Category Archives: Theatre

Discussion and reviews of theatre

The Artword Story 1: Why “Artword”?

Judith Sandiford paintings at Erindale Art Gallery

Judith Sandiford paintings at Erindale Art Gallery, 1986. “Paintings from the Virtual Museum”.

Judith and I close down Artword Artbar every August and every January. These are times to reflect, re-energize and see some shows that aren’t our own.

I also thought it would be a good time to tell you some things you may not know about Artword.

First, the name “Artword”.

“Artword” started as the name of a quarterly magazine, written “by artists for artists. (Full name “Artword Artists Forum”) Judith was editor and I was the publisher.  We published 24 issues from 1989 to 1994.

The first few issues were called “WorkSeen”. This was because Judith was an active member of Workscene Collective, which ran the Workscene Gallery.

Judith and I had a little business doing technical documentation (still do!), so we had computers, layout programs, and an actual laser printer, back when they cost $2500-5000. So we had the bat and ball, and the diamond was in our back yard.

We were fortunate to gather a team of excellent people, and we made our decisions pretty much together. Our philosophy was that decisions should be made by the people who did the work. And that was pretty much how Workscene Gallery also had been operating.

After a few issues, though, we were called to a meeting the Administrative Committee of Workscene Gallery. They had concerns. One of our best, and most reliable writers, who wrote a satirical column called “Le Flaneur” had written a phrase which they considered possibly sexist. It wasn’t, but they thought it might be.  The phrase was not “politically correct”, a new concept at that time that was just trying out its wings.  They decided that they should review the content of every issue before we published it.

None of them had written anything. None of them had sold any ads. None of them had helped painter Andy Glinski drive out to the art galleries and art stores to deliver the copies. (4,000 copies a month, free.)

So we said no. And they said, well then you have to remove all references to Workseen and change the name. We said fine. We can think of a name.

So we thought. And we came up with “ArtWork”. And our designer and layout person, sculptor Lynn Campbell, designed a logo. ArtWork.

It didn’t seem quite right. Somebody thought it was too “artist as worker”, too agitprop. But for me, the issue was the letter K. It was a fierce letter, arms and legs sticking forward, a bristling letter. How about (I suggested) the letter D. Artword. Combining Art and Words. And it required minimal redesign of the logo.

So Artword it was. Since then, everything that Judith and I have done has been called Artword. When we started our theatre in Toronto, it was Artword Theatre. When we set up our not-for-profit, it was Artword Cultural Projects.

And when we came to Hamilton looking to create a theatre, and decided instead to buy a Portuguese sports bar and turn it into a cultural oasis, we called it Artword Artbar. (World famous for its Artword Artbar Artbeer).

The name Artword turned out to be a bit problematic. People have trouble reading it and understanding it. The say Artworld or Artwood or Atword or Atwood or (indeed) Artwork. But we have persisted. Artword it remains.

Stratford-Upon-Avon: Othello

Shakespeare's funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church.

Shakespeare’s funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church.

We had seen a remarkable Othello two years ago at the National Theatre, with Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago, set in a contemporary military garrison resembling those in Iraq or Afghanistan. We almost decided to skip Othello this time, so as not to overlay our memories of that production.

It’s a good thing we didn’t skip it. This Othello, wonderfully acted in an ensemble mode, proved again the limitless facets in Shakepeare’s enigmatic masterpiece. The revelation here was the relationship between Othello and Iago, brought forward by casting a black actor as Iago. Not just any actor, but the effervescent and charismatic Lucian Msamati, who might have stolen the show away if Hugh Quarshie had not radiated such controlled and thoughtful power.

When Iago is white, Othello is entirely isolated, and it is no surprise to us that Iago plots against him. When he is black, suddenly we see Iago as Othello’s trusted subordinate, someone who stands with him, ready to carry out his wishes and provide him with information. When he is passed over, his loyal service unrecognized, he turns his ingenuity toward revenge. Othello continues to trust him, because Iago is his bridge to a world he only partly understands. Msamati’s Iago, always scheming and arranging, is busy spinning his spider webs, until finally he himself is caught.

Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona deserves mention. There is no trace of victim-hood in her characterization. She is simply a young woman who follows her impulses without guile, and expects that the world will be as straightforward as she. A most refreshing take.

Grimeborn: Alternative Opera at the Arcola Theatre

The bar at Arcola Theatre

The bar at Arcola Theatre, an exellent place for a glass of wine before the show. (You can take it in with you.)

We love the Arcola Theatre, London’s most vibrant and ambitious alternative theatre. It’s up in Dalston, a maelstrom of multicultural life, once an area of dubious repute, but now verging on getting to be maybe nearly (dare I say the word?) trendy. Every summer, for those of us who can’t afford the Glyndebourne Festival, it hosts the Grimeborne Festival of Alternative Opera, where tiny, impoverished opera companies present glorious music.

Wednesday’s program was called The Clown of Clowns, consisting of two works: Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Sideshows, by Leo Geyer. The presenting companies were Constella Ballet & Orchestra in collaboration with Khymerikal. The program points out that “many of the musicians involved in this production are members of both ensembles”. Continue reading

“The Beaux’ Stratagem” at the National Theatre

National Theatre, London

National Theatre, London

“The Beaux’ Stratagem” is usually thought of as a late example of Restoration Comedy, and that’s how I was thinking of it as we entered the Olivier. I didn’t know the play, but I was ready for a saucy, boisterous romp. It took a little while before I adjusted to its more sedate rhythm and more polite treatment of sexual relations. It was, after all, written in 1707, at the cusp of the Restoration style and the more sedate (and forgettable) sentimental comedy of the 18th century.

At the interval, I said to Judith “I’m not sure what I’m seeing”. This, by the way, is not a bad thing. I love being made to stretch.

Continue reading

“A Number” at the Young Vic

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

The Young Vic is just a stroll east from the Old Vic, along the street called The Cut. (The two theatres have no connection with each other, by the way.) We like the Young Vic very well, for its adventurous programming and its pleasant and affordable cafe. So it was that on Wednesday following our arrival, having booked tickets for The Beaux’ Stratagem at The National Theatre that evening, we sauntered down The Cut to see what matinees were on offer at the Young Vic. Continue reading

Ensemble theatre company Idle Motion: Shooting with Light

Shooting with Light. Photo by Richard Davenport

Shooting with Light. Photo by Richard Davenport

Our biggest surprise in our recent London theatre binge was a production by an ensemble company called Idle Motion, at a small space called the New Diorama Theatre near Euston Station. The play was Shooting with Light, “devised, written and directed collaboratively by Grace, Sophie, Nathan, Ellie, Juian and Kate” (to quote the program). The company uses dance, theatrical movement and multimedia to tell its stories, and this of course appeals to us. So on a whim, we decided to forego the musical Made in Dagenham (which sounded interesting, but nothing we hadn’t seen before under other names), and seek out something that just might be more surprising. We were quite knocked out. We had hoped for good enough, and got something pretty close to marvellous. The story was compelling, the dance/movement was skillful, the acting was honest and unselfconscious, and the inventiveness just kept happening.

Sophie Cullen as Gerda Taro, photo by Margaret Durow

Sophie Cullen as Gerda Taro, photo by Margaret Durow

Based on Jane Rogoyzka’s book Gerda Taro, Shooting with Light tells the true story of a young woman living in Paris in the 1930s. She hooks up with a disheveled young photojournalist who can’t seem to sell any photos, smartens him up and starts to manage his career; in return, he gives her a camera and teaches her how to use it. They decide to invent a fictitious American photographer, always out of town, called Robert Capa, and the photos start selling. She changes her name to Gerda Taro, and starts to sell her photos, sometimes as Robert Capa and sometimes under her own name. They both go to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, where Robert Capa shoots the iconic photo of a Republican soldier in the moment of being shot. Gerda takes more and more risks, and insists on returning to Madrid after the fall of the city. She is killed at the age of 26 by an out-of-control tank. Treated as a martyr to the Republican cause, she has a couple of years of posthumous fame, and then is largely forgotten, her work subsumed into that of Robert Capa and remembered primarily as Robert Capa’s girlfriend.

One reason for this seeming neglect was that most of her negatives, along with many of Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, had been stored in a box that was smuggled to the Mexican embassy and forgotten. Robert’s photographer brother, Cornell Capa (he changed his name as well) devoted years to tracking down this so-called “Mexican suitcase”.

The play opens with Cornell and his assistant June examining rolls of negatives from a compartmented tray. The set is an enlarged version of this tray. They find a roll that contains what they are looking for, and suddenly Gerda (the actor) bursts through the corresponding compartment in the set. It’s a wonderful shock, that sets us up for the transformations to come, through the use of projections and physical rearrangements.

Dance and movement are used to break through the convention of naturalism and propel the story onward. The script alternates between the search for the negatives and the truth about Gerda Taro, and the relationship between the two photographers, as they participate in the invention of the craft of photojournalism. This is a story worth telling, in this age of embedded journalists and manipulated media.

 

Arcola Theatre: Shrapnel

Arcola studio 1

Arcola studio 1

Arcola exterior

Arcola exterior

Our first night in London this visit: we’ve slept off our red-eye flight jet lag, and it’s time to get out! Why not go to our favorite alternative theatre, the Arcola, in wonderful, multicultural Dalston? Dinner first at the Mangal Turkish restaurant, lamb spare ribs (yum) and then a short walk to the theatre.

The play is Shrapnel, subtitled 34 Fragments of a Massacre, by Anders Lustgarten. It’s a sombre piece based on an incident that took place on the border between Turkey and Iraq in December 2011, called the Roboski massacre. Video from an American drone captures images of a band of men in the mountains making their way with mules across the border. The Turks know who they are: impoverished peasants who make a precarious living smuggling diesel fuel. Pentagon officials insist that they are terrorists, and send in the drones.

Anders Lustgarten operates in the great British tradition of activist-playwright, using the resources of the stage to expose political and social issues to scrutiny. His bio mentions that “he has taught on Death Row, been arrested by the Turkish secret police and holds a PhD in Chinese politics from the University of California. He is the winner of the inaugural Harold Pinter award”. The Arcola’s artistic director, Mehmet Ergen, who directed this play, is also committed to an engaged, activist theatre, with a particular interest in Turkish affairs.

In London, alongside theatre as mass entertainment, is a healthy parallel strand for people who love an opportunity to learn, think, and join in a dialogue about what is going on around them. One might call it (if the term were not already misappropriated) “adult entertainment”.

Shrapnel has a no-nonsense, just-the-facts approach. The cast of six share multiple roles, switching from villagers to Pentagon commanders  to smugglers to Turkish officers to two low-level interrogators. A powerful element is the use of footage from the actual drone video projected behind the action.

There are two elements that distract from what is, overall, a powerful and effective piece of theatre. The vignettes jump back and forth in time, sometimes bewilderingly, though there does not seem any particular reason not to be chronological. The other is the use of accents, and this is a tricky problem. The villagers have strong Turkish accents (there are a couple of Turkish actors), the Americans speak Ammurican, but there are scenes in which the accent is British. These, it turns out, are the Turkish officers, and it took a while before I cottoned on. Was the British army deployed there too? To Londoners, presumably, a standard BBC accent is neutral, but not to us Canadians. It is, as I said, a vexed question in ensemble work, and relates also to ethnicity. When is casting colour blind, and when are we supposed to notice?

Apart from the head-scratchers above, this was a fine start to our London theatre holiday.

(Note: usually the photographs I post are my own, but I forgot my camera, so I’m posting a couple from the Arcola web site: www.arcolatheatre.com.)

Learie Mc Nicolls in Transformation at Artword Artbar

Learie McNicolls in Transformation at Artword Artbar

Learie McNicolls in Transformation at Artword Artbar

Learie Mc Nicolls confronts the demons of poverty, violence and fear in his powerful new work, Transformation: a Journey of the Soul’s Healing, at Artword Artbar, March 25 and 26, 2015, at 9:00 pm. An Artword Theatre production, directed by Ronald Weihs, Transformation combines dance, spoken word, soundscape and visual images, to present one man’s struggle to come to terms with his troubled Trinidad childhood and redeem the forgotten child inside him. The live musical soundscape is by Dale Morningstar, founder of the experimental blues-rock band, The Dinner is Ruined. Visual design is by Judith Sandiford.

Learie Mc Nicolls in Transformation at Artword Artbar

Learie Mc Nicolls in Transformation at Artword Artbar

Learie Mc Nicolls has been a key figure in the contemporary dance scene in Toronto since the 1980s. He has danced with Toronto Dance Theatre, Desrosiers Dance Theatre, Dancemakers, the National Ballet of Cuba, and his own company, Mythmakers. As a solo dancer, he has been exploring the combination of dance with spoken word, to create a powerful new form of theatrical presentation. His Toronto production, Armour, took two Dora awards for Outstanding Choreography and Outstanding Performance.
A year ago, he moved to Hamilton, where he is devoting himself to help build the contemporary dance scene here. In May, 2014, he performed Resurrection at the Pearl Company, and choreographed the dances in Artword Theatre’s second production of James Street. He has created an ongoing series of showcase dance productions at Artword Artbar called Big Dance Little Stage, featuring dancers from Hamilton and Toronto over two nights. There have been four BDLS productions, June, September and November 2014, and February 2015. He has recently opened a dance studio downstairs at Artword Artbar.

Learie Mc Nicolls

Learie Mc Nicolls

Transformation takes the dance/spoken word paradigm to a new level. Ronald Weihs as director, and Judith Sandiford as designer, pushed Learie to incorporate methods based on their approach to theatre. Together, the three of them analyzed Learie’s poems from a theatrical point of view, finding characters and situations that needed to be brought to life. Learie was fine with this, because he is also an actor.
The three collaborators also drew on their experience with Big Dance Little Stage, where Judith Sandiford improvises with projected images and musicians create soundscapes to interact with dancers. It was through BDLS that they became acquainted with Dale Morningstar, who provides improvised music for his wife, dancer Megan English. In addition to his work as a musician, Dale is perhaps best-known as co-founder of The Gas Station Recording Studio, “the hub of the Canadian indie rock sound”, now located at Gibraltar Point on Toronto Island. He and Megan now live in Hamilton.
Transformation: A Journey of the Soul’s Healing will be Artword Theatre’s contribution to the Hamilton Fringe, July 2015, with Artword Artbar as a Bring Your Own Venue.
The Artword team, Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford, created and ran Artword Theatre in downtown Toronto for twelve years before coming to Hamilton in 2007. Weihs and Sandiford have had long experience with one-person plays, including three by Charlie Chiarelli, Cu’Fu, Mangiacake and Sunamabeach, Allan Merovitz’s If Cows Could Fly, and Donald Carr’s The Full Nelson. Judith Sandiford has designed and lit dance productions with Meiko Ando, Michael Du Maresq, Leanne Dixon, Hedy Minten, Daryll Tracy, Bonnie Kim and Donald Carr. Artword Theatre’s original multi-cast productions in Hamilton include You Are What You Do, Langston Hughes vs Joe McCarthy, Rascals and Numskulls, Tobacco Troubadour, James Street and Scroogissimo. They own and manage the popular Artword Artbar, featuring music of all varieties, theatre, poetry and spoken word four nights a week, Wednesday to Saturday.
Transformation: A Journey of the Soul’s Healing
An Artword Theatre production
written by Learie Mc Nicolls
choreographed and performed by Learie Mc Nicolls
directed by Ronald Weihs
original music performed by Dale Morningstar
visuals by Judith Sandiford
produced and designed by Judith Sandiford
Performances at Artword Artbar, 15 Colbourne Street
Wednesday and Thursday, March 25 and 26, 2015, at 9:00 pm.
Tickets: $10

From Morning to Midnight, at the National

Written in 1912, Georg Kaiser’s expressionist drama From Morning to Midnight has been given a bravura treatment in a new version by Dennis Kelly. I joined the queue for day seats at 8:30 on a Wednesday, and snagged two matinee tickets, along with two evening tickets for the second preview of King Lear. What a day of theatre it was!

The National production of From Morning to Midnight achieves an unusual balance between spectacular special effects, and the actors manipulating scenic elements. A snowstorm, for example, begins with actors shaking out sheets, an effect which expands to cover the stage with surging and rolling white cloth. Lovely. At another point, an office set piece is flown upwards, trapping a bewildered actor inside. It is even more impressive that the invention never flags, From start to finish there are surprises.

The plot is the familiar expressionist morality tale, showing society grinding down a character who tries to assert  individuality. A bank clerk, a cog in a monstrous machine, absconds with a large sum of money, and spends a day using the money to find the meaning of life, or rather, the spark of human energy. He seeks through family life (his own family), sex (a fancy brothel), mass enthusiasm (a bicycle race) and religion (a Salvation Army prayer meeting). At every stage, illusions are stripped away.

The path is familiar, so the sights and sounds of the journey are what really matter. And in this, the production succeeds thoroughly. The actors, sharing roles in ensemble fashion, create a multitude of characters, always vivid and clear. Adam Godley, as the Clerk, carries the show on his narrow shoulders with great panache.

A wonderful opportunity to see an important work fully realized.

Women of Twilight by Sylvia Rayman

White Bear Theatre, London

White Bear Theatre, London

One of the highlights of our visit to London was a most ambitious production at the White Bear, a tiny pub theatre in South London. It was Women of Twilight, Sylvia Rayman’s all-women play from 1951, powerfully performed by a profit-share company of eleven, appropriately called 11F. 

Unmarried women who find themselves pregnant are driven by desperation to take lodging in a house that is a front for a baby-farming operation. The characters in the play are from all levels of society and varied backgrounds. The sensitivity and depth of understanding that Sylvia Rayman brings to these women is what makes this script so remarkable, and even more so given that this was her first play, written when she was 28, working as a waitress. Although two of the women, one middle-class, the other the girlfriend of a gangster sentenced to hang, are the focus of the action, all the women are fully and vividly realized. And this accomplished ensemble company does full justice to the work.

Women of Twilight was a sudden surprise hit in 1951, receiving many productions all over Britain, followed by a film in 1952. Somehow, after that, it dropped into obscurity. The director of this production, Jonathan Rigby, became interested in the film, and then undertook to track down the original playscript. This production, once again, has had an unexpected impact, receiving glowing reviews for a run at the White Bear in October 2013, sparking a revival in January 2014.

“Sluts, all of you, with your rotten little bastards. I took you off the streets, when decent people wouldn’t look at you … And this is how you repay me!”

From the White Bear publicity: “Anticipating British theatre’s ‘kitchen sink’ revolution by a full five years, Women of Twilight was first presented in 1951 and filmed the following year. Neglected for over half a century yet still relevant today, this blistering drama – in which unmarried mothers are ruthlessly exploited by an unscrupulous, baby-farming landlady – is a real find.

Women of Twilight is directed by Jonathan Rigby and designed by Olivia Knight. It forms part of the White Bear’s Lost Classics strand, which has previously unearthed John Osborne’s early plays The Devil Inside Him and Personal Enemy (which transferred to the ‘Brits Off Broadway’ festival in New York).

With Claire Louise Amias, Francesca Anderson, Christie Banks, Amy Comper, Elizabeth Donnelly, Ailsa Ilott, Sally Mortemore, Emma Reade-Davies, Maggie Robson, Vanessa Russell, Emma Spearing.”