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Who Wants the Dress? -- and also Pina Bausch.

A week for pulling back, trying to quiet the administrative buzzing in my head so that I can get into my own work.  I have a show at Ottawa's Once Upon a Slam ( tomorrow evening -- perhaps the scariest piece of work I've ever done (the scary part being for me and not, I hope, for my listeners.

Who Wants the Dress? is another interweaving of life and literature -- again with a story from Sara Maitland's Angel Maker (aka A Book of Spells).  This one's called Seal Self.  It's about a young man setting out alone from a small English village to gain his first experience as a seal hunter.  For this, he must put on women's clothes.  He is supposed to come back with a seal skin to prove his manhood; he returns naked and empty-handed, not knowing who he is.

It's a tale I care for deeply but the telling is by no means easy.  Just for the Seal Self story, I would be nervous but then there's what follows -- the tale that is my own.  That comes out of something that happened to me not long ago when I got to hear storyteller Ivan Coyote telling the story of her coming out.  I was so struck with how we had lived in different times.  When I was young, for instance, gay men were still subject to imprisonment; lesbian women simply didn't exist.  That doesn't mean I believe everything is easy-peasy now, but I do know it isn't the same. 

Ivan's story came at me in a storm of what ifs?  I'm still wrestling with those although luckily the turbulence is abating somewhat.  I think I have created a good strong piece but getting up and putting it out there shakes me to the core.  I've written about this before -- when the piece was called Meeting the Trickster.  I know I've said already how part of telling these stories has to do with a chance to speak to and for my generation and others, within and without the GLBT world.  It's all at the top of my mind though.  I can't quite think of writing about anything else.

That's how it is for me always with the big pieces that I don't do often.  Each time as I start the process of reclamation, I have to immerse myself, to walk the journey and walk the journey alone in my study before I can ever hope to walk it up on the stage there at the performance time. 

I have to make space, to shut out other people's endeavours and other projects although sometimes there will be miracles of inspiration that come light-leaping in.  Such a thing occurred on Tuesday, when Jennifer and I went to the movie Pina -- about the life of the great dancer, choreographer, Pina Bausch. Go see it if you can.

Here is a woman who changed the world, who risked and dared, extended her artistic reach and vision almost beyond believing; a woman who created wonders -- dances that are rivetting and utterly unforgettable, dances that leave her audiences changed.

She died very suddenly in 2009.  When we got home, we checked what others had written about her. We came on a remembrance created by actress and theatre director, Fiona Shaw.  Shaw talks about Pina's "wild freedom and imagination, bound by a remarkable discipline;" Shaw speaks of how Pina's dancers "danced from themselves."  Shaw says, "When you see the work -- the repetition of human love gestures, aborted wishes, rejection, inadequacy, desolation and absurdity -- you still come out thrilled to be a member of the human race."  (

I think what Pina tells us is to go for it.  I think we all of us need to be trying to do that.

Pina herself asked, "What do you long for?  What is all this yearning?"  I think that's a question to stir the soul. 



My Piece of Remembrance

It seems strange now but I was a long way into adulthood before it truly dawned on me that soldiers don't just get sent out to get shot.  The recognition came through a photograph.  It was a large photograph -- the sort of photograph people who don't have much money only acquire through special occasions.  It hung in my grandparents' dining room where we only ever went at special times -- times that made eating in the kitchen not-good enough.

It was a picture of my grandfather, dressed in his uniform, with his sergeant's stripes on his sleeve.  I presume it was taken just before he went away to the trenches of the First World War.  After my grandparents died and their home was broken up, I didn't see that photo for a long time.  My mother kept it somewhere.  Then, she hung it up.  She put it at the top of the stairs.  I saw it when I went to England to visit her. 

Right away, that photo gave me a shock because I realized that the face that was looking at me was not just the face of my grandfather, but also of my son.  We'd always been puzzled as to who on earth in the family he took after.  As I came to the top of the stairs, I knew.

He was about seventeen at the time and we had been watching All Quiet on the Western Front.  It had weighed heavily on both of us that he was almost at an age where -- if there was a war on -- he would be called up.  "What would you do?" I'd asked him.  He'd'd waited a moment before he answered.  "I think I'd have to go," he said.

It was what I'd expected and yet I hadn't been certain for my son was (and is) very much a man of peace -- the go-to for others when difficulties abound.  A man of peace, just like my grandfather who was, in truth, the kindest man I've ever known.  He loved to laugh and he loved to make others laugh with him, even though the jokes were mostly at his own expense.  He loved his garden, he loved to send us home with great bouquets of flowers.  He loved to be with children.  He had not the slightest hesitation in helping my brother and me tear up his lawn in scooter races (which he timed for us); clutter it with boxes, chairs, junk, as we created a series of trains.

I have no idea why his picture was what brought me my epiphany.  I just know I looked at it -- there at the top of the stairs, in my mother's house, so many years after his portrait was taken.  All of a sudden I could feel all through me: soldiers aren't just sent out to get shot.  Soldiers are given guns.  Soldiers are expected to use them.  Soldiers, wherever they come from, kill.

So, had my grandfather?  He'd certainly never talked about it but then he'd hardly talked about the war at all. 

I remember this on Remembrance Day, when there is so much mention of the fallen; when I am called back to my childhood, born in England in 1942, raised very much with the sense that we were the ones who'd suffered.  It somehow seems important that I keep this knowledge front and centre -- part of the recognition of all that war will do. 



Arts Coalition Day, Parliament Hill

I have to admit becoming a political lobbyist wasn't one of my life's expectations.  Still there I was on Tuesday, October 25 -- Arts Coalition Day -- storming Parliament Hill in the company of 100 other Canadian artists, pleading our cause for continued funding for the arts. 

There were over 120 meetings organized with MPs from all parties. My team (consisting of Boomer Stacey from the theatre organization PACT and Francine Schutzman from the Canadian Organization of Symphony Musicians) simply had to take on two.  Still it was a daunting prospect although both Boomer and Francine had participated last year.  Coming into the day I was worried.  I need not have been.  The Canadian Arts Coalition ( made sure we were extremely well-prepared. 

In advance, we were told what we should actually be lobbying for.   This involved three crucial points the Coalition had made in its presentation to the Finance Committee during the pre-budget exercises.  At the day-opening breakfast a team from a professional group called Ensight Canada coached us in the presentation of  our "asks."  We were given leave-behind packages; we were provided with information on those we would meet.  This information included a description of the riding and of the MP's interests and affiliations.  There was also a list of Canada Council grants which had been awarded in the riding in the last twelve months.

All this proved crucial in postioning ourselves.  I was also helped by the fact that Jennifer Ferris, SC-CC's Vice-President, and I had spent the previous day at a meeting of National Arts Service Organizations hosted by the Canada Council.  (SC-CC stands for Storytellers of Canada-Conteurs du Canada for those who don't know!)  The highlight of the day had been the opening speech by CEO Robert Simard.  He had talked with incredible clarity in an all-out effort to help us understand the government's position (the big thing being that balancing the budget by 2014 is non-negotiable) and gain insight into a language by which submissions might be made. 

The biggest part of the message was that the Conservatives have in fact put more into the arts than any other government and that (whether we agreed with their methods or not) we needed to start in recognition and acclamation of this.  It was also stressed that positive approaches would be more useful than adversarial ones.  This was not what I had expected but, in this spirit and maintaining our awareness of the bottom-line, unshakeable requirement for fiscal restraint, we went forth.

Both our meetings were with Conservative MPs and both went well.  I cannot tell where it will all lead but I do know that a collegial atmosphere was established and I did have a feeling that this has the potential to serve us well.

At the end of the day, there was a reception hosted by the Deputy-Speaker, Denise Savoie.  The mood was celebratory.  The Honorable James Moore, Minister for Canadian Heritage, made his enthusiasm obvious.  He spoke of his recognition of the arts as being essential both to the economy and to quality of life.  He did it with heart. 

Part of me still wants to be somewhat sceptical (not being a card-carrying Conservative and all!).  Nevertheless,  I am extremely glad to have been a participant.  I also think I learned a lot.  I suppose I had imagined we would be called upon to rush to the barricades.  I was pleased to experience this other method of seeking to achieve our aims.  It's a method I've always used but always in other places.  I think I believed "the Hill" would be different.  I saw it didn't have to be.  That meant a lot.  Indeed, I have plans to approach my local MP -- whose name was not on the meetings list -- to see what might be managed.  I'll let you know how that turns out. 





Battle of the Trees

Christine Cooper's first performance of this compelling piece of storytelling is over -- 2wp's first event of the 2011/12 season -- a house concert in Ottawa with another to follow in Perth tonight. 

I've heard a large number of stories by now but never one quite like this.  The Battle of the Trees reminded me of a Celtic knot, an intricate weaving of elegant patterns where mystery is evident but where everything proves to be connected in the end. 

Connectedness is, in fact, very much part of Christine's artistic vision in this creation.  She's exploring how seeming disparities come together, how unrelated events touch upon one another, how coincidence is crucial to life.  The lynch pin is a story, related in riddle form, in the poetry of the ancient Welsh poet, Taliesin. The battle is against Arawn, King of Annun -- the underworld; on behalf of his king the magician, Gwydion summons the trees to his aid. One by one, he names them and, one by one, they pull out their roots and march forth at his call (shades of Tolkien's Ents)

But the story does not start in these long ago days.  It starts in the Great Storm in Britain in 1987 -- a time when 18,000,000 trees were destroyed in the space of a few hours.  It involves the work of Robert Graves and his passion for the White Goddess; the uncovering of a ritual tree circle on the Norfolk coast -- a circle constructed 4,000 years earlier when the site was not coast but part of a forest, far inland; it takes us to Taliesin's birth and to the summoning of the boy Merlin to come to Britain's aid. 

Christine does not claim to be a fluent Welsh speaker but she has the music of the language within her.  The names of the trees form an incantation in that language; there are portions of Welsh poetry to heighten the overall sense of landscape and occasion.  Truth to tell, Christine is also a fine folk musician.  Her singing and fiddling are threaded through all.

Those who came to listen went home delighted.  Christine is staying with us and Jennifer and I have been plying her with questions ever since.  We would like to keep her around a lot longer but tomorrow we must take her to the bus station and send her on her way.  She'll be touring in North America until November.  It will be some weeks before she'll be home in the U.K. once again. 

listen to Christine's interview on CBC's "In Town and Out"

Trailer for The Battle of the Trees:


Flying in the Dark

Flying in the dark is what we were all doing when Jennifer and I started intensive work with Kim on her new 2wp show.  We all of us knew there was good material in the script a-plenty but we also all knew it wasn’t coming together in quite the right way.

The work Jennifer and I do is exploratory.  Yes, I’m good at finding plot lines and building dramatic arcs but we believe that often there are preliminaries in terms of opening doors through voice and movement to emotional variety and depth. 

Truth to tell, Kim is one of the most positive people in the world.  She lives with joy and relish and finds humour in much that would otherwise be dark.  All that was there.  It was there in abundance but something was missing. 

We got her to shout, a clarion call of commitment to who she is.  We then suggested she try an exercise we’ve found to be among the most powerful in what we have to offer.  It has to do with claiming, with saying, “I am…” and then letting whatever words rise to the lips come out.

In this case, the task was “I am blindness.”  We were all of us surprised at the result.  We were even more surprised when Jennifer asked Kim to breathe, speak one word about the experience, breathe and speak again.  What came first to this oh, so positive person was “tightrope;” hot on its heels was “display.”

More work followed as Kim took on some of the characters in her story – characters who had come to be mere symbols for her but now emerged as three dimensional beings with full lives.  The experience was rich but, of course, also hugely disturbing.  Apart from anything else we had to physically explore why tightrope?  Why this image Kim has never “seen?”

As I drove Kim home, I knew she was exhausted.  The next day she emailed us to say she had a  sense that things were moving within.  What she didn’t tell us until later was that anger was emerging -- anger at what she has had to face in her life in ways sighted people don’t have to; anger at the dis-abling manner in which she is so often treated in the sighted world.  Anger and then groundedness: a more fulfilled awareness of what she has so vibrantly achieved.

This story isn’t over.  We’re still not quite sure where the script will go.  We just know Kim is writing to us with a muscle-y clarity that will make her performance leap into life as none of us has quite anticipated; a clarity that will allow her to evoke and make vivid the tale that, from the beginning, has been hers to tell.  And yes, of course, there will be laughter – in truth she seems to be laughing even more. 


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