A Chance to be Behind the Curtain

Usnavi and Sonny on stage at Philemon Wright High School’s 2017 production of In The Heights.

Back in high school, I never had any interest in getting involved with the drama department.

Now look at me: I’m middle aged and I’ve become a big old musical theatre nerd. Clearly I missed my calling; I should have spent years cultivating a life in community theatre.

Not as a performer – I don’t have the talent, let alone the confidence to get up in front of an audience. But I would have been happy to take part in the behind the scenes stuff.

As it stands, I’m not even stage-adjacent, let alone in the spotlight!

That’s not really a regret – I simply wasn’t interested back then. I didn’t have passion for theatre. That is only something I’ve cultivated as an adult.

But even if it’s not a regret, if I look at it through the eyes of my present self, I still feel like I missed out. And that point was driven home on Saturday night as I took in a local high-school production of one of my favorite musicals: In the Heights.

The choreography in the club scene was stellar for a cast of teens. They’re choreographers deserve a huge round of applause.

The production was wonderful. Was it perfect? Hell no. The kids made plenty of mistakes, but despite all the flaws, the passion behind the performances more than made up for it and the hard work of everyone involved was evident.

It was such a fun evening – capped off during curtain calls when one of the performers asked his date to go to prom with him (she said yes!)

It was during curtain calls that I had my realization. It was closing night so the entire cast and crew were on stage to thank their teachers and to give each other love and congratulations.

The sense of community was wonderful – and that’s what struck me: I have never been a  part of putting together a show like that; part of a crew that is completely dedicated to putting on the most entertaining product they can muster.

Even the set was on point.

I know there are still opportunities. There is a robust community theatre culture in town, and I even know a few active members of that community. But I don’t really know what I can offer.

I don’t have the talent to be on stage or in the band. I don’t have any particular artistic vision or skill to get involved with sets, I don’t have the technical expertise to do lighting or sound.

So I don’t know. I’ll need to give it some thought because I want to share my love of theatre with like-minded people, and to help spread that passion to a wider audience.

I just need to figure out the next step.

Italy is in my way

Let's be honest: THIS is what I'm reading next, even though I'd prefer fiction.

Let’s be honest: THIS is what I’m reading next, even though I’d prefer fiction.

Having just finished a novel, I find myself in a sweet position: savouring the short time BETWEEN novels when I consider what the next book is going to be.

I love this period. It’s a moment to reflect on what mood I’m in and consider the thousands of possibilities out there for my next read.

I’m kind of a slow reader, so this is actually something I need to consider carefully. Reading time is a luxury for me, and I’ll only get to read so many books before I die – fewer than most people BECAUSE I’m so slow. So it’s important to choose wisely.

Do I pick something short and sweet so I can get another title on my bookshelf in short order? Do I look for a multi-novel epic that will take me forever to finish but that might be incredibly rewarding? Do I want something light and funny or something dramatic and serious? Or do I go for SciFi? Fantasy?

I might even re-read an old favourite!

Oh, this is such a great feeling. But there’s a problem this time.

I have another book that needs to get read – a book about Italy that I’m using to plan a trip coming up later this year. Rather than picking out another lovely piece of fiction, I really should be spending any spare reading time devouring that Lonely Planet guidebook and plotting out an itinerary.

Travel planning is such a downer. I love to travel, but I really hate doing the homework.

I know it’s absolutely necessary to making sure the trip comes off without a hitch, but when I have a world of fiction out there to read, the prospect of digesting a travelogue is not exactly inspiring.

Ugh…I so want to procrastinate right now.

Oh well, I can still start in on a short-list for my next novel, even if I don’t get to crack the spine just yet.

Classics Revisited – Wuthering Heights

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I remember reading Wuthering Heights about 25 years ago, when I was in high school – but other than a general sense about how “dark” it was, I had almost completely forgotten the events of the book. I had a sense that I enjoyed it on that initial reading, though, so I set about re-familiarizing myself.

It was well worth the effort.

Upon re-reading it as an adult, I found it to be much more entertaining than dark. At times it’s almost like a soap opera – but I don’t mean that to sound insulting. Yes, it can be overly dramatic, but unlike a real soap opera, the characters are so well developed that it feels like they always have purpose behind their action. There is always a clear reason as to what drives them. And the few scenes when characters reflect on their motivations are really well done – never feeling contrived or overly expository. They feel real (if heightened).

I really enjoyed re-reading this – in part because of the story and the characters, but also because of the writing. Bronte’s prose is beautiful, and she does a good job of balancing action and description – she doesn’t dwell for days on description, which I often find a problem with classic literature. It’s nicely balanced instead, and the story moves along at a good pace, even interjecting elements of humour in good measure.

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I can’t quite bring myself to give it 5 stars, but it’s 4 at least, likely closer to 4.5.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like there have been very many well-received film adaptations of the book. It’s been adapted often but the reviews haven’t been favourable. It’s too bad, I would have like to see it represented on screen.

I do have an old Classics Illustrated edition of the book, that I re-read after I finished the novel – and that offered a bit of light fun, seeing the characters represented visually. Oh well, someday, someone will make a good film adaptation. Either that or I can wait another 25 years until I forget the story and read it again.

Gingerbread Challenge

My office’s Social Committee has been incredibly successful over the past few years in coming up with ways to get the 30 or so people I work with to connect outside the workplace.

By organizing regular non-work events like potlucks, pub nights, the annual Christmas party, Halloween costume contests, and pizza lunches, the Committee plays a big role in making sure we’re more than just colleagues – we’re friends.

It can be tricky to come up with new ideas through.

The Committee has been around long enough that we often get in the habit of repeating the same activities from month to month. While those well-established events are all fun, it’s always nice to try something different; something we haven’t tried before.

That’s what happened this year.

The Committee had a brainstorm and came up with a brand new pastime: our first annual Gingerbread House Challenge! (And yes, I’m confident in saying “annual” – It was a huge hit with ALL my workmates and they’re already clamouring for more.)

The Committee supplied the pre-constructed G-bread houses and split participants into four teams. Each team had the lunch hour to craft the best damn gingerbread house they could – the aim being to annihilate the competition with creativity and artistry.

There were a few rules about what materials were sanctioned for use (my team kind of broke bent them, so we’ll just gloss over the details and get right to the results). The winner was determined by popular vote with everyone in our office getting one vote (you couldn’t vote for your own creation). It was a crazy-close race. Seriously… we had a tie and needed to do a run-off election to determine the final winner!

In the end, my team wound up in second place (clearly the election was rigged.)

I snagged pics of each entry, so you can see the results of our lunchtime labour.

The best of the bunch (my team's creation.) We went for humour and an theme of current affairs.

The best of the bunch (my team’s creation.) We went for humour and a theme of “current affairs.”

The detail in my team's entry was stunning. Look at the detail work in the Mexican wall - and the red and green Mexican gummis to represent the colours in the Mexican flag. The craftmanship is enough to bring a tear to your eye.

The detail in my team’s entry was stunning. Look at the intricate work in the Mexican wall – and the red and green gummi “Mexicans” representing the colours in the Mexican flag. The craftmanship is enough to bring a tear to your eye.

Here's the entry that eventually won. I think the voters were coerced. Yes, this has much more design merit than our entry, but where is the humour?! (I mean other than the upside down Santa stuck in the chimney... that I somehow missed while taking this photo.)

Here’s the entry that eventually won. I think the voters were coerced. Yes, this has much more design merit than our entry, but where is the humour?! (I mean other than the upside down Santa stuck in the chimney… that I somehow missed while taking this photo.)

This is the one I voted for. I thought the addition of the cleverly-crafted City logo on the roof was a touch of brilliance.

This is the one I voted for. I thought the addition of the cleverly-crafted City logo on the roof was a touch of brilliance.

A second shot of the one I voted for - the designers even added a miniture outdoor skating rink to echo the one outside our City Hall. Mind you, this crew had access to a glue gun, so they did have an unfair advantage. Probably just as well they didn't win either.

A second shot of the one I voted for – the designers even added a miniature outdoor skating rink to echo the one outside our City Hall. Mind you, this crew had access to a glue gun, so they did have an unfair advantage. Probably just as well they didn’t win either; it sets a bad precedent.

The simplest entry in terms of adding an environment to the setting, but clearly this one was crafted by someone with a steady hand and an eye for design. That person should have realized that

This crew didn’t spend much time on context for their house, choosing to leave the house on the small lot provided. But clearly this one was crafted by someone with a steady hand and an eye for design. That person should have realized, however, that “funny” is really the better way to get votes in our office. Oh well, live and learn. There’s always next year!

What a Difference a Decade Makes

Nearly ten years ago, in 2007, I took my first trip to NYC.

Junkii and I did ALL the touristy things. We saw Lady Liberty, we climbed the Empire State Building, we went to the UN buildings, we went to Harlem and Brooklyn, we saw Grand Central Station…we hung out for about a week and took it all in.

But ever since, because we saw everything, each time we’ve gone back has been more about soaking up the culture: food, friends, music, theatre. I in particular have used subsequent NYC visits to indulge in my passion for Broadway.

That 2007 trip, though, also marked the start of another passion: photography. It was during that trip that we bought our first real camera.

While we were still a few years away from investing in a DSLR, we did buy a stepping stone camera that had more features than a standard point and shoot; it gave us a lot more flexibility and helped us to learn about aperture control, shutter speeds and other basic photography principles. It was the first step on a journey that has produced a lot of wonderful memories and some really beautiful photos, if I do say so myself.

And just to give you a sense of the difference a decade of practice can make…

I recently started cleaning up some old blog posts – making sure the links work, cleaning up grammar…that sort of thing. I’ve been blogging for 10 years too, and there’s a great deal of nostalgia hidden in those old posts. But there are also a lot of errors!

Anyway, I just cleaned up a post about our 2007 NYC trip. I had to add some photos because the post itself featured Tabblo: a now-defunct photo sharing service. In the process of looking through photos from that trip to add to the post, I came across this shot, taken just inside the entrance to Grand Central Station:

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Not much to look at, right? Oh sure, the chandeliers are nice and the architecture is lovely, but the photo itself is little more than a snapshot – poorly framed with no real focus.

In fact, I only noticed it among the old photos because I knew I had seen the same sight again very recently.

During our November 2016 trip, without remembering he had taken the earlier photo, Junkii snapped this photo on Instagram during a brief stop at Grand Central:

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Yes, it’s Instagram, yes the image was taken with a cell phone , and yes it’s treated with a filter, but even with all those limitations, it’s still a much warmer, lovelier, better composed photo. Imagine how good it would have been with a proper DSLR and tripod!

Either way, ten years of practice makes a big difference.

War and Peace and Obsession

One of the best theatre experiences I've ever had.

One of the best theatre experiences I’ve ever had.

Last year I read War & Peace. It was a gargantuan undertaking for a slow reader like myself, but frankly it’s well worth the effort. There’s a reason it’s considered one of the best books ever written.

Truth be told, I became somewhat obsessed with it for a while. Timing had a lot to do with it; at the same time I was reading the novel, I learned about a recent off-broadway musical based on a short section of the book, and between reading and listening, my arts & culture brain was pretty preoccupied there for a few months steady.

I felt like I had been cheated, though. I missed the show (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) in its off-broadway run.

You can get a sense of the staging in this photo. There is cabaret seating in the main performance area and the players regularly move into what would be the orchestra and mezzanine sections of a standard proscenium theatre.

You can get a sense of the staging in this photo. There is cabaret seating in the main performance area and the players regularly move into what would be the orchestra and mezzanine sections of a standard proscenium theatre.

The show features a really well-composed score. It’s quite different in tone from most musicals. It’s generally described, in reviews, as an electro-pop opera. In any case, it’s not your average musical. It doesn’t have a series of big musical show-stoppers. The music is more integrated than that. For that reason, I never expected it to make the transfer to Broadway. I simply chalked it up as yet another outstanding show that I missed because I don’t live in NYC. There have been plenty like that…and there will be plenty more. At least it had a cast album that I could enjoy.

But as luck would have it, someone with star power was also taken with The Great Comet: Josh Groban. It was announced late last year that he would use the show as a vehicle to make his own Broadway debut. There was hope yet that I would get to see this show!

After months of waiting for an announcement of ticket sales, and then several more months waiting for the production to see its first performances, I finally got to see the show this month. It was magical.

Groban is a serious standout. His acting was good, but his singing is utterly remarkable. I'm beginning to understand why he has such a following.

Groban is a serious standout. His acting was good, but his singing is utterly remarkable. I’m beginning to understand why he has such a following.

This show is bold and different. The theatre space has been creatively reimagined, and the performance takes place throughout the space, with audience, actors and musicians all occupying the same space. It’s such an immersive experience. To be fair, this show is not not something you can sit back and passively enjoy; it’s not just a bit of mindless fun. To enjoy this musical, the audience needs to engage. This is what theatre SHOULD be about.

And you know, I have to give major props to Groban. I’ve never been a big fan, but his voice is spectacular. And he’s matched in talent by his fellow castmates. His performance of Dust & Ashes (a new number written for this production) left me with chills.

I hope this show is recognized for its genius. The reviews so far have been glowing. It’s the first musical I’ve seen since Hamilton that didn’t make me think, “well, that was good, but it was no Hamilton.”

And it has reignited my obsession with the source material!

Highly recommend watching the BBC mini-series released last year. It's a really faithful adaptation.

Highly recommend watching the BBC mini-series released last year. It’s a really faithful adaptation.

The good news is, I don’t HAVE to re-read the novel. I’ve been saving last year’s BBC mini-series adaptation, and I finally find myself keen to watch it. I’m almost through the 6-hour production, and while I don’t know whether the final part will do the book justice, the first 5 have been spectacular. This is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the novel. Yes, some things have been cut or modified, but the storytelling here is excellent, and it’s matched by absolutely brilliant performances by Lily James and especially by Paul Dano.

If you get a chance to see it, don’t miss out.

Of course, I also recommend the musical (which would require you to travel to NYC) and the novel (a commitment, to say the least). Let’s be honest – a 6-hour mini-series seems the most manageable of the three.

Anyway, here I am obsessing again. So much so in fact that I’m actually considering re-reading the novel. No, I don’t really have the time. Maybe I’ll just re-read a few key passages. Besides, I’m sort of obsessing over Wuthering Heights too, which I read in high school and am now re-reading 25 years later, with fresh eyes. Sadly, I don’t think there are any well-respected film adaptations of that one.

Hidden in Plain Sight

The Listening Tree.

The Listening Tree.

And now, back to an art-posting!

I don’t really think that calling this sculpture “lost” or “hidden” is really apt…but I’ll still include it in my occasional series on public artwork.

The Listening Tree was only added to Ottawa’s public art collection this year. It’s a simple concept, but really nicely executed, and frankly it makes me happy every time I walk by it. Which is good because, it’s kind of in my neighborhood.

The artists – a duo who go by the moniker Mixed Metaphors – have crafted a sculpture that is fairly imposing in person. I like the impressive size of it. After all, if you’re creating a stylized tree, I think it just makes sense to make it “tree-sized.”  Otherwise, it’s going to look cheap and rinky-dink.

Fashioned from a series of stainless steel tubes, the sculpture has an aural element – it’s designed to allow wind to pass through, causing a low whistle. It’s lovely.

Nice to see, nice to hear. Thumbs up to the City for installing this so prominently along Elgin Street.

The Listening Tree.

The Listening Tree.

The Listening Tree.

AngRy-mixes

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How effective are noise-cancelling headphones, anyway?

Junkii has been teaching group fitness for a few years now. Because of that, I’ve come to expect that, as he reviews old tracks or learns new choreography, he also needs to play the music that comes along with it.

Sometimes that can be okay. The music for his CXWorks class (a core training class) is pretty decent as far as electronica goes.

Even the music for his BodyStep (a step-aerobics class), can be okay. For the most part, that music is far from great – and generally the original pop versions of the songs they use are WAAAAY better than the remixes – but the music is pretty inoffensive.

Or maybe it’s just familiar. After all, I’ve been going to BodyStep classes for years, so I’m well acquainted with the soundtrack.

But now Junkii is teaching BodyAttack – a much faster-paced cardio workout that uses pop songs remixed to within an inch of their life. For example:

These remixes are so much worse than the music in any of the other group fitness classes I’ve been to. Surely the people that choreograph this program can find a better way to bring up the BPM – there must be more talented DJs than the ones they’re using.

I’m sure it’s possible that people enjoy this music in a class setting, when the fast beats and cheezy synth sounds might spur a participant to kick higher and run faster. But beyond that, these remixes are just dreadful, lacking any musical merit.

And now I’m stuck having to hear this music on a regular basis. It’s making me angry, because I can’t tune it out.

When Junkii plays this music, I can’t listen to my own because the heavy beats just bleed through. That’s fine if I want to listen to something bigger, but it doesn’t work when I’m trying to hear the subtleties of a piano sonata.

I think I’m going to have to work out a deal with Junkii that we both have to use headphones. Otherwise, I can see a point when I march in and rip his speakers out.

Gonna have to find a solution before that happens.

The Play’s not the thing

I wanted to like this so much more than I did.

I wanted to like this so much more than I did.

I find it tricky to tell by reading a manuscript whether a play will necessarily translate well to the stage. But then, I’m not a director.

Even something as classic as Shakespeare can come across as boring if you limit yourself to experiencing it through the printed page. But to see a top-notch Shakespeare production can make me howl with laughter or weep.

While I can appreciate his body of work for the incredibly skilled use of language he employed, I would much rather watch a Globe On Screen production of the play, where the actors help the characters leap off the page and the director is able to convey the story through the action even when I might not understand the dialogue.

It’s not just Shakespeare. Any play is best experienced in a performance. Reading a play manuscript gets you the summary of the story, but it’s only half the experience.

All this is preamble to my opinion about the latest J.K. Rowling effort, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Because it’s written in play manuscript, I’m having trouble deciding how to rate it.

On it’s own merits, I can’t give it particularly high praise. In comparison to the incredible story arc, fantastic character development, and the fun and imaginative world-building that marked the incredibly well-crafted series of Harry Potter novels, this new entry comes up lacking – at least from a read-only perspective. The scenes felt rushed. The characters lacked anything beyond the simplest development. The writing had some humour, but even the storyline felt like it was patched together – a bunch of scenes held together by a framing device.

I enjoyed it enough to finish reading, but I have to think it would have been much better as a novel.

OR, it would have been better to see it on stage.

I’m sure it will make it’s way to North America sooner or later, and maybe then I’ll have a chance to see it. Maybe then I’ll be more favourable with my review. But for now, I can’t recommend it too highly.

Die-hard Harry Potter fans will enjoy it for bringing us back to that wonderful wizarding world, but frankly, you’re not missing anything monumental by giving this one a miss.

Still…I’ll likely see a production if I get the chance. Just in case.

Putting Love into the World

Big hugs to you, Angus, and much love, always.

Big hugs to you, Angus, and much love, always.

Angus was the guy that you couldn’t help but like. Any effort to resist his charms would have been hopeless.

He would be your friend whether you wanted it or not.

If you entered into a conversation with him, he would be absolutely engaged, making you feel like you were the most important person on the planet.

Greeting him meant an embrace; always an extended and all-encompassing hug to make you feel absolutely loved.

On opening a door to see him standing outside your house, he would absolutely beam with a full-faced grin.

How could anyone resist that kind of charm when it made you feel like you were the most special person on the planet?!

For Junkii and me, our memories of Angus are simple. Sitting with him and Maria (his loving partner) at their home in Russell, drinking beer and playing Settlers of Catan. Or hanging out with friends at our place around a coffee table crammed with snacks and watching Angus, with a hearty laugh, encourage Spike (Angus and Maria’s dog) to rout out any food that had fallen into the shag carpet.

More than these day-to-day memories, though, our fondest memory of Angus was of that feeling he engendered in others; of how loved he made us feel.

Sadly, the joy and happiness that Angus so readily displayed outwardly was not strong enough to counter what he must have been going through on the inside. Last week, Angus took his own life… and the world is a worse place for it.

At his memorial this weekend, I was most taken by the words of Angus’s brother-in-law – and I’m paraphrasing here because I wasn’t taking notes: in taking his life, Angus did not intend to hurt anyone. That would be the last thing he would have wanted.

Given how much love and delight Angus put into this world, that sentiment makes absolute sense to me. And so I think it’s important to limit what anger we might feel at his action and focus on the positive: that Angus loved his family, loved his partner, loved his friends.

For whatever reason, sadly, he simply could not continue to stay with us. That’s heartbreaking. But there’s solace in the fact that he’s no longer suffering from whatever drove him to take his own life.

I have no doubt that, if that pain hadn’t been so insistent, he would still be with us.

Angus, we were blessed to know you and to have you in our lives. Now it’s our turn to follow your example.

Now it’s our turn to put more love out into the world.