Theatre Review: True West (Soulpepper)

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First, I need to give a shout-out to the architects who designed the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2008. Apart from making the most of its re-purposed industrial-Victorian architecture, the Baillie Theatre is a phenomenal space. I’ve seen it operate as a proscenium arch, a theatre-in-the-round, a thrust stage. I never know what I’m going to find when I walk in.

Also, props to Soulpepper as a company for a consistently impressive job with its set design. Oleanna had a simple off-kilter and claustrophobic feel in 2011, Parfumerie looked like it took place inside a tasty cream puff last year, and yesterday’s True West was such a perfect suburban kitchen that I could have been in virtually anybody’s house and felt at home. Old-school white fridge with faux wood handles, white oven with clunky dials on the back, floral trim on the wallpaper near the ceiling, decorative plates on the walls, delicate floral detailing on the cupboard doors, Formica table with chrome trim and legs… and how did they scrounge up so many era-specific toasters, anyway?

As for the performance, I enjoyed it. Mike Ross is by turns weak, determined, angry and adorable as screenwriter Austin while Stuart Hughes does well as his brother Lee, a grizzled and conflicted thief who kept on reminding me of Wolverine. Something about the hair.

I like how the level of antagonism between the two brothers didn’t exactly boil over. Sure, they start off talking and wind up fighting, but you get the sense that it was almost inevitable. That tension fueled every word they exchanged, and at almost any time it would have made sense for one of them or the other to throw the first punch. The lingering resentment between siblings is palpable. Mom trusts you more. All dad wants from me is money. I know a story about dad you don’t. Who are you to tell me if I can stay here? It’s mom’s house, not yours. My life is real and important. No, mine is. I want your life. Me too.

There are a couple of highlights in particular. I loved the scene where Austin tries to write the outline for Lee’s terrible-yet-intriguing idea for a Western film. Austin points out how cliché it is (they run out of gas in the middle of a car chase, but it’s ok, because they both have a trailer with a saddled horse ready to go) but Lee won’t be swayed. Hughes’ voice takes on wonderfully haunted quality as he describes the fear both his characters feel: one for not knowing where he’s being led on the chase, and the other for not knowing where he’s going. They’ll chase each other wherever Lee damn well tells them to go, but the point is that they’re scared while they do it.

Ross does a good drunk. He rhapsodizes about the glory of toast (the smell of it means a fresh new day of possibility), gets at the heart of his jealousy for Lee’s survival wits and acumen, calls his brother out for being a failure, and plays wide-eyed earnestness with lovable energy. He makes you believe that this prim and proper academic has a callow, violent drunk like his brother and father just lurking beneath the surface. About 20 seconds before the curtain, there’s a chilling moment where I truly wondered just how far he’d gone, and was willing to go.

Most of all, however, I laughed. And so did the rest of the audience; there was a happy buzz walking out of the theatre. A solid line drive for Soulpepper.

Four out of five toasters.

~Mike!

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Theatre Review: Come From Away (Theatre Sheridan)

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Charming. Folksy. Touching. Funny. Sad. Ambitious.

That’s Come From Away in a nutshell – a rollicking play that has you laughing one moment, wiping a tear away the next, and laughing again in a heartbeat. That it’s still a work in progress makes it all the more impressive. The performance I saw was a one-off workshop, a staged line reading: 14 student actors from Sheridan College spread out across the stage with microphones, literally backed up by the band.

The city of Gander, Newfoundland, had about 10,000 residents back in September, 2001, and unexpectedly swelled to nearly 19,000 for the better part of a week when 38 passenger jets made emergency landings. Did the community pull together to feed, clothe and care for its visitors? Yes. Was there any doubt that they would? Hardly. Writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff found drama and poignant moments in the low yet fascinating stakes of simple stories simply told by the people to whom they happened. Every vignette on stage is true, diligently researched and faithfully recalled.

Also? The play is a musical, if you can believe it, and a very smart one. Rather than power ballads and individual virtuoso moments, the rustic, Celtic-inspired sounds of the Maritimes provide the show’s narrative and emotional backbone. The songs and dialogue trade off continuously through each scene, the former rising to establish the mood of the moment, the latter acting as specific punctuation to further each individual story and character beat. “Wherever We Are” is an early winner, the ensemble keeping up a steady refrain of confusion and helplessness while the dialogue intervenes to deliver a rapid-fire sequence of reassured phone calls to loved ones, cheers about free booze on the plane, negotiations for cell phone use, and one man’s desperate “Please pick up. Please pick up. Please pick up.”

So what did I witness, exactly? I saw one romance end and another begin. I saw a Gander SPCA volunteer essentially burgle her way into the planes’ cargo holds to care for the animals she knew must be inside. I saw a New Jersey man convinced his hosts were going to steal his wallet or shoot him; the worst they did was invite him in for a cuppa. I saw the mayor of Gander make the most of cancelled hockey games, turning the rink into the world’s largest walk-in freezer so he could satisfy Health Canada’s regulations that all donated food be refrigerated. I saw one of the first female airline captains ever sickened at the idea of her one true passion, flight, perverted into a weapon.

There were missteps, to be sure. The play’s structure and flow need work, where some stories felt as though they stepped on each others’ toes. Why have the two romantic couples interact with each other for a few lines of dialogue if nothing will come of it? In a triumph of muddled storytelling, it really didn’t come across that passengers were prevented from disembarking due to security concerns; it seemed to be due to a labour dispute with Gander bus drivers. (There was a strike, but they lifted it for the emergency long before the security regulations permitted people to leave.)

Some of the jokes fell flat for me, just because they’ve been done before. Any time you have city slickers in a hick town, you’re guaranteed to get one guy asking how to leave, and a local giving an unintelligible string of directions all in one massive breath, ending with a clearly understood “and then you’ll be where you want to be” and a long staring contest, the visitor flummoxed by vernacular and the local pleased with a question well answered. Notice to all writers everywhere: it’s been done. Much better was the gag where a bus with freshly deplaned passengers comes to a screeching halt, the driver announcing calmly, “Don’t worry, it’s just an elk up ‘dere in ‘da road.” Ten-second pause, everybody staring. “She’ll move soon. ‘Talways do.” Fifteen-second pause, staring. “When she’s good and ready.” Stare. Even the schmaltz worked for me, and my schmaltz detector is always on high alert. I’d be singing a different tune if the show were fiction, but it isn’t. Made-up schmaltz is emotional manipulation at its worst; real-life schmaltz works its way into your jaded heart for the simple reason that it’s real.

If the concept of “Canadian musical about 9/11” has you running for the hills, I don’t blame you. And yet Come From Away works brilliantly, and not in spite of its concept. It’s a little play about little people who get stuck in a little town, and the little things that happen to them. I hope this work continues its progress and finds a larger production one day. To say that it shows promise is a little unkind; for my money, it’s almost ready to go. I only wish it was more than a one-night affair so more people could have seen it at this early stage.

~Mike!

Why I’m Not A Teacher – Yet

Michael Spiar, Publishing Certificate, B.A. (Hons.), B.Ed.

My work in the publishing business has been pretty satisfying on the whole. Yeah, I’ve got my misgivings. Yes, I thought I’d be farther ahead by now, and no, I’m not giving up just yet. I have expanded my career search to include marketing, communications, et cetera… anything that involves shaping and crafting a message strategically. I know I have more to offer this line of work, and it’s with no small amount of pride and stubbornness that I keep it up. I like the potential.

And yet, for as committed as I am to finding my place in the world of well-paid professionals, I’m reluctant to put my B.Ed. – the very degree that specializes me for work in a fairly stable, benefits-laden industry that promises regular raises and one of the most powerful pension plans in the country – to use. Or at least, I was reluctant. My self-imposed, semi-arbitrary deadline to make it or break it in my chosen field before falling back on my plan B is fast approaching, and I find that as I hoped all those years ago, many of my misgivings have faded or vanished.

People are often surprised to discover I went to teacher’s college. It’s not that they can’t picture me as a teacher, but they scratch their heads as to why on earth I’ve taken a pass on it in favor of grunt work in the publishing industry. After getting over their initial surprise, they muse that school board politics are a thing best avoided and wonder at the well-known fact that teaching has one of the highest burnout rates for new staff. Add to that an increasingly litigious society that actively handcuffs teachers’ abilities to enforce rules, educate their students and, you know, do their job, and almost without my participating in the conversation, coworkers more or less rationalize my decision for me.

And they’re not wrong. I did what’s known as a concurrent B.Ed. program, meaning that instead of completing my undergrad and following it up with a year of teacher’s college, I did three years’ of teacher’s college at the same time as my undergrad, which mean three years’ worth of exposure to the dysfunction and pressure that exist in school boards. I don’t know a single person, even the wonderful teachers I worked with in that time, who looked forward to that aspect of the job.

But that’s not why I didn’t go into teaching. Handy excuse, though, for those times I don’t feel like getting into the real one.

It’s Not that I Don’t Like Teaching

One thing hasn’t changed: I like to teach. As in, the specific act of effectively communicating information to others and guiding them from one stage to another. I have continued to teach skiing (going on 14 years), I began tutoring on the side recently, and standing in front of a classroom connecting with my students was the most reliably enjoyable part of my time as a student teacher. I like seeing my students learn, grow, develop confidence and smile when they get a new concept, and (no false modesty here) I’m quite good and shepherding that process along. But enjoying teaching and wanting to be a bona fide teacher are two different things, and that was the most valuable lesson I learned from my time there.

I applied to teacher’s college – heck, I applied to university in the first place – for no good reason I could articulate at the time. It had more to do with logic and practicality than anything else; I was good at English, so I applied to English programs. I knew that I liked to teach thanks to my weekend work as a ski instructor, so I applied to teaching programs. I was fairly certain I didn’t want to be a teacher, but I knew I needed to have some kind of work available to me coming out of university. It was a plan B for an as-yet nonexistent plan A. I had a safety net for a show that didn’t exist.

Accomplishment and Camaraderie

I picked up ski instructing the way most teenagers fall into lifeguarding – it was a natural extension of age, skills and desire for some pocket change. I found some extra inspiration in the fact that it’s hard to get out to the slopes regularly, and the most reliable way of doing so was to keep up with Snowhawks, my ski school. I was too old to remain a student, so what other option did I have? Two attempts at my certification (I passed the teaching portion on the first try, but my skiing wasn’t up to snuff) and I was ready to teach as of March Break, 2000.

I still remember how proud I was to finally wear the Snowhawks uniform. It wasn’t hero worship exactly, but as an adolescent you tend to build up a mythology around those who wear the (in retrospect) horrifically ugly uniforms that make up the elite class of “instructor.”

In some ways, it was a fortunate that I didn’t get to teach until March. Spring skiing is some of the best, with warm weather, sunny skies and soft snow. My class was just the right size, about six kids, all a few years younger than me. They clicked as a group, they clicked with me, and they were in that sweet spot of just good enough to handle the hard hills and just weak enough that I still had a lot to teach them, and one kid had a particular issue that took all week to correct – when he finally got the hang of it, every single one of us in the group felt the accomplishment as keenly as he did. On the last day of the program, all the groups gathered in the chalet to hand out awards. I couldn’t stop grinning as I announced my groups winner of the Most Improved trophy, and the rest of the class pounded their table and kept on cheering as he came up to claim it.

It was then that I make an indelible mental link between teaching, accomplishment and camaraderie.

Of my first full season teaching with Snowhawks on their regular eight-week program in 2001, my strongest memories are the times I bonded with the students more than anything I taught them. I remember that they got better at skiing, but I also did card tricks for them at lunch. I convinced the more gullible of them that I knew Harry Potter. As the season drew to a close, I started to teach them some of the tricks, and completely failed to anticipate that a few of them would be really upset that I didn’t actually do magic. I remember one girl in particular, the light in her eyes fading, her smile crumbling to a frown, and the sense of betrayal in her voice as she said “Wait, you don’t actually know Harry Potter!” just before she burst into tears. She never quite forgave me.

Back in those days, Snowhawks was a younger, smaller school that could get away with being gloriously disorganized. Of course , I wouldn’t have thought in those terms as a 16-year-old. The school simply was. On the first day, I remember piling off of the Coach bus, helping kids find their skis from under the bus and walking them to the lineup. The school directors, Mitch, Heather, Ian and Sheryl would march around, yelling instructions to get the ball rolling. If you’re in grades 5 to 7, come back here at 12:45 for afternoon lessons – you have the morning to free ski! Grades 3 to 4, stay here. How do you ski? Parallel, wedge? You stand over there, you over there. Are you fast, slow? Go over there.

Instructors were called to a morning huddle to figure out who would take which class. You? Take the intermediates. Suzanna, go for the novices. No, not those ones, the other ones. See the kid with the blue coat? That group. Mike, you take the other novices. No, not them, them. Yeah, them. And off we went.

It was precisely because of this system that I managed to get almost the exact same kids every year. Talk about accomplishment and camaraderie – as I moved up and taught older and more advanced kids, so did Zoe, Tamar, Ben, Michael, Max, Carly, Katrina, Elysa and others get older and better. As we came to a new first day every year, we’d reunite again, and then they’d go pester a director to demand that they get me as their instructor. For five years I had virtually identical classes – I don’t know anyone else who made that kind of connection with their kids over such a long period of time. Some of them became instructors and worked with me. One of them still does. She’s still short, so at least some things stay the same. Nowadays, the directors organize classes long before the first day, and we arrive at the hill with attendance sheets in tow. The serendipity I encountered is unlikely to occur for anyone again.

Those first five years were magical in that way, comfortable and consistent even as my kids grew up and ultimately apart. I can honestly say I’ve never quite recaptured that feeling, but then again, how often does life hand you such perfect circumstances? I still find days where the conditions are great, the kids are loving it, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

But What’s the Point?

Nothing like school to suck the life out of a topic, eh? And teacher’s college certainly does that. By the time I was in my last year of university, ready to graduate with my B.A. and B.Ed., I had more or less checked out. Some of that had to do with the fact that I started off the year undergoing a pretty major change (finally making my exit from a particular closet), and I just couldn’t find put school on the same level of priority I once had. I skipped a lot of classes, started handing in assignments late. Still got decent grades, though, which only contributed to my malaise. How inspired can you be by classes where it’s possible to get a B on a midterm when you 1) forgot you had a midterm that day, 2) nearly skipped the class because of 1, and 3) didn’t study anyway? I picked the English program because I have an innate talent for pulling an essay together out of thin air, but that doesn’t mean I have an inflated sense of importance about it.

Similarly, the teaching side of my education didn’t exactly get my blood pumping. If anything, I dreaded it. Every Friday I went into my host school to teach for a day. As with skiing, I liked the act of teaching – being in front of a class, working with a class, interacting with a class and improving a class. But every week, starting on Monday and going until Friday morning, I became more and more tense. A pit in my stomach. Tingling nerves, hairs on end. And it got worse and worse and worse all week until finally I was physically teaching. Then it made sense, for a fleeting moment. I had the weekend off. The stress began again.

Host teachers would always assure us that teaching got a lot more fun once you graduate teacher’s college. Your plans are judged much less harshly. No more endless reflective journals that get marked by obscure criteria, perfectly capable of giving you a C for “not learning enough” from a recent experience.

What got me, though, was having to make lesson plans. Not because of the work involved, or because I’m allergic to planning. It’s because I had to pick some curriculum criteria to address through my plan. Have you ever read curriculum criteria? Students will “use stated and implied ideas in texts to make inferences and construct meaning.” (Teacher prompts may include “What do you think will happen based on what the author has told you so far?” “What is the author suggesting ’between the lines’?”) I’d stare at my computer screen, struggling to make sense of it. It’s not that I couldn’t make a connection – I’m Mr. Essay, after all, and making thematic links is my bag – but that it felt so meaningless. Only when I was up with the class, actually dealing with the material, did it make emotional sense.

Teacher’s college itself is… unfortunate. Doesn’t it say something when every teacher you speak to has the same negative experience of the program designed to train them for their job? It’s an artificial environment, filled with incredibly capable, well-intentioned individuals who try to make you into good teachers by studying classroom management scenarios and gender theory. They run exercises designed to train you in classroom diversity. They try to teach you a concrete skill (namely, teaching) through abstract learning. Would you send a budding carpenter to hit the books? No, you throw him in the deep end with a mentor and teach him to swim on the fly.

(Heh. Carpenters swimming on the fly. Talk about mixed metaphors…)

One exercise had us standing in a circle while the professor called out statements. If that statement applied to us, we were to take a step forward for a moment, then back. And we’d learn about diversity amongst our selves and be prepared for more of the same in our eventual careers. “I am an immigrant.” Some of us stepped in, and back. “I am religious.” Repeat. “I am a member of a sexual minority.” While technically out, I wasn’t looking for excuses to volunteer the information yet – so I stayed back. If anyone else was of a sexual minority, they didn’t admit it either. Funny, given the statistics that one in 10 will be. “I am an educator.” Here was my time to make a statement. Everyone else stepped forward. I did not.

After, the professor asked me (kindly) if was up to explaining my self-exclusion to the class. I was. I explained how I wasn’t enjoying the program. That I wasn’t sure if teaching was for me. That I liked the act of teaching, but spent so much time stressing out about how to plan my lessons and what to do that wasn’t sure if I was actually “educating” my students instead of simply teaching curriculum. My professor thanked me and smiled, reminiscing that a former student of hers had, upon graduating with her B.Ed., announced that she was going to go and make boots for a living.

Consolidation

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to parse my answer to the educator question. Much of the time, when people ask me, I give the true answer that I simply wanted to try publishing, that teaching was always a plan B. It’s not the whole truth, but it sounds a lot less melodramatic than “Woe, I knowest not what I doth teach!” Which is how I think I sound, not matter how matter-of-fact I say it. I feel like I ought to deliver that rationale mid-swoon, eyes closed, with the back of one hand to my forehead.

What bugged me, and what I finally came to realize before I graduated, was that school is supposed to prepare kids for the real world. Right? Teach them math and language so they can apply it out there. But school is the most artificial place of them all. Thanks to an overly litigious society and incredible leniency demanded by parents, teachers aren’t allowed to be tough. They aren’t allowed to innovate. They’re required to give their students endless chances to hand in, let alone do well on, assignments before finally being allowed to give a zero mark. Teachers can’t hold students back a grade unless their parents consent. Where on earth are these kids supposed to learn and prepare for the reality of workplace politics, sink-or-swim jobs, bullying bosses and, you know, consequences?

Moreover, when had I ever encountered any of that? I can write that previous paragraph now, but back in 2007? Let’s see: I still lived at home. I’d worked for day camps and a ski school. I never had to earn money to live, to survive. I had no idea what it was like to need a job, to truly work, to get by. I hadn’t faced much real-world adversity. My grandmother always used to say my sister and I were spoiled, and we couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. We didn’t ask for anything, we didn’t expect to be showered with money, we always volunteered to help our parents, our friends always had more and better toys than we did… how were we spoiled, exactly? It’s only now that I’m beginning to see what she was talking about.

Back in 2007, all I knew, on some instinctual level, was that I hadn’t lived. Not really. I didn’t have any major successes, nor any failures. I hadn’t gotten an internship, then a job, then a better job, then lost that job, then returned to the old job after a five-month unemployment period, and started trying to freelance, then started a blog.

The best teachers are the ones that manage to put their personal, passionate stamp on a classroom. Back then, I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what my stamp would be. And I knew it.

What business did I have running a classroom, preparing these kids for out there, when I hadn’t experienced any of it myself?

The Future

I’m still not quite ready to go back to teaching, though it has little to do with a crisis of confidence. It’s just that I’m not sure if teaching is what I want to do for a living. If there was a Venn diagram comparing teaching and publishing, the common ground would be “communication, collaboration and achievement.” Sounds a lot like “accomplishment and camaraderie,” no? Seems like vague criteria, but then again, companies do employ Communication Officers, do they not? Marketers? Public Relations staff? People whose job it is to take stock of their audience and craft a message accordingly?

I’m not done exploring the world outside of the school system yet, but I’m a lot better prepared to go back into it if need be. I can’t say that my real-world experience will directly affect my lesson plans, at least in so many words. But my experience has changed me, which will change how I teach. It will change the nature of my classroom, should I ever get one. And, with a little bit of luck, it will change my kids. For the better.

~Mike!