Category Archives: Joy Fisher

Tannahill examines theatre’s malaise

Theatre of the Unimpressed: 

In Search of Vital Drama

By Jordan Tannahill

Coach House Books

160 pages, $14.95

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

At 26, Jordan Tannahill was one of the youngest Governor General’s Award recipients ever when he won in the drama category in 2014 for Age of Minority, a collection of plays for young audiences exploring aspects of queer identity. With Theatre of the Unimpressed, his book-length critical essay probing malaise in English-language theatre, he demonstrates he is as talented at research and organization as at the art of playwriting.

The Toronto-based theatre practitioner spent a year interviewing theatregoers and non-theatregoers prior to writing Theatre of the Unimpressed. He divided his book into three main sections: Boredom, Liveness and Failure. In the first, Tannahill explores factors contributing to theatrical malaise. The second reports theatrical trends that signal vitality. The last Tannahill sees, along with risk-taking, as necessary to a vital theatre.

Tannahill’s basic premise is that theatre, at its best, develops our capacity for empathy and provides transformative experiences. In his view, complexity, specificity and relevance – a play’s “rigour of thinking” – are the fundamental hallmarks of resonant theatre. Boring plays lack this rigour. They: 1) “underestimate an audience’s capacity for complex argument” (play it safe); 2) lack “specificity of creative choices” (are lazy); or 3) are “unaware of context” (feel irrelevant).

Tannahill attacks, in particular, the model of the Well-Made Play which he asserts has dominated Western theatre since the nineteenth century. Well-made plays are based on psychological realism and explore conflicts “through conversation on the battlegrounds of middleclass parlours.” Well-made Canadian plays come in for a particular drubbing: too often they are “multi-generational narratives in which someone is finding their identity and in which Canada is also finding its identity.” Reverence for the well-made play, Tannahill believes, has also contributed to a dramaturgical system that attempts to “fix” scripts that don’t fit into the mold of the well-made play, with the result that “the life is sucked out of them.”

Classics also suffer, though for other reasons. Their difficult questions disguised by geographical and temporal distance, costumes and production values, they become what Tannahill calls Museum Theatre: mere relics from the past, “harmless effigies of their once fierce and mighty selves.”

Money is also a factor. (Anyone familiar with the City of Victoria’s recent complaints over the costs of upkeep for the McPherson Playhouse will recognize this economic reality.) Artistic directors, in need of money to pay for upkeep on the imposing physical structures of large regional theatres, stick to traditional well-made plays because they trust their audiences to support them. Ironically, audiences hungry for transformative experiences develop a taste for well-made plays because that’s what artistic directors give them as a steady diet.

The problem is complicated, Tannahill argues, by a system of arts councils that have bought into the model of perpetual growth upon which free market capitalism is based. One of my friends, an artistic director trying to buck this trend by keeping ticket prices low to attract a younger, less well-heeled crowd, has confided his frustrations on this score. Because he can’t demonstrate his theatre is increasingly profitable, he risks losing continued art council funding.

While I agreed with Tannahill’s clear elucidation of the problems that interfere with achieving transformational theatre, I sometimes found his proffered solutions alarming.

For example, Tannahill embraces the auteur theory of directing, common in the film industry, which allows directors to subvert the scriptwriter’s intentions. In traditional theatre, the playwright is regarded as the creative mother of the play, and the director as its midwife. Together, they give birth to new life. Directors who deliberately subvert the meaning of a play can turn the newborn into a deformed thing. I saw that happen not long ago when a male director intentionally subverted the meaning of a feminist play from the 1980s because he thought it would not resonate with the audience in what he considered to be a post-feminist world. It was like watching an abortion.

Furthermore, although Tannahill concedes that the well-made play can contain the spark of liveness that produces a transformational experience, he tends to look to the experimental for that result. He also extols the strange notion of constructed failure—incorporating into the performance something that deliberately fails in order to startle the audience into response. While admitting that could be considered cynical, Tannahill considers it to be a powerful antidote to a mass-mediated culture in which “polish, poise and conventional aptitude are rewarded.” To me, the notion of constructed failure smacks of disrespect for the audience, an attempt to trick them into responsiveness.

Tannahill has written a well-researched analysis of what ails contemporary English-language theatre that will inform anyone who loves live theatre and wants to see it thrive. Just remember to don your critical thinking cap when you consider his proposed solutions.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

Sexual identity takes centre stage in Cock


By Mike Bartlett

Directed by David MacPherson

Theatre Inconnu

May 5 – May 23

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

What do you think of when you hear the word “cock?” English playwright Mike Bartlett had at least three meanings in mind when he wrote the play Cock, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009 and opened at Theatre Inconnu on May 7.

First, and perhaps not surprisingly for a young man still in his twenties when he wrote his play, Bartlett was thinking of that part of human anatomy found exclusively on the male of the species.

John, the main character (played by Robert Conway), has left his long-term gay lover, “M”, (John is the only character with a name) and has unexpectedly fallen in love with a woman, “W”, but he hasn’t lost his fascination, it seems, for that special part of the male body. As he is making love to W for the first time, he confesses: “I’m worried is there going to come a moment when I’m missing his cock.” And when he gets scared and runs back to M, he tries to assure him of his sincere desire to reconcile by saying: “I still whack off to you every night.” Charming fellow, this John!

For some inexplicable reason, both of John’s lovers want him and are prepared to fight for him. When M (played by Cam Culham) convinces John to invite W (played with delightful spunk by Melissa Blank) to dinner at their home so that they can all sit down and “talk things over,” the scene is set for the second meaning of “cock.” Bartlett explained in a published interview that, during a visit to Mexico, he discovered they still have cockfights there—“an activity where you come together for a ritualized killing of an animal—where you come because they’re going to suffer, and you’re like a mob surrounding this fight to the death.”

And that’s how this play is staged: the audience, cast as the mob, seated on four sides surrounding the action, as if to watch a fight to the death.

No one dies, as it turns out, but there is a considerable amount of suffering on all sides. John has led each of his lovers to believe he has decided in their favour and is just waiting for dessert to reveal his choice to the other. M, who knows John well, has his doubts, and has invited M’s father (“F,” played by Eric Grace) to dinner for emotional support. It soon becomes clear that John hasn’t made a choice, and despite pressure from all sides, is incapable of making one. Out of this emerges the third meaning of “cock:” “[I]n Britain, if someone’s really irritating,” the playwright explained, “you think ‘Oh, he’s a complete cock.’” John is a complete cock.

John isn’t the only irritating thing about this play. It breaks with many conventions of stage plays. For example, the playwright has dictated that it should be played without scenery, furniture or props. Even worse, it’s played without “mime,” that is, without actions that suit the dialogue. At one point, John demands that M take off his clothes. The dialogue seems to indicate that M has complied, but the actors remain clothed. At another point, the dialogue indicates that John and W are making love, but the actors aren’t even touching. According to the playwright, the intent is to place the focus entirely on the drama of the scene, but I found the discontinuity between the dialogue and the action shattered my focus and took me out of the drama of the scene.

Bartlett claims Cock is intended to be an examination of how rigid definitions of sexual identity can interfere with making a choice based on the person one is drawn to. I can think of scenarios that would explore this dilemma dramatically, but this isn’t one of them. John doesn’t experience any character development in Cock; he’s much too passive for that. As a result, the play was as frustrating for some of its viewers as John was for both M and W.

Sometimes, though, frustration can lead to passionate involvement. When I was walking back to my car after the performance, I came upon two women standing on the sidewalk talking about the play. I joined them, and the three of us hashed it over, rewrote the ending, made the choices John refused to make. We were so caught up in our heated discussion it was a long time before we noticed the chill of the cool night air.

Maybe that’s why Cock won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2010.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.  

Workman delivers in tragedy turned rock opera

The God that Comes

Co-created by Hawksley Workman and Christian Barry

Directed by Christian Barry 

Belfry Theatre Spark Festival,

March 17-22

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Five years ago, disgruntled by changes under the Harper government (“It wasn’t the Canada I’d grown up in anymore”) playwright Christian Barry chanced on a copy of The Bacchae by Euripides. He contacted Juno-winning rock musician Hawksley Workman, whom he had seen perform in Montreal, and said: “I think I’ve got something we could work on.” The God that Comes was about to be born.

In 2012, this rock-opera—then “in-progress”—was performed at the Metro Theatre. It was back in town for a short run as part of the Belfry’s Spark Festival, an annual program featuring new Canadian theatre from other regions of the country. (Barry is co-artistic director of 2b Theatre in Halifax.)

In Euripides’ 2400 year-old Greek tragedy, a repressive king seeks to quell the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine, sexual liberation and—not to put too fine a point on it—theatre. The king fears Dionysus because the god is reputed to be able to subvert the oppressive restraints of the powerful. Disguised in women’s attire, the king makes his way to the top of a mountain where a Bacchanalia is in progress. When the women worshippers discover the king spying on them, they tear him limb-from-limb. The king’s own mother, under a spell of ritual madness, hallucinates that he is a lion and rips his head off. (Note: most of this was explained to the audience by a wine-sipping Workman in a prologue before the show at the Belfry got underway.)

And then the music began. With the ritualistic beat of drums, Workman’s signature instrument, the singer chanted “He knows what it takes to make us. He knows what it takes to break us.”

Mannequins at the rear of the stage depicted the main characters: the king sported a military hat; the god, a red feather boa; and the queen mother, a blonde wig; three characters but only one performer. Sometimes Workman donned the identifying article of a character when assuming that role; sometimes a spotlight simply illuminated that mannequin as he sang.

Moving easily from one instrument to another (Workman played several, including electric and acoustic guitars, recorder, ukulele, harmonica and keyboard) and adjusting his amazing voice (a growl through a megaphone for the king; tenor for the god; falsetto soprano for the mother), Workman sang all three of the characters, successfully making each one—even, in the end, the doomed king—sympathetic. Strobe lights, and digital delay loops playing back his just-recorded voice and music in rippling echoes, created a hypnotic effect. As the tension mounted to the moment of the king’s murder, the strobe lights became so intense I worried they might trigger an epileptic seizure in someone.

After all the atavistic violence, a quiet denouement ensued, but an electric sign in red letters proclaiming “Don’t stop love” seemed incongruous. For me, this phrase recalled the same-sex marriage struggle in the United States. In a telephone interview, Barry admitted the resonance, but deemed it coincidental: “When I saw [a sign like this] in New York, it opened my heart, and I knew I wanted that in the show.”

While a tour de force of musicianship, it’s difficult to say whether the show opened hearts or minds, either to love or to an awareness of political repression. Barry wants the show to be something that people listen to “with their muscles first and with their minds second.”

Considering the continual patter of sexual innuendo (“…and the god …came!”) and overt sexual gestures (including simulated cunnilingus with the female mannequin), it was easy to guess which muscle the men in the audience were likely listening with and hard to know whether their listening ever transitioned to their minds. It wasn’t the sex per se that was objectionable, but the attitude toward it: Hair celebrated cunnilingus back in the 1960s, but Hair was joyous; in this solo cabaret based on a Greek tragedy, the sexual references just seemed smutty.

When this run closes, it will mark the 116th performance of the show, and there is no end in sight. The two co-creators will be off to Hong Kong to spread their dual message of repression and liberation to other parts of the world. The long development period now behind them, Barry insisted the show is nevertheless a little different with each performance because Workman intuitively responds to the energy of each audience, and he concluded, like a fond papa: “I’m proud of it every night.”

Although The God that Comes concluded on March 21, The Spark Festival continues through March 22.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

Patience is a virtue in theatre of the absurd

Waiting for Godot

By Samuel Beckett

Directed by Jacob Richmond

Blue Bridge at the Roxy

March 3 – 15

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

When Waiting for Godot premiered in England in 1955, the director, Peter Hall, admitted he wasn’t sure what it was about. Nor was the audience. Some people loved the play; others walked out. Critics gave it mixed reviews.

Samuel Beckett famously refused to discuss the question, but, over the years, he did drop a few hints. When Beckett directed his play in 1975, he explained to his young assistant director that everything in it was “a game in order to survive.” He also once told an actor in the cast that it was “all symbiosis.”

The primary symbiotic pair in this tragicomedy consists of Vladimir and Estragon, two aging men down on their luck, who are waiting, endlessly it seems, for the appearance of a mysterious character named Godot, who never comes. As is true in many symbiotic relationships, these characters differ markedly, but they depend on each other and their relationship is mutually beneficial. Vladimir, as played in the Blue Bridge production by Vancouver-based actor Peter Anderson, is tall and thin, and Estragon, played by Victoria’s own Brian Linds, shorter and round. Vladimir is contemplative, Estragon intuitive. Vladimir is appalled when Estragon, seemingly shameless, solicits another character for money. But they have been together for 50 years, call each other “Didi” and “Gogo,” bicker like an old married couple, and finish each other’s sentences. They turn to each other for affection and brace each other through the endless waiting with games and diversions that often echo early comedy acts such as Laurel and Hardy. (They even wear bowler hats.) Anderson and Linds may not play the roles with quite the same verve as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan did on Broadway in 2013, but their performances are nevertheless emotionally affecting.

Though Vladimir and Estragon traditionally get top billing, there is another symbiotic pair in this tragicomedy: Pozzo and Lucky. While Vladimir and Estragon are grounded in the human condition (Vladimir suffers from prostate problems; Estragon has feet so swollen he can only remove his shoes with difficulty), Pozzo and Lucky expand into metaphor. Pozzo, played by Scott Hylands as a whip-wielding tyrant who drives Lucky by a rope around his neck, and Lucky, played by Trevor Hinton as a thoroughly beaten-down, drooling slave, nearly steal the show. Even Vladimir and Estragon can’t take their eyes off Lucky as Pozzo puts him through his paces, commanding him to dance and then to “think” aloud. It’s not until Act Two, when Pozzo and Lucky return, that the symbiotic nature of their relationship is made clear. Pozzo, now blind, and Lucky, now dumb, are still tethered together, but now the rope is shorter and Lucky uses it to guide Pozzo on their way.

And what of Godot (pronounced, we learn, “GOD-oh”)? Beckett swore he was not intended to be a God figure, despite the name. But it isn’t the name, so much as the act of waiting that is important in this play, the endless waiting in an utterly barren landscape where the only sign of natural life is five leaves that miraculously appear on a denuded tree at the beginning of Act Two. (Regrettably, the absence of a curtain in this production spoiled the miracle because a stage hand had to stick the leaves on the bare branches in plain view of the audience during intermission.)

Waiting for Godot emerged from theatre of the absurd, which posited that, while inherent meaning might very well exist in the universe, human beings are incapable of finding it and are thus doomed to the absolute absurdity of existence without intrinsic purpose—a frightful prospect. I was puzzled when the play opened to the lush strains of “Moonlight Sonata.” This music seemed so inappropriate for the sterile landscape and harsh existential theme. That it was the perfect choice became apparent as the play ended. The final tableau, a mastery of stage lighting designed by Rebekah Johnson, poses Di-Di and Go-Go silhouetted side-by-side against a full moon, reaching across the void to grasp each other’s hands. Waiting for Godot is not a play about despair; it is a play about the triumph of the human spirit.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover. 

Women’s voices dominate film festival’s Indigenous program

Trick or Treaty?

Director: Alanis Obamsawin

My Legacy

Director: by Helen Haig-Brown

Bihttos (Rebel)

Director: Elle-Maija Tailfeathers

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Four out of the five films comprising the first-ever Indigenous Film Program presented by the Victoria Film Festival this year were made by women. While highly unusual in the film industry as a whole, this eye-opening statistic is not surprising in the world of indigenous filmmaking, according to Michelle Latimer, curator of the Indigenous Program.

“About 60 percent of submissions to ImagiNATIVE Film Festival (in Toronto), the largest indigenous film festival in the world, are submissions by women,” Latimer said.

Latimer, an indigenous filmmaker in her own right, culled the five included in VFF’s program from 300-plus films she has seen through her work as a curator with other festivals. I managed to see two of the features plus one short.

The “master” – I use this term advisedly as Trick or Treaty? premiered as part of the Masters Program at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 – is Alanis Obamsawin. Obamsawin has been making films for the Canadian National Film Board since the 1960s and is currently working on her fiftieth film. I became a fan when I saw Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which she made in 1993 about the Oka crisis.

Like Kanehsatake, Trick or Treaty? blends past and present in an effort to link history with current events and cause with effect. The treaty of the title is Treaty No. 9, also known as the “James Bay Treaty”, which was signed by Cree tribal leaders from Northern Ontario and Ojibways from Manitoba in 1905. A recent book, Treaty No. 9, by John S. Long, examined the journal of government commissioner Daniel George MacMartin and confirmed First Nations’ oral accounts of the Treaty’s contents. The film includes clips of the author discussing his findings with current First Nations leaders. MacMartin’s journal supports the contention that government negotiators misled tribal leaders by misrepresenting what was in the written document. Leaders signed based on those oral representations and didn’t discover the actual content – which deprived First Nations of land ownership and rights to natural resources — until a translation of the treaty was provided to them 25 years after the fact.

When the Canadian Government introduced Bills C-38 and C-45 in 2012 pursuant to the purported authority given by the treaty, First Nations resentment flared, leading to renewed activism. The film documents the hunger strike by Cree Chief Teresa Spence, the beginning of the Idle No More movement, and the 1,600 kilometre walk to the Canadian Parliament by then 16-year-old David Kawapit, who was joined along the way by a growing company of First Nations youth.

While Obamsawin’s film captures the anger of people deceived and cheated of their heritage and seeks to educate the general public, both The Legacy, directed by Helen Haig-Brown and Bitthos (Rebel), by Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, turn inward to reveal their own personal stories about the emotional “suppression” visited on them as a result of being raised by parents traumatized by government programs. Generations younger than the octogenarian Obamsawin, these directors focus their films on healing and forging a personal path for moving forward.

Haig-Brown, a Tsilhqot’in from the Cariboo-Chilcotin area, said at an audience Q&A after the showing of her film on Feb. 7 that she wanted to learn to put her “heart” into her films. In My Legacy, she does just that; one revealing scene shows her bare-breasted while a tiny flower bud superimposed over her heart grows to cover her chest with bloom — a metaphor for her growing capacity to feel love. My Legacy won the Alanis Obamsawin award for Best Feature Documentary at ImagiNATIVE Film Festival in 2014.

Tailfeathers, the progeny of a Blackfoot mother from Kainai First Nation and a Sami father from Norway who met at a World Council of Indigenous Peoples, recounts the story of her father’s chronic depression which eventually resulted in the dissolution of her parent’s marriage. The film documents her growing understanding and empathy for her father. Although this film focuses on healing, activism is in Tailfeathers’ genes. As a UBC graduate, she made Bloodland, a film about hydraulic fracturing on her reserve and promptly got arrested while taking part in a demonstration.

The last film in VFF’s Indigenous Program, Drunktown’s Finest, had its British Columbia premiere on Feb. 10 at the Vic Theatre. This film, first shown at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, received the Jury Award at Outfest L.A.

The Victoria Film Festival continues through Feb. 15.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright. 

Belfry double bill a study in contrasts

The Best Brothers

By Daniel MacIvor

Directed by Glynis Leyshon

How to Disappear Completely

Co-created by Itai Erdal, James Long, Anita Rochon and Emelia Symington Fedy

Directed by James Long

Belfry Theatre

January 27 – March 1

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

The Best Brothers and How to Disappear Completely, a pair of one-acts currently on offer at the Belfry Theatre, share a common theme: exploring the impact of a mother’s death on her adult children. But the approach to this theme and the manner in which it is executed provide an illuminating study in contrasts.

For starters, The Best Brothers is a “text-based” play written by an award-winning Canadian playwright and acted by professional actors; How to Disappear Completely was co-created by a team and is performed by a professional lighting designer who insists he is a “performer,” not an actor.

One look at the scripts (which are available from the Belfry box office for perusal in-house) reveals a stark difference: The Best Brothers script tops 100 pages; How to Disappear Completely is only 22 pages long. And yet they clock in at close to the same length when performed. Much of The Best Brothers’ brisk pace is due to short, truncated lines which reveal the conflict between the brothers, Kyle (played by Ron Pederson) and Hamilton (played by John Ullyatt), as they blunder through the post-death rituals of writing an obituary, planning a visitation and burying their mother, while confronting their longstanding sibling rivalry. The dialogue is clever and the delivery by both actors polished, but you probably won’t remember much of it after you leave the theatre.

How to Disappear By contrast, in How to Disappear Completely, the script often just points the way forward for the long monologue directed to the audience by Etai Erdal, the solo performer. Erdal meanders from one seemingly disconnected anecdote to another, winning the audience over with his warmth and openness as he confronts mortality and discourses on lighting design in the theatre as metaphor for death. Demonstrating with hand-held controls, Erdal shows the audience how a light called a PARcan has the unique characteristic of growing warmer in tone as it diminishes in intensity. It is at its warmest at one percent, just before the subject being lit disappears completely. When you leave the theatre after this play, you are apt to perceive many things differently, both literally and philosophically, and you may find yourself pondering these new insights late into the night.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the two plays is this: The Best Brothers is a lightweight comedy about fictional characters; How to Disappear Completely is a true story about the death of Erdal’s own mother and his coming to terms with her desire that he help her end her suffering.

At the beginning of The Best Brothers, the  brothers learn that their mother, Bunny, has been killed when a hefty transvestite who calls herself Pina Colada falls off a float at a gay pride parade and squashes little Bunny flat. Hamilton, who is straight and believes, not entirely without cause, that Bunny loved his gay brother better, blames Kyle for her death. Conflict ensues, escalating into physical violence during their eulogy at her funeral. The plot is furthered, but Bunny herself is not well-served, as the brothers alternately don her gloves and hat and deliver extended monologues to the audience in her guise. The introduction of Enzo, Bunny’s nervous Italian greyhound who eats Hamilton’s $250,000 kitchen, provides the one honest moment of feeling in this contrived play. The dog is not physically present, but when Hamilton looks into its cage and asks wistfully: “Why don’t you like me?” you know it’s not really the dog he’s addressing.

At the beginning of How to Disappear Completely, Erdal tells the audience that when his mother, Mery, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2000 and given just nine months to live, he boarded a plane in Canada and flew back to Israel where he was born and where his mother still lived. By way of introducing himself to the audience, he confesses that he has broken every one of the Ten Commandments, then corrects himself by declaring he has never made a graven image. The implication is clear, and the scene is set for the working out of one of the heaviest moral dilemmas that life can ever impose. Mery is very present during this struggle. Erdal, who at the time was studying to become a documentary film maker, was encouraged by Mery to film her illness and death. When Erdal pushes back a curtain onstage, her image is before us, projected onto a large screen. As she speaks in Jewish, Erdal translates into English for the audience. At various times, Erdal shows footage of his sister and best friend as well, not only translating their remarks, but also copying their movements in an extraordinary shadow play of empathy. The result of this co-created performance was thought-provoking and profoundly moving.

As a text-based playwright whose little experience with co-created productions has been particularly painful, I tend to class co-creations with the making of laws and sausages: to retain respect for them, avoid watching them being made. Measuring these two plays against one another, however, has altered my opinion.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

British play a case of cultural disconnect


By Alan Bennett

Directed by Tony Cain

Langham Court Theatre

Plays through January 31

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

British playwright Alan Bennett once described his play People as a “play for England.”  How right he was! Which is why it was perhaps an unfortunate choice for a Canadian theatre.

The theme–the commodification of history–is universal enough in these neoliberal times when everything, as a character points out, “has a price, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t have a value.” But Bennett’s satirical wit is focused specifically on the particular mission of England’s National Trust to restore and maintain heritage houses; so, for a foreigner like a Canadian (or, in the interests of full disclosure, in my case, an American) it’s a little hard to understand what all the indignation is about. Restoring heritage houses? What’s there to complain about in that?

There is not just a cultural disconnect; but also a class mismatch between this play and most members of its audience. The lead character, Lady Dorothy Stacpoole, played by Elizabeth Whitmarsh, is an aging member of the peerage. She lives, stoically, with her half-sister companion, Iris, (played by Geli Bartlett) in a mouldering country mansion that she can no longer afford to maintain. Dorothy stubbornly resists the entreaties of her other sister, June Stacpoole (played by Jan Streader), to turn the house over to the National Trust so that it can assume its rightful place as a piece of English history.

“This is not Allegory House,” Dorothy proclaims haughtily, refusing to see it as a metaphor for England. Voicing what one must take to be the playwright’s own view, Dorothy declares: “Gone should gone be, and not fetched back.” One suspects, however, that, in some vain manifestation of misplaced pride, she would rather see the house gone than tracked through by vulgar plebeians on a Sunday outing.

So horrified is Dorothy at the prospect of commoners on tour invading her private quarters that she grasps at other straws of salvation. One is an offer by a shady character representing a shadowy consortium seeking properties for undisclosed purposes. Another is an offer from an old friend from her youth (played by Toshik Bukowiecki) to rent the home as a location for a porno movie. Dorothy accepts the latter offer, and the play slips from satire into farce. The farce, it must be said, is much funnier than the satire. (The sex scenes in the four-poster bed are tastefully obscured from view by light reflectors held by members of the “film crew.”)

Porno films, however, are not a permanent solution to the cash flow problem, and, in the end, the National Trust has its way with the house. A scene showing its transformation from dilapidated ruin to fully-restored mansion was, I’m sure, meant to be satirical, judging by the robot-like march of the army of restorers–but it backfired. Clever lighting changes removed the dinge wall-by-wall and colorful pictures, too many to count, all painted by the unbelievably industrious set designer, Anne Swannell, completed the transformation. I think the playwright intended that I should despise the result, but I was enchanted.

Even Dorothy comes around in the end, agreeing to be a volunteer guide and throwing herself into her new role with all the gusto that only a stalwart member of the peerage could muster. To the aristocracy, I’m sure there was something of the tragic in the ending. But, commoner that I am, I couldn’t wait to buy my ticket for the house tour!

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright.

Memoir born from nature and turbulence

Christine Lowther is the daughter of the noted B.C. poet, Pat Lowther, and is an accomplished poet and essayist in her own right. She has co-edited two books of essays and is the author of three books of poetry. Her most recent book is a collection of her own essays, Born Out of This: A Memoir (Caitlin Press, 2014). Often referred to as a “ lifelong activist,” Lowther has been a resident of Clayoquot Sound since 1992 and this book includes many of her encounters with the natural elements of this still largely unspoiled environment. Recently, she answered Joy Fisher’s questions about her writing and her life.

The title of your book, Born Out of This, is related to a story of paddling in monstrous waves and thus suggests emergence from turbulence. In some of the essays in your book, you refer to the death of your mother at the hands of your father, which suggests that the turbulence you were born out of is not merely that of the ocean. But your final essay concludes with an examination of your obsession with immersing yourself in the ocean. You say: “The water, so cold, changes everything. Day or night, each time I emerge from the ocean, I feel reborn.” What meaning do you wish to convey to your readers by the title of your book?

We needed to come up with a title. This is often the most challenging part of writing a book. Vici Johnstone, my publisher, chose this one, very perceptively. I love the ocean and we were all born from it, and you’re right, there was turbulence. The title is perfect.

The descriptions you include about the behaviour of even the smallest creatures in your environment — for example the pipefish you once watched for a quarter of an hour — suggest an enormous capacity for patient observation. Is this the inborn patience of a poet, or have you had to learn it over time? If you did learn it, how did you train yourself?

I think my need to observe and notice wild things comes from love. Both my parents were nature freaks and when we left the city for Mayne Island I was utterly enchanted. It felt like a different planet. Nothing against the city, which I also loved in my way, especially later on during the punk scene in Vancouver. If anybody trained me, my parents did, for good and ill, and a few good teachers did too. Observation of little things like bugs and birds was also in the pages of books I read as a child. Those books are still with us, but screens are taking over with their games and movies. It feels like I’ve noticed and observed and loved all my life, but I’m honestly not sure, because I have forgotten much of my childhood. I love all the magic that is around us all of the time. In adulthood I fell in love with poetry again and I think reading a lot of it helps in the “training.”

Your essays often recount your encounters with the larger animals who share the relatively intact forest you live in in Clayoquot Sound and it is clear that daily contact with some of them is necessary to your continued sense of peace; but you are also acutely aware of the dangers inherent in sharing space with wild animals such as cougars. Can you elaborate on the tensions inherent in the danger and the balm of living with untamed beings?

My first meeting with a cougar taught me that they are around us whether we know it or not, and this can be very disconcerting. You could almost say we are never alone in the forest. I had a dazzling cougar sighting on May 6, 2014, that didn’t make it into the book. I was on my floathouse deck, depressed because of the manner in which my relationship had ended that morning. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get any sleep that night. Then I heard a large animal emerge onto the shore rocks from the bush—safely across the water from me. I assumed it was a wolf but amazingly, considering the broad daylight and my presence, it was a cougar. The animal walked along the rocks toward the creek for several moments. After it had returned to the forest, I found myself feeling suddenly light. That night I slept soundly and peacefully.

You write that you began gardening in your mid-twenties, and, now, in Clayoquot Sound, you have a floating greenhouse attached to your float home. What has gardening come to mean to you, both practically and aesthetically, over the years?

I’m obsessive about some things and gardening is one of them. I met a woman on the Walbran Valley logging blockade in ’91. She could identify wild flowers and herbs, and knew how to garden. She was a couple of years younger than me but I saw everything she did as both right and inspirational.

I write poems about gardening and about the flowers that grow around me and the bees I love so much—possibly more poems than I should write about these things, I don’t know. When I try to imagine living with no garden, I feel ill. It just feels right to eat out of the garden. It almost feels like spring wouldn’t happen without gardening. Quite possibly manic. I have learned by experience that if you don’t like gardens and gardening you might not like me much.

In Born Out of This, you write about some of the causes which have engaged your activism, from the peace movement to environmental protection. Can you talk a little about what gave rise to your passionate caring for these causes?

I have to assume my mother is at least partly responsible since she is reported to have read her poems at anti-Vietnam war rallies while I occupied her womb, plus the whole family picketed a development that threatened a pair of old trees when my sister and I were still really young. I discovered Vancouver’s peace marches by myself when I was 14, but these sorts of leanings were clearly in my cells already. I always had a strong sense of justice, as did some of my forbears. Of course, some of it might have been loneliness reaching out, searching for my tribe.

Alice sounds a haunting refrain


Co-created by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan and Paul Schmidt

Based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass 

Directed by Clayton Jevne, Theatre Inconnu

Through Dec. 20

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Even before the Canadian premiere of Alice at Theatre Inconnu begins, artist Robert Randall’s illustrations of a dissolute man, a bright-eyed girl and a rabbit, projected onto a screen, undulate gently as if deep underwater.

It is an early clue about the psychological depth of this surreal musical exploration of the relationship between a Victorian-era author and the real-life child who was his muse.

In 1856, Charles Dodgson, a mathematician and Anglican deacon, befriended the family of Henry Liddell and became a particular friend of Liddell’s middle daughter, Alice. Dodgson, an amateur photographer, posed Alice in various make-believe postures, including that of a beggar-maid in torn clothing. At one point, Dodgson wrote in his diary: “I wish I could free her of all her clothes.”

In 1863, when Alice was 11 and Dodgson had just completed a draft of what he would later publish as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Mrs. Liddell ended the relationship between her daughter and Dodgson and ordered Alice to destroy his letters. Dodgson continued to write, if not to Alice, than at least about his Alice, and later published Through the Looking Glass.

When Americans Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and Paul Schmidt began to conjure Alice in 1990, they hit on the idea of melding the Alice stories with the real-life relationship between Dodgson and Alice. Wilson, a director known for visual conception, was struck by the image of a photographer with a black cloth over his head. The image also resonated with Schmidt, who wrote the libretto. What must it have been like, he wondered, for a child to be photographed in an era when the process entailed long periods of holding perfectly still, stared at by the camera’s eye? It became his opening scene.

It fell to singer-songwriter Waits to write music and lyrics for the play. In collaboration with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, he created a haunting atmosphere as a counterpoint to the text in which sorrow and reverie, touched by obsession and insanity, rise like a mist around the characters. Theatre Inconnu musical director Donna Williams and the group, The Party on High Street, used an exotic variety of musical instruments, including a horned instrument known as a Stroh violin and the eerie theremin, to achieve an emotionally fragile mood.

Psycho-sexual allusions are never far from the surface. In the Dodgson character’s anguished opening number, “There’s Only Alice,” Graham Roebuck, in the guise of the White Rabbit, sings: “And so a secret kiss brings madness with the bliss.” Alice, played by Melissa Blank, morphs in age, but maintains a strong determination throughout to grow into her own identity. She is not untouched by Dodgson’s obsessive attention, however. In Alice’s last song, as an adult reflecting on her childhood relationship, she signals her continuing attachment when she sings: “You haven’t looked at me that way in years, but I’m still here.”

Hints of pedophilia run through the Alice stories as well. Both acts end with trial scenes in which the Black Queen demands the beheading of, first Alice, then Dodgson, because of inappropriate letters sent and received. This is a crowded tale, populated by seven supporting actors, several of whom play as many as five roles apiece. Imaginative costuming by Shayna Ward, as well as talented acting, effectively disguise this redundancy of roles. Together, the cast and production team bring to life characters from the Alice stories with an edge you’ve never seen in them before.

Despite the condemnation in the scenes derived from the mad worlds created in Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, this play as a whole is not censorious of pedophilia, but rather treats both characters involved in the relationship with sympathy and respect. In a 1993 BBC documentary, the argument was made that the intent is, rather, to see the relationship as “something complex and moving and beautiful, if troubled.” In Theatre Inconnu’s program, director Clayton Jevne advances his hope that the current production will both entertain and haunt the audience “in a way that reminds us that we are all ‘haunted’ by those who have touched our psyches.”

Jevne’s hope is realized. Alice is a play that risks much and touches deeply.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

Joan of Arc character study seen in its cultural context

Saint Joan

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Kim Collier

Arts Club Theatre Company, Vancouver

Playing through Nov. 23

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Before the audience ever sees Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, we learn some things about her. The best hens in Champagne have stopped laying while she is kept waiting in the courtyard below and she won’t go away. Why hasn’t she been thrown out, the squire wants to know; are the servants afraid of her? “She is so positive, sir,” replies his steward, enigmatically.

When we finally see her, the steward’s meaning becomes clear. Joan, a mere slip of a girl, a farmer’s daughter who by her own admission “doesn’t know A from B,” converses with her elders and her social and gender betters as an equal. Oh, she’s polite and genuinely warm, but not shy about ordering them around:  “Captain,” she tells the squire, “you are to give me a horse and armour and some soldiers and send me to the Dauphin. Those are your orders from my Lord.” Her Lord, it turns out, is God.

The squire thinks she’s mad, but in the end he does her bidding. Thus begins Joan’s campaign to oust the English “goddams” from France and crown the Dauphin King in Rheims cathedral. She succeeds, at least in part, but by 1431, victory has turned to tragedy: Joan is burned at the stake as a heretic and not one of her former comrades will intervene to save her. How can this be? Well, for one thing, her temerity has become insufferable.

Catching the right tone (sincere friendliness combined with unconscious presumptuousness) was complicated, but Vancouver actor Meg Roe proved herself equal to the task. A slip of a woman like Joan herself, Roe had early on been convinced by her father that Joan was the part to play if she wanted to be a “real” actress. She enlisted the assistance of director Kim Collier and the two of them eventually persuaded the Arts Club Theatre Company to take on the project. “It was fun to play a strong woman,” Roe said in a promotional video, and challenging to inhabit Shaw’s “big ideas.”

Unlike Shakespeare, Shaw places his characters in their cultural contexts. It wasn’t just Joan’s character flaws that doomed her, but also her insistence on a direct relationship with God – a heretical idea in the eyes of the Church hierarchy; her budding nationalism, which challenged the unity of the Holy Roman Empire; and her notions about the divine right of kings, which threatened the feudal lords. Then, of course, there was her rejection of woman’s traditional role and her insistence on wearing men’s clothing. Some dislike Shaw’s “big ideas” and think they make his plays wordy, but, for others – and I am one – the context adds texture and depth.

To make time to explicate his “big ideas,” Shaw eschews pomp and circumstance. Battles are fought off-stage; the king is crowned off-stage; Joan is burned off-stage. Nevertheless, there was no absence of “theatricality” in this production. Soldiers mingled with the audience (at one point, Joan climbed into the balcony to urge her men onward into battle); singers provided her saints’ voices in ecclesiastical music composed by Alessandro Juliani; and an elegantly simple set with a revolving stage designed by Pam Johnson accommodated scenes as diverse as the countryside above the Loire river and the interior of Rheims cathedral.

This is a big show in every sense of the word. Eleven actors took to the boards, most of them double-cast, some even triple-cast, and the production lasted in excess of three hours, including two intermissions. The director cut most of Shaw’s epilogue, but fortunately retained his final line, which resonates today as strongly as ever: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”

Shaw completed this play in 1924, four years after Joan was canonized. In 1925, Shaw received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

For Victoria residents who want to check into this play more deeply before spending  hard-earned dollars on an overnight trip to Vancouver, there’s a link to Shaw’s preface and the script through Project Gutenberg.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright who wishes she could write like George Bernard Shaw.