Sunday, July 19, 2009

RIP Lorena Gale

I just learned that Lorena Gale, local actress and playwright extraordinaire, lost her battle with abdominal cancer at the end of June. This is a devastating loss to Vancouver's theatre and film community and what seems most unfair is how quickly the disease progressed (Lorena was only diagnosed this past February.

A memorial service is being held at Heritage Hall (3102 Main Street), from 12-2 pm on Friday, July 31st.

In the meantime, visit Jerry Wasserman's moving tribute to Gale's life and work at


Friday, July 17, 2009

Our Edmund White

Last night the American author Edmund White gave a reading, along with local writer Claire Robson, at Little Sister’s. White is in town as part of a research project sponsored by Robson and Professor Dennis Sumara, of the Department of Curriculum Studies at UBC, that is looking at memoir writing and community formation among older lesbians in Vancouver. As part of their research, the group had read White’s classic autobiographical novel A Boy’s Own Story to parse in part the relationship between sexual content and style in that book.

To make a long story short, mostly by luck and happenstance I was invited to say a few words of introduction about White’s work in advance of his reading. As White is one of my favourite authors, someone whose work I greatly respect and admire, this was a major literary fantasy come true. Even better was the fact that White turned out to be a genial and gracious person, and seemed genuinely taken and touched by my remarks (he’s asked for a copy, at any rate). I reproduce them here for those unable to attend last night’s event:

Taking a page from his 2006 memoir by way of pluralizing the possessive pronoun of its title, I want to talk to you very briefly about “Our Edmund White”—that is what White, as one of our foremost authors, has gifted to our community. To do so means, necessarily, to follow the very model employed by White in My Lives: that is, to speak serially and to eschew chronology; to make connections across time and space, both in terms of the corpus of White’s writing as a whole, and the larger category of gay writing more generally.

However, you’re not here to listen to me, and so in order to waste as little time as possible, I will concentrate my remarks primarily on White’s experiments in autobiographical fiction, which resulted in the acclaimed trilogy of novels comprising A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony. Together these novels chronicle, via their impish and by no means wide-eyed and innocent narrator-protagonist, what it meant to grow up gay in postwar Middle America, while at the same time offering a firsthand account of a community in social and erotic formation post-Stonewall, and threatened with near-total destruction and eclipse post-AIDS. By choosing to make art out of his life (and, concomitantly, life out of his art), White has consciously placed himself within a long tradition of queer writerly self-fashioning, beginning with Oscar Wilde, and extending through Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust and Jean Genet (all of whom are the subjects of acclaimed biographies by White), as well as Christopher Isherwood (with whom White has important affinities, not least in terms of autobiographical method) and even more contemporary writers like Augusten Burroughs (whose respective portraits of his divorced parents owe something, in terms of retrospective irony and scabrous wit, to White’s earlier explorations of familial dysfunction and Oedipal desire run amok).

If, on occasion, White has been critiqued for the too-painful honesty of these works, for failing to set limits on what—or who (including the dead)—can and cannot be talked about in fiction and prose memoir (near the end of The Farewell Symphony, for instance, we are told by the narrator that he can’t tell the story of his lover Brice’s passing—and of the “angry hateful” final words uttered by him—only to get a version of this very story, albeit with the names changed, three years later from White in The Married Man, which serves as a kind of coda to the series); if, in other words, White’s resolute refusal to censor himself as a writer sometimes strikes a raw nerve, it needs to be noted that White always reserves his harshest scrutiny for his fictional alter-egos: the betrayal of his music teacher, Mr. Beattie, at the end of A Boy’s Own Story, for example, is clearly shown to emerge from the narrator’s own self-loathing; and for sheer self-exposure nothing quite matches the frank portrait of White’s own unruly desires on offer in the “My Master” section of My Lives. Just as the portraits of the bitchy and narcissistic Baron de Charlus, the flighty Duchesse de Guermentes, the social-climbing Madame Verdurin, the feckless Charlie Morel, and the dissembling Albertine and Robert de Saint-Loup in Proust’s Recherche tell us more about the guileless Marcel than they do about a social set he at once sees himself above and apart from, so do White’s at times barely disguised versions of the more outrageous denizens of a gay Faubourg Saint-Germain scene of 1970s and 1980s New York serve as an indexical accounting of his own place in the world and his responsibilities (including their paradoxes and shortcomings) to others. And just as Marcel discovers in the library of the Princesse de Guermentes at the end of the Recherche that it is only through literature and art that one can stop Time and reorder memory, so too does White suggest at the end of The Farewell Symphony that writing offers a way of completing the work of mourning.

Saying what cannot or what is not supposed to be said in fiction is not just part of a self-consciously queer writerly aesthetic; it is also, for White, part of a readerly ethic, a way of speaking to and hailing a community of readers who will recognize in the address a shared connection. As White explains, again near the end of The Farewell Symphony, “I wanted to see if the old ambition of fiction, to say the most private, uncoded, previously unformulated things, might still work, might once again collar a stranger, look him in the eye, might demand sympathy from this unknown person but also give him sympathy in return. These secret meetings—unpredictable, subversive—of reader and writer were all I lived for.” In other words, literature as a form of cruising.

I have been enjoying secret, unpredictable, subversive meetings with the writing of Edmund White for more than two decades now: from his early experiments in allegorical fantasy and baroque style (Nocturnes for the King of Naples, Forgetting Elena, Caracole) to his more recent explorations of historical meta-fiction (Fanny: A Fiction and Hotel de Dream, about the lost gay masterpiece by the tubercular American writer Stephen Crane, and the role a capricious and moralistic Henry James might have played in losing it); from his pioneering contributions in queer ethnography and self-help (States of Desire: Travels Across Gay America and the first edition of The Joy of Gay Sex) to his equally important work in a genre it only seems appropriate to call the city memoir (Our Paris: Sketches from Memory, written with Hubert Sorin, The Flâneur, and the forthcoming City Boy); from the Francophilia that dominates his choices of biographical subject (the aforementioned Genet, Proust, and Rimbaud) to the steadfast and stalwart Americanness that comes out in the biographical portraits of Uncle Ed on offer in nephew Keith Fleming’s The Boy with the Thorn in His Side and Original Youth: The Real Story of Edmund White’s Boyhood. I have thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of these private literary encounters with Edmund White, and it is a pleasure and a thrill to finally be making his public acquaintance here at Little Sister’s—where so much of that work was purchased.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Free Speech Ain't Cheap

As if Vancouverites needed any further evidence of the how far we have collectively sold our souls to VANOC and the IOC with respect to the Olympics. Kudos to Mark Hasiuk at the Vancouver Courier for exposing UBC and making this an issue.


Dancing on the Edge of Library Square

It looks like I'm not going to get to very much of the Dancing on the Edge Festival this year. Performances wrap up this weekend, and I've got too many other commitments right now. Still, I did manage to catch Paul-André Fortier's performance of Solo 30X30 yesterday evening at Library Sqaure. Fortier has performed the piece around the world, and as part of his current residency at the Scotiabank Dance Centre (where he performed Cabane last month) he is collaborating with Dancing on the Edge to stage it here in Vancouver. The work's conceit is simple: every day for 30 days Fortier performs a rehearsed dance solo of 30 minutes at the same time in the same outdoor urban location. In Vancouver's case, it's the Robson Street plaza/concourse outside the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library at 5:15 pm.

My student Alana will likely have much more insightful things to say about 30X30 in relation to site-specificity, public performance, urban space, and place as pause (which I will duly report), so I won't bore readers with my own analysis here. Instead, I'll just leave you with some pictures instead:


Theatre Down Under

Just back from Australia, where the marathoning was disappointing and painful (2 minutes off my target time and a throbbing right leg throughout due to a calf injury sustained two days before), but the scuba diving fantastic and awe-inspiring (nothing like making the Great Barrier Reef the site of one's first dive).

As for the theatre in Sydney, it was hit and miss. A preview performance of Martin Crimp's latest one-act play, The City, at the Sydney Theatre Company's Wharf 2 stage was underwhelming. A cross between Pinter (the fact that Chris becomes a butcher after losing his job is a dead giveaway) and the more metatheatrical Pirandello, the play situates family dysfunction within a surreal and symbolical framework of literary invention. Opening with translator Claire's story of a foreign author's abandonment of his child, the play ends by suggesting that Claire has appropriated both the story and the child (who makes an appearance at one point, playing the piano and reciting dirty limericks) as her own. A not terribly original linking of biological and literary procreation made all the more confusing by the seemingly pointless introduction of the Jenny character, a nurse/neighbour who totters precariously around a stage made up of a series of steep risers on high heels. The adult performers were all very sharp, but the child actor could not project, and she seemed unsure of how to negotiate the obstacle-course-of-a-stage. My exhaustion at trying to follow the plot was compounded by jet lag and an overheated auditorium, and not surprisingly I found myself nodding off towards the end of what was only an 80-minute performance.

Much better was Company B's production of Ruben Guthrie at the Belvoir Street Theatre the next evening (Company B and BST originated the revival of Ionesco's Exit the King with Geoffrey Rush that recently played on Broadway). Brendan Cowell's corrosive exploration of youthful success and excess, the play focuses on the eponymous Ruben, a whiz-kid advertising executive whose over-indulgent penchant for booze and pills leads to him thinking he can fly one particular evening. A chastened Ruben, having lost his Czech model girlfriend as a result of this latest antic, agrees to join a recovery program. As Ruben gradually internalizes, with help from his sponsor (who eventually becomes his new girlfriend), the lessons of AA, he starts to alienate friends and family: his father, himself an alcoholic, who thinks it's un-Australian to refuse a drink; his mother, who after encouraging him to join AA in the first place now thinks the program has turned him into a zombie; his boss, who claims Ruben has lost his creative spark now that he's sober; and his best friend, newly returned from New York and wondering what pod person has suddenly replaced his former drinking mate. Sharply paced and bitingly funny, the production features a career-making performance by Toby Schmitz as Ruben. I now understand why people say Company B is Australia's leading theatre company.

I had booked to see another play, The Elling, at STC my last night in Sydney, but then I injured my calf, so I opted to rest in my hotel room instead. A fat lot of good that did me two days later on the Gold Coast.

Oh well, at least the coral and fish were pretty.