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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. 



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!


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