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Drama

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The Victoria Fringe Festival has already made several appearances in these postings (here and here – should the gentle reader feel inclined to backtrack) as the Girl and I have become regular supporters in the couple of years a that we have lived on the outskirts of the city.

This year there is – of course – a significant difference in that I am now a member of the board of Intrepid Theatre – the splendid organisation that runs the fringe (and other theatrical festivals) in Victoria.

The practical difference for me is that the period during which the fringe takes place – twelve days at the end of August and the start of September – is now considerably busier than it has been in previous years. When compared to the sterling efforts put in by the company’s staff those of the members of the board pale into relative insignificance, but there are duties incumbent upon them (us!) during fringe season which require time and effort.

For a start – there is an ambassadorial role to play. It is our job to meet and greet members of the fringe-going public, to make them feel valued and cherished, to listen to their views and criticisms and to build – where possible – the sort of ongoing relationship without which an organisation which relies so heavily on the support of the local audience could not survive.

The second (but closely related) role is to raise funds. Intrepid receives considerable and most welcome grants from government bodies without which it simply would not survive. Given that the ethos of the fringe is that all of the proceeds of the venue box offices go directly to the performers, the central costs of running the fringe must be covered by other means. Some of this shortfall comes from the sale of fringe buttons – a badge without which one may not enter a venue – but the rest must be raised by generous donations and other fundraising efforts led by the board. This year these included a fifty/fifty raffle draw that ran throughout the festival.

My direct involvement in the fringe was restricted to the first week only (for reasons that will become clear in a subsequent post) but in that brief period I worked at the Fringe Preview evening, at Fringe Kids (an event for children in Victoria’s Market Square) and – selling fifty/fifty tickets – on the queues of fourteen shows. In addition the Girl and I managed to see a total of seven shows.

The standard this year has been as high as any. Herewith our personal picks of the fringe:

  • Local comedian Morgan Cranny as ‘Vasily Djokavitch‘ (get the pun?) – billed as ‘Russia’s #1 State Approved Comedian‘. Highly amusing and directed by none other than Mike Delamont!
  • Gigantic Lying Mouth‘. Glaswegian spoken word artist Kevin P. Gilday in a dazzling blend of poetry, imagined conversation and multimedia – blending humour with much that was thought-provoking on the subjects of life, art and death.

…but perhaps best of all:

  • Englishman Charles Adrian as Ms Samantha Mann in ‘Stories About Love, Death and a Rabbit‘. Adrian has won awards for this show – a gentle confection of storytelling about love, loss and bad poetry – and it is easy to see why. It is a joy to see an actor so completely in control of timing, rhythm and inflection. Perfect!

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Photo by Beata May on Wikimedia CommonsEvery so often comes a film that finds itself the subject of much earnest discussion – not with regard to the subject matter nor to any particular individual performance, nor even because of the use of some dazzling new studio trickery – but rather because it represents a significant advance in the film-maker’s art.

Such a beast is Christopher Nolan’s film of the miraculous evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940.

‘Dunkirk’ has caused much comment and in the case of the critics this has been overwhelmingly favourable – the great majority being of the view that this is a noteworthy piece of film-making that lends new perspective to an historical event.

In this case I am with the critics. I think that ‘Dunkirk’ is a brave piece of film-making.

Consider:

Nolan determined to make an epic film about this major historical event which featured some 400,000 troops on the allied side alone, along with in excess of 800 vessels, without resorting to the use of CGI. The film also lacks entirely the uber-realistic blood and gore that has become a staple of modern war films; it features very little dialogue and no backstories for any of the characters; it has no scenes showing those in command on either side directing the engagement and no enemy combatants are seen at all until the very final scene.

Bear in mind also that this is a Hollywood film about a battle that not only featured no Americans (Nolan also insisted that the cast be entirely British), but which was actually an epic defeat!

As though all of this were not enough, Nolan’s script is also divided into three elements – the action on land, the evacuation on water and the aerial battle over the beaches. These elements – each of which flows across the entire film – take place in three different time-frames. The land action encompasses a week – the naval component covers one day in the evacuation – and the aerial action takes a mere hour. The three strands overlap at the climax of the piece, which of course means that the viewer sees the same action from multiple points of view.

The effect of the decisions taken by the director is that the film captures in a visceral manner just a little of what the experience of being on the beaches at Dunkirk might have been like. No individual’s story is more important than any other. No-one on the beaches knows what is going on, and nor can they imagine the wider picture. All that they know is that if they are to survive this calamity – for which no training can possibly have prepared them – they must fight against all the odds. The film has been described as ‘immersive’ – and that perhaps best sums it up.

The commentarists on the InterWebNet – those driven to add their voice and opinion to any and every matter –  have been less generous. Complaints include a lack of historical accuracy; an inadequacy of scale; the omission of important characters, events or even themes (including gripes concerning the under-representation of nationalities, races and genders!); the incomprehensibility of the narrative to those not familiar with the history and the supposed incompetence of writing which does not indulge in the usual tropes – well defined characters with revealing backstories and emotionally engaging story and character arcs.

We are all of us entitled to our views – of course – as we are to express the same. It does seem to me a little perverse – however – to apparently willfully miss the point in quite such a manner. To sit through Nolan’s impressionistic work and then to cavil that it is not the film that one wishes the director had made is perhaps – and only a little facetiously – somewhat akin to wishing that Van Gogh had possessed a camera with which he could have taken a few snaps of some sunflowers!

Exaggeration – naturally – entirely for effect!

Anyway – five stars in my book…

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“That’s why the words “Let’s go!” are intrinsically courageous. It’s the decision to go that is, in itself, entirely intrepid.”

Tim Cahill

I made reference a couple of posts back to further personal news regarding the theatre/drama scene here in Victoria and promised an update in a post to follow shortly. Aiming to prove myself a man of my word… here it is!

Whilst in self-referential mode I would further draw the gentle reader’s attention to previous postings to this blog on the subject of the Victoria Fringe Festival (be patient – there is a  connection) to which The Girl and I are enthusiastic attendees. The fringe is one of three festivals hosted by the splendid Intrepid Theatre, who have been promoting theatrical events on Vancouver Island for some thirty years. Intrepid are clearly one of the major cultural players in Greater Victoria.

A couple of months back The Girl drew to my attention an item on the Intrepid website to the effect that the company was seeking interested parties to serve on their board of directors. Such board posts are – quite naturally – voluntary and though the ideal candidate would undoubtedly have experience in the area of fundraising (which I do not!) the main requirements would seem to be an enthusiasm for the theatre, some experience of involvement in similar non-profit endeavours and (as is the certainly the case for me) sufficient time on ones hands to be able to render useful service. At any rate, my progress through the interview and AGM voting stages went smoothly (as it did for two other neophytes) and Intrepid has gained a fresh batch of eager faced supporters for its board.

Formalities over, the first order of business was the twentieth incarnation of Intrepid’s ‘Uno Fest‘ – a feast of solo performances over a week and a half in the company’s two venues, the Intrepid Theatre Club and the Metro Studio. The board director’s main role in such events is to attend performances and to help to drum up support, as well as to volunteer to pick up and drop off performers at the airport or ferry port as they arrive and depart from Victoria. I attended five performances and ferried four of the performers. This latter ‘task’ is quite simply a delight. One gets the chance to chat to actors, directors and writers whom one might recently have seen in action (or be about to see).

The keynote opening performance – by Canadian theatrical luminary Daniel MacIvor – was entitled ‘WTF’ (What’s Theatre For) and was a thought provoking disquisition on why those of us who do make theatre – and why many of those who don’t attend it. I was lucky enough to be able to run Daniel back to the airport a couple of days later. He is a very interesting man!

It is immediately clear that involvement with such an excellent organisation will bring me into contact with many more of those involved in the theatre here in Victoria.

All good stuff indeed!

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Image from PixabayMost of our lives aren’t that exciting, but the drama is still going on in the small details.

David Byrne

Looking back over my postings to this journal I observe that I have made no mention of my efforts in the field of drama – and in particular, youth drama – since September of last year. That is remiss of me – but such longueurs may swiftly be remedied.

I have – as anticipated in the aforementioned post – been running weekly drama sessions at the Saanich Commonwealth Centre since last September. The summer ‘term’ currently in progress closes at the end of June – bringing to a culmination a year’s worth of workshops. This is – therefore – a good time to cast an eye back and to gauge progress to date.

Sadly, this first attempt at setting something up for teenage thespists has not gone to plan. I have worked throughout this first year with a very small but quite variable group of youngsters, but it became apparent quite quickly that the venture would not develop in the manner for which I had hoped. The reasons for this are many and various:

  • the after-school time slot that we were offered was far from ideal – attracting in the main a casual ‘drop-in’ clientele rather than those with a specific interest in drama and performance.
  • due to a staff illness at the critical point initial publicity for the venture was practically non-existent.
  • a further mix-up resulted in the program being omitted from the spring and summer publicity materials.
  • Saanich Parks and Recreation – under whose auspices we have been operating – impose limitations for child-protection reasons on our administrative activities. We are not allowed to hold contact details ourselves for the young people and can only communicate with them though the Teen Centre workers. We are not allowed to use social media and the Saanich youth programming online presence is poor – not being updated during our first six months of operation. Running a youth theatre with such constraints on communication is extremely difficult.
  • Neither were we allowed to run our own publicity outwith the Saanich marketing department. This made ongoing recruitment extremely difficult.
  • The young lady who had helped me to set the program up decided at Christmas that she needed to focus her attentions on her studies instead and withdrew from the project.

This is all deeply disappointing and it has become clear that if I am to be able to create the sort of group that I have in mind I will need to do so elsewhere. I am, therefore, exploring the possibilities of so doing and have identified one venue that might be amenable. We have not as yet reached an agreement – such things inevitably take time – but I am yet hopeful.

I am happy to continue to teach classes at the Saanich Commonwealth Centre if there is an appropriate level of demand, but it seems very unlikely that these sessions would develop into the sort of performance based project for which I had hoped.

I do have other more positive news on the drama front – but that must needs wait for a subsequent post.

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high-jumpMore on that anon” – was the promise made at the end of my last post concerning our attempts to set up a new form of youth theatre in Victoria. That item was posted on June 1st and it is now September 9th. “Just what the heck is happening?” – I hear you cry! “How long is anon anyway?“.

OK – here is the lowdown…

As was detailed in the aforementioned post the UK has long benefited from a thriving youth theatre community, much of it supported by local authorities. The municipalities in BC (the equivalent of the UK’s LAs) tend – where they have a theatrical offering for young people at all – to buy in courses from the local commercial organisations.

I discovered late last year, however, in the course of my researches that the District of Saanich had just recently adopted a new Youth Development Strategy. This estimable document was couched in familiar language – its principles very much in accord with those that I myself espouse. My subsequent approach to them – after the usual period in which nothing at all appeared to be happening – led to a meeting with a particularly dynamic Youth Programmer who set up a gathering of like-minded people which included a young lady who was subsequently to become the other half of our team. The meeting also led to our contacts with the University of Victoria, Claremont Secondary School, the Belfry 101 program and the Kate Rubin Studio.

By early summer our fact finding mission into Victoria’s youth drama provision was complete and it had been decided that we would set up an after-school group at the Teen Lounge in the Saanich Commonwealth Centre. As Parks and Recreation (the department responsible for the municipality’s leisure centres) programs run in parallel with school terms our new venture would not start until September – which suited us well as it would give ample to time to develop the initial curriculum…

…which is exactly what we have been doing over the past months. We are at the time of writing less than two weeks from the date of our inaugural session and – in curricular terms – the structures are all in place. We will, naturally, be adding and developing the detail as we go along.

All efforts now switch to publicity, in an attempt to ensure that we do not find ourselves standing alone in an empty space – devoid of eager young creatives – with our session notes dangling impotently from our hands… wondering what to do with ourselves.

Our concern bears the title  – ‘Youth Performance Arts Collective’, which will be at once be abbreviated to ‘Y PAC’. This soubriquet may strike the gentle reader as being a little pompous – and that reader might have a point. The guardians of the public services in BC take their responsibilities seriously and are impressively earnest about what they do. I can live with that!

Any introduction of notes of irony can wait…

 

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Image by WillMcC from Wikimedia CommonsAbout a month ago I posted to this journal two missives – to be found here and here – in which I summarised the results of our researches into the opportunities for drama and theatre study and practice for young people in and around the Greater Victoria area. In the second such I promised that I would comment further as to what I perceived to be the gaps in that offering and had I not – as is ever the way – been overtaken by events (‘dear boy!’) I would already have fulfilled that pledge.

As was explained in the first of those posts, the provision throughout the secondary schools of Victoria and the Saanich peninsula would appear to be uneven. It is fair to say that private schools probably do rather better than do public (in the Canadian sense) schools – as is the case in the UK – and though there are definitely some institutions which are exceptional in dramatic terms, for others it is very much more of a lottery.

Outwith the school sector itself there are a number of professional organisations offering acting and stagecraft classes and other theatrical activities. These are – however – almost without exception commercial enterprises that charge termly or annual fees. These costs can quickly add up to a significant amount and, whereas for younger children such are normally borne by parents, when it comes to teenagers they may well be expected to make a contribution themselves.

It must be clear from the above that a significant proportion of the teenage population of Greater Victoria might well find themselves disenfranchised from such a valuable resource – either through not attending the right school or by not being able to afford these extra-curricula classes.

As far as I can determine there was no real echo in Canada of the Youth Theatre movement that spread rapidly across the United Kingdom (and some other parts of the world) during the 1960s and 1970s. There are, naturally, blazing exceptions, but by their very presence they merely illuminate the lack elsewhere.

Though the movement in Britain comprised groups established under a plethora of different contexts – some appended to mainstream theatres – some commercially run – some funded by the local authorities (municipalities) and so forth – it very rapidly became clear that these energetic bodies – often run by enthusiastic volunteers – offered so many benefits to young people in terms of personal growth, social development and the promotion of creativity that support for them quickly became widespread. Every self-respecting district, county and metropolis offered some sort of financial support to one or more of these groups – if only by making available some empty space in which their arts could be practiced.

That I am an enthusiast for the work done by these splendid bodies need hardly be mentioned. I spent upward of two decades as a facilitator at one such, wearing such a wide range of hats that I might have attempted the establishment of a millinery! As is so often the case with such voluntary work I am very sure that I got as much – if not more – from the whole adventure as did the cavalcade of youth that passed through our doors.

Which might – of course – go a long way to explaining why I am now trying to start something similar here in Victoria.

More on that anon…

 

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imageIn the first part of this post (which like so many such started out as a single succinct study until the habitual ramblings of my so-called style brought me to the realisation that I had probably already outstayed my welcome… (See what I mean?)) I painted a brief sketch of the provision within Victoria’s secondary schools for those youngsters who wished to study drama or to practice theatre.

Outside the school system – for those whose schools do not make adequate provision or for others who wish to take things further – there are a number of options. A variety of organisations offer a range of drama, acting and performance classes, some of them so doing through a range of outlets such as leisure or recreation centres as well as from their own premises.

The best known and regarded of these are probably Kaleidoscope Theatre and the Kate Rubin Studio. Though each has its own particular USP they aim broadly at the same constituency, offering theatrical activities across a wide range of age groups but also focusing on those with ambitions to take up one the thespian professions. Both are themselves professional operations and are well resourced.

Kate Rubin herself was – for a considerable time – also involved with another admirable offering for the young of Greater Victoria… the Belfry 101 programme. I have waxed lyrical about the Belfry Theatre on more than one occasion. Apart from providing the best theatre-going experience in Victoria the Belfry also hosts this imaginative program for school-aged youngsters on an annual  basis. This is based around the Belfry’s main house programme, and gives the young members access to the casts and creatives involved in each show, in addition to offering them the opportunity to create their own showcase work at the end of the season.

The Belfry 101 programme was created in the late 1990s by University of Victoria Associate Professor Monica Prendergast, and has operated to great acclaim ever since. Both Monica Prendergast and Kate Rubin were kind enough to agree to meet us so that we could pick their respective brains concerning youth drama provision in Victoria. We are most grateful both to them and to Colin Plant, who heads the Fine Arts programme at Claremont Secondary School.

Now that I have provided the broadest of sketches of the youth drama provision at this end of Vancouver Island and in the process, hopefully, given the gentle reader an idea as to what is available – it is now time to offer an opinion as to what is not…!

And, yes! – that means another post…

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Image from Pixabay“But a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time.”

Patrick Geddes

It was some time ago now – back in February in fact – that I posted a missive to this journal entitled Youth Theatre Dreaming in which I declared my intention of starting something along the lines of a youth theatre here in Victoria. You may have been wondering what has become of that purpose, particularly given that I wrote at the time that “things have been set in motion”.

Though I feel it probable that the gentle reader has grown somewhat weary over the years of being informed just how long it takes for this, that and the other to come to pass in our lives (which dilatory state of affairs seems to have been our lot for some considerable time now) in this case things actually have been happening… albeit – slowly!

In keeping with the ponderous nature of the progress this will not be the post that gives you all the details of the project. That will be the next one (or maybe the one after that!). This one will give some essential background and reflects the fact that one of the things that we were briefed to do by those with whom we intend to work was to carry out some research into the current dramatic provision for young people in and around Greater Victoria.

This is what we found.

Across the high schools of Greater Victoria the provision of drama teaching is – to put it mildly – mixed! Some schools have extensive offerings – such as the excellent Claremont Secondary in Cordova Bay which has a fully fledged Fine Arts programme running across the whole school. In other secondary schools drama is taught by whoever can be prevailed upon to pick it up – often someone from the English department. The content is then based upon whatever knowledge happens to be available. There is no common curriculum and drama would seem to be one of those subjects the timetabling of which has, of late, been squeezed.

One thing is, however, common to practically all schools – music theatre! I have never encountered such a plethora of music theatre courses and musical shows. It would seem that, even if no other offering for drama study is available, there is always the music theatre option.

Now – having written a number of musicals myself back in my youth theatre days I am not opposed to the form per se, but I was startled to discover that these shows are a very different proposition. These are based on hit shows from Broadway and the like, but stripped down for school use and with the entire production offered as a package – pre-recorded music, choreography, costume and set design and so forth.

Hmmm!

Outside school there are – as one would expect – other possibilities. Full details on these must, however, needs wait for the second part of this missive.

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Image from PixabayLast week the Kickass Canada Girl and I attended the Royal Theatre in Victoria for one of two performances by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet of a new piece – ‘Going home Star – Truth and Reconciliation‘ – which was commissioned for the Ballet by Artistic Director André Lewis and presented with the support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

The subject matter of this ambitious work – concerning the residential schools programme controversy and its effect on those of First Nations’ descent – attracted a heavyweight artistic team. Joseph Boyden – award winning Canadian author of ‘Three Day Road‘ and ‘Through Black Spruce‘ – provided the story. Mark Godden – whose list of credits and awards throughout North America is too impressively extensive to list here – choreographed. The excellent music was by Christos Hatzis – two time Juno award winner.

Those without Canada may not be familiar with the background of the residential schools programme. Herewith for your benefit (should you be at all interested) is a brief history lesson.

An amendment to the Indian Act of 1876 – intended to remove First Nations’ children from the influence of their families and culture to assimilate them into the dominant ‘Canadian’ culture – made attendance compulsory at day, industrial or residential schools. By 1931 there were 80 of these residential schools across Canada. The numbers declined thereafter, with the last federally operated school closing in 1996, but by then some 150,000 (around 30%) First Nations children had passed through the system. More than 6,000 did not survive the experience, dying whilst yet in attendance.

A new consensus emerged in the early 21st century that these residential schools had done significant harm to the Aboriginal children who attended them by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, through sterilization, and by exposing many of them to sexual abuse by staff members and other students. In June 2008 a public apology was offered by the then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, on behalf of the Government of Canada. At around the same time the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to uncover the truth about the schools.

As might be gathered from the weighty subject matter, experiencing a work of conscience and of art such as this was no walk in the park. Though the music set the tone masterfully – being a highly intelligent blend of European classical, contemporary stylings, Inuit throat singing and traditional drumming – and the movement was both highly imaginative and at times exquisitely beautiful, the work was also inevitably harrowing at times. The Girl – whose grandmother and two of whose aunts were survivors of the residential schools – not surprisingly found it particularly difficult.

I think that it is fair to say that not everything came off – and the fact that the Royal Winnipeg Ballet includes not one dancer of Aboriginal origin left this attendee at least feeling distinctly ambivalent – but in general the avoidance of the obvious pitfalls and the bravery of the conception and the execution should be – and was – applauded unreservedly.

It is right that art should be able take such risks and sometime to make us feel less than comfortable by so doing. Long may it continue to do so.

Kudos to all concerned.

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