Month: January 2011 (Page 1 of 2)

We Write (and Draw) The Future

There are few things as good as starting the week calm, focused, and full of inspiration. I happened upon the creative video, above, via Facebook, that seeming- springboard for inspiration and revolution lately.
What I love about this is that the visionary is rendered into actual vision; it isn’t spoon-feeding with cutesy drawings so much as rendering ideas into something understandable -and comfortingly familiar (and all done with a trusty sharpie, I suspect). The other thing I love about this video is that it stands for something, not against it. Ireland, facing serious economic problems, is holding an election soon; with all its woes, it’d be easy for candidates to attack others, claiming fault, pointing blame, and engaging in nasty attacks against fellow candidates.
There’s an ad on Canadian television right now, in fact, that doesn’t mention the ruling party (who clearly paid for it) but attacks the leader of the opposition for, in their view, being out of the country for too long to be a credible leader (a charge that has an ironic ring to it right now). It’s this kind of advertising -and the altogether-yucky instincts beneath it (petty, mean, small-minded) -that, I think, turn people off, whatever their political persuasions. And yet it’s so easy to be seduced by the “no” side of the equation.

The weekend filled my head with images of contradiction: is it revolution or chaos in Egypt? good change or bad change? It’s been encouraging to hear a number of voices who are coming out with their own vision for the country’s future. “No Mubarek” and “yes democracy” has been a theme, which well and good, but… who then? Who are people looking to? Answers aren’t easy, but I hope they become clearer this week.
Egyptians are writing their future, right now. We are watching them. The scenes being drawn for us -on TV and the internet -are indeed a puzzling collage of violence, thuggery, community and hope. I’m betting on those last two to provide a vision for a solid future -one that extends past Egypt’s borders, to Ireland, to Canada, and beyond. And Dylan Haskins? Great ad. Thank you for the inspiration.

Holy Howling Hydra


My favorite moment of Eternal Hydra occurred at the end of it. Coming out of Thursday’s opening night performance at the Factory Theatre in Toronto, my writerly companion turned to me, her eyes wide, her voice trembling, trying to capture what she’d just seen.

“It’s about authorship!” she exclaimed, her voice filled with wonder, “and … theft! Identity! Writing! And … art!”
She had good reason to be filled with wonder. The Crow’s Theatre work is easily one of the finest works produced in Canada in more than a decade. Tackling the tough ideas around voice, ownership and originality of work, playwright Anton Piatigorsky has created a masterful tale that is part mystery, part supernatural romance, all drama, and unquestionably all-engrossing. The play touches on racism, sexism, classism, and the cutthroat worlds of academia and publishing, using the character of one Gordias Carbuncle (played by award-winning actor/director David Ferry) and intrepid researcher Vivian Ezra (Liisa Repo-Martell) to piece together the history of the sprawling, unfinished work known as Eternal Hydra.
I had the opportunity of interviewing David Ferry and Liisa Repo-Martell during their first full production of the work two years ago, at Toronto’s Buddies In Bad Times Theatre. Their insights are as fresh and telling as ever -about both the work, and the nature of the hydra that is human creativity.

The hydra, for those without a handy copy of their Edith Hamilton about, is a multi-headed monster from Greek mythology. Hercules was charged with killing the beast, but found it daunting, because for every head he cut off, one (sometimes two) grew back in its place. Piatigorsky mines this myth for all it’s worth, and then some, to fantastic, engrossing effect. Carbuncle’s mammoth 99-chapter tome is hauled around by poor Vivian, and at one point, fellow writer Pauline Newbury (Cara Ricketts) tells her “it looks like it’s ripping your shoulder off.” No kidding. Vivian takes on an Atlas-like status, carrying Carbuncle’s words, along with her own crushing perceptions of his supposed “genius” reputation, thus supporting an entire world that may, in fact, be fiction in and of itself.
The notion of what constitues that genius, as well as what makes for a good writer, are explored with deft, dramatic strokes. But this isn’t some distant, heady dramatizing; instead, there’s a zesty contemporary corollary with the online world that is unmistakable, especially as the play progresses. Eternal Hydra may be set in some non-descript 1980s publishing world (with flashbacks to Paris of the 30s) but its concerns are anything but antiquated.
Indeed, the work is filled with numerous references -to literature, history, various cultures and indeed, the mythology extant within the title -and yet none of it feels heavy-handed or pretentious. Perhaps that’s because of the light touch of director Chris Abraham, who infuses this production with a good dollop of humor, jaunty timing, clever staging, and… oh yes, sex appeal.
Ferry’s portrayal of Carbuncle is by turns sad, scary, sexy, and ever-scintillating; scenes with Cara Ricketts, as the writer Selma Thomas, particularly sizzle with the chimeric qualities of lust and revulsion. As the protective, priggish Vivian, Repo-Martell paints a lush if tragic portrait of a lonely, obsessive woman whose best friend may very well be a figment of her over-heated imagination. As publisher Randall Wellington, Sam Malkin offers a solid, sly portrait of corporate cynicism that gets turned on its head when he later portrays the same character’s lusty father. It’s a testament to both the talents of the actors as well as the show’s designers that a deep vein of believable, tension-filled atmosphere is maintained, even as places, characters, and contexts shift and transform. John Thompson’s set and lighting design, in particular, is elegant and minimal if deeply dramatic and affecting -kind of like the play itself.
Eternal Hydra is fast becoming one of my favorite contemporary plays because yes, it is smart, sexy, and funny, but it’s also worldly, a quality I feel is sometimes sorely lacking in much modern Canadian drama. It’s here, along with so much else, in droves. There’s a reason this play won four –yes, fourDora Mavor Moore Awards in 2009. It’s great, and I’m waiting for the day it runs in New York City. Until then, run, walk, fly -do whatever it takes to get to the Factory -because take my word for it: you want to tangle with this hydra. You really do.
Photography by Robert Popkin.

Lovely Lawson

A new Nigella Lawson book is always cause for celebration in my world.

With plenty of know-how, an approachable style, and a playful spirit, Lawson’s work is an automatic go-to when I’m running low on ideas and inspiration. Her other works, like How To Eat, Feast, Forever Summer, Nigella Christmas, and Nigella Express are chalk-full of yummy, smart, and mainly easy dishes. Her basic pizza recipe from How To Be A Domestic Goddess is a staple in my kitchen, and it isn’t too much of an exaggeration to state that How To Eat was life-changing.

Sure, Nigella is a food goddess -much ink (and drool) has been spilled chronicling that aspect of her -but she’s also a seriously good writer. Without a trace of smarmy know-it-all-ness but with oodles of honesty, Nigella’s been chronicling what goes on in her kitchen now for almost two decades. It helps that she used to be a journalist; it’s equally helpful that she throws in plenty of personal references to keeping her children, friends, and work colleagues nourished. With a slew of titles and television shows under her belt, she strikes me as something like a super-elegant, knowledgable, refreshingly un-hipsterish, print-loving version of a food blogger. With great power -and beauty, and culinary skills -comes great responsibility, and Nigella ably, amply fulfills the requirements for being a wily, wonderful kitchen-witch.

Unlike her last book, a holiday/Christmas book from 2008, her latest, Kitchen: Recipes From The Heart Of The Home (Knopf), offers a cross-section, multi-seasonal approach, with a firm focus on the basics and homey favorites. Within the pages of the 400+ page hardcover tome, you’ll find clear directions, easy-to-understand terms, as well as a thorough Express Index. The book is handily divided into two sectons: “Kitchen Quandaries” and “Kitchen Comforts”. Each section contains chapters like “Hurry up, I’m hungry!”, “The solace of stirring” and, happily, “Chicken and its place in my home”. Nigella has never made a secret of her love of a simple roast chicken throughout her work, and indeed, I still use her basic recipe from How To Eat as the basis of my own: start with a good organic bird, stick half a lemon up the bottom, “annoint” (her word) with butter and olive oil, stick in the oven. Easy-peasy.
So it’s nice to see her acknowledge her love of poultry, and to introduce fresh new ideas that are, as ever, Nigella’s signature blend of yummy and easy. As she writes in the chapter introduction, “for me, a chicken remains the basic unit of home. I don’t really feel a kitchen is mine until I’ve cooked a chicken there.” I can’t agree more. Dining out last week in New York, I struck up a conversation with a restaurant manager one night about our shared love of food; he asked me about my own specialty in the kitchen, and answered, after a momentary shyness, “roast chicken.” There’s something undeniably wonderful about its scent filling the house, the yummy drippings, the moist meat, and the luscious leftovers. Equally, it’s nice to see these easy, warming recipes; Thai Chicken Noodle Soup, Poached Chicken With Lardons & Lentils, and Chinatown Chicken Salad are all delicious, easy, and yes, inexpensive. I defy anyone who swears they can’t cook to try Nigella’s Quick Chicken Caesar recipe. I suspect, like much of Kitchen itself, that she wrote it just for them.

The introduction also features a fantastic section called “Kitchen Confidential”, which outlines all the tips, tools, and tricks for home cooks of all abilities. She details the usefulness of having boiling water handy, the benefits of buttermilk in cooking, the uses of baking soda, when and how to freeze stock, and her love of having a myriad of bottles (like vermouth, marsala and garlic-infused oil) around her stovetop. She also doles out an important piece of advice for home cooks of all levels:

This is so much easier to say than to do, but try, when you’re cooking for people, not to apologize nervously for what you’ve made, alerting them to some failure only you might be aware of, or indeed, might have invented. Besides, it only creates tension ,and although I do believe food is important, atmosphere matters so much more.

Atmosphere, and I would argue, confidence. Kitchen: Recipes From The Heart Of The Home is a tool to provide you with just that when you approach any culinary -or indeed, sensual -endeavor. You can make something, and do well, and enjoy it, with others, or just by yourself. And why wouldn’t you? Go forth. Cook. Eat. Live. Be happy. So says Nigella… and it’s gorgeously, delicious true.

Break The Rut

Nothing like starting the day with a bit of animated inspiration.

Coming back to the familiarities of home has been both a sharp shock and a return to, borrow a phrase from Jim Morrison, to the “woolly cotton brains of infancy.” Nothing was easy while I was in New York; I got lost on the subway, my phone died, my dirty accommodations had spotty wireless and scatty heating, I stepped in ankle-deep puddles wearing good leather boots on the way to a job interview.
Yet there was something enlivening about it all, because it wasn’t, to use Basquiat’s phrase, “Samo”. It wasn’t a rut. And that’s the thing about a place like New York: it would be almost impossible for me to get into a rut. I suppose I could just stay in, “looking out of the window, staying out of the sun“, and rely solely on work for my single daily diversion… but why? The spiritual, mental, and the artistic are on an equal playing field in my world, and to deaden the outer will inevitably affect the inner, leading to a domino-like tsunami of depression and unnecessary isolation.
In the video (which does contain a swearing, so a word of warning if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing), the wise, witty host simply if effectively outlines the dangers of The Rut while simultaneously showing us how the silly, the bizarre, and the random work in unison to provide something hugely valuable and important. (This makes me wish I hadn’t missed the Paul Thek exhibit at the Whitney, which closed days before I visited; if anyone knew a thing or two about the silly, the bizarre, and the random, it was Thek.) The advice around the whys and wherefores of ruts is interesting; if you do anything artistic, Lev Yilmaz (the talented host/animator) notes, you’ll fall into a rut because you’ll “make art based on what people expect of you rather than what you’re actually thinking about.”
I actually stopped the video – twice – to re-listen to that line. It hit on the precise reason I don’t look at Google Analytics too minutely (though I’m bowled over with gratitude at my readership -thank you!!); my blog isn’t (and will never be) about what people expect of me, but rather, what I’m thinking about, what’s inspiring me, interesting me, and making me bust out of the rut. Maybe Play Anon is my perfect rut-busting routine. Wait, not “routine” but… unroutine. Maybe it’s the same for you, too.

What Is.

It’s sad if inevitable that I didn’t get to any museums or galleries during my brief time in New York City. To quote a friend who lives there, I became an “appreciative inhabitant” – fully cognizant the Whitney, the Guggenheim, MOMA, the Met (et al) were there, but not running to them. Art does take time -time, patience, attention, energy, the very qualities I listed yesterday required to fully delve into Byron’s work, in fact -and I simply didn’t have enough of it this time around.

There is a certain presence and grounded-ness required in art-making itself -something that always drives me back to the easel, that gnawing hunger for being fully present for your art and what it’s asking of you. It’s something I witnessed last Monday at the Zinc Bar, experiencing Eric Lewis live. And it’s something I also feel whenever I see the work of Adam Vollick, a Canadian filmmaker and artist, and the man behind the 2007 documentary, Here Is What Is.
Stating that he’d like to “use a camera like a paint brush”, Vollick has carved out a name for himself as a go-to-guy visuals guy for musician/producer Daniel Lanois. Along with Here Is What Is, Adam has done Le Noise, a work related to Neil Young’s latest album, which was produced by Lanois; Adam provided the imagery for the CD, LP, DVD and Blu-ray versions. He filmed last February’s Black Dub show at the Bowery Ballroom for live online broadcast too, and has been working with the Lanois-lead collective visually. He also filmed the magical, shamanic video of The Birth of Bellavista Nights.
I intensely admire the way Adam seamlessly integrates so many influences into his work and yet makes it entirely, fully his own, bringing a beautiful, meditative quality to his shots and their magical dance with sound. Watching Adam’s work, you begin to realize just how intimately his work is connected with sound, with music, and with the act of creation. I had the opportunity to have a Q&A around his ideas and approach to art, and the act of creating it.

How do you see your role relating to the creation of Daniel Lanois’s music?

I’m simply a dedicated observer. Sometimes that can be catalyst to getting a good take -usually when the hair on my arm is standing up (the Vollick emotional barometer) we unanimously agree that we got something. I try to keep the visual as parallel as possible to the expressions in the music. We never sacrifice the power of the sound for superficial image considerations. Without a powerful musical performance a great film is useless. I’ve really got to be on top of my game 24/7.

Who are your visual influences? I see a lot of Pennebaker, Maysles, Viola, & Corbijn.
I’ve got my head in the sand most of the time which I think helps the naivety of my work. During my formative late teens and early twenties I spent about a decade in the darkroom working on my own photography, barely eating and barely sleeping so I missed a lot of pop culture education.
I see the Pennebaker reference and I love his work although it makes me anxious, and Anton (Corbijn) has always been a hero of mine. He actually shot part of Here Is What Is -what an honor for me that was! My first love was and is still photography; to me the absolution of a single perpetual frame, in its structure and timeless broadcast of a brief moment in space, carries infinite mass. I find more inspiration in photographers.
A guy like Ansel Adams is very inspiring. His lifelong dedication to hiking through national parks, pre-visualizing grand images into his ripe old age. He carried 100+lbs of large format gear into his 80s and would sit and wait for days on end for the perfect light. Not only was he a compositional master, but a scientist responsible for modern densitometric roadmap of the medium. The man is a role model in all departments, patience, grace, dedication, understanding, excellence, and intuition.

Another photographic hero as well is Henri Cartier Bresson, a purely instinctual and patient operator who was a conduit to the seemingly impossible “decisive moment” frames he made. I also just read a book called In The Blink Of An Eye by Walter Murch, an amazing film editor and analyst of the human experience. Just last night I watched a mystifying Jacques Perrin / Jacques Cluzaud film called Oceans.
I love expressionist painters and some part of my shooting is alive, like the paint dropped from Jackson Pollock’s stick: initiated in a gesture and momentarily guided through flight by chaos before being cemented on the canvas.

How have you seen the role of visual interpreter in music change? How much do you think that relates to the change in the way people discover & share music?
I have a very different mode of operation than most. I try to do as much as I can myself, with as little as possible… usually with one camera, one light and one crew member. The role of the interpreter has changed drastically with the proliferation of handheld digital devices connected to the internet. In some ways it’s fantastic: everything becomes accessible to everyone almost instantaneously. All one has to do is say “Hey, have you seen Bill Withers do ‘Use Me’ acoustic?” and seconds later you can look at it on YouTube, even if you’ve never heard of Bill Withers. Anyone can post footage from a show that they are at and the same night have there friends experience it through their Facebook or blog or Myspace or whateverothersocialservice.com.
It’s revolutionary that everyone has a voice that can fall on the world’s ear, it’s just hard to hear the meaningful messages over all the chatter. I try and remain hopeful that the cream will continue to rise to the surface. Maybe google will invent a taste meter for rating versions of things in your search results, or a sample identifier that links back to the original sources, so people can educate themselves.

The downside of the media trend (parasitically attached like a cannibalistic Siamese twin) however, is the diminished quality we have to accept in internet media, sonically and visuallyl. It really negates the excellence of talent in my opinion. I mean, Al Green on Soul Train via Youtube still gives me shivers, and as grateful as I am to have access, I often wonder what it would have felt like to see it broadcast in full fidelity back in the day.
The medium is a part of the message for me, and I can’t watch things out of sync, and all choppy looking for very long without getting agitated and removed from the moment. I hope it’s a momentary bump in the road for us as a species, but I know that there is a whole generation of young people out there who think of music as disposable mp3s on laptop speakers now. I just hope they grow up to realize what they have been missing and buy a good turntable and amplifiers to play tangible records with tangible artwork that they paid fairly for.
The art of the album cover has really faded; do you see other form taking its place? How much do you see your work filling that void -or do you?
The art of the album cover has changed, but I hope it’s just a passing trend. I hope we come to our senses and reinstate it. Would you eat digital food? Sustenance needs to be tangible. What you feed your souls should be no different -we, as a people, are starving ourselves on empty carbs of pop fast food. I don’t think that what I do is replacing the album cover at all. I am just a witness for the ages to virtuos musical moments much like a stenographer would be in a court of law. Leave the rest up to the jury.

Dear Lord

Lord George Gordon Byron was born on this day in 1788.

Like a lot of adolescent girls, I had romantic visions and tendencies, and Byron’s work was the perfect reflection of that gooey, goggley-eyed disposition. He was the first celebrity as we understand it, and fled his home country to escape the ruinous gossip that surrounded the dissolution of his marriage and his questionable relationship with half-sister Augusta. Through all his trials and tribulations (and there were a lot, his club foot being the least of them), there was -is -something undeniably intoxicating about the way he blended the heady and the common, and his love of both the high life and his robust embrace of the gutteral, in both his work and his life.
I have a huge collection of biographies of Byron, as well as several volumes of his poetry, including a three-volume set of his collected works published just after his death in 1824. When I lived in London, I would go by where he lived at the Albany, and at one point, was even given a tour by a kind doorman; he gently motioned toward the ground-level door that lead to the apartment where Byron lived, adding that “an Hungarian doctor lives there now. He has trouble walking.” I was a regular visitor to John Murray’s offices (once located in Albemarle Street), where Gini Murray -married to the then-current publisher (and directly descended from Byron’s Murray) -would kindly welcome me with tea and allow me to wander the famous upper floor, taking pictures and looking at the immense volumes of books lining the walls, as well as the cabinet containing a few of Byron’s personal effects (including one white shirt I longed to bury my nose in). I wandered down Piccadilly Terrace, where he and wife Annabella shared their unhappy moments (and where the brilliant Ada was born), and gazed up at windows, imagining Byron popping the tops off soda bottles as his wife was in labour. I’ve been to the church where he is buried, and recalled the stories I’d read about the creepy 1938 opening of his coffin many moons ago by a group of curious investigators. The entrance to the crypt was closed, but is small and narrow, the church dark and grey and cold. It felt like an incongruous ending for such a dramatic, colorful life.

This visit to Hucknall Parish coincided with my poetic visit to Byron’s ancestral home at Newstead Abbey (near Nottingham) one fresh spring day. I wandered around the seemingly-ancient quarters in a daze, touching the stones, door frames, stairs, shrubery, and avoiding the squawking peacocks (little wonder Byron wrote about their noisesome fierceness -eeek). I’ve painted and drawn countless works of art based around the photos I took there, and even now, ten years later, I’d love to return, if only to wander the gardens. Though the house is much different than it was in Byron’s day (ancestral misdeeds meant the Abbey had fallen into terrible disrepair when the poet lived there), I felt a palpable presence of … something… during my visit (a feeling akin to the ghosts in New York recently.) I left utterly appreciating just how difficult and painful it must’ve been for him to part with such a beautiful, magical place.
Still, I hate admitting that don’t read as much Byron as I once did; I’d like it to be far more often, but he asks so much energy, attention, and care. Finding the time to provide those things -in full, without scrimping or cheating -is challenging, and yet I feel it might be worth it. Every time I return to his work, I’m taken back to a specific time in my life -one I’m proud of, thrilled by, and continually in awe of -and I’m re-awakened and energized by the power of human imagination and our capacity for creation in the midst of incredible, painful circumstances. It’s no understatement when I type that Byron’s work emboldened me, opened my eyes, ripped my heart out of my chest, & put it back again whole. I’ve developed a deep appreciation of his poetry, as well as his life, and becoming so familiar with each has immeasurably enriched my own artistic output and worldview. Out of all the poems I know and love, this one has become my personal favorite; it takes me back to a specific time and place, day and face:

I speak not, I trace not, I breathe not thy name;
There is grief in the sound, there is guilt in the fame;
But the tear that now burns on my cheek may impart
The deep thoughts that dwell in that silence of heart.


Too brief for our passion, too long for our peace,
Were those hours – can their joy or their bitterness cease?
We repent, we abjure, we will break from our chain, –
We will part, we will fly to – unite it again!

Oh! thine be the gladness, and mine be the guilt!
Forgive me, adored one! – forsake if thou wilt;
But the heart which is thine shall expire undebased,
And man shall not break it – whatever thou may’st.

And stern to the haughty, but humble to thee,
This soul in its bitterest blackness shall be;
And our days seem as swift, and our moments more sweet,
With thee at my side, than with worlds at our feet.

One sigh of thy sorrow, one look of thy love,
Shall turn me or fix, shall reward or reprove.
And the heartless may wonder at all I resign –
Thy lips shall reply, not to them, but to mine.

May, 1814.

Choking On Sun

Appropos of nothing, I’ve been thinking about sunchokes recently.

Actually, there is a reason I’m bringing them up; I enjoyed a beautiful dish with them before I went to New York. Accurately described as “gnarly little tubers”, they’re also called Jerusalem artichokes, though they more closely resemble ginger root than normal artichokes. Yummy grocer Dean and Deluca happened to be conveniently close to where I stayed earlier this week, and it was with much interest that I noted they carried the nubbly little root veggie. Upon setting eyes on them, I was immediately taken back to my memorable evening spent at Toronto’s Bricksworks (run by the Canadian not-for-profit company Evergreen) for their inspiring inaugural GE Cafe Chef’s Series.

With the aim of simultaneously entertaining, and educating Torontonians, the series boasts an impressive array of big names in the Canadian food scene; writer/host Ivy Knight, Chef Anthony Rose, and food/wine journalist James Chatto are just some of the impressive names who will be taking part in the bi-monthly series. The combination of info and eats was launched a few weeks ago with Chef Jamie Kennedy, winemaker Dan Sullivan, and Executive Director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, Rebecca LeHeup. Together, the trio talked up the role of Prince Edward County and its bounty of incredible food and wine producers. Personal experiences, cooking techniques, and local events were all chatted up between the beautiful four courses served as part of the event.

Prince Edward County is located about two hours east of Toronto, and contains the town of Picton, popular with summer holidaymakers. Nearly everything served within the gorgeous three-hour event was from the area -including the sunchokes Chef Kennedy used for a beautiful, velvety soup. Chef Kennedy told the assembled crowd how he came to buy his farm in the County, his love of the land, and how his passion for food and wine have guided his style of cooking -fresh, approachable, and deeply connected to the concept of terroir. His original idea was to serve goat in its various aspects: the cheese, the milk, and the meat. However, unable to find local goat meat, he substituted lamb, and… it was magical. Lambs shoulder was braised in goat milk (an Italian technique, the chef noted), while leg was served roasted, succulent and sweet; the lot came with little happy pillows of goat cheese gnocchi, laced with a thin, flavorful gravy. As I told Chef later, I experienced a “Sally-in-the-diner” moment eating it. No kidding. And to think it was the first time the award-winning Order Of Canada chef had tried that recipe! Color me shocked… and utterly, thoroughly, deeply satisfied.

Satisfaction continued with a luscious dessert of homey apple strudel with nutmeg ice cream; I wound up skimming the serving dish with my finger, which should tell you something about how often I eat homemade ice cream. Kennedy happily shared the recipe after he’d carved up pieces for everyone. There was something truly rewarding about seeing Kennedy work in the simple Brickworks kitchen, with its home-style oven and smooth-top elements. The way he carved bread, chopped veg, even washed and sharpened his knife conveyed both intense skill and innate gentleness. I enjoyed watching him go about his culinary business as much as the information being provided by LeHeup and Hill, though in a different way; it was, really, a beautiful, silent, poetic counterpart to the torrent of words and images, a soothing glass of red to the sparkling bubbly of LeHeup’s passionate presence.

In the wine vein, Sullivan’s handywork paired beautifully with every course; the affable vintner shared stories of his challenges and quickly, clearly answered all questions directed at him with simple, everyday language. I especially enjoyed the red selection he brought, a rich, fruity red that operatically sung with the succulent, tender meat of the main course. Sullivan planted his vines in 2001, and he joked about having “an overnight success in a decade” with Rosehall Run. Kennedy’s interest in the region was, he told us, sparked by the wine potential there; he described himself as a “committed oenephile”, and it showed in everything he cooked for us. “What grows together goes together” was the theme of the evening, and I left determined to visit Prince Edward County once the nicer weather comes.

But, being in New York this might prove difficult. We’ll see. In any case, I have a whole new appreciation of the riches of the region, the talents of its food producers and winemakers, and just how good sunchokes -despite their “gnarly” appearance -really are.

Fine, Actually.

My phone died yesterday afternoon. The main source of my communication with friends and family and the outside world overall, not to mention my camera… gone. *Poof*

Words can’t begin to convey the outright sense of panic this created, followed by the hours of self-denigration. “I used to be fine here without a camera,” I told myself, “why does it matter now? Why should it? Can’t you see the world without wanting to share something every single minute?”
Ah, how life and the world have moved on since my days of wandering New York City as a wide-eyed teenager. Yet looking at -experiencing -New York was a much more visceral experience in the last twenty-four hours of being camera and phone-less. Colors were brighter, noises were louder. I was forced to be fully present in every single thing, and look at curiosities and small shards of beauty -graffiti, flyers, people’s expressions, subway murals -in a very different way. “Subtlety” isn’t a word most people would associate with this city, and yet that’s exactly the quality I managed to somehow tune into (amidst the ego howls of “Go buy a phone… right now!”). I’ve always been a photography enthusiast, but stripped of my equipment, it was as if I was -am -in a living kind of gallery, noting the shadows, fine lines, tones, and expressions. I’ve struck up more conversations with people as a result of not hiding in text messages and emails. I’ve met some kind, helpful people with their own interesting tales to tell -this is unquestionably a city made up of dedicated, hard-working immigrants proud to call themselves both American, and New Yorkers -and I’ve even made friends with a few local fuzzy four-legged creatures who wag tails and chase away my blues at missing my own little pup. I am part of the divine noise of the city, and I sense that connection more keenly as a result of being receptive to it.

Lastnight I took a trip to Brooklyn to see Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, and Lindsay Duncan in the Abbey Theatre’s fine production of Borkman by Henrik Ibsen. I loved the humanity Duncan brought to her role as Ella, the title character’s long-suffering love; played against Shaw’s stern, stiff-as-cardboard wife, it was a beautiful kind of yin-and-yang energy that came together in a beautiful poetic moment by the play’s end. Alan Rickman, was, as ever, masterful, authoritative, and mesmerizing. He has one of the best voices in theater, and is such a powerful presence onstage, that seeing him alone, groping in the dark or standing awkwardly on a stage snowbank, became a masterclass in the art of being fully present -a task that any actor will tell you isn’t always easy. Not having a phone made experiencing Borkman somehow more cutting, its struggles more real, its characters more immediate. I couldn’t get on my Palm Pre at intermission or after the show and tap out “great!” or “you must see this!” I had to sit there, with the salty-sweet taste of Ibsen’s work, working out tone, texture, and timbre of the production I’d witnessed. Going back to Manhattan, I looked out on the lit-up Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline, and found, in the reflection, that I had a huge smile on my face.

That same feeling -of masterful, joyful, alive presence -was with me as I took a stroll through Times Square tonight. The place has a masterful kind of gaudy majesty at night, lit up brighter than Vegas, as ads for retail everything compete with lit up theatre marquees; it was a strange, if inspiring sight, to see Diddy’s vodka ad beamed next to scenes from The Lion King. As Jenny Holzer noted, contradiction equals balance.
And maybe that’s how it should be in approaching this new-ish world for me -finding the balance amidst the seemingly-impossible, the seemingly-opposite, the mad, the bad, the brave and the fooish. I’ve felt all of those things to varying degrees in the three days I’ve been here. And I want to return -for good -more than ever. One of the sights in Times Square features a gigantic live feed of people below -watching themselves. Would-be New Yorkers are their own entertainment, whether they’re walking, stopping, staring, dancing, laughing, or simply standing and watching the world go by. It was a beautiful reminder for me, and a powerful symbol.
Next stop, work-visa office. Oh, but maybe an iPhone first… maybe.

Sweet Home NYC

Peeking out the tiny window as the airplane made its way into Newark International Airport, one thought struck me: ew, brown. A large brown haze hung over the New York skyline. Yet another thought: get used to it. Buck up.

As I knew would happen, I wanted to do everything the minute I left the airplane. Going at near-sprint speed through Penn Station with baggage in tow, I quickly hailed a cab and… boom, there I was, in the thick of Big Apple traffic. Traces of the big December snowstorm were still in evidence, with curbs and corners white and icy. People were everywhere. The noise, colour, lights, and textures were a lot to take in, even as I tried to place where I was and my cab driver tried to figure out the best way to get me to my destination in Soho.
After grabbing a bite at the handily-close Dean and Deluca (ridiculous, delicious, nutritious), I made the predictable visit up to Times Square, turning onto 44th Street to visit the much-loved Belasco Theater. It was there, in 1995, that a good friend and I spent many breathless hours sighing and marveling at Ralph Fiennes’ Tony-winning performance of Hamlet. Directed by the super-fab (and super-nice, as I recall) Jonathan Kent, the show remains a favorite production of a very famous play. My friend and I got up to much mischief that hot July. Not visiting the area feels like sacrilege. I go to pay homage to a time, a place, to ghosts still very much alive.

A worker at the theater gave me a small smile as I clicked a photo outside. I always think people who work at old theaters during active shows must realize they’re working in an environment where people have memories -not just the theater crew and cast, but the audience, or even non-audience. Buildings have ghosts. I heard the Belasco had a real one. Hmmm. All the old theaters up around Times Square feel haunted by past voices, spoken onstage and off, and by the shenanigans that occur in any kind of creative pressure-cooker environment. They’re not the kind of ghosts I fear so much as appreciate. I’m going to BAM tonight to see the Abbey Theatre’s production of Borkman featuring Alan Rickman. More voices and faces from long ago and/or near-and-present? Probably. Sensing that kind of thing adds so much to the experience of live performance.
It was both a past, a present, and a very determined future I sensed colliding at lastnight’s genius performance at Zinc Bar, however. Whether it was design or chance that allowed this to happen I cannot say, but I’m grateful for this so-called “New York moment” nonetheless. The last-minute set, featuring super-musician Eric Lewis, was only announced via social media on Sunday; when I read it, I may have shrieked a little bit (only the dawg knows for sure). Lewis is a huge, huge favorite of mine, and this appreciation, bolstered by a music-loving friend’s appreciation of his work, made me go deeper into Lewis’ work and his approach to his art. I’ve seen the videos, heard about the White House performance, and follow the Facebook and Twitter updates. It goes without saying, though, that nothing compares to seeing the real thing, live and up close -especially in a cozy Greenwich Village club that calmly whispers “cool” the minute you walk down the stairs and through the door.

Opening with a raucous, rolling version of Wayne Shorter’s aggressive “Pinocchio“, Lewis, accompanied by the super-talented Ian Travis on bass and Ali Jackson on drums, delivered a performance both astonishing for both its technical virtuosity and emotional resonance. With a range of facial expressions and body signals, Lewis matches his muscular, passionate musical output with expressive physicality that borders on theatrical (in a really good way). Utterly lacking in pretension, Lewis smiled shyly and gave his bandmates equal time to shine. Tellingly, he patiently endured the microphone and sound glitches as he spoke between the (lengthy if enthralling) numbers, telling the enthusiastic audience about the composition of his bouncy original “Puerto Rico“, written in the very location some years ago over “many, many emptying Heinekens one night between 2 and 7am.”
Bouncing between an endearingly lionine sexiness, demonic bug-eyed determination, and toddler-esque wide-mouthed joy, Lewis emanated a vivacious, infectious energy -one that continued (and expanded) even with his invitation to trumpet player Marcus Printup (who was seated in front of me) and saxophone player Karel Ruzsicka Jr. to join him at various points throughout the set. It became a fascinating conversation between instruments and musicians used to blending colors, textures, and timbres with ease.

Lewis’s beautiful interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” was given a tasty little spin, as well a grandly sprawling version of Breaking Benjamin’s “The Diary Of Jane.” Lewis beautifully captured the dual nature of Jackson’s paean to sensual humanity; by turns sexy, dreamy, and jauntily rhythmic, he drew out its soul-meets-jazz-meets rock hybrid nature, milking, mocking, and worshipping the creation even in its conception, slowly, slyly sculpting something sonically new, daring, and thrilling. With “The Diary Of Jane”, the former Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra pianist captured the tune’s original emo bite, adding in crunchy piano power chords and aggressive harmonics that were positively symphonic in their sweeping majesty. The term “breathtaking” feels too mild; at times I would notice my mouth hanging open, my hands clutched together, my eyes bugging out. I think I may have drooled at one point. Vanity took a firm backseat in the presence of such gargantuan artistry.
By the time Lewis got to his rock-jazz version of “Sweet Home Alabama” (the evening’s closer), he looked as if he’d run a 10K marathon; with sweat pouring off him and a wide, broad grin, he confidently pounded away on the keys, solo this time, conjuring the soul of Ray Charles, the sass of Jamie Cullum, the cool of Thelonius Monk and the outright rockingness of… Jimmy Page.
What a marriage. What a night. What a bunch of noisy ghosts. What a city.
And there’s more to come, I’m sure.

Killer

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords this past weekend was a shock and yet, was weirdly unsurprising. There’s been a huge gulf forming -and festering -politically in North America for some time, a divide fomented by the self-interested, the greedy, the ignorant, and the selfish. Division is being emphasized more than similarity, individual voices more than one harmonious sound. A few pop culture references came to mind amidst the myriad of news reports, blame assignation, finger -pointing, and distressing web scrubbing. “I hope the Russians love their children too,” sang Sting during the 80s Cold War hysteria. “We’re one but we’re not the same; we got to carry each other,” sang Bono in 1991, months after the Berlin Wall fell. Together, these words, from the world of fluffy, seemingly-innocuous popular culture, carry a powerful idea: people have the capacity to recognize a shared inner humanity, even if there are outward differences. We don’t have to get hung up on those differences, but we do have to respect them and work (sometimes hard) to remember that hatred is hatred, no matter which perceived “side” spews it -or worse, acts on it.

Maintaining grace in the face of the horrendous violence as seen in Arizona recently is wholly difficult, if not seemingly-impossible. We feel anger, the need to blame, the responsibility to call to account, to mete out judgment, to avenge, all in an effort to heal to make sense, to, in our minds, “set things right” and deal with not just our pain, but the pain of an entire nation. We think we have the answers individually or within our shared-worldview groups. This self-righteousness is dangerous. The motives behind the actions of the alleged shooter may not be clear, no matter what a Myspace / YouTube page may imply. I wonder what the online pages of other would-be assassin in history might look like; would Squeaky Fromme‘s site have music, photos of she and Charlie, a “donate” button? Would John Wilkes Booth have a Twitter stream full of political vitriol and shout-outs to theatre companies? what about Lee Harvey Oswald? (Actually, his page would be probably blocked by the CIA. But a “I’m a PATSY! Why won’t anyone listen to me? Come ON!” status update isn’t too hard to imagine.) We can all probably guess who might be running his very own Jodi Foster fan site.

These are just some of the characters who populate Stephen Sondheim’s dark (and strangely timely) 1990 work Assassins. The work is a keen examination of the drive for fame, notoriety, and revenge, and speaks to the contemporary need for heroes and villains, even when the portrait is never accurate, especially when done in the heat of the moment. These are characters, who, for all their infamy, are remarkably like… us: they blame, they rage, they feel wronged and ignored. They’re self-righteous, deluded, needy, the ultimate outsider moving on the inside of some movement or psychosis (or both). And they want more. Always more -more justice, more retribution, more notoriety, more attention, more people-listen-up-cause-you-know-I’m-right-yo. More everything.

Actor Paul McQuillan plays John Wilkes Booth in the current remount of the Birdland Theatre Production in Toronto. The erudite artist offered his own thoughts on the work, and how his own longtime yoga practise has influenced and shaped his approach to acting -and to playing a killer.

Tell me a bit about your role in Assassins.

John Wilkes Booth was a failed actor from a high-class family with passionate (inarguably extreme) political views. I suppose nothing could have been more gratifying to his narcissistic essence than to cast himself in the biggest role of his uncelebrated career and, at the same time, give his radical/racist views an undeserved spotlight. So, he killed the president…in the theatre. “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?

How do you see this year’s production being different from last year’s?

It is a great opportunity as an artist to explore a complex piece of work (Assassins surely gets that distinction) further, after fully letting it go. Sadly, it reminds me of the incredible insights we often have regarding a failed relationship long after it is over, except in this case, you’re being given full permission to freely jump back in and learn from your misgivings. I have had endless conversations with other actors who are in the final week of a run and -in the middle of a line -finally understand what is coming out their mouths. It’s usually a moment that carries epiphany-like joy and paralyzing regret. “That’s it. That’s it!!!” followed by, “How did I not discover this in rehearsals? S.T.U.P.I.D!!” I have already had many of those moments…and I’m just talking about TODAY!

How do you see this show being a commentary on contemporary politics?

It is always a testament to the credibility of any theatre piece if it can transcend time and its many restrictions theatrically. What might be deemed a potent piece of work ten years ago, can seem dull and dated today. Even period-piece musicals can seem tastelessly ineffective unless given an updated spin. A musical such as Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is a good example. If left as originally written, it appears quite misogynistic, in my opinion.

Luckily, Sondheims’s Assassins tends to pay more respect to social themes than fleeting fads, therefore making the work timeless. Certainly, Assassins has no respect for the restrictions of time and I believe that is one of its clever qualities. We see that the issues of people in Abraham Lincoln’s day can easily be compared to socio-political issues of Kennedy’s era.

On another note, politics has always been the equivalent of a reality show, constantly morphing to the insatiable needs of the viewer/voter. Politics has yet to find a perfect balance for the people and countries it aims to subdue or entice. I heard Marianne Williamson say recently, “communism glorifies the collective at the expense of the individual and capitalism glorifies the individual at the expense of the collective.” Finding that balance can create many casualties in ANY time period. The arguments of John Wilkes Booth against the presidency of Abraham Lincoln are not much different than that of the certain parties speaking against Barack Obama. Politics will always manifest social unrest. How that social unrest is manifested is on full display in this musical for two hours, eight times a week.

Your character is based on an historical figure -is that strange to play? Does it create a certain kind of pressure?

If John Wilkes Booth had been caught assassinating Abraham Lincoln on Youtube, I would definitely feel a certain pressure to capture his esthetic subtleties and personal mannerisms. Luckily, there were no cell-phone cameras in 1865 and I feel as though I can freely give him my own spin. I think people are more attached to the incredible mark he made with the actual act of assassinating Lincoln than anything else.

How difficult is it to balance singing, dancing, and acting?

In the past I have often heard people criticize music-theatre performers. This always seems ridiculous to me because I have never been more impressed than when I have witnessed an actor capture the authenticity and complexity of a character in song and dance. It’s also very effective dramatically. The flip side of this is that it also makes tackling these roles extremely daunting and the challenges pile up quicker than streetcars in a snowstorm.

So yes, it is quite difficult to balance these disciplines in one show. But if done well, the payoff is that much greater.

Where do you think this work fits within Sondheim’s canon? It isn’t as well-known as some of his other works.

I was on Broadway with a show called The Buddy Holly Story when Assassins was originally being planned to open but it was delayed because of The Gulf War in 1990. I remember the buzz being that it would have been a highly insensitive piece of work to introduce during that time. They got scared and pulled it. There were just 13 shows running on Broadway that year and most of them were light fare.

I think Assassins is more potent and daring in its views than any of Sondheim’s work, and for that reason, it is probably done less. It’s pretty in-your-face with its message and that kind of tactic can make people stay away today, sadly. The mindless jukebox musicals seem to have a bigger draw these days, but like I said earlier, reality television has also taken over the airwaves. People don’t want to think anymore when they go to the theatre and at the risk of sounding crass, that offends me. Theatre can be a mirror to the soul or it can be a mirror used to put on lipstick.

How has your yoga practice influenced the way you approach your stage work, particularly in this role?

When I practice yoga, I do my best to focus internally. You find out what is going on inside. It is no different with inhabiting the psyche of any character. There is a lot of observation without judgment or attachment. I don’t really know what method acting means because I think it misses the point. There has to be a certain amount of separation from a character as demented and troubled as Booth or I would be in a straight jacket at the end of the show. I can capture the essence of that feeling without actually occupying it and letting it take me over.

Production photos by Guntar Kravis.

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