Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Storytelling and Theatrical Truth

Two snapshots:

  1. Three people duck and weave through torrential rain in search of a bar. When they find an appropriately dark and cozy spot, they slump on their chairs. One woman puts her head down on the table. The other woman stands and stretches her back, which is stiff and sore with tension. All three of them feel emotionally flayed by what they have just witnessed. 
  2. A reading of a new musical still very much in progress. It's about a violent, shameful event that took place here in Vancouver, just blocks away from where this event now takes place. At the end of the event there is a wonderful moment when two members of the longshore workers' union meet with the cast. One of them tells a short true story that illustrates why this musical about a long-ago event is still, sadly, relevant today. 
I love stories. I think that stories are the reason we have theatre, art, music, dance. As we struggle- more and more in these dark times- to make some kind of sense of our human condition, these stories won't save us, but they may help us to understand. To process. And maybe even to learn from the past. 

I spent five years in a place where the past was mined daily for stories. Literally mined, in some cases, as this was a gold rush town. We sang, we danced, we interpreted the past- for entertainment, yes, absolutely, but also to keep those stories alive. To say You were here, and we remember, and we honour you by telling your stories now. We acknowledge that this piece of our past was important. You did not always do the right thing, and your treatment of the environment and the local indigenous people was often, frankly, appalling, but we are not perfect either, and we can learn from what you did. We ARE you, separated only by the passing years. Sometimes the history we interpreted was told in a way that was frankly, pretty cheeseball. Sometimes it erred on the side of being accurate, but dull. And sometimes, like Goldilocks' porridge, it was just right. 

It's an interesting puzzle, deciding on truth versus theatrical truth, and I remember a perfectly civil but passionate discussion between a playwright/director, a historian/playwright and a writer/historian about staying absolutely faithful to the truth versus telling a compelling story. And here's where I declare my allegiances: I am passionately on the side of theatrical truth. (And just as passionately against cheesiness, but that's a whole other blog post.) But it takes a discerning storyteller to know when the truth needs a tweak, and when to leave it alone. I am reminded of a wonderful passage in an L.M. Montgomery novel where the young heroine writes down and publishes a story that someone told her, and is confused when someone praises her for her work. "But I didn't do anything," she protests, "I just wrote down what he told me, in his words." "Exactly," replies her friend. 

So then, we get to storytelling. Which is a whole other art, and one that's ably celebrated in Vancouver by events such as The Flame and StoryStoryLie. The format varies, but often there is a theme or prompt, and storytellers tell a true story that has something to do with that theme. 
And we get to my first snapshot, where three people spent an hour in a bar trying to digest the stories they'd just heard, and finding it rough going. One of those people, of course, was me. 
We'd played music at a storytelling event, a fundraiser, where the prompts were Best Laid Plans, and Confessional. Which, obviously, have a lot of room for interpretation. But for whatever reason, all five true stories went to dark, dark places. There were
  • Two stories from people dealing with serious, life-threatening cancer
  • Two #MeToo stories
  • One story-slightly lighter- about racism
  • And us, a 3-piece band telling stories through our songs all three of which happened to be written by me.
All of the stories had laugh-aloud parts, and all of them were well-told.

Well. I can look at the bright side and say that seldom was our music as welcomed and probably even needed by an audience as it was by that one. Reeling from the emotional impact of all this personal darkness, the audience was silent and spellbound by our songs, and applauded enthusiastically after each one. 
But on a more serious note, I can honestly say that never in my happy, mentally stable and privileged life have I ever felt more viscerally the need for trigger warnings. The stories I was hearing were  devastating to hear, and my friends and I ALL felt bruised by their impact. And afterwards, in that bar, we struggled to make sense of it all. It felt, I said, a lot like being accosted by that person who you've just met, who proceeds to tell you unsavoury details about their lives before they barely know more about you than your name. (In fact, I met a person like that very recently.) Why were the storytellers placing such trust in strangers?  And on the flip side, what about our trust as an audience? Was it being betrayed by being exposed to such a poorly-curated event?

Art can and should lead us to the dark places. One of the most-lauded shows in Vancouver this fall was a story about a father and his changing relationship with his adult, severely disabled son. I didn't get a chance to see it, but 100% of the feedback I heard was strongly positive, in the vein of GO SEE THIS NOW. The musical I was recently involved with (snapshot #2) tells the story of a violent and deadly labour dispute in Vancouver through songs and scenes. 
So what's the difference? Do we, or I, need a veil of fiction to go safely into those scary places?  
I think there's some truth to this. Fiction takes the story and makes it universal. We see a story and think That could be me. Whereas if someone's telling you their story, I think that it's actually easier to withdraw, to become desensitized to their woes.

On the other hand, I have to say that I am enormously glad that people are helping to remove the stigmas around abuse, mental illness, and other huge issues, by being honest and telling their stories. While I would not personally choose to go there on social media, I applaud my friends who have the courage to be graphically honest about things that have happened to them. I need to say this, so that you don't think that I want to sweep this stuff under the rug. I don't. Maybe the difference (for me, anyway) is that reading a piece that someone's written still allows me some distance and the option to absorb their dark story at my own pace. I can choose to read it; I can choose to leave it. Or I can have a conversation with a friend and feel honoured that they would choose to confide in me. But being in the same room as all that darkness laid on me by strangers felt very different, and by the end of it I felt used. 

So I guess I'm not posting this to say I have any answers. And of course, I'm sure that other people attended the same events I did and had totally opposite reactions than mine. Maybe they thought the new musical was boring or it didn't resonate with them; maybe they embraced the true stories as raw, honest, and necessary. 

We have entered an age of sometimes brutal honesty and oversharing, thanks to social media, but as many people have already pointed out, even the oversharing is more curated than we often realize. As more people come forward with their stories, I think we need to ask some questions: 
How do we best share dark things in a way that respects both the artist and the audience? 
As I head east to help tell a hugely popular fictional story with very dark undertones that has become shockingly even more relevant in the past week, I leave you with these questions:
What is the best way to tell a story? Truth? Fiction? Or an artful combination of the two?

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Parallel Universes

Reynaldo is my hero today. 

He fixed my accordion straps with string so I could keep playing all day at the pumpkin patch. I don't know if you've ever played an accordion, but if you haven't? It's impossible to play one without straps. You need them to help brace yourself against the instrument so that you can squeeze the bellows that pump the air. When the metal loop that holds the straps on snapped today, it was just another blow for this poor, brave instrument that's suffered years of abuse at my hands. I love it so much and I've treated it so roughly! It now needs a complete overhaul: bellows full of holes, keys coming loose, reeds out of  tune, leather straps breaking, and now the metal loops becoming stressed and snapping. This poor thing needs to retire. Without Reynaldo's quick thinking (and a few inches of string), I couldn't have made it through an 8.5 hour shift today. 

I'm back at the pumpkin patch with a vengeance this year. Freelancing? No regular job? Damn betcha I need as many shifts there as I can get. It's actually wonderful to be back there a lot after several years of only doing a couple of shifts. I love it there. I love it. It makes me happy to be outside and it makes me happy to sing, so really this job couldn't be any better for me. I miss teaching, and I really miss having a steady paycheque. September was tight and October is way harder. Why sugarcoat it? My sweetie buys me toilet paper and my mom takes me for breakfast. Both of them give me frequent rides to work. I couldn't make it through without them. But in spite of everything, I am extremely happy. I have the almost grotesque luxury of choosing this life. I made my life harder because I chose to do a play next month instead of staying at teaching jobs and hating myself for not taking risks. How many people in this world get that kind of choice? 

Reynaldo and his co-workers don't get that kind of choice, I bet. They come up to Harry's farm from Mexico every year to work. They drive the tractors that pull the wagons I sing on. I'm sure that's super easy compared to the other jobs they have to do around the farm. I asked one of them how long he was up here for and he said "seven months". Sheila the fiddle player was asking one of them how his year had been and he said his marriage had ended. No wonder, if he's up here seven months a year. They are all brown-skinned and black-haired and I feel bad because every year I have to re-learn their names. I think Harry's probably a great boss. I've seen teenagers growing into not-so-young adults working in his market, through all the Octobers I've been singing and playing out here. I've seen the same Mexican guys driving tractors and slinging pumpkins year after year too.  Their English is pretty bad and my Spanish is way worse so I don't know much about them. I imagine they think it's pretty funny that thousands of people pay good money to bring their kids out to a farm right beside the highway to pick squash out of the mud, but then what do I know? Maybe they have pumpkin patches in Mexico too. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018


This time last week, I was watching an outdoor play that was a 6-hour journey from Vancouver. What a crazy thing to do! To get in a car and drive all day (massive props to Mom for driving, since her daughter STILL doesn't have a license), and by evening we were there watching the show, hugging our talented friends... and by the next day we were home again. The entire trip took less than 24 hours. 

Which was followed by a 3:30am wake-up on the following day to get to the airport for a 6am flight to Toronto, so I could run a 5k race with a friend of mine. Two impulsive trips in the space of a week. (You can see lots of pictures of my travels and adventures here on Instagram.)

Toronto was amazing. The sun shone. I crammed a lot into four and a half days. And then, with my bank account dwindling, I flew home to some unsettling news: no Fall teaching job for me, due to (another) impulsive decision of mine: to accept a part in a musical in another city. I'd be away too long, and the music school, which patiently bore my many absences last year due to my theatrical career, changed their Leave of Absence policy (probably entire due to my shenanigans). I am now out of steady work until November. 

We all love to post memes and hashtags urging us to #FollowYourDreams; telling us #YouOnlyLiveOnce. It is part of our (my) privileged-as-fuck culture to do so. There is a part of me that is so happy and surprised that people want me in their shows, that wants to follow these opportunities wherever they lead. And there is another part of me that sits here, in my dream home, the home that the teaching job pays for, and wonders
                                                  what the hell did you do? 

I lead a charmed life. I have the luxury of having no dependents, so I can take these kind of risks. I know that I would have been angry with myself for turning down the risky performing job to keep the safe job. 

And yet. 

I don't want to be scared that I can't make rent over the next 60 days. 

I don't want to go back to "scraping by" instead of having a decent paycheque. 

I don't want to be replaced at work.

What I really want, I know, is to have my cake and eat it too. And sometimes, that just isn't possible. 

Sometimes, being impulsive is a gift, but sometimes, it can get you into some scary situations. 

I'll let you know how this works out. It will work out. I think. 

What do you do when interesting opportunities turn up? Do you follow the safe bet? Or do you follow your heart? 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Surviving a Post-Show, Pre-Apocalyptic August

My show closes on Sunday the 5th. 
Two-show-day: AC fail so sweating buckets; cast member sick; everyone sad but ready(ish) to move on; sing-act-bow-sing-act-bow-partyparty-sleep.
My beautiful show closes on Sunday night.

Monday morning, I buy a new bicycle. A beautiful blue bike and I ride it everywhere. I'm goal-oriented, so I make a list of all the places I want to get to, on the bike or on foot, and I GO. 

Deep Cove. 
Arbutus Greenway.
Port Moody.
Burnaby Heights Trail.

Those are the ones I've crossed off the list and there are more to come:
Bowen Island, Richmond Dyke Trail, Fort Langley, The River District, Vancouver Island. My satisfaction grows with every red line I use to cross off the names of places I've been. 

I have coffee with a dear friend I haven't connected with in a long while. I get free tickets (a perk of my job) and I see Mamma Mia with a new friend. 

I record two new songs with my band. It's some of the best work we've done. 

My love and I bike to the Burnaby Blues & Roots Festival, where The Rural Alberta Advantage sings keening songs about Canada, and the Suffers charm us with their funk, and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats simply blow us away. During their headlining set, the heavens open and sweet rain pours down, which is wonderful, until we have to bike home again and it's still raining. Hard. But we make it, and it's even kind of fun. 

For a few days it's cooler, and grey. Then the heat comes back and the air is sting-your-eyes thick with forest fire smoke. The world is burning up. 

I eat dim sum with a friend and go on a 25km bike ride, even though I am sick with a summer cold. I am knocked on my ass with fatigue that night, but the next day I start to feel better. 

I watch a concert in somebody's front yard, everybody sitting on steps or on the lip of the sunken patio to catch every note of the sweetest voice you ever heard.  Even in this grungy block between Broadway and 10th, in this nondescript front yard, there is so much beauty that it will make your eyes sting- with real tears this time, not just smoke. 

I catch the bus to a lake- A real lake! That you can catch a city bus to!- and I walk its small circumference, just like I did this time last year. Just like last year, it's hazy with smoke; just like last year I am filled with equal amounts joy and dread at the world. 

Just like last year I jump in and let the lake wrap her cool arms around me and I pretend things are normal and it's just another hot sunny day and maybe the world isn't ending, not just yet, please not just yet.  And then I dry off and wait for the bus to take my out of the forest and back to my home. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Too Late

Late night in my living room. I spent the day tending to my house, which was sorely in need of some love. Grey skies kept me inside, or at least close to home.

It's a summer of love and good, good work. The first summer in years that I've been able to stay in town. This evening, I found out that my job has been extended by one week. I couldn't be happier.

I like to eat early, so I don't go on stage feeling too full. Then I bike home and by the time I get there I'm ravenous. Many nights I've devoured late-night snacks (my go-to is chicken fingers, for some reason). There's a place close to my house that stays open strangely late, even on Mondays. I spent a couple of hours in there last week with a friend who was walking by. Two night-owl musicians catching up over beers and Irish whiskey.

I am in love with my night work. With lazy mornings and and taking bows and singing my heart out. With bike commutes and two-show days and waiting for the next heat wave.

I think about summers where I was working up north, ready to crumple the paper of my life's plan at the slightest hint of a better option. I was a drama queen, a troublemaker. I fell in mad love several times a week. I was careless.

My life is less fraught now, but new options still raise their heads. The difference is that I don't fall in and out of love at the drop of a hat. Love is here to stay, and the choices I have to make are work-related. Play it safe / Follow your dreams. Beautiful decisions. I may be poised on a cliff, but the ground beneath my feet is rock solid.

This song creeps up on me, like all the best ones do. One day it's just another track on an album I like, and the next day it's wrapping its tentacles around my heart. Soundtrack to the drama that still plays out, if only in my head. Missed connections and late nights and feeling strangely aware of that person sitting just to your right.  Looking up and someone's eyes lock onto yours and your breath catches, just a bit. It's not for nothing that my favourite movie is Lost In Translation. I am a huge fan of the breathless crush, the unresolved but staggeringly strong attraction.

The drama is not mine anymore. I swam out of the rapids and now I get to float in the warm shallows. This song is where I go to remember how it feels to be madly in love and crushingly sad, all at the same time.

It wasn't all bad.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Eternal Nightcap

I come across The Whitlams' Eternal Nightcap and it reminds me of being in the car on one of our road trips to the Central Coast where the four of us would sing the whole way. Our favourite song was 'You Sound Like Louis Burdett' and we'd sing it at the top of our voices. My mum would even let us sing the line "All our friends are fuck ups,' and Luca would sing it the loudest because it was the only time we were allowed to swear.

This line, from a young adult novel called Saving Francesca, was something I noted every time I read the book. 
Do you have 'comfort reads'? Books that you dip back into when nothing else seems quite right. Books that hail you like an old, well-loved friend from the shelves on a lazy night? Saving Francesca is one of those for me. I came across it years ago while I was pricing books at the used bookstore where I used to work. A perk of working at a store with no computerized inventory is that there was no record... Reader, I liberated this book (and a few others over the years, I'll admit). And I read it many times, and I still go back to it a couple times a year. I don't know exactly why, except that the author, Melina Marchetta, manages to capture the essence of teenagers: moody, unfinished, loyal, loving, fierce, yearning, angry, funny... 
Here's my book-jacket blurb: 
Francesca, whose larger-than-life mum is suddenly stricken with debilitating depression, suddenly has to figure out the tough stuff by herself: she's in Year (grade) Eleven at a new school, and the crowd she used to run with isn't around to tell her how she should act anymore. After five years of being largely subdued and colourless- just to fit in better- Francesca may just rediscover her real personality and save herself, with the help of some new friends, her large Italian family, and a certain Will Trombal... 

The characters are well-drawn (Marchetta is a teacher) and wonderfully three-dimensional: Francesca often clashes with her uncompromising mother, but also loves her more than anyone else; her two closest male friends are two frequently oafish and crude teenaged boys, but they also show moments of true kindness as Francesca negotiates her difficult year. And although it's a story that could take place anywhere in the world, it also has little touches that set it firmly in Sydney, Australia, which makes it slightly exotic. 

So anyway, I really like this book. And I'd always wondered about The Whitlams, but then I'd finish the book and totally forget to look them up on the internet to see if they were real.

Well... last July, Jay and I took a little road trip on Vancouver Island, and we stopped in at Ladysmith to look at my favourite antique store, and we also checked out a store that was most definitely second-hand as opposed to antique, and they had a tray of used CDs so we pawed through them, and lo and behold- 
There it was. So I paid my 50 cents or whatever it was, went back to the car, and put the CD in the slot...
The lush strings of "No Aphrodisiac" came on, and 3 tracks later, there was "You Sound Like Louis Burdett", with its slightly deranged honky-tonk piano, and bizarre lyrics:
I'm chewing ice and grinning/I'm spewing up and spinning/It's biliousness as usual in my corner of the kitchen/Hey you, lose that friend before we go anywhere/
And of course, the refrain:
All my friends are fuck-ups/but they're fun to have around/Banana chairs out on the concrete/Telling stories to the stars...

There was '90s piano rock, there were more guitar-based tunes, there were songs that owed a lot to The Beatles, there was a song that wouldn't have sounded out-of-place in an Irish bar; there was even a Bob Dylan cover! And I was hooked. 
We played The Whitlams quite a few times over that weekend road trip. Then I took it home and forgot about it, and just pulled it out two nights ago as I was sorting through receipts and papers to get stuff ready to do my taxes. And got pulled in again, the lush arrangements and loopy lyrics providing a cool counterpoint to a boring chore. 

And that's the story of how a novel lead me, after many years, to an album I love. I'm glad I never remembered to look up The Whitlams while I was reading Saving Francesca. It made finding Eternal Nightcap in that grotty second-hand store all the more exciting. 
Here's the song that Francesca and her brother Luca liked to sing at the tops of their voices. Enjoy. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Spring A-waitening

Spring is springing but it can't even be 5 degrees outside. I went for a run yesterday and the early spring wind made me gasp with its cruelty. Cruel too: chocolatey eggs and sugary candies everywhere and I *CAN"T* eat them because I'm wearing a bigger bra size than ever and I must, I must, I MUST decrease this bust. And tummy. And bum. I try to walk a moderate line but it's too hard, so it's back to low-carb this and lots of water and no desserts and less booze and yeah, running. All the fun stuff. Actually I like to run, but it's hard when you're carrying a few extra pounds. Maybe more than a few.

I think on all those wasted days in Chemainus where I sat around between shows and didn't work out. Yeah, that was smart.

It's the last day of my "break" between a show that's ended and the start of school-and other projects. My brain is filled up with ancient Greek plays and preschool rhymes. It's an interesting contrast. Preschoolers rending their garments and groaning oi-moi, oi-moi, while Electra and Medea grasp brightly-painted hand drums and sing Somebody's Knockin' at my Door.
My hours and days are going to be so, so full, and I've left a lot of my prep until the last minute.

I think on all those wasted days in Chemainus where I sat around between shows and didn't work. Yeah, that was smart.

My email dings and it's Equity, announcing another audition. The part I auditioned for, they mention, has been cast. That means... well, it means that I'll be teaching music this fall, not performing in a musical. But it also means I can start looking for cheap tickets to Toronto, so I can run a 5k race with my friend Theresa. That's awesome! I think of my sweetie, doggedly sending in applications and expressions of interest to public art projects and corporate art projects and galleries and who-knows what else, casting his net far and wide. He simply carries on if he gets a rejection or doesn't hear back. And you know, it works. He's starting to get stuff. So that's what I'll do, just carry on and not let rejection stop me from trying.

I spend my last day of relative freedom flitting from one project to the next: printing out a plan for teaching my preschoolers tomorrow; recording a smattering of ancient-Greek-inspired lament; sketching out the idea for a new song. Feels like a day of waiting: the mail won't come, the emails don't arrive, love is at work, phone don't ring.

Sometimes the hardest part of Spring is waiting for all that promise to burst into bloom.