May 28, 2013

An open letter to my Fringe friends

I've been asked by the Winnipeg Free Press to review shows at this year's Fringe festival. I said yes.

I'm crossing the line. And I know some of you might not forgive me.

In July, I may write a couple hundred words about the show you've worked tremendously hard on. Though backed up by observations, the review will be my opinion. You might not like it. We might disagree. We've probably disagreed before. But this time my opinion will publicly judge your quality as an artist, plus have a disproportionate impact on how many people see your show.

I feel uncomfortable with this set up. I've performed in a lot of shows and received reviews that have been all over the map. A fun example was One Good Marriage, which earned a five-star review from the Free Press, an A+ from (the now defunct) Uptown Magazine and a two-star pan from the CBC. (Sadly, I can't find it online anymore, but it more or less said "I don't buy the given circumstances.") I know that criticism is highly subjective.

But dammit, my opinion is worthwhile and worth sharing.

That's what writing reviews comes down to, so let's not dance around it. I know there is such a thing as "good art" and "bad art" with degrees in between, regardless of style. And I think - after years performing in shows, producing plays, reading criticism and reflecting on art - I can figure out not only where a piece of theatre sits on that scale, but why it sits there.

Maybe you think I'm not qualified. That's legit. I'm young-ish. I haven't seen, read or lived enough. I'm working on it, but my opinion is arguably not worthwhile.

But even if they're threadbare and anemic, my reviews are still worth sharing. Because theatre should be talked about. That, for me, is why there always needs to be reviewers at the Fringe. Not to help guide audiences' play choices (though that's reason enough), but to kick off a gut-rattling, voice-raising talk about the transformative (and entertaining) power of live theatre.

I believe theatre (even a light, fluffy musical) can and should give people a richer understanding of themselves and their lives. And not doing that (while being enormously entertaining) isn't just a shame: It's a crime.

That's why I'll write my stumbling, bumbling reviews this summer, even though it might put our friendship at risk. I hope you won't take anything I say personally if I write that your show isn't good. I hope we can hang out in the beer tent. I admire what you do and why you do it.

You're worth writing about.

- Matthew

More readin' on reviewin'
Giving stars and taking stripes by Joff Schmidt
The lonely critic by John Bent Jr
Reviews with all guns blazing by Margaret Sullivan
Morris Panych dresses down critic... by Pat Donnelly
How do you decide what to see at the theatre? by Lyn Gardner
How to write a theatre review by Lyn Gardner
Lynn Slotkin's Stratford media tickets revolked and response

May 27, 2013

Half an update

The Manitoba Marathon (I'm doing the half) is 19 days away. I've got under three weeks left to bump my farthest distance ever (16K last fall) up to 21K. Right now I'm at the 13K point, keeping an average pace under 5:30/K.

Here's what I've learned so far. It ain't much, so please add your thoughts in the comments and our collective wisdom will carry me over the finish line.

1) Don't skip training days

2) Sports glide was forged by angels

3) Those new runners (above)? Worth every penny

4) Don't drink two cups of coffee the day of a run. The energy/hydration trade off is not worth it.

5) Music makes running a thousand times easier (any Songza playlist recommends would be appreciated)

6) Don't judge yourself too quickly, the first few miles are always a warm-up time. And don't judge yourself at the end, you're still working toward a goal and there's time to make it. So judge yourself in the middle ;)

May 20, 2013

Breaking out of my cell

My Android has been in the shop for two weeks. Who knew repeatedly dropping it, stepping on it, whacking it, tapping it, spinning it, juggling it, shaking it, punching it, getting it wet, teasing cats with it, keeping hot beverages on it, opening locks with it, derailing trains and prying open the mouths of beasts with it would disturb its tiny guts?

I dote on its absence. I'm in love with its void. Partly, it's the reduced pressure to keep in the loop. The gnawing worry SOMETHING is happening SOMEWHERE and I had better check in with the world every ten seconds to FIND OUT has had its teeth pulled.

But more so, I'm pleased by the healthy beating my ego has taken. Because I don't deserve a smartphone. There's nothing I need to say or do or tweet that justifies handing me a palm-sized computer, let alone the slave labour and technical wizardry that went into making it. It's too good for me. The Universe knows it. It hated me having an smartphone. And these past two weeks, in the absolutely smallest way, there's been a slightly improved cosmic balance because of my being unAndroided.

That feeling you have of being one percent more at ease? That was me.

My smartphone is on its way back. It's made a full recovery, according to the store. Which is too bad. Next time, I'll request the Just A Little Broken special like the hip kids do, keeping a slew of food porn, cat pics and mistyped tweets at bay. When my smartphone loses, everybody wins. Even me.

May 14, 2013

You are your friends

Shawn Sorensen and co-worker
Not every day you get to hang out with one of the coolest cats in the country; a guy who, at age 16, came up to me after he had just ripped up the stage with a great performance and said, "We don't know each other, but I've heard you're pretty cool, so we're going to be friends."

Shawn and I were part of the same group of thespians to come out of the Comox Valley at the turn of the millennium, though I left a few years early. Since taking Shawn on a rambling walkabout of the Exchange District, I've been wondering about that mid-high school move. Where and who would I be if I stayed in British Columbia?

And I think I'd be pretty much the same person. Living different circumstances, yes. But I think who you are is largely determined by the people you hang out with. And I've developed a talent for finding the very best people and declaring, at least in my mind, "Hey - we're going to be friends!"

I had a good early tutor.

PS: Winnipeg artistic directors - hire this stage manager. He guides a nine-month-long TYFA tour from Halifax to Vancouver to San Francisco to Philadelphia without breaking a sweat while blogging about it the whole time

May 10, 2013

The Ceeb

Today I finished two weeks of full-time work at the CBC as an arts reporter.

When I say it was a dream gig, I mean the combination of a clear mission, enthusiastic coworkers, varied topics, new experiences, constant learning and ability to have impact gave me the tingles everyday. Even now, it seems unreal.

Someone paid me to report on the arts. People read, listened and watched. I was working full-time for the national broadcaster, contributing to the voice I've listened to since I was a child. Amazing.

I'll still be contributing as a freelancer. Before leaving, I sat down pretty much everyone there to ask how I could keep my foot in the door. I'm not done with you yet, CBC. And I think you're a long way from being done yourself, though some would say otherwise.

Rock on CBC. Here's to another 77 years.

May 5, 2013

The most interesting job interview I've ever had

With the end of my WAG internship (punctuated by the trailer you see below), my CreComm career has shifted gears. Classes are wrapped, interning is wrapped, job hunting is on. Which means job interviews.


I've had more than my share of job interviews over the years. One of the downsides of gigging for theatres is how often you find yourself looking for work. If you're "regular day job" won't let you take time off to do a play - and you really want to act - you quit. Then it's eight or nine weeks of life in the lime lights, followed by hitting the pavement for work.

Stock photo smile!

The most interesting interview I've ever had happened a few weeks ago, for a staff writer position at the Mennonite Central Committee.

Because I'm not Mennonite. 

And I'm not a Christian. 

And I'm an atheist...

The job itself sounded pretty rad. The MCC is one of the best international aid organizations I know, sponsoring projects around the world that enable people to take care of themselves rather than promoting charity dependence. They're potent advocates for political change. The staff writer covers the issues the MCC is dealing with - from promoting non-violence in Syria to raising money for a school in Mogadishu to raising Cain over disappearances in Columbia - to let stakeholders and funders know what's going on. Think "specialized journalist" and you're in the right neighbourhood. About 20 per cent of the job would be travelling the world, covering the aforementioned hot spots.

But you gotta have faith. While the MCC (and every Manitoba employer) is not allowed to pre-screen candidates based on religious belief, they are an unapologetically Christian organization. Office meetings often kick off with prayer (I'm told). The orientation every new employee goes to is a hybrid corporate challenge/prayer retreat in Pennsylvania.

I knew it would be a stretch for them to hire me. It would've been a stretch for me to work there. But the job sounded incredibly interesting. So I applied. And got an interview.

Their HR department emailed me a questionnaire to fill out and return before my interview, part of which covered faith. Now, I was super busy the week leading up to the interview and they had already said I could bring the forms with me when I came to the office, so I didn't send my responses in advance. When the four of us (three of them vs. one of me) sat down around a table for an interview, they didn't know what was coming their way.

Super friendly HR woman: Now before we begin the formal interview, which is followed by a writing exercise, is there anything you want to ask about or that we should discuss?

Me: Yes.

Super friendly HR woman: (with mild surprise) Oh? What's that?

Me: I don't believe in your boss.

 I didn't actually say it that way. That's just how it sounded in my head. What I actually said was.

Me: I know your time is very important and my time is important to me, so we should discuss my faith and beliefs. Because I don't believe in god. While I have a Christian upbringing...

And so on. What followed felt like a bit of a pitch on my part. I suppose it was. I explained that while I didn't share their beliefs, I had (and still have) tremendous respect for the work MCC does, for how they turn their faith into action. How I was quite comfortable writing on their behalf if they were fine having me work for them. That I believe life is sacred, in as much as I use that word

After that "pitch," they started asking questions: How did I arrive at my beliefs? Was it religion or the faith that I didn't accept? Did I ever see my position changing? And they talked about their own faiths and the periods of doubt they've gone through.

It was the most personal, interesting interview I've ever had. By comparison, most job interviews are bunk. Why ask someone about how they would hand a hypothetical situation (while sitting in the comfort of an office chair) when you can ask them for their story, their place in creation, their take on existence?

After our discussion, they decided to continue the interview. Which was mostly about the craft of storytelling, using media, communicating with audiences and the like. I think I did well. 

Not well enough, it turns out. Of course, I can't compare myself to the many people who applied and whoever got the job undoubtedly earned it. But I do think, barring my atheism, I was a strong contender.

Interesting. At the end of my interview, they thanked me deeply for my honesty. Which is the best policy. I imagine is faith is so central to them they wouldn't hire someone like me, I wouldn't have been that comfortable in the office. In the end, it's probably in everyone's best interest if I keep on job searching.

So... you hiring? I know a communicator who's available, widely skilled and now recertified faith free!