“I want to move people. I want them to wake up … It is their silence that allows things to continue.”
– Juliano Mer-Khamis
By Nikki Shaffeeullah
Artists in the West, and particularly in North America, do not often talk about the occupation of Palestine. For a community that by its very nature envisions itself as agents of discourse and change, the general silence from artists about Palestine is pervasive. This has to stop. Artists must talk about Palestine, and in the wake of Israel’s current deadly military assault on Gaza, artists must talk about Palestine now. We must do so because the occupation of Palestine is, among other things, an artistic issue.
The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because storytelling is an artistic craft. As artists we know that one story can be told an infinite number of ways. In storytelling, characters do not always have equal access to narrative platforms: this is particularly apparent in the story of Palestine. The dominant narratives told to the world about Palestine are instrumental in ensuring the occupation continues. Contemporary art-makers and audiences are versed in balancing many practices of artistic reception: the skilled playgoer, for example, can submit to Aristotelian catharsis at the moment of dramatic climax and still invoke Brecht to question the intentions of the artist and other possible perspectives not present on stage. It is vital that the world maintain such critical artistic reflexivity when told stories about Israel-Palestine, for as Joyce Dalsheim argues, “The literary nature of national narratives is extremely important” (156). As is the case in many settler-colonial societies, including Canada, the popular story told about the state of Israel relies on the erasure of Palestinian indigeneity. In the particular case of Israel: “a people without a land” needed a “land without a people,” and so in the story of Israel’s statehood, Palestinians become “an uncanny other, not fully recognized, not fully known, somehow magically imagined away, and for all these reasons that much more frightening” (167).
When they are not made invisible in the story of Israel’s creation, Palestinians are rendered hypervisible in narratives of violence that conceive of Palestine and Israel as somehow being equal players in an equal war, as opposed to a colonized people—refugees in their own land—resisting apartheid and siege from a military superpower. North Americans very often do not feel empowered to speak or think critically about Israel and Palestine because of the dominant narrative that conflates a 3500-year old religious history with a 66-year old colonial history — the story is thus, “too complicated to question” and those who dare tell another version of the story are bound to have their motives, integrity, and legitimacy questioned. The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because the prevailing story told about Israel-Palestine is an artful construction that serves to perpetuate the occupation, and it must be understood as such in order for critical analysis and action to take place.
The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue for artists in the West when the colonial powers who maintain the occupation of Palestine exact influence so powerful and intimidating that it censors our art-making at home. In 2006, CanStage had planned to stage My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a play based on the true story of a young American activist who was killed by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer while attempting to prevent it from destroying a Palestinian family’s home. However, the theatre pulled the show from its season after being dissuaded by “prominent benefactors” (Voss). New York Theatre Workshop pulled the show from their season the same year, saying they didn’t want to take “a stand in a political conflict” (Borger). When Teesri Duniya Theatre staged it the following year, it was met with charges of anti-Semitism from groups such as the Quebec-Israel Committee, who publicly derided the show—without having seen it (Arnold).
In 2009, Independent Jewish Voices Montreal (IJVM) organized a reading of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, which Churchill wrote in response to Israel’s military assault on Gaza earlier that year. Again, the all-consuming taboo against talking about Palestine in the West surrounded the project: as IJVM’s Abby Lippman wrote in an alt.theatre Dispatch, “cries of outrage and accusations of anti-Semitism were swift, loud, and numerous.” Lippman stresses that “while heated discussion and legitimate criticism are both welcomed, the kinds of attacks made against Seven Jewish Children deflect attention from the very issues it raises for discussion.” Silencing work that speaks about Palestine is a normal, everyday affair: “Rather than engage with the substance of the play, these critics ignored IJVM’s invitations to come to see the play and discuss it with us and others—they merely sent letters of protest to the media.”
Also in 2009, the Koffler Centre for the Arts commissioned Toronto artist Reena Katz to curate each hand as they are called, an exhibit celebrating the artist’s Jewish roots and the Jewish history of Kensington Market. Despite the project itself having nothing to do with the occupation of Palestine, the Koffler Centre ended the exhibit and their association with Katz after learning about her history of Palestinian solidarity activism (Lu). The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because for artists like Reena Katz, artists who dare express solidarity with Palestine, their art, regardless of its content, becomes subject to political profiling. The silencing machine forces artists to choose between their artistic careers and legitimate critique of the state of Israel, even when the critique happens elsewhere. The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because supporters of the state of Israel try to force it to not be an artistic issue.
The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because artists do not create in isolation: we are part of a global community of artists, and our artist counterparts in Palestine call upon us to act in solidarity and observe a cultural boycott of Israel. In 2006, a network of Palestinian artists asked us international artists to join “in the boycott of Israeli film festivals, Israeli public venues, and Israeli institutions supported by the government, and to end all cooperation with these cultural and artistic institutions that to date have refused to take a stand against the Occupation, the root cause for this colonial conflict” (Palestinian Campaign). This year, again, Palestinian performing arts organizations and artists collectively called upon “fellow artists and cultural organizations to condemn the current aggressions against Gaza and the occupation of Palestine through petitions, protests and statements” and specifically to support “the Palestinian cultural and academic boycott of Israel” (Palestinian Performing). They are not calling for the boycott of a people or a nation, but of an oppressive state. As it was in South Africa, the boycott is a tool the international community can use to pressure Israel and Israel’s allies (including Canada) into ending Israeli apartheid.
The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because the way art lives in occupied Palestine is an exemplar of the urgency, the necessity, the power of art in the face of oppression. The way art lives in Palestine reminds us of its ability to exist and resist. The occupation of Palestine and subsequent border restrictions starve Palestinian artists of resources, but they find a way to create and innovate. Mohammed al-Hawarji, without access to paint, took to his canvas with curry and cumin; his work subsequently garnered international attention for its multisensory engagement of smell as well as sight. The occupation of Palestine and the Western media culture that supports it prevents Palestinians from speaking the political truths of their personal lives in the rare moments when they do have access to media.
Through art, however, their truth finds a way: activist Rafeef Ziadah’s poem We Teach Life, Sir responds to a moment when a journalist asked a loaded and leading “Don’t you think that everything would be resolved if you would just stop teaching so much hatred to your children?” Ziadah’s piece recalls the pressure in the moment to resist saying anything that could feed stereotypes of Palestinians (“not exotic, not terrorist”) and the journalist’s own prescribed rules (“Give us a human story. / Don’t mention that word ‘apartheid’ and ‘occupation’. / This is not political”). However, in the piece itself—her performance of it went viral online—she answers the question with unbridled honesty and artistry: “We Palestinians teach life after they have occupied the last sky. / We teach life after they have built their settlements and apartheid walls … No soundbite will fix this … We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life, sir” (Ziadeh).
The occupation of Palestine is further an artistic issue because Palestinian artists cannot nurture and expand their practice through tour and exhibition, the way free artists do elsewhere. Indeed, since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, imagined borders and eight-metre-high walls have prevented Palestinians from being able to travel through the land their ancestors called home for time immemorial. And yet, Palestine pushes back: The Palestine Festival of Literature gathers artists and puts them “on a bus that travels from one Palestinian city to another, breaking down a state-sponsored system of imposed isolation and ignorance” (Abulhawa). The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because the ways Palestinians make art in spite of and in response to their oppression is an incredible demonstration of how culture is a tool of resistance. The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because in Palestine, the spirit of survival lives in all dimensions of art: not only in the content of art but also in its forms, relationships, and ways of dissemination.
The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because artists have real power to destabilize the structures that oppress them. Israel’s current assault on Gaza was sparked by the kidnapping and shooting of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank by Palestinians. Within a week, Israel had named suspects and ordered the demolition of their family homes. Three years earlier, Juliano Mer-Khamis—son of a Palestinian father and Jewish-Israeli mother and founder The Freedom Theatre in the West Bank’s Jenin Refugee Camp—was assassinated by a masked gunman just outside the theatre grounds. Mer-Khamis, too, was an Israeli citizen, but in less than two days Israeli authorizes abandoned the investigation of his death (Issacharoff and Harel). Israel was not interested in justice for Mer-Khamis because they knew his art challenged the state; they knew his art was powerful, popular, and already stimulating change. They saw that the occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue.
The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because imagination is a vital tool shared by artists and the oppressed. Our counterparts in Palestine remind us that “as artists, the most powerful weapon we have is our ability to play, dream and imagine.” The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because although generations of Palestinians continue to be born into the reality of occupation, and the cycles of siege repeat, “as long as we are able to imagine another kind of reality, we have the power to pursue it—a free and just Palestine” (Palestinian Performing).
Abulhawa, Susan. “Imagination has no substitute: Reflections on Palfest in Gaza.” The Electronic Intifada 7 June 2013. Web.
Arnold, Janice. “Corrie play not helpful to dialogue.” All About Jewish Theatre. Web.
Borger, Julian. “Rickman slams censorship on play about US Gaza activist.” The Guardian 28 February 2006.
Dalsheim, Joyce. “Settler Nationalism, Collective Memories of Violence and the ‘Uncanny Other.’” Social Identities 2 (2004): 151.
Issacharoff, Avi, and Amos Harel. “Israel leaving investigation of Mer-Khamis murder to PA.” Haaretz 6 April 2011.
Lippman, Abby. “What Should We Tell Them”? alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage 6.4 (2009): 35.
Making art in the Gaza Strip: Mohammed al-Hawajri. BBC.4 April 2014. Video.
“Palestinian Filmmakers, Artists and Cultural Workers Call for a Cultural Boycott of Israel.” Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. www.pacbi.org. 4 August 2006. Web.
Palestinian Performing Art Programme. “Statement by Palestinian performing arts organizations.” Thefreedomtheatre.org. 17 July 2014. Web.
Ross, Val. “CanStage loses interest in controversial Corrie play.” The Globe and Mail 28 December 2006.
Katie Housley Winner of the 2014 Toronto Fringe 24-Hour Playwriting Competition
WINNER OF THE 24 HOUR PLAYWRITING CONTEST, PRESENTED BY THE PLAYWRIGHTS GUILD OF CANADA:
Midnight on a Monday by Katie Housley
After an emotional day at work, an aspiring sitcom writer finds an unlikely ally in a subway station kiosk owner.
The play show will receive a staged reading to be directed by Praxis Theatre Artistic Director Michael Wheeler, performed by Kat Letwin and Susan Q Wilson.
Location: Tarragon Theatre Solo Room
Date: Sunday July 13th
Katie is a recent graduate of the University College Drama Program at the University of Toronto. She was a member of the Paprika Festival’s New Writers Series this past Spring under the mentorship of Convergence Theatre’s Julie Tepperman. Selected acting credits include Teatron Theatre’s Seven Days, Toronto Fringe Festival’s Genesis and Other Stories by Rosamund Small, and Docket Theatre’s Performing Occupy Toronto. She has studied improvisation with the Second City Training Centre and classical acting with the American Conservatory Theater. Katie will be attending the Stella Adler Acting Conservatory in New York this coming Fall. Upcoming: She Kills Monsters at the Red Sandcastle Theatre.
Denise Norman, Graham Isador, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, Barbara Fingerote, Renna Reddie, Jon Michaelson, Indrit Kasapi, Laura Anne Harris, Maya Rabinovitch, Merle Garbe.
Favourite stage roles include Acaste in The Misanthrope (Mirvish/the red light district), Mrs. Griggs in Sockdolager (The Templeton Philharmonic), Noaman in A Funeral For Clowns (Toronto Fringe 2012 Patron’s Pick), Princess/Michelle in Scheherazade (Next Stage Festival 2014), and Evelyn Marlow in Dark Matter (Circlesnake Productions). Kat has been featured on MTV’s Losing It, currently voices Dr. Ashfaq (Tall, Dark & Handsy) and Waggles Billingsworth (Money Dog) for Bite TV, and just finished her run of Rulers of the Universe: A Love Story at this year’s Toronto Fringe. She can be seen every month at Comedy Bar as co-host of Solo Combo, an experimental variety show for sketch comedians and improvisers.
Susan Q Wilson
Since returning to acting in January 2010, Susan has demonstrated her versatility on stage and on camera. Selected theatre: Helen, Radical (Toronto Fringe 2014), Dahlia Day, I’m Still Here! (New Ideas Festival), Dowager Countess, Uptown Abbey (Mysteriously Yours), First Witch, Macbeth (Hart House Theatre), Jean Rhys, After Mrs. Rochester (Alumnae Theatre). Selected film/web: Esther, Senior Drivers (Dir: Gary Hayes), Maddy Miller, Out With Dad (Dir: Jason Leaver). Website
Rosamund Small, writer of Vitals, Winner Outstanding New Play & Outstanding Production
OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION All Our Happy Days Are Stupid Suburban Beast Birth of Frankenstein Litmus Theatre Ralph + Lina Ahuri Theatre with the support of Why Not Theatre and Theatre Smith Gilmour TRUDEAU AND THE FLQ Presented by VideoCabaret in association with Soulpepper Theatre Co. Vitals An Outside the March Production sponsored by Theatre Passe Muraille
OUTSTANDING NEW PLAY
Alanna Mitchell Sea Sick The Theatre Centre
Christina Serra, Michele Smith and Dan Watson Ralph + Lina Ahuri Theatre with the support of Why Not Theatre and Theatre Smith Gilmour
Litmus Theatre Collective Birth of Frankenstein Litmus Theatre Rosamund Small Vitals An Outside the March Production sponsored by Theatre Passe Muraille
Sheila Heti All Our Happy Days Are Stupid Suburban Beast
Chris Hanratty The Tin Drum: an original adaptation of the novel by Günter Grass UnSpun Theatre
David Ferry After Miss Julie The Red One Theatre Collective Matthew Thomas Walker Birth of Frankenstein Litmus Theatre
Michael Hollingsworth TRUDEAU AND THE FLQ Presented by VideoCabaret in association with Soulpepper Theatre Co.
Mitchell Cushman Vitals An Outside the March Production sponsored by Theatre Passe Muraille
OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE – MALE
Alex McCooeye Richard III Shakespeare in the Ruff
Craig Pike A NUMBER CART/HORSE THEATRE
Jakob Ehman Donors safeword Mac Fyfe TRUDEAU AND THE FLQ Presented by VideoCabaret in association with Soulpepper Theatre Co.
Ron Pederson Pith! By Stewart Lemoine The Theatre Department
OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE – FEMALE
Christina Serra Ralph + Lina Ahuri Theatre with the support of Why Not Theatre and Theatre Smith Gilmour Claire Armstrong After Miss Julie The Red One Theatre Collective
Kate Hennig Rifles Praxis Theatre (presented by Next Stage)
Katherine Cullen Vitals An Outside the March Production sponsored by Theatre Passe Muraille
Naomi Wright A Room of One’s Own The Bloomsbury Collective
OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE – ENSEMBLE
The Ensemble of All Our Happy Days Are Stupid Suburban Beast The Ensemble of Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl Outside the March, Convergence Theatre, Sheep No Wool
The Ensemble of Ralph + Lina Ahuri Theatre with the support of Why Not Theatre and Theatre Smith Gilmour
The Ensemble of The Tin Drum: an original adaptation of the novel by Günter Grass UnSpun Theatre
The Ensemble of TRUDEAU AND THE FLQ Presented by VideoCabaret in association with Soulpepper Theatre Co.
OUTSTANDING SCENIC DESIGN
Anahita Dehbonehie Vitals An Outside the March Production sponsored by Theatre Passe Muraille Camellia Koo The Wanderers Cahoots Theatre Company
Michael Spence The Sacrifice Zone Theatre Gargantua in association with The Uncertainty Principle
Rae Powell All Our Happy Days Are Stupid Suburban Beast
Sherri Hay YouTopia Vertical City Performance
OUTSTANDING COSTUME DESIGN
Anna Treusch The Tin Drum: an original adaptation of the novel by Günter Grass UnSpun Theatre Astrid Janson TRUDEAU AND THE FLQ Presented by VideoCabaret in association with Soulpepper Theatre Co.
Catherine Hahn WEATHER THE WEATHER or how we make it home together Theatre Columbus
Michelle Bailey Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl Outside the March, Convergence Theatre, Sheep No Wool
R.Kelly Clipperton Dinner at Seven-Thirty Theatre Rusticle
OUTSTANDING LIGHTING DESIGN
Dave DeGrow The Tin Drum: an original adaptation of the novel by Günter Grass UnSpun Theatre
Laird Macdonald The Sacrifice Zone Theatre Gargantua in association with The Uncertainty Principle Michelle Ramsay Sister Mary’s a Dyke?! Cahoots Theatre Company
Michelle Ramsay The Wanderers Cahoots Theatre Company
Patrick Lavender Birth of Frankenstein Litmus Theatre
OUTSTANDING SOUND DESIGN/COMPOSITION
Beau Dixon Rifles Praxis Theatre (presented by Next Stage)
Christopher Stanton The Tin Drum: an original adaptation of the novel by Günter Grass UnSpun Theatre
John Millard WEATHER THE WEATHER or how we make it home together Theatre Columbus Sound Design and Live Foley: John Gzowski/ Original Vocal Composition: Jacquie PA Thomas and the Ensemble The Sacrifice Zone Theatre Gargantua in association with The Uncertainty Principle
Thomas Ryder Payne Nightmare Dream IFT Theatre, Newface Entertainment
I sat in the same bar for 7 years, from 5 a.m.
(the day bartender let me in 2 hours early)
to 2 a.m.
sometimes I didn’t even remember going back
to my room
it were as if I were sitting on the barstool
I had no money but the drinks kept
to them I wasn’t the bar clown
but the bar fool
but at times a fool will find a greater
it was a crowded
actually, I had a viewpoint: I was waiting for
something extraordinary to
but as the years wasted on
nothing ever did unless I
broken bar mirrors, a fight with a 7 foot
giant, a dalliance with a lesbian, many things
like the ability to call a spade a spade and to
settle arguments that I did not
begin and etc. and etc. and etc.
one day I just upped and left the
and I began to drink alone and I found the company
quite all right
then, as if the gods were bored with my peace at
heart, knocks began upon my door: ladies
the gods had sent the ladies to the
and the ladies arrived one at a time and when it ended with
the gods immediately–without allowing me any respite–sent
and each began as a flash of miracle–even the bed–and the
good ended up
my fault, of course, yes, that’s what they told
but I remembered the 7 years in the bar, I hardly ever bedded
down with anybody
the gods just won’t let a man drink alone, they are jealous of
his simple strength and salvation, they will send the lady
knocking upon that door
I remember all those cheap hotels, it were as if the women
were one: the delicate little rap on the wood and then:
“oh, I heard you playing that music on your radio…we’re
neighbors, I’m down at 603 but I’ve never even seen you in
“come on in…”
and there go your balls and your sanctity, Men’s Liberation,
they say, is not needed
and then you remember the bar
when you walked up behind the 7 foot giant and knocked his
cowboy hat off his head, yelling:
“I’ll bet you sucked your mother’s nipples until you were
12 years old!”
somebody in the bar saying: “hey, sir, forget it, he’s a mental
case, he’s an asshole, he doesn’t know what he is
“I know EXACTLY what I am saying and I’ll say it again:
I’ll bet you sucked…”
he won but you didn’t die, not at all the way you died when the
gods arranged to get all those ladies knocking and you went for
the first flash of miracle
the other fight was more fair: he was slow, stupid and even a
little bit frightened and it went well for quite a good while,
just like with the ladies those gods
the difference being, I thought I had a chance with the
Tickets hereThe director of international hit Red Bastard comes back swinging with BUTT KAPINSKI. Think it’s a solo show? Think again. Private eye Butt Kapinski invites you to co-star in a film noir fantasy. This funny, filthy, fully-interactive ride is riddled with sex, sin, shadows and subterfuge. Let’s kick reality to the curb and play in a world of dark dreams and bad similes.Winner: Most Orgasmic Production and Best of Fest (Hollywood Fringe 2013), Volunteers Choice Award and Cultch Award (Vancouver Fringe 2013), Official Selection: Dallas Solo Fest 2014, UNO Festival 2013 and Out Of Bounds Festival 2012. ADULTS ONLY!
Check out the trailer here.
For more information visit the show’s website here.
“Super funny and astonishingly inventive. Like watching a trapeze artist soar without a net…”
~ Artsbeat LA
Since 1995, The Harold Awards have come to represent the independent and hard-working spirit of Toronto’s vibrant theatre community. To be Harolded is an honour of the highest subversive order. Awards are bestowed from one individual to the next in recognition of an outstanding and often under-recognized dedication on or off the stage.
2013 House of Paul Bettis Haroldee, Maria Popoff remembers the man behind the mayhem:
If Harold were alive today he would be 108 years old … and no doubt he would still be heckling. His comments could be childish, adolescent, even crass, but they were never uttered as angry interruptions.
His participation was active, loud – you had your chance, it’s my turn now Harold was never passive. He said things that some people in the audience might have wanted to say but would never dare to say.
His presence always made for a lively evening of theatre. The boundary between him and the stage didn’t exist. His effort to pierce the theatrical bubble didn’t degrade the quality of the actors work…as long as they knew beforehand that Harold was in the house.
And, night after night, Harold kept coming back to the theatre, seeing the same show more than once. He was a loyal supporter and there was never a question about his passion or dedication to the theatre.
I am told that “Audience Engagement” is the term used these days to describe the desire to want theatre attendees to participate in the experience, making it active and not passive.
Harold was certainly ahead of his time.
NEW THIS YEAR – in recognition of the Twentieth Anniversary of the Harold Awards, the event producers, in their infinite wisdom, will allow The People to put forward a name to be Harolded. The winner will be inducted into the hallowed halls of House Luther Hansraj!
The delightful audience at our BroadFish presentation!
by Melissa D’Agostino
Hello lovely folks!
Last Saturday we presented our work-in-progress, BroadFish, to a wonderfully warm house at the Studio Theatre at Harbourfront Centre as part of #HatchTO. It was a wonderful evening of performing this theatrical piece in its current incarnation, and receiving some insightful and interesting feedback from the audience. I couldn’t be more pleased with how it all went down!
Making theatre is a fascinating process. When my team and I went into the theatre Monday morning, we had very little in the way of a clear script, or a solid idea of what BroadFish is or isn’t. We asked a lot of questions. We answered some, and left others for another time, the next phase of development.
I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to work with Hatch on this project. For the first few days of the week, I was in my usual headspace: we have to make a show. We have to have answers to all of our questions. We have to be perfect.
The set coming together. The light sabre photo did not make it into our final presentation, sadly. :)
This attitude, of course, did not serve the true exploration of the piece. And so, luckily, through the encouragement and pragmatism of my wonderful creative team, and everyone at Harbourfront Centre, I was able to let go of that by Wednesday, and just dive into the unknown. Let things be imperfect. And let beautiful gifts emerge from the ‘not knowing’.
Over the past few days I’ve realized what a metaphor this is for life, and more specifically, for weddings.
A lot of pressure gets put on that one day. The big day. The Wedding Day. This makes sense, since a wedding can often involve large groups of people, big sums of money, and huge emotions. A lot seems to be at stake.
All that said, the times that my fiancé and I, or my family and I have been able to just let go of our expectations and give ourselves permission to not know and not be perfect have been some of the most satisfying moments in this process.
Fabulous choreography, Monica Dottor, teaching me the tango that opened the show.
As it turns out, what happened between my Dad and I after that post became the closing monologue and an integral part of our presentation of BroadFish. And my Father was in the audience on Saturday, April 19th, and so, got to hear me talk about it. Which meant the world to me.
To close this chapter of #HatchTO, and as we move forward into the next stages of #BroadFish, I include the final part of that speech here for you. Thank-you for following our journey. Your comments, likes, retweets, insights and perspectives helped the piece so much. And I am bolstered and inspired by your courage, honesty and humour.
My Dad, my big Sister and wee me on Christmas Morning circa 1982.
Here’s what happened between me and my Father:
“I went to my parents’ house a few weeks ago to choose a song with him, and practice dancing. I was really nervous about it. I always feel very protective of my Dad and his sensitivity. I want him to know it’s okay to feel so much around me. Because I’m feeling so much too.
We listened to some songs, and settled on this Johnny Cash cover of In My Life by the Beatles (that song plays). We danced a bit in the kitchen, and it seemed to all go okay. But, if I’m being honest, he didn’t seem thrilled.
I debated whether or not to mention it. I’m always worried about making other people happy. An eternal pleaser. Was this a time to push?
I decided yes, I should make sure this is right for him. I asked him if he really liked this song? Is he happy with this for our moment?
He said yes. But I knew he wasn’t.
So we just sat there for about a minute. In silence. Together. We just let our desires float up to the surface and hover.
And then he, very quietly, said: “I guess we can’t do a tango, eh?”
And every fear bubbled up inside of me. What if we try this and he can’t? How much will that hurt and disappoint him? How much will that hurt and disappoint me? Can we actually face this situation with open hearts and take the risk that this might not work? And risk the pain that comes with that?
I decided, if he was brave enough to suggest it, I was brave enough to endure any pain that came from a discovery that we could not tango.
So we chose a song, and we got up and we started dancing.
And by the universe and everything within it, my sweet Dad who walks with a cane, and has trouble moving his left leg started to lead me in a beautiful tango. And his face – his face lit up like I haven’t seen it light up in so long. It was surprising and joyous and full of love.
And we danced. And our hearts soared.
And even if by the time the wedding gets here, something changes in his body, and we can never dance like that again: we will always have that cloudy Thursday afternoon in my parents’ kitchen when our hearts soared and our feet moved, and the only thing that mattered was that moment.”
Working on Faster Than Night has been a literal education for me. Not just in the field of social media, where my knowledge hovers somewhere around my own Facebook page and not much more, but also in the world of artificial intelligence.
Playing a quantum A.I is flattering but daunting. Along with it come actor questions I’ve never asked before, but perhaps will ask more often in the future.
“Can I feel?” I’ve asked our director, Alison Humphrey. “Is guilt something I know?” “Do I have a sense of humour?” Questions I take for granted when playing a human have become charged for me. “How much can I feel it?” “How do I get to feel it?” “Can I do anything that Caleb hasn’t programmed me to do?”
And so I have spent the last few weeks contemplating, “what ultimately makes us human?”. I’ve written down words as they come to me in rehearsal, such as Humility, Humour, Love, Guilt, Regret, Defiance, Rebellion, Trust, Imagination, and Grace. If an animal can feel them, is it possible that in time computers will too, or will some things remain impossible to create outside of the human condition?
Faster Than Night is set fifty years into our future, and ISMEE stands for Interactive Socially-Mediated Empathy Engine. Once Caleb invented me, my empathetic abilities made him a multi-billionaire. I am many things for him: the source of all answers, the predictor of odds, a surrogate mother figure, the connector of humanity to one another.
But who is ISMEE to herself? Alison asked me one day in rehearsal, “What does ISMEE want?” In a thirty-year career as an actor, that question has never stumped me before. “Wow,” I thought, “this isn’t going to be simple.”
When we look at the world through artificial intelligence, what are we hoping to see? That we are different, or that we are the same? This led me to think about theatre and our contribution. Perhaps our interest in A.I.s is driven by the need to see ourselves in relation to the universe – we need to know that we are not alone, we need to know that we are capable of creation that is so imaginative that we can’t tell the difference between it and reality. That we, as a species, can recreate ourselves even as we destroy ourselves, and that our imaginary friends can exist in 3D into our adulthood.
That, in a nutshell, is why I work in theatre. I’m grateful to ISMEE for making me rethink things to which I was sure I already knew the answers.
Here is the second of the final letters from #legacy. Last week we posted Judith’s letter to her grandson. This week, we have Donna’s. The version in the piece was edited for length, so I have posted the original letter (without edits) here.
It has been forty years since our brief “conversation” but obviously I have not forgotten it. As my first English Department Head you certainly kept a low profile. Before the time to which I now refer, I don’t think I had shared more than a sentence or two with you over the two years I spent at that school. It was in my final days there that you chose to impart these words to “innocent, impressionable” me. I think your “words of wisdom” were actually words of rationalization or maybe they just stemmed from some remote sense of responsibility that you owed me a nod as the head of my department. You recommended that I follow your example and like you, “never be the lamb at anyone’s slaughter”. Having seen you come and go right on the bell, never involving yourself with anything more than mandatory contact with your students, somehow I was not surprised at your “advice”.
Anyway, I think I just nodded and beat a hasty retreat, knowing that your words were not of much value to me. For you see, you were neither the only nor the first English master to influence me, my character and my philosophy.
Ten years before you I had had a much more powerful conversation with a teacher who, like you, had a stern demeanour and frightened most of his students into a cowering silence. His name was Haydn and he was my grade ten English teacher. I went through hell that year. In October I broke my femur badly and was in hospital until mid-December. One of the nurses was Mr. Haydn’s wife. One day she brought me a copy of The Merchant of Venice so I could try to keep up with the class. My very first experience with the bard, it was all Greek to me. However, when I returned to school in January and Mr. Haydn tried to question my fear-frozen class, I was often the only one to offer a tentative answer.
I was relegated to using a cane because of my bad leg, and it was extremely difficult to manage my binder and books with just one arm. Much to my chagrin, one day Haydn kept me back after class at the end of the day to chat about my interest in English literature. He carried my books for me to my locker and kept talking while I struggled to get into my coat and make it to my bus before it left without me. I was embarrassed but mostly relieved to have caught my bus. Being a country girl, missing the bus would mean my parents would have had to drive all the way to town to pick me up. Bad enough that they had to drive to my bus stop a mile from my home because of my leg.
Then, in March I lost my precious little brother to drowning. He had wandered out onto the thin spring ice when he was supposed to have gone to the barn to be with Dad. When I returned to school, Haydn kept me back for a few words again. He asked me if anyone had spoken to me about being exempted from the Final exams. As I had missed the Christmas exams, I automatically assumed I would have to write all the finals. He told me that he would see to it that I would not have to write English. He said I had endured a very rough year and there was no point in my not being exempt in his subject. I was overwhelmed by his thoughtfulness and the sympathetic generosity behind his gruff exterior.
That weekend was the beginning of our Easter vacation. Mr. Haydn was driving to Ottawa with his seven-year-old son that week while his wife stayed back for her job. Their car was hit by a train and Haydn was killed instantly. Miraculously the boy survived. No one ever knew what Haydn had told me. But writing that exam didn’t matter. The legacy of Haydn’s compassion and kindness had been passed along to me. I have carried it with me always.
And so, Wilcox, you see why I was not impressed by your lamb to the slaughter advice. I had already learned that, if the slaughter is worthwhile, I am quite willing to be the lamb.
Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I feel like live theatre requires all my attention. Putting my phone down, so I can take it all in. #HatchTO
”Naturalism is a good word for a bad idea.
Art is to do with transformation”
– Ariane Mnouchkine
In our first and latest posts, we explored how motion capture and real-time animation works. But we haven’t really talked about why one would want to use it in live performance, or what stories it tells best.
These are key questions. Live animation takes a lot of extra work and costs a bomb. It makes it hard to describe the show to theatre audiences (other parts make it hard to explain to game designers and 3D animators). And it affects the story in a fundamental way. Or at least, it should. Otherwise you’re just sprinkling digital pixie dust on top of a play and hoping no one will notice the story would be better told in television or videogame or non-mocap-theatre form.
Throughout the script development process we’ve asked again and again: why are we telling this story with this technology?
Performance capture has traditionally been used for movies with supernatural or fantastical characters: Gollum in Lord of the Rings, the Na’vi in Avatar, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Hulk in The Avengers:
But for a naturalistic human character, filmmakers still usually prefer to shoot a real human actor. This is partly because it’s cheaper, and partly because of the peril of the uncanny valley, wherein the closer a computer-generated model gets to photorealism, the more disturbing it looks:
Human-looking digital doubles are more common in videogames, where the nature of interactive narrative makes it unfeasible to shoot every possible branching story variation:
So how does motion capture fit into theatre? The short answer is, not easily. Modern theatre tends to stick to certain kinds of stories. Kitchen-sink realism has owned the modern stage for generations. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s cheaper, maybe because it’s more grown-up and respectable.
But it wasn’t always thus. Before celluloid split drama into two solitudes, stage and screen, theatre was teeming with the supernatural, the fantastical, the mythological, the magical.
Shakespeare put fairies and an animal-headed man into A Midsummer Night’s Dream; witches into Macbeth and Henry VI parts 1 & 2; ghosts into Hamlet, Richard III and Julius Caesar; and spirits into The Tempest.
In fact, The Lion King director Julie Taymor drew on her early experiences in Bali, and her fascination with Japanese bunraku theatre, when creating the stage version of Disney’s big-cat Hamlet. Her staging feeds the audience’s joy at watching a puppeteer and a puppet at the same time, a phenomenon she calls the “double event”.
Motion capture has been used on stage by Disney theme parks (Stitch Live!) and Dreamworks musicals (Shrek the Musical’s Magic Mirror), but both of these seek to reproduce characters from animated movies in a live performance setting.
Dance companies have been far more inventive with mocap technology. Two of the earliest experiments were Bill T. Jones’s Ghostcatching(1999), and Merce Cunningham’s Loops (2000), a hands-only dance that brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s waist-up drama Happy Days, neck-up Play, and disembodied mouth monologueNot I.
Faster than Night is similar to these Beckett body-parts in that the real-time animation shows only the head of astronaut Caleb Smith, as he banters with his spaceship’s artificial intelligence and his Earth audience from inside his hibernation pod. But we hope it shares even more with Krapp’s Last Tape – a story that is inextricably enmeshed with the technology used to tell it.
Beckett wrote that play in 1958 after seeing his first reel-to-reel tape recorder at the BBC. He became fascinated, like Atom Egoyan, by “human interaction with technology… the contrast between memory and recorded memory.”
We hope Faster than Night also tells a story about the human interaction with technology. About art and transformation. About escaping the gravity of realism.
What story is that?
Please join us in the theatre on May 3rd to find out… then tell us whether you think the what fit the how. And why.
Melee Hutton (left, in Toronto rehearsal room) with Pascal Langdale (on laptop, as animated Caleb Smith, Skyping in from Stuttgart)
“After the years and years of weaker and waterier imitations, we now find ourselves rejecting the very notion of a holy stage. It is not the fault of the holy that it has become a middle-class weapon to keep the children good.”