January 25, 2013

Foodie film

My partner-in-film Monique Pantel and I squeezed into Modern Taco last week (we really did squeeze, the place was jam-packed) to catch up with local celebrity chef Rob Thomas.

The footage will make you hungry as heck. You have been warned.

The Winnipeg Circus

Gabriel Whitford is balancing on a double rolla bolla — a wooden plank laid across a foot-long-tube that balances on another, perpendicular tube. That’s three axis ofinstability (if you’re counting) the 24-year-old could mess up on, but he’s on top of the situation.
Until he starts juggling to shake things up. His balance slips, physics gets mean and Whitford falls two feet onto his knees. Hard. He sucks in breath through clenched teeth and waves off help from nearby jugglers, clowns and amateur acrobats.
Welcome to the circus.

January 24, 2013

Awful jobs: The Dishwashers preview

Nelken, Anniko and Wilkie. Get scrubbing.

Harry Nelken had a knife held to his head when when he drove cab. Rylan Wilkie spent a month phoning Americans to ask their opinions on a tax. Tom Anniko gutted chickens on an assembly line, snagging the occasional rotten bird loaded with an partially developed egg.

Those were the worst jobs of the main cast of The Dishwashers, Prairie Theatre Exchange's upcoming comedy, which follows a ruined stock trader into a subterranean dish pit  In the bowels of the restaurant where he used to eat, Emmett's soul stares into the abyss - a future scraping endlessly re-dirtied dishes. Or is it hell? His coworkers, head dishwasher Dressler and pit-lifer Moss, both embrace their roles as necessary cogs in the dining machine. They don't look for anything bigger. As Dressler says, "Ambition is a dream you wake up from in the last moment of your life."

Canadian author Morris Panych dedicated the play to his father, a man who worked menial jobs his whole life without complaint. In service industry heavy Winnipeg, it's a fair bet some audience members will see their own lives played out on stage.

 “We in Canada think there’s a large middle class,” says Wilkie, who plays Emmett, “but there’s tonnes of people working shit crap jobs we don’t even notice or care to recognize; people picking up garbage or cleaning our condos. I’ve even noticed doing this play walking through the (Portage Place) mall, ‘Hey that guy’s cleaning that staircase.’ And I’d never noticed him there or cared to notice before.”

“You stay in jobs like cab driving or dishwashing and you rationalize what you’re doing, because you’re afraid, or you tried things and it didn’t work out.” Nelken observes. “But those who do that, they’re people none the less... That’s what I learned from driving cab; never underestimate anyone and never overestimate anyone.”

The plays’ existential question – is a menial existence worth living? – may be presented hilariously (In one scene, two dishwashers debate letting the third drown in a plate of mashed potatoes and decide no, he shouldn’t get so lucky), but the struggle between ambition and settling for present circumstances have the cast seriously reflecting on their own lives.

“I put myself in a situation once where my ambition was beyond my ability,” says Anniko. “I was working at the CBC trying to move up the corporate ladder and I went before a board to interview for a job. As soon as I sat down I realized ‘Oh my god I’m out of my depth’ and it was humbling and humiliating. And I walked out of there knowing I didn’t want to go any higher; I’d reached the point where I was comfortable. That was a cure for my ambition.”

“In the end, it may have been the best thing that happened to me.”

The Dishwashers runs January 23 to February 10. Tickets and details at www.pte.mb.ca.

Favourite lines in the play
Wilkie: Ambition is a dream you wake up from in the last moment of your life.
Anniko: As you grow older your dreams become smaller. They won’t even be dreams anymore, just little wishes.
Nelken: Don’t let go of the rope!

January 20, 2013

How to do an interview

Over the past two weeks I sat down for beverages/nosh with three titans of Winnipeg interviews: Joff Schmidt (CBC Manitoba theatre reviewer and associate producer for Definitely Not The Opera), Joanne Kelly (CTV and Shaw TV anchor, Journalism instructor at Red River College) and Drew Kozub (Breakfast Television). I sought these gurus out, climbing the proverbial mountain (actually, just sending emails) because while I've cottoned on to the basics of interviewing (ask question, record answer), it is an art I'd like to get better at.

A few hours of conversation amounted to a masterclass in interviewing. I'm struggling to absorb the wisdom imparted and work it into my radio show Heartbeat. It'll take some time to reflexively adopt their tips, of course. But I'd like to think I've taken some big steps forward lately, versus my usual shuffle.

And what tips did they have? Well, because I like you, here's a few pointers from the pros...

Joff Schmidt

  • Ask the question you most want answered first. Too often interviewers ask a few soft question before getting into the actual meat of the conversation. Do your audience a favour by grabbing them with the most interesting lead question possible. Less filler, more killer.
  • If you give your interview an intro, don't lean too heavily on stats. (She won this award, he's been published in all these books, etc.) Choose only the most important accomplishments and use the rest of your time to tell their life story - what matters to them, what messed them up, what they want.
  • "What did you take away from that situation," is a cheap question. And the answers it gets are usually golden. Use it.
Joanne Kelly
  • Get your guest to tell stories from their lives. Don't ask broad questions or wander into esoteric fields of pontificating boredom. Ask your interview to tell a story. Then use that story as a springboard to explore who your guest is. ("So that incident is when you learned to never lie..." "And that's why you followed your father's footsteps..."). Imagine starting on a tight focus with intimate detail (the story) then drawing back to a wide focus (the subject's life and world).
  • Pre-interview your guests during the five minutes of microphone checks, lighting adjustment or walking into the studio. Those brief moments are your chance to find golden stories to fill your interview.
  • Use physical cues when interrupt people. It's a great way to show you're engaged while nudging your guest to wrap up their thought.
  • Bring the audience listening/watching at home into the conversation by talking about them ("People at home can appreciate how awkward that must have been." "I know that those listening want to know - because I want to know - how..."). Make the interview a three-way conversation.
Drew Kozub
  • Don't talk about yourself. People don't care about what you think - they care about your guest (hopefully) or how your guest's story impacts their lives.
  • Cover what you can in the time you have. If you're doing a brief hit, you can't do a ten minute interview; you have 90 seconds before you throw it back to weather. Keep your eye on the clock.
  • Make sure your guest knows about the clock too. During your pre-interview ask, "What's the most important message you need to get across?" Focus on that.

January 15, 2013

"Don't be precious"

"Don't be precious," was the advice given by United Way director of communications Kris Owen as she spoke to my communications for non-profits class in December. The unpacking of that phrase: don't be too emotionally attached or egotistical about your creative output, because you're going to get critical feedback and your employer/client/coworker doesn't have time to deal with your hurt feelings.

It's good advice.

Skip forward a weeks. During my internship in Manitoba Theatre Centre's fantastic communications department, I proposed a different style of online trailer than MTC traditionally uses for their production of Gone With the Wind — a massive show that needs to sell tickets and could use some good pre-run buzz (and has since gotten this great review from CBC's Joff Schmidt).

With local actor Charlene Van Buekenhout and Dalnavert Museum graciously appearing on camera, I shot this test version to see if the idea would even work. It's a bit rough (shot on DSLR); bear with me.

Like the concept? I did and do (I might be biased). I hoped it would generate some interest online and drive sales, particularly in the 24- to 35-year-old demographic that MTC connects with online but doesn't see as strongly in their mainstage audience.

BUT when I pitched the idea and test trailer, it was turned down. And for good reason: the director had a different vision of the story and a different tone was going to appear onstage. If people saw my trailer and showed up expecting a dark drama, they would be disappointed (or worse) at being misled.

While I wasn't exactly torn up about the decision, it did have an impact. And I had to ask myself if I was being too precious. What is the line between being both emotionally and intellectually committed to your work and being precious?

I think it has to do with losing focus. The end goal of MTC is not to celebrate Matthew P. TenBruggencate (Esq.) and his work; it's to move Manitobans with the power of live theatre. Taking the eyes off the overall prize  the team is working toward leaves you concentrating on your own particular job and output. When that output is your whole focus — and who doesn't over-identify with their job in North America these days — not only will critical feedback seem like a roadblock, it will touch a nerve.

But I'm not sure how to balance of being committed to my "creations" and focused on the overall goals. Some of my favourite past projects have had tremendous personal investment; blood, sweat and — when critical feedback came — the odd tear. How do you live the balance?

That's how this blog post ends — with questions for you, because I don't have the answer. What's the difference between advocating for your work and being a crybaby? Are there any projects you invested your heart in only to see get the axe? Or have you had people working for you who just could not take feedback?

Actually we won't end there. Here are the alternate videos I made for GWTW - running until Feb 2 at MTC.

January 9, 2013

You don't have a language

Photo: Ota Nda Yanaan

What would you say if you were told you didn't have a language? And more importantly, what would you do? If you're Rita Flamand, you write a dictionary.

I had a chance to chat with Rita about her life last month, then write this profile piece for Red River College's Going Places blog. But don't read it for my writing; read it for her story.

January 8, 2013

Sondheim and his Assassins

Photo: Susan Benoit

SondheimFest is nigh upon us, celebrating the work of the man who dragged the traditional musical ("kicking and screaming"or "dancing and singing" if you will) into the modern age.

I don't go in for many musicals, frankly. Too often the songs, dances and (typically) high production values are covers for shoddy storytelling and broad acting. And Sondheim agrees, which is probably why I enjoy his works so much. From West Side Story to Sweeney Todd to Assassins, Sondheim has insisted on the musical carrying its weight as an art form.

All that to say, if you want to see a musical with me, let's head out to SondheimFest together; there's a number of productions by tremendous local indy companies I want to see. I promise to leave my grumpy face at home.

Oh — and here's a preview piece I wrote for the Projector on one of the shows. Cheers!

Assassins exposes dark side of the American dream

January 3, 2013

Free Press moderation in action

Hey-hey! Ho-ho!
Anonymity has to go!

Here's a round of applause to the Free Press moderators who wade into this garbage (and worse) on a daily basis - especially the mod who wrote this remarkably restrained response.