Virtual VS. Real Networks: Where is the Balance?

Those who read my blog know, I’m very rarely the first in line to embrace a new technology. My first cell phone was purchased only two and a half years ago. I was also very late to join Facebook.  Once I do adopt a new technology, it is usually because it benefits my life substantially. At that point, I tend to become a total convert. I now spend a large amount of time networking, sharing, and interacting in various ways on social media sites and in 2010 I made the conversion to a smart phone and haven’t looked back since. Life without it would be unpleasant.

 This weekend I was out with two friends. We were engaged in fairly mundane activities (watching a hockey game, consuming fatty foods, and drinking beer.) The night was fairly typical for us. The first part of the night, we got caught up on what each other were doing had various discussions about politics, work etc. Then later on in the night as the game got kind of boring, and there was a lag in conversation, my other friend, let’s call him “R” and myself began to turn to our smart phones. This is now as natural to me as breathing. My third friend, “J” got cranky and felt that cell phone use (while fairly minor) was a violation of “face time” with him.

 I was reminded again how we are in a period of transition. Though clearly the writing is on the wall and the overlap between real and virtual social networks will continue to expand. This divide, between those who are plugged into online connections and those who are not, for the short-term, will create friction between the two groups; however, the latter group is shrinking very rapidly.  I suspect in a few years those not plugged in will be considered an oddity (maybe we’re already there?)

Now certainly everyone is entitled to live their lives as they choose, but I can’t help but remember that hanging out in a bar watching a game, at one time, would have been considered anti-social. “Why hang out with other people if you are just going to watch TV?” Society has changed and we now recognize that we can also socialize while using this technological device. Simply put, social interactions never stop.

The same is true of smart phones. They are not making us less social, if anything they are making us more social.  This is basic human nature and it’s not surprising that a technology that has expanded the ways we connect with others has been so successful and widely adopted. Fighting this trend is futile. It’s the present not the future.

 Here is another thought: while it would be rude to constantly be talking with individuals who are not physically present (and ignoring those in real time around you) it is equally rude to force someone to ignore those individuals who are not present and completely monopolize their time because you are currently in their physical space.

 Obviously a balance has to be struck.  Where do you think this balance is?

The show that should have not been included in Undercurrents

Undercurrents 2012 is long over but I’m happy to report it was once again a success. Congratulations to Patrick Gauthier, and the GCTC, for running a great event!  This festival is a great addition to the Ottawa scene.  I would love to see it continue to grow and nurture local talent.

Undercurrents celebrates “theatre below the mainstream” and for the most part it does this very well; however, this year there was one show that I felt didn’t really fit in with the spirit of the festival: Blue Box written and performed by award winning Carmen Aguirre and directed by Brian Quirt. 

This show was sold out early and received praise from critics so why do I think it shouldn’t have been included? What I like most about the Undercurrents festival is that it gives an opportunity for independent and under celebrated artists (independent theatre often flies below the radar) to showcase their work in an established theatre. Aguirre’s Blue Box, however, is not in this category.

Who is Carmen Aquirre? This Vancouver-based actress/playwright is an impressive figure on the Canadian cultural landscape.  She has numerous film and TV credits (30+) including a lead role in Quinceañera  (a Sundance Festival award winner).  She has written/co-written 18 plays.  She was playwright-in-residence at The Vancouver Playhouse from 2000 to 2002 and was also playwright-in-residence at Touchstone Theatre in 2004. She is deserving of all this success and is firmly a part of established theatre/film professionals in this country and has been for over a decade.

Blue Box was directed by Brian Quirt. For those who don’t know, Quirt is the former associate artistic director of the GCTC and the current president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. In fact, he has directed two shows recently at the GCTC.  In 2011, he directed Whispering Pines  and in 2010 The List. Both these shows played on the Irving Greenberg (GCTC) main stage as part of the GCTC’s regular season.

Quirt’s company Nightswimming has produced over 25 shows and has been in operation since 1995. Perhaps this is why he was able to attract such high profile talent such as Aguirre to work with.

 In every way possible, performer/creator, director, and company, Blue Box is not theatre “below the mainstream.” For this reason I do not think it should have been included in this year’s Undercurrents festival. I think the only question is why did the GCTC not choose to include this show as part of its regular season given the show’s pedigree?

Patrick Gauthier has an excellent eye for theatre and I enjoyed his (and the GCTC’s) programming of the 2012 Undercurrents festival. That being said, next year, I hope Undercurrents returns to the 2011 format that celebrated/promoted the work of independent non-established artists. There is a very real need for this kind of independent festival in Ottawa and it is what makes Undercurrents special.

Undercurrents So Far

The Undercurrents festival is well underway at the Great Canadian Theatre Company and this weekend I was finally able to get out and see some shows.  The first, was the Friday Feb. 10th opening of,  Falling Open by Luna Allison.   

In Falling Open, Allison has taken on a very difficult subject, one family’s experience with sexual abuse,  skilfully and with appropriate sensitivity. The script is sharp and hard-hitting while avoiding the typical clichés of victimization.  While certainly strong in places, on opening night, her performance was slightly uneven and her voice was a little quiet. This was compounded by the fact that she had to compete with the whir of the fan of a projector used for the audio-visual elements.  I have mixed feelings about the audio-visual elements as a whole, there were instances where they worked and served the narrative, but in others they were a bit of distraction.  Despite these technical failings, Falling Open is still very much worth seeing because of the strength of Allison’s script. I recommend it!

Saturday February 11, I attended two shows. First, was Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show by Architect Theatre (a resident company of Theatre Passe Muraille.) This is an ambitious project that deals with the themes of environmental degradation/reclamation all wrapped up in a love story. The piece is a blend of fiction and verbatim theatre (dialogue taken from interviews with people in the community.)  I think this kind of theatre works best when the stories of the community interviewed are brought to the forefront. In the case of this production, the verbatim component is merely used by the artists as a backdrop for their own fictional narrative. I feel that is a missed opportunity.  That being said, both Georgina Beaty and Brendan Mcmurty-Howlett put in very strong performances.

The second half of my theatrical double feature was Live From the Belly of the Whale by Ottawa’s Mi Casa. This show was sold out early and it’s easy to see why.  Emily Pearlman and Nick Di Gaetano are both charismatic performers. They make a great team with Pearlman providing clever dialogue and Di Gaetano creating the music. It’s a great combination and both are compelling to watch as they tell this fantastical story about the relationship between a brother and sister (complete with journeys to the ocean and to the moon).  It also features exceptional set and props design by John Doucet. The only drawback to the performance was the fact that the keyboard occasionally overwhelmed the singing voices of the actors. Live From the Belly of the Whale finished it’s run last night, but I’m hoping Mi Casa will release the soundtrack for purchase. It’s a winner!

So far it’s been a great festival. I hope you get a chance to go out and see a show before it ends! By the way, a special feature of this festival is you can bring your drink with you into the theatre space. If you see Weetube 5400 you can also get free popcorn and cookies. How about that for an incentive?

The Two shows I’m Most Looking Forward to At Undercurrents

Last year, the Undercurrents festival launched at the GCTC and was one of the theatrical highlights of the year. The festival’s aim is to promote independent boundary pushing theatre or “theatre below the main stream.”  Last year’s line up was terrific and I saw every show.  Undercurrents 2012, opened yesterday and I’m once again looking forward to seeing more independent theatre!

In fact, I’m on record, and have been quoted in marketing material, saying this about last year’s festival:

I hope this festival becomes a regular feature of the Ottawa theatre scene and that the GCTC will sponsor even more independent theatre productions in the future.” 

As a strong supporter of this festival, I thought I would take some time to tell you about two of the shows I am particularly looking forward to this year. I think I would be remiss if I also didn’t tell you about the one show I feel should not have been included this year and why, but I will save that for another blog post.

Here are two recommendations!:

At the 2011 Ottawa Fringe Festival, Luna Allison premiered Falling Open in a very original venue (her bedroom.) Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to catch this one at Fringe. Her home was a little off the beaten path and, to be completely honest, the play’s subject matter (one family’s experience of sexual abuse) scared me off a little too. That being said, those who saw it raved about this show. I’m told Allison treats the subject matter with appropriate sensitivity and puts in a powerful performance. While I’m sure this one will be challenging, Falling Open is top of my list to see at Undercurrents 2012.

Highway 63: the Fort Mac Show, looks like an interesting piece of verbatim/documentary theatre, bringing to life the stories of the people who live in Fort Mac, Alberta. I love when communities use theatre to tell their stories. I’m also a fan of the verbatim movement so I’ll definitely be checking this one out.

So if you don’t know what to see, those are the two shows in the festival that I am most excited about. Get your tickets soon!

Sleeping Dog Theatre’s Blood on the Moon

Pierre Brault as Whelan- photo by Lydia Pawelak

Last Thursday, I set off to see Sleeping Dog Theatre’s (in association with the National Arts Centre English Theatre) Blood on the Moon  at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre (GCTC).  Written by Pierre Brault, this show was selected as a last-minute replacement for You Fancy Yourself by Maja Ardal cancelled due to Ardal’s severe illness.  Blood on the Moon features Brault as the ghost of James Patrick Whelan, an Irish  immigrant who was found guilty of assassinating D’arcy McGee, retelling the story of his trial. Those who are familiar with Brault’s work will not be surprised that this is a one man show with Brault playing all the characters.  Brault has built his reputation with these kinds of performances and once again does an admirable job juggling all the roles.

I am always pleased when local writers make an effort to tell Ottawa’s stories and Brault has done a nice job of telling Whelan’s story in Blood on the Moon. I particularly enjoyed the way he weaves in modern local references that Ottawa residents will relate to along with the historical facts of the trial.

Martin Conboy’s lighting design is also quite effective. The various scenes in the play from jail cell, to courthouse, and finally the gallows are all depicted through the use of clever lighting techniques.

Blood on the Moon is a local story skillfully told. It’s a show definitely worth seeing.

It’s important to remember that this show started 13 years ago as an Ottawa Fringe Festival show before touring Canada and Ireland extensively.                                                                      

This is not surprising, in fact, with so few opportunities to catch independent theatre on main stages, the theatre festivals have become the breeding grounds for the best of independent theatre in the country.

On that note, I’m very pleased that the GCTC is once again offering the Undercurrents festival in February. It’s a perfect opportunity to check out more independent Canadian theatre. Perhaps, some of the shows featured here will move on to main stages or, like Blood on the Moon, tour internationally.

For more information on show times and ticket prices for Blood on the Moon click here

Oliver! at the National Arts Centre

Cast of Oliver! photo by Andree Lanthier

Friday, December 9, I set off to the National Arts Centre (NAC) to check out the opening night of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Ticket sales have  been doing very well and, I’m told, many performances have already sold out in advance.  This kid friendly musical adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist was certainly a good choice from a marketing perspective and audiences are  buying tickets based on the title alone.

In one key way I’m sure many will be disappointed. This version of Oliver! has cast an adult (Thomas Olajide) in the title role of Oliver Twist.  Unfortunately, much of the pathos of this particular story comes from the fact that the audience is meant to sympathize with a tiny child left alone in a harsh, well Dickensian, world.  A tall adult actor simply cannot evoke this kind of sympathy the way a child actor can. More importantly, the vocal parts are clearly well out of Olajide’s vocal range. On opening night he was quite often off-key.

While Olajide’s lack of singing ability stood out, there were others in the cast who clearly were not professionally trained singers either. This is clearly problematic for a professional musical production.

That being said, there were many moments that worked in this version and some fine performances as well.  Jennifer Waiser does a nice job as the “Artful Dodger.” Julie Tamiko Manning (Nancy) has a particularly strong voice. In fact, her microphone failed on opening night and yet her voice rang true. I also enjoyed Joey Tremblay as “Fagin” and Kris Joseph as “Mr. Sowerberry.”

If you can get past a few uneven vocal performances and the unfortunate casting of the title role, there is much to like in the NAC’s version. I’m sure that many will be reasonably entertained, but I can’t help but feel an opportunity has been lost for the NAC and professional theatre in Ottawa in general. Large audiences are being attracted to this show;however, with a mediocre product on stage will they go on to see more theatre in Ottawa?

For show dates and ticket prices click here

Returning to Reviewing With a Decent Pair of Boots!

This Friday, I’ll be setting off to the opening night of Oliver! at the National Arts Centre. That’s right; my month away from theatre criticism has come to an end. I’m in the mood for something light and while I have seen the film version of this musical, I have never seen this musical staged. I’m hoping it will be a winner.  Oliver! certainly seems like a much stronger choice than last year’s Nativity by Peter Anderson, which, to be honest, was a rather lack lustre production. My hopes are high and I am really curious to see how the audience responds to  Oliver!. Will expectations be met? Or will this be another theatrical disappointment? Check out my review next week and find out.

In other news, I have finally got around to buying a quality pair of dress boots. I am fond of wearing a suit and tie to opening nights, but for the last couple of years I’ve never really had the winter footwear to match.  I am now the proud owner of these, which I purchased on sale at Wolf and Zed (519 Sussex): http://www.johnvarvatos.com/Sid_Side_Zip_Boot/pd/np/13334/p/3503.html

Looks like I will be going to this show in style!