another FemFest performer we were privileged to have stay with us when she came to town with All of Him, her autobiographical show about learning her father's dark secrets. Ridiculously multi-talented, she's an actor, singer, dancer, writer, teacher, life coach and certified hypnotist. We've met a lot of people in our short lives, but very few have carried the presence Tanya has/does.


And that's only a few of our guests (I admit, I forget some of the people who had shorter stays). If you're looking to join us and many others in billeting Fringe Festival performers, give Kari Hagness at the Fringe a shout by emailing

May 8, 2012

Canadian Paralympic Spot

So my blog has temporarily degenerated into posting cool things I find online. Which would be deplorable... if the following wasn't frakking cool.