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Musings on The Odyssey


Once....not so very long ago I was listening to a panel discussion on CBC about what we should do should we happen to make contact with alien beings or should those beings land.  To my amazement I learned that there are protocols for this -- rules about who should be contacted if some grad student, keeping watch by some telescope in the reaches of the night, comes up against what he/she considers to be a signal from another world. The protocols having been described, there was a lot of discussion as to the appropriate behaviour on the aliens' actual arrival.  Various members of various learned societies discussed how we would, of course, want at once to question them as to how they had got here, what technology they had used.  Through all of this the eminent physicist who was also on the panel held silent.  Finally, he had his turn.  "That's all very well," he countered, "But surely, assuming we can talk to them and so on....surely we should show them some courtesy.  We should do what the Phaeacians do when Odysseus appears, weary and unknown, among them.  We should offer them food and a place to rest; we should honour and welcome them, show them our home at its best, before we even consider bombarding them with all the things we want to know."

Hearing that then reminded me of when I had been in university, ploughing my way through some obscure academic paper in some illustrious journal in the cause of researching for an essay.  Seeking distraction, I turned to the journal index.  A title that claimed to offer thoughts on The Odyssey caught my eye -- a title that promised something less academic than that which I was seeking so studiously to avoid.  And there it was -- the description of how an eminent classicist had found himself wounded and in hospital in the Korean War.  He was in a ward reserved for officers but, when she found out what he did, one of the nurses told him he had to go to visit the enlisted men.  "They're all reading The Odyssey she assured him.  They're all talking about it all the time."  He was sceptical but she was insistent and so he went.  What she'd told him turned out to be true and the men he met had no trouble explaining why Odysseus' story was at the top of their minds.  "It's our story," they told him.  "The story of us, getting back from the war.  Ten years Odysseus was away, ten years it takes him to get back.  That's how it'll be.  That's what we're facing now."  They then went on to pick out various episodes they believed exactly mirrored experiences they had had.

I couldn't forget that.  I couldn't forget it ever.  It's why, when I started the series of epic tellings in Ottawa, The Odyssey was where we began.  It's why I've been so moved each time we've brought the story to our small bit of the world.  Here I am again too, burrowing once more into the text as I begin the edits which our time frame will necessitate in preparation for our first gathering of tellers, October 2.  June 16 2011 -- when we step onto the Fourth Stage of the National Arts Centre in this wondrous collaboration between Ottawa Storytellers and 2wp -- is a long way off but this is a big project.  We want to make the most of it and live it to the full.

Each time there's something that comes at me differently.  This go round I'm struck by how -- ten years on from Troy -- this is still so much a war-torn world.  Menelaus, himself, took eight years to be returning; there is the fate of Agammenon referred to over and over in so many different contexts; there is the sorrow for dead comrades; there is the grief for dead sons.   "I would give up all my riches," says Menelaus, "If I could have my dead comrades back."

When we get together we will talk of some of this, knowing that the story will be different for each of us (as it will for each of our listeners) and yet striving to build the common ground that will help us in the setting forth.  I am hoping for a truly wondrous day of early October weather so we can sit out on the porch, looking out over the setting for our weekend epics, breathing in lake and sunshine and the changing of the leaves.



This and That

A cool grey day and we are off for a weekend of canoeing tomorrow.  Crossed fingers for good weather would definitely be appreciated.  September really does mean getting back into harness and now we have our money from the Canada Council there's no stopping us.  The website is being revamped so it will be easier to see the other things 2wp does besides running its performance season.  There'll be much more info about our workshops and coaching from now on.  We're having to make an adjustment to our performance schedule because our financial good fortune did not spread over into success with the Ontario Arts Council.  Still, dates are just about booked and promotional materials are in preparation. 

Here's a sneak peak at line-up.  For openers, in November, Kim Kilpatrick will be featured in her first one-woman show.  It takes her, from being a child who didn't actually realize her blindness made her different from everyone else, through all the obstructions and obstacles put in her way by sundry doubters to standing firm as the person she always knew she could be.  February brings the illustrious Dale Jarvis from Newfoundland in a program celebrating the 200th anniversary of the first publication of their fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm.  Dale will be working with multi-instrumentalist Delf Maria Hohman.  April we're into the wonders of Norse myth, weaving together the tales that would later inspire both Wagner and Tolkien.  Ottawa teller, Katherine Grier, will be joining both Jennifer and me for that.  Oh, those images: the gathering of the gold from the dwarf's lair; the man made dragon by his obsession with the treasure; the maiden held in the castle by the ring of fire.

So....back to promotion because that's the biggest issue (after ensuring performances of compelling artistry, of course).  It's a matter that's much on my mind lately because, of course, I also have my own projects to feed into the mix.  I should be getting more news of my books into the world, especially my latest When Apples Grew Noses and White Horses Flew.  Tales of Ti-Jean  I'm also beavering away at Jan's Storytelling Club.  Partly, of course, all this is personal but truly I do have an enormous concern with making sure children continue to have access to the strength of the old tales.  When it comes to the Club, I know it's not the same as having a storyteller present but I do want kids to hear those old tales told.  I want young people to be able to listen over and over if they fancy it, doing what story-hearers do always -- conjure the images, breath in the characters, go on those journeys of magic and mystery. 

A bit of a whine?  Maybe.  But as storytellers we do have to be human.  We have to experience life's frustrations so we can make those frustrations real in tales we tell.  What else is that sorting of the seeds which comes up so often but one more of those monumental tasks that seem impossible but can usually be managed if we just keep on plugging away?  OK, so the stories often give the task-facers helpers but we're not actually lacking in those.  It's just that they probably come in the form of the friend who gives us something to laugh about at just the right moment; the song we find ourselves singing; the cup of tea that gets us through.

Speaking of laughing, the two women fell into watching old British comedy clips on YouTube over the weekend.  I'll pass this one on in case you're needing it.  Dudley Moore in a brilliant spoof on Schubert.  How he does it baffles me.



The Two Women Speak

Thought I'd pass along this interview as one more means of letting the world know who we are and what we're all about.  The interviewing was done by the illustrious Dean Verger ( to whom we owe undying gratitude because for thirteen years he hosted our epic series Stories from the Ages every Sunday evening January through March -- this despite the fact that Sunday was supposedly his night off.

As you'll see, the interview comes in four parts.  I'd meant to label each one and give you an idea of content but truth to tell this is a conversation.  It's all a bit of a ramble, with topics weaving back and forth, starting with how we earn a living, how we support other artists and moving on from there -- through the whole business of coaching and excellence and building infrastructure and all that 2wp tries to do (including directing The Odyssey next summer). 

We were in Dean's kitchen so you will hear a garbage truck going by but other than that the quality is great.  Big thing is  we sound as if we're enjoying ourselves -- which indeed we were.  This might have been because we were about to go on holiday but I don't think that's the only reason.  We love this stuff so talking about it fills us with delight.

Here we go then.  The clips don't quite run from one to another but I don't believe there's anything serious that landed up on the metaphorical editing room floor.  Parts of this will be in the Ottawa Storytellers on-line newsletter, which Dean edits and which does indeed have audio (next edition Sept. 1

Can't imagine why everything has suddenly gone into italics but so it goes!



When the Trickster Comes to Call

Tricksters come in many shapes and sizes.  One definitely caught up with me at the SC-CC Conference in Yellowknife this May.  Talk about turmoil.  Suddenly I seemed challenged in every fibre of my being, forced to assess everything I'd ever known and been.

Over the summer, I've been weaving this experience into a new one hour piece (perhaps to be extended into a full evening, perhaps not).  When the Trickster Comes to Call is the current working title.  That's another point of not-certainty.  Is it the title I'll keep or not?

Uncertainty is, in fact, the name of the game here.  Uncertainty as to who I am and what I might have been if times had been different for lesbians and gays and others of the GLBT community all those years ago when I was growing up.  I don't even have a "neat and tidy" ending.  I came up with a very nice literary-conclusion but I couldn't speak it because -- literary or not -- it doesn't really express my truth.  All I can say is that the trickster came calling and I am still doing my best to see what all that means.

I gave the piece its initial outing on Sunday in a small venue which is what I wanted for this first run.  Again, I'm turning to a short story by Sara Maitland to give the work its form.  This one is called Seal Self.   It grows out of a custom, apparently once prevalent in the north of England -- a custom that decreed that for a man to undertake his first seal hunt he must do so in women's dress.  As with all the Maitland material, construction is exquisite and mystery held strongly at the core.  There is great heart and risk here and so the telling comes to me. 

All in all I think this is by far the scariest thing that I have ever done but I want so much to go on doing it.  It isn't actually a 2wp production yet but, since I'm one of the two women, it seems OK to write of it here.

Surprising to be re-assessing my life at pushing seventy but so it goes.  Truth to tell, in the end, I don't think I'm going to be making any monumental changes but rather small ones that, I hope, will count.

I guess the question is why bother?  Why bother to make this into a story, with all the trial and tribulation that's been involved.   Doing so seems unavoidable, however -- being as how finding ways to speak for ourselves and others about what matters deeply to us is our job.  Even on Sunday -- when I was horribly nervous and knew very clearly I was on some sort of knife edge; even then there was a member of the audience who was caused to report to a friend that my work had helped her in regard to speaking the complexities of her own voice.

We all of us have a particular place in the world.  Part of mine is to be an older lesbian woman: a woman who grew up in a time when lesbians were hidden and gay men went to jail.  There are a lot of others out there who would like to have this time reflected because it is also theirs; there are those who came along later who are still touched by the walking of this path; there are those who do not belong to the GLBT world (at least half the audience on Sunday) but who see their own lives conjured in the universality of emotions that are there for us all.

So and indeed, the work goes on.  The two women went to holiday in PEI, ate lobsters, walked on rainy beaches and swam in the cold sea.  They are now back in harness -- Jennifer in her upstairs office, me in my ground floor haven of cluttered desk and computer that is in desperate need of a file-organizing I never seem to get round to but manage fine just the same.

To our great delight, the garden is an outburst of glory, with phlox and colour in abundance.  The wild rice on the lake is being harvested by some small ducks we haven't yet identified.  Don't think we've seen them before but we are always happy to welcome new visitors.


Dragons Morphed

Traditionally summer is the slow time and that is certainly reflected in my sporadic attempts to keep up this blog.  But it is summer -- summer with a vengeance.  We have had temperatures in the 30s when even the mere act of typing has threatened us with heat prostration.  We have also been busy in the garden.  Hence the picture of a thrasher's nest, nestlings flown – a nest plucked up by us with delight when we were in the process of demolishing a grape vine that was demonstrating all too much enthusiasm for taking over the world.  The nest is exquisite -- the big twigs on the outside ensuring it might rest steady on what was almost a platform, the small woven stems of what I think is balsam forming a place of safety and comfort within.

The garden calls but so does 2wp’s 2011/12 performance season.  Lately I have been working with one of our upcoming tellers -- Kim Kilpatrick by name.  Kim is blind and her show is about living with that blindness, relishing it as essential to her being, finding her way in the world when so many of those who are sighted are more than keen to deny her ability and need for independence.

We're now in that fascinating stage when the story is finding itself.  Great leaps are being taken.  The initial title was Hatching the Dragon from a story Kim tells about how, at the age of four, she realized for the first time she was different and decided she needed a dragon to conquer the demon-neighbour who was trying to make her feel pathetic and helpless. 

Dragons became a theme throughout the first draft.  They were a nice literary device, appropriate in lots of ways: the fiery dragon of anger; the hissing scaly dragon of undermining and self-defeat.  Dragons were tempting but as the first draft progressed they began to feel less and less as if they were driving the piece towards its resolution and more and more like convenient afterthoughts stuck on with scotch tape.

We were all a tad stuck.  We kept being stuck till Kim found her real ending which involves dragon-soaring triumph in a manner I am certainly not going to reveal and spoil the show!  There it was, the one line that holds the entire piece within it.  Now Kim also offered some ideas about staging – ideas only she could have come up with.  A shift in thinking began for all of us.  Soon, we were off and running, new images were moving into dominance; a brand new title was appearing -- a title that is full of strength and action of a different kind.  Flying in the Dark is where we’ve come to.  That too may change but, right now, flying, darkness, light combine as guiding force.  (At which point I should mention that, understandably, the whole fact of darkness has completely different connotations for the sighted and the blind.  Visit Kim’s blog -- which she posts daily -- to find out more.  What Is Dark?

We all know where we want to be going as the emails wing back and forth, as Kim writes and I (assisted by Jennifer in discussions over our kitchen table) try to find the right questions to be asking, the right suggestions to make to open further doors.   WE ALL KNOW.  We want to be going to that place where listeners are not simply being given “words of a blind woman” – albeit well-chosen ones; that place where audiences are carried into some whole other space. 

One thing is clear -- as ever.  There are no short cuts.  To make a work of art, you have to find means to start off, you have to get it wrong a bunch of times to discover the path to getting it right.  Whether you are the originator or the artistic advisor you have to listen to the things you didn’t expect, the things that call out to you: "I'm here!  I'm here!  Forget about what you thought you were up to.  Follow me, follow me, follow me!"

Doing that means risk.  I’m often aware in the coaching process of how the advice I offer – frequently with my own trepidation -- is received with the words, "Actually, that's what I was kind of feeling.  It’s what I sort of knew." 

We are going on holidays, but when we get back Kim will come to stay and we will work on moving the script from page to performance.  In the meanwhile, you can catch her at a Story Slam on YouTube.  There, you’ll get a taste of the optimism and humour that pervades whatever she does.

Pics of the garden to go out on.  Just can’t resist! 



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