Thursday, January 30, 2014

PuSh 2014: Have I No Mouth (Excerpt)

Last night the Dublin theatre company Brokentalkers took a break from the tech rehearsal for their show Have I No Mouth to share an excerpt from the work with members of PuSh's Patrons Circle. The excerpt began with a short super-8 film composed of several shots of empty or half-empty Guinness glasses. We soon learn from Feidlim Cannon, one of the creators and performers of the piece, that he made the film as a memorial to his dead father, shooting the pint glass in successive spots that reminded him of his dad.

If this opening seems a somewhat unusual way to work through the loss of a loved one, consider the fact that for the remainder of the show Cannon appears on stage with his real-life mother, Ann, and with their psychotherapist, Erich--who is there to help mother and son process the complicated layers of their grief over a death, we eventually learn, that could have been prevented. In doing so, Erich employs several visualization exercises that happen to dovetail nicely with devised theatre practice more generally: he asks Ann to choose several objects that remind her of her husband; he instructs audience members on how to relax and breathe more deeply in their seats; and he asks us to fill the balloon we each received upon entering the theatre with our negative energy, and then to slowly release the air in a long whine by holding and stretching the neck of the balloon.

At the brief artist's talk that PuSh Artistic and Executive Director Norman Armour led with Ann, Feidlim, Erich and director Gary Keegan, I asked about the ethical negotiations involved in the creation of a play in which client-therapist privilege is largely thrown out the window. We learned that Erich was originally brought on as a sort of professional outside eye, to advise with the representation of trauma and familial grief on stage; however, Brokentalkers founders Cannon and Keegan quickly realized that the piece would be that much stronger if Erich were part of the action on stage. So the "therapy" we witness is actually coincident with the devising of the play, and nothing was used unless it was agreed upon by all members of the process.

Judging by what I heard last night, this process takes Ann and Feidlim (and presumably the audience) to some very dark places indeed. I only regret that my schedule prevents me from seeing the results.

Have I No Mouth opens at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island tonight and runs through Saturday evening.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

PuSh 2014: Usually Beauty Fails

I have a new dance crush. The fact that he also plays in a rock band only adds to his allure.

Dancer, choreographer, guitarist, singer, and conceptual raconteur Frédérick Gravel has brought his fist-pumping, foot-stomping multi-media pop extravaganza Usually Beauty Fails to the Fei and Milton Wong Theatre at SFU Woodward's as part of the PuSh Festival for three nights, in a co-presentation with DanceHouse and 149 Arts Society. Raw and intense, much like an underground rave let loose on a proscenium stage, the work is also punctuated by quieter moments that are at times achingly tender and, yes, very beautiful.

As audience members file to their seats, we hear a driving, though muffled bass beat. Two musicians fiddle with computers and mixers upstage. Meanwhile, the dancers (three women and three men, including Gravel) finish their warm-ups and begin massing together in a group downstage left. They start silently nodding and swaying to the music, all the while staring out at the audience--the cool club kids come to challenge all of us sedentary wallflowers. Uh-oh, I first thought--it's Jérôme Bel's The Show Must Go On all over again. But then the house lights go down and the music gets turned up and the dancers start shooting their bodies backwards, arms flying out horizontally, legs breaking at the knee as they drop first one limb and then another to the floor, just barely avoiding a pile-up of bodies upstage before marching purposefully downstage to start their backwards trajectories all over again. The sequence is then repeated stage right, almost like a kind of reverse moshing.

After this high-energy opening, the first of many surprises: a gorgeous duet between the tallest of the male dancers and the smallest of the women. Circling each other initially like wary teenagers, the couple comes together in a series of clinches and lifts and swooning head buts that somehow suggest just how much is at stake--emotionally and physically--in the type and length of each successive touch or embrace. The romantic ante is upped considerably by the love song that accompanies the dancers, the first of several indie-style ballads offered up throughout the evening in which Gravel turns down the volume and, as he puts it just before a subsequent downstage acoustic number, presents his ensemble in a more "vulnerable" light.

For the multi-talented Gravel doesn't just dance, play guitar and harmonica, and sing as part of this piece; he also tells us several highly self-reflexive stories, starting with what it means to present a work like this to a new audience (he likens the experience to worrying about how one's date will behave at a party) and later musing on the concept of time, and how it's more valuable than money because once it's spent--as, for example, at a show such as his--you can never get it back. In these moments, and in the solo he has choreographed for himself--in which he contorts his skinny, pigeon-toed legs into an array of spidery poses--Gravel presents us with an utterly charming persona, the nerdily hip (and hipless) artsy boy from high school who wins everyone over because his awkwardness manages to appear sincere and ironic all at once. At the same time, Gravel--who also at one point ruminates aloud on the possible meaning of the piece's title--is resisting, through various shifts in tone and the overall episodic structure of the work, our urge to make things cohere aesthetically. As that title in fact attests, his is an anti-aesthetic, one that defies representational categories and eschews the impulse towards critical judgement. How else to explain the virtuosic--and utterly compelling--mash-up of a Bach violin concerto and a corps de rock of swiveling pelvises in the middle of the piece?

Consider as well, in this respect, the use of nudity in Usually Beauty Fails. At first it is presented as full-on rock star provocation, as the dancers, strutting and gyrating to a particularly explosive number from the band, start peeling off items of clothing with wild abandon. But then the music cuts out and the dancers, exposed and looking sheepish, quickly cover up, as if they have been caught by their parents doing something especially embarrassing. When, later on, we are confronted with a much more explicit display of naked bodies, there is, crucially, no music: two dancers, one male and one female, face each other downstage. They matter-of-factly peel their pants and underwear down to their ankles and proceed, slowly and deliberately, to grope each other's genitals. The effect is the opposite of erotic; if anything, it is humorous and absurdly clinical.

Not everything in the evening is a success. The ending, in particular, felt a little scattered and diffuse. Announcing that it's time for things to get a bit more formal, Gravel, his dancers, and the other two musicians then change into suits and dresses. They bring out plastic champagne flutes and pour each other, the guys in the tech booth, and a few lucky audience members some bubbly rosé. And then, basically, they just loll about. Until Gravel and one of the other female dancers slowly hook up--or try to hook up, their slippery, faltering attempts to grab onto each other's arms and waists and find something akin to a waltz step reminding me of two drunken, lovelorn souls who've stayed too long at a party, or the last exhausted partners at a depression-era dance marathon, desperately trying to stay on their feet and in contact with one another in order to win the prize. I found the sequence--both its pathos and its duration--captivating. But then the remaining dancers also partner up and we get two more successive variations on the same sequence, this time with each of the female dancers leaping over and over again into their male partners' arms.

I would have preferred if things had ended with the first couple. But I also understand--and appreciate--what Gravel is doing in undermining my desire for aesthetic closure. Performance, like beauty, doesn't end; it just goes on and on until it stops.

Usually Beauty Fails continues through this Thursday; it's not to be missed.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

PuSh 2014: Mixtape

Back before mp3 players and iTunes' Genius™ playlist function, there were Walkmans and the mixed tape, a cassette recording of one's favourite songs made to play in the car with your friends on the way to a party (AC/DC or Queen, anyone?), or to commemorate a break-up (hello Echo and the Bunnymen). I can remember spending hours and hours building up my own collection, much of it compiled by borrowing other tapes from my friends, first listening to a song, then rewinding and, most thrillingly, pressing record and play together on the second cassette deck. It was a laborious process, but at the time it seemed so utterly meaningful, each chosen song marking in some profound way a moment in my angst-ridden teen years.

For kids today, however, the term "mixed tape" doesn't even signify. This according to Music on Main Artistic Director David Pay, who has brought in musicians Gabriel Kahane and Timo Andres in a co-presentation with the PuSh Festival called Mixtape (all one word), which debuted last night at Heritage Hall and continues there for one more performance this evening. The show applies the principles behind my teenaged basement recordings to the live concert hall, with two pianos, four hands, and one voice moving seamlessly between works by Thomas Adès, Robert Schumann, and Franz Schubert, among others. Kahane and Andres, who weren't even born when I started making my first mixed tapes, and who reminded me of a younger and hipper Penn and Teller (one is tall, the other short; one is verbose, the other mostly tight-lipped), are also accomplished composers with their own solo careers. Thus, the concert was also liberally sprinkled with excerpts from their own repertoires. These included three stunning piano solos by Andres, who has an amazingly intuitive feel for the keys, and several songs by Kahane, who in addition to being classically trained also writes pop music in the vein of an Elbow or a Bon Iver. There was even a connection to a past PuSh hit, as Kahane performed two witty works from a suite called Craigslistlieder.

This mixed portion of the concert was framed by a prologue and epilogue that mirrored each other, comprised as they both were of two György Kurtág piano transcriptions of J.S. Bach (with the boys seated together at a single piano) and a series of vernacular folk songs by Benjamin Britten and Charles Ives. Impeccably played and sung, these opening and closing movements are just one indication of how carefully Kahane and Andres have conceived their program--and how thoroughly enjoyable it was to listen to.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

PuSh 2014: Night

It was a strange, yet thoroughly satisfying, case of day for Night this afternoon as I forsook the beautiful southern BC sunshine in Vancouver in order to plunge into the arctic darkness of Nunuvut's Pond Inlet, as imagined by the Toronto-based theatre company Human Cargo.

Written and directed by Christopher Morris, and featuring a stellar cast of four who perform the text in English and Inuktitut, Night--which plays the PuSh Festival through this Sunday in a co-presentation with Touchstone Theatre--is about many things, not the least of which is the opacity of bones, and what per force remains unknowable about the lives and stories and cultures of others. This is a lesson Daniella (Linnea Swan) learns the hard way; she is a white anthropologist from Toronto who has come to Pond Inlet in order to repatriate the bones of Lemeac Auqsaq, who was removed from the community during a TB outbreak several decades earlier. Having died in the south, his remains were promptly acquired by a museum for forensic research purposes. Daniella is returning the bones against the express wishes of the institution she works for and, she thinks, at the bidding of Lemeac's granddaughter, Piuyuq (Tiffany Ayalik), who happens to share the patriarch's name. But it turns out the email Daniella received came from Piuyuq's best friend, Gloria (Reneltta Arluk), who in an effort to escape the nightmare existence of her own home life is seeking with this gesture to reconcile Piuyuq with her father Jako (Jonathan Fisher), who in addition to never having said goodbye to his father has also recently lost his wife in a tragic accident for which Piuyuq blames him.

Needless to say, the happy and harmonious repatriation ceremony Daniella imagined does not come to pass, and the differently situated good intentions of the outsider anthropologist and the insider best friend lead to a spiralling set of recriminations that inevitably ends in tragedy. And yet the play eschews both empty pathos and easy solutions, prompting hard questions about what it means for southern Canadians to give up their paternalistic attitudes about life in the north (and what, instead, might replace those attitudes), as well as what it means for Indigenous northerners not to get buried under the weight of an inherited victimhood. This mutually reinforcing dialectic was brought out in the talkback following the performance, in which Ayalik talked about the youth suicide rate in Nunuvut (40 times the national average) alongside the ongoing cultural vibrancy of the community.

As compelling as Night is in terms of content, its formal construction and design elements also merit comment. At a tight 75 minutes, the play's action never flags, something aided immeasurably by the movement-based transitions between scenes, just one aspect of an overall physical score that enhances the text by tapping into a different, kinaesthetic quality of an audience's empathetic identification. Then, too, there is the amazing lighting design by Michelle Ramsay, that somehow manages to convey the light that, as again was alluded to in the talkback, is always a part of the arctic dark. Couple this with an immersive soundscore by Lyon Smith and Gillian Gallow's simple yet symbolically suggestive set, and you have the ossuary bones (to come back to my opening metaphor) of all great theatre--which is always about what disappears. And what remains.


PuSh 2014: Tucked and Plucked and FUSE

Leave it to the PuSh Festival to coordinate a PuSh Passholder appreciation event at which one is more likely to be insulted than praised. Such was the case last night at the Club, where those bad bitches from East Van, Isolde N. Barron (aka Cameron Mackenzie) and her wife Peach Cobblah (Dave Deveau) held court in Tucked and Plucked, their sassy "herstory" of the drag scene in Vancouver from the 1960s to the present.

Isolde and Peach each dazzle in a solo musical number--Isolde in classic drag diva fashion to Shirley Bassey's Let's Get this Party Started and Peach rocking it out to the more contemporary stylings of Nicki Minaj--and together they go through enough sequins, fishnets, and paint to costume more than a dozen Liza look-a-likes. However, the show is mostly devoted, à la Oprah or Ellen, to on-stage interviews with three past Empresses of the Dogwood Monarchist Society, the organization that has presided over drag coronations in this city for the past 42 years. We hear from Mona Regina Lee about the early origins of the Society and what it was like, under BC's antiquated liquor laws (and pre the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada) for queers to gather together in bottle clubs; from three-time Empress Myria Le Noir (who did a stand-out number to a slowed-down version of that drag standard I Will Survive) about the DMS's important charitable work during the early days of AIDS; and from the legendary Joan-E about dishing with Debbie Reynolds during the filming of Connie and Carla.

Then it was off to the Vancouver Art Gallery for FUSE: The Push Festival Edition. The place was packed and we arrived just in time to catch an excerpt from the 605 Collective's The Inheritor Album, the full version of which we'll see at the Dance Centre at the end of the month. I had hoped to get up to the fourth floor to see Forest Fringe in collaboration with Tim Etchells; however, I got waylaid by the Muntadas show Entre/Between, which was simply fascinating.

And, of course, there were far too many people to talk to. Kudos to VAG Curator of Public Programs and all-round friend of PuSh, Vanessa Kwan, for putting such a fantastic event together. Vanessa and her collective Norma will be appearing at Club PuSh tonight in Swan Song (for Cats); it is to be the farewell performance for the troupe and will feature, among many other things, musical accompaniment by Veda Hille.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

PuSh 2014: Seeds

Porte Parole's Seeds, on at the Freddy Wood Theatre in a PuSh Festival co-presentation with Theatre at UBC, is a documentary play by Annabel Soutar based on Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser's four-year legal battle with biotech giant Monsanto Inc. In 1997, having found Monsanto's genetically modified "Roundup Ready" canola growing near his farm, Schmeiser sprayed his own crop. When much of that crop survived, he realized Monsanto's seed had gotten on to his land; he then harvested this seed and replanted it. That's when Monsanto came calling, arguing that he was using Monsanto's patented technology without a license and that he should pay a fee just like all the other farmers in the area who planted its seed. Schmeiser refused, claiming that since the seed had blown onto his land, it belonged to him. But Monsanto, having conducted its own tests (whether legally or not is unclear) on Schmeiser's crops, said there was no way so much seed could have made its way onto the farmer's land unless he had purchased and planted it surreptitiously. They sued and won. And that's when things really got interesting.

First staged in 2005, this production of Seeds was updated in 2012 in collaboration with Crow's Theatre's Chris Abraham, who directs the show. Based on trial transcripts and interviews with Schmeiser, fellow farmers, executives at Monsanto, and experts in biology and agricultural science, out of her verbatim text Soutar has crafted a play at once suspenseful and philosophical. For example, following Schmeiser's loss of his initial case (which he eventually appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada), public opinion and media interest in the story shifted from whether or not the farmer was trying to shaft Monsanto to a debate on genetically modified food more generally, and why the Canadian government had okayed its introduction into our agricultural industry without public consultation (especially following bans in the EU and elsewhere). This leads our interviewer-narrator (Lisa Repo-Martell) on a search for the very meaning of life itself, one which upends, among other things, the received wisdom around Watson and Crick's double-helix theory of DNA. However, it's a credit to Soutar that she never loses sight of the initial mystery about whether or not Schmeiser conspired to dupe Monsanto about where the seed came from. No easy David vs. Goliath story (despite what one of Schmeiser's supporters states in the play), there is just enough ambiguity surrounding Schmeiser's background in his community, and his overall motives once global interest in his case takes off, to make him a suitably flawed protagonist. In his performance, the legendary Eric Peterson taps into this, moving from aw-shucks rube to savvy media celebrity to intimidating heavy with layered subtlety.

The rest of the cast is equally compelling in multiple roles and the multi-media production is snappily directed by Abraham, with just enough stage business and surprising effects to keep our interest from flagging. And it is a credit to Soutar's talents as a playwright that we never feel like we're being lectured--or hectored. My only major criticism concerns the direct address to the audience by our narrator at the end. It feels a bit weak and flat, as if Soutar didn't quite know how to end things. Which is, I guess, in keeping with the story of life itself.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

PuSh 2014: L.A. Party/An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk

In L.A. Party/An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk, on at SFU Woodward's Studio T through this Saturday as part of the PuSh Festival, New York's Phil Soltanoff presents two monologues that are as interesting for the ways in which they are delivered as for their content.

L.A. Party focuses on the adventures of a radical raw food vegan from New York who, after years spent purifying his body of toxins, falls off the wagon in spectacular fashion at his cousin Dave's 30th birthday party in the City of Angels (and the reversal of the usual bi-coastal stereotypes is just one of the work's many delicious ironies). One beer leads to another, and then to some weed, and then some shrooms, and finally two or three bumps of coke. Before we know it our narrator, now a very long way from his former chemically-free self, and urged on by his dudest-of-dudes cousin, is giving himself over to orgiastic abandon at a warehouse rave that culminates in a virtuosic display of multi-lingual logorrhea by Soltanoff at the mike.

That mike sits downstage right, with Soltanoff seated (his back to the audience) at a music stand filled with a sheaf of pages. As he reads from these pages, a downstage left video camera films the face of one of Soltanoff's male collaborators lying on the floor underneath it; this face, which is lip-synching along to the monologue, is then projected onto the masked face--and occasionally the stomach--of another female collaborator seated upstage centre, who is also lip-synching along to the monologue. It's a stunning amalgam of embodied and technological precision that parallels the hallucinogenic out-of-body journey our narrator is on.

Following a brief intermission, the audience returns to the theatre to find three video screens showing static. The left and right screens are also physically static. But the middle monitor is on wheels. The woman who operated the camera in L.A. Party, now dressed all in black, takes a seat upstage and the lights dim. What follows is a video essay on art and science (how they are different, who can do them, why they are part of what makes us human, and what each has to say about the future) comprised of thousands of split-second clips of William Shatner as Captain Kirk from the original Star Trek series. As these clips are displayed on the central, moveable monitor, accompanying text appears on the left- and right-side panels. Our black-clad supernumerary moves the central monitor backwards and forwards, diagonally to the right and left, and so on, adding an accompanying choreographic score to the sound- and image-bites, and at times also illustrating some of Shatner/Kirk's more arcane points.

Again, it's another virtuosic feat of audio and visual synching and one marvels at the labour that must have gone into the creation of the work. It's certainly exhausting to watch, but in a way that rewards the close attention the piece demands, our synapses fired not just by the many incongruously humorous images of Kirk and the Enterprise crew being thrown at us, but also by the very persuasive philosophical treatise built out of them.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

PuSh 2014: Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First

Tim Etchells' 60-minute monologue Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First was performed last night by Jim Fletcher at the just-opened Fox Cabaret on Main Street as part of this year's PuSh Assembly line-up of sidebar industry talks, workshops, and performance events. The work is an apparent random assemblage of declarative statements, some of them proven and contiguous truths ("The earth takes a year to circle the sun," "A year has 365 days"), many more of them merely accepted and seemingly unrelated ones ("You can't stop people from dancing," "Women are attracted to men with a sense of humour").

A series of topic sentences without the discursive elaboration or interpretive support we expect in conversation or essay writing, the piece thus accrues its power iteratively and citationally. Cottoning on to the form of the piece very quickly, we are primed to wait for and then seize upon each successive utterance--the banal and the profound, the trivial and the homilitic in equal measure--registering their significance not in terms of their content, but rather their recognizability. And thus, perhaps, do we register our world, defining it in terms of what we already know (or think we know, or have been told we should know) rather than what we might yet discover.

In this respect, I was very struck by how the piece plays with a kind of philosophy of scale. In our ever accelerating information age, where we are bombarded with mega-bytes of data every day (and the corresponding algorithms, usually supplied by Apple or Amazon, to explain how we should use that data), we turn to the minutiae of daily existence to navigate the pathways of our lives. And out of this, as Etchells here suggests, we construct our own Causobon-like Key to All Mythologies.

A powerful work and a great way to launch this new venue.


Monday, January 20, 2014

PuSh 2014: Sunday Roast

On a night when it would have otherwise been dark, many of us in the extended PuSh family gathered at the Club last night to share in a Sunday roast. This roast, as host Sara Bynoe reminded us, was not the kind that would be accompanied by mashed potatoes and gravy and yorkshire pudding. Rather, it would come with comedic barbs, ego-deflating put-downs, general lewdness, and mild offense in the service of what and whom we love the most. A version, in other words, of the classic Friars Club Roasts of Hollywood celebrities or, more recently, Comedy Central's somewhat more vicious and vulgar revival of the genre for our media-saturated age.

The roasters included playwright, reviewer, and teacher Kathleen Oliver; lawyer and first PuSh Board President Ken Manning; writer, performer, and scholar Alex Ferguson; Theatre Replacement Co-Artistic Director James Long; and singer-songwriter Thom Jones (of Woody Sed rather than hip-swiveling, panty-catching fame). The primary roastee was, inevitably, our beloved Artistic and Executive Director Norman Armour, who sat at a table all his own adjacent the stage and soaked it all in (and also gave a bit back) with warmth and good humour. The jibes ranged from riffs on Norman's challenges with typography (Oliver) to the opacity (Jones) and geographical exclusivity (Long) of some of his programming to his legendary prolixity (everyone). Noting that all roasts seemed to require a preponderance of penis jokes, Ferguson built his contribution around the "staircase" in Norman's pants--a rich and ribald allegory of past PuSh shows that one had to hear to believe.

Of course there were other targets for the satire emanating from the stage. Most prominent in this respect were DK, our Production Manager (who I don't think was even in attendance), and Minna Schendlinger, our dear departing Managing Director, who took to the microphone herself at the end of the festivities to serenade Norman with a song that, in true backhanded fashion, was all about how much she has meant to him over the past eight years. Truer words were never uttered.

Week 2 of the Festival promises to be just as jam-packed with unmissable shows as the first: Tim Etchells' Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First at the newly renovated Fox Cabaret on Main Street tonight; Phil Soltanoff's LA Party/An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk at SFU Woodward's Studio T starting on Tuesday; Port Parole's Seeds at UBC's Freddy Wood starting on Wednesday; amazing acts at the Club. And so much more.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

PuSh 2014: Gob Squad's Kitchen

It’s the end of the first week of PuSh, and momentum is definitely building. Last night we had three sold-out, or nearly sold-out shows, two of them in large venues: Gob Squad’s Kitchen at the Fei and Milton Wong, SFU Woodward’s; Danse Lhasa Danse at the Chan Centre (1200 seats!); and A Brimful of Asha at the Revue Stage on Granville Island. This in addition to the final performance of The Pixelated Revolution at SFU Woodward’s Studio T and, of course, Club PuSh, where Calgary’s Woodpigeon joined forces with the Coastal Sound Youth Choir for back-to-back performances

Much as one would like, one can’t be everywhere at once, and so from the above smorgasbord of choice, Richard and I opted for Kitchen. A live video and theatrical recreation of several of Andy Warhol’s iconic Factory films, the piece asks what appears to be initially glib and then turns out to be quite profound questions about the relationship between liveness and documentation, reality and simulation, the past and the present. Entering the Wong Theatre single file via its backstage door, the audience encounters not just the members of the Gob Squad ensemble, but also the three makeshift sets on which their experiments will be played out. Once the piece begins, these sets are viewed as black and white projections on three side-by-side screens. In the middle, and comprising the main focus of attention, is the kitchen of the title, in which the mustachioed Shaun and Edie Sedgwick-lookalike Sharon set about channeling the sexual energy of the swinging 60s in order to reenact as authentically as possible the action of Warhol’s original film. Except that the table cloth on the kitchen table is more 50s than 60s, and the foodstuffs they’ve stocked their shelves with have clearly come from Nester’s supermarket, and Shaun’s claim that he likes his coffee the way he likes his men—strong, hot, and black—is ridiculous and deliberately cringe-making in its comic hyperbole.

This is just the start of the mayhem unleashed as a result of the collective’s attempts to make sense of—and ideally make work for them—the ever-widening gap between themselves, the selves they are playing in 2014, and the selves those selves are supposed to be standing in for in 1965. For example, on the screen to the audience’s left of the central kitchen panel, Sarah is trying to sleep—in homage to Warhol’s seven-hour film of his slumbering lover John Giorno. But, as she explains to Shaun, she’s really only pretending to sleep. And so, by said logic, she somehow convinces him to pretend to be her pretending to sleep. Meanwhile, Simon, having completed his single take screen test on the audience right panel, says to Sharon that it’s her turn, and all she has to do is sit in front of the camera and “be herself.” Easier said than done for Sharon, who over the course of the next ten minutes proceeds to drape a number of scarves and other items of clothing about her, eventually putting a plastic bag over her head, which as she eventually says to a panicked Simon was just her playing, but which is nevertheless increasingly uncomfortable for us to watch as we see the bag fog up before us.

At first all of this is played very broadly and comically, and one thinks this is—to borrow a couple of terms from another Sedgwick, this one Eve Kosofsky—a slightly sneering, post-postmodern, “kitsch-attributive” response to material long recognized (and valued) as camp. And, it’s true, there is certainly a way in which the company’s fumbling attempts to figure out how a newly liberated gay male sexuality would have been played (apparently with outsized sunglasses, a white fur coat and an ersatz Brooklyn accent), or whose breasts—Sarah’s or Sharon’s—are more authentically feminist, or even how one would have danced back then—exposes some of the closed clique-iness and narcissism of Warhol’s self-anointing superstar world. But then, one by one, the Gob Squad players begin to break the cinematic frame, coming out from behind the projection screens to seek out audience avatars for their own on-screen personas. This adds yet another inevitable layer of mimeticism. But within this feedback loop—and what remains among the most moving aspects of the piece—these audience members are also allowed and indeed encouraged to play themselves, to translate their quotidian lives in the here and now into something timeless and mythic within the space of the camera’s frame.

And so it was in Shaun’s interactions with Fiona in Screen Test and Sarah’s with Jane in Sleep—and then, quite beautifully, in Kiss—that I was not only able to witness what of the revolutionary spirit of Warhol’s era remains today, but also how, through the remediating temporality of performance itself, we all have the potential to be superstars.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

PuSh 2014: Gender Failure at Club PuSh

Last night at Club PuSh writer and spoken word artist Ivan Coyote and musician Rae Spoon brought their inimitable mix of stories and song to bear on our binary gender system, reminding us in ways both heartbreaking and hilarious that their failure to fit within such a system is symptomatic of how limiting cis-gender categories are for all of us.

At the same time, as trans persons who both made a choice not to go on hormones (Rae, as a singer, in part for professional reasons; Ivan for more personal ones), the duo also emphasizes--sometimes separately, sometimes together--just how exhausting their negotiations of this system have been over the years. Slight, high-voiced, and incredibly youthful looking, Rae (who goes by the pronoun "they") could at best hope to be mistaken for an adolescent boy--which, as they wittily commented last night, is not such a put-down now that they are in their thirties. Meanwhile, in a powerful and moving and also extremely funny monologue, Ivan talked about her relationship with her breasts, and how after years of binding them--and following a rather disconcerting middle-aged "blooming" in their shape and size--she decided to have top surgery. Far from a simple procedure for someone who hasn't been on hormones, but who must still convince the medical establishment she is sufficiently "gender dysphoric" in order to get the $9,000 surgery covered.

Accompanied by the projected visual animation of Clyde Petersen (including a concluding sequence especially commissioned for the PuSh Festival), the show also sees Spoon and Coyote stretching themselves across each other's discipline: Spoon contributes more text than usual in Gender Failure, and Coyote, in addition to harmonizing with Spoon on the songs, also plays guitar, percussion, and keyboard harmonica.

A wise and witty show, and a wonderful way to open this year's Club.


Friday, January 17, 2014

PuSh 2014: The Quiet Volume

This year the PuSh Festival is once again partnering with the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library on two intimate and interactive shows, both of which launched today. Back from last year is the hugely popular Human Library, in which patrons get to check out a person (e.g. Born Again Christian, Transgender Woman) for a twenty minute conversation. Curated by Zee Zee Theatre's Dave Deveau (also our Youth Program Coordinator and, together with Cameron Mackenzie, one half of Tucked and Plucked at Club PuSh next Friday), the second floor sign-up table was hopping when I stopped by to say hello earlier this afternoon.

The traffic was a bit slower on the third floor, where UK artists Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells' The Quiet Volume is in residence for the next three weekends. But that will no doubt change as word of mouth spreads about this utterly involving and highly affective self-generated performance for two. Though it takes place indoors and one is sedentary and for the most part silent for its duration, in terms of sheer sensorial engagement (and especially its rethinking of the limits and possibilities of the visual sense), The Quiet Volume is this year's Do You See What I Mean? In other words, an experience you don't want to miss.

The piece begins with you and your partner each receiving a set of headphones and a mini-iPod, which have been designated "right" and "left" according to where you have been instructed to sit. In my case, as I did not book the show with someone I knew, I was partnered with one of PuSh's many gracious volunteers. We were both then led to a table with two sets of stacked books. After a while Ant Hampton's voice comes through the headphones, his opening disquisition on how unquiet most libraries actually are coinciding with my gradual and accretive registering of the ambient soundscape: the shufflings of the patrons at the desks opposite us; the person clacking away at a computer keyboard at my left; the man having a very open and very loud conversation on his cellphone. At the same time, Hampton's voice has a seductive lilt, and soon I am drawn into the story he is telling.

Which turns out to be a story about the performative act of reading, of what it means to translate this normally solitary, interior, and visually-oriented activity (at least post the invention of print) into a public and shared experience of felt witnessing--in which reading (from) the same book becomes as much about marking (quite literally) the impression of another's hand on the page as absorbing the words on that page. This is demonstrated through a set of tactile encounters with your fellow reader, beginning with an instruction to place your palm on a blank page and then discreetly signal to your partner by raising a finger. Later our respective hands fly through the pages of another book as first one of us and then another is told to flip to page 295 or 172 or 67, and then to find X- or Y-word half-way or two-thirds of the way down the page, and then finally to begin following the text with our index finger as the words are repeated for us in our headphones.

Except that the words on the page don't exactly correspond to the words we hear in our ears: there are subtle substitutions, or some words are skipped over altogether. This oral/aural corruption of the printed text is just noticeable enough to suggest, again, that content and meaning are less important in this case than the responsibility of tracing for our fellow reader the material outline of ink on fibre--as if to lift that finger would be to sunder not just the prosthetic connection one has established between body and text (and here thinking about the experience of reading an electronic tablet is wholly applicable) but, by extension, the body of the other whose finger takes over where yours leaves off. All of this culminates in a final moment of peripheral reading and parallel pointing: instructed to bring our respective notebooks together, my partner and I then read from each other's pages, while simultaneously moving our fingers across and down our own pages at the pace we presume the other is reading.

There are so many wonderful surprises in this piece, not the least of which is the fact that out of the three published books (one of them is José Saragamo's Blindness) from which we are variously instructed to read there actually emerges a fairly coherent narrative. And, most affecting for me, is that out of this narrative one is also gifted a word--the outline of which one is first instructed to memorize and then make disappear, only to conjure it up again letter by letter--that remains as your private impression (in all senses of that word) of this public act of reading.

Not just for bibliophiles, this is a work for anyone who believes in the power of performance to transform the way one sees the world around you. Get your tickets now.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

PuSh 2014: The Pixelated Revolution

Rabih Mroué, who brought his Looking for a Missing Employee to the 2012 PuSh Festival, is back this year with The Pixelated Revolution, on at SFU Woodward's Studio T through this Saturday. Like the earlier work, this new piece is a lecture-performance; Mroué sits at a table downstage right, a MacBook to his right, a small desk lamp illuminating a sheaf of pages. As Mroué reads from this text, he projects images from the laptop onto the upstage wall. But whereas in Looking the artist told the story of the disappearance of a low-level functionary in the Lebanese government bureaucracy (and his possible ties to an emerging financial scandal) by stitching together his traces in print media, this time around Mroué is concerned with digital images, examining a series of cell-phone videos from the Syrian revolution uploaded to the Internet since 2011.

Mroué's central thesis is that the gun and the cell-phone camera--as prosthetic extensions of the person wielding each--are species of the same technology, and therefore locked in an endless battle in which neither can stop shooting. He illustrates this, most harrowingly, through two video sequences in which we witness two individuals filming with cell-phone cameras capturing themselves being fired upon--once by a rifle, and once by a tank. Mroué makes a persuasive case for why, in both instances, the filmers don't turn away: in the same way that the screen in the theatre auditorium mediates our experience of what we are watching (reassuring us, for example, that the bullets won't fly through it and at us), so does the cell-phone camera, held at a distance from the eye, function as a similar kind of screen for the person holding it. As an only mildly reassuring corollary to this, Mroué also suggests that just as in this "double shooting" the cell-phone videographer can't stop watching, the fact that we are now watching this watching means that he or she has survived--otherwise the footage would not have found its way onto the Internet.

This is just one of many stunning claims the artist makes in the course of the 60-minute show, including a breathtaking reading of the tripod--adjunct to a network's seamless image and a sniper's bullet arc--as the symbol of state stability and government orthodoxy. But if, as Mroué somberly concludes at the end of his piece, the shaky, fuzzy hand-held images collected via cell phones throughout the Arab Spring have not proven enough to secure the people's revolution, just like the thousands of tiny pixels that comprise each frame, together they accumulate to provide a record of the attempt--and, ideally, an incitement (on everyone's part) not to betray that attempt.

Accompanying Mroué's show is an exhibition called Nothing to Lose at the grunt gallery, on through February 8. Together with Tim Etchells, he is also one of two featured artists-in-residence at this year's Festival, and will be giving several workshops and talks (including as part of the PuSh Assembly) over the next two weeks. Full details at


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

PuSh 2014: Super Night Shot

So the party got started in a big way last night: the 10th anniversary celebrations of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival kicked off at the Playhouse with Gob Squad's Super Night Shot. An arts collective based in the UK and Germany, Gob Squad have toured this piece to six continents, performing it more than 200 times. In each case, the premise and parameters are the same, though the changing location--and especially the people encountered there--always means that the results will be unique.

An hour before the performance begins, four members of Gob Squad turn on their Sony digital cameras, synchronize their watches, and introduce their roles in the film they are about to collectively shoot on the streets of Vancouver. One of them--Simon--has been elected to play the hero in the film, the aim of which is not merely to capture a real-time representation of the city, but also, in the process, to "declare a war anonymity." To this end, another member of the quartet has been tasked with finding among the citizens of Vancouver a romantic co-star for Simon, someone who--regardless of age or gender or ethnicity--will agree to kiss our hero (or at the very least his rabbit mask) at the climax of the film. A third member's job is to do advance publicity for the film, which involves pasting cut-out images of Simon's face on various available surfaces and, in one memorable sequence, announcing the film's premiere to the packed diners in a trendy restaurant (the Flying Pig, I think it was). Finally, a location scout is sent in search of the perfect spot for the film's concluding clinch; since none of our four intrepid filmmakers ever really leaves Gastown, this of course turns out to be the steam clock at the corner of Water and Abbott.

There are some rules governing all of this mayhem: the cameras must continue to roll for the duration of the film, with no cuts allowed; and the film has to look good, a dictum easier said than done given that each of the four members serve as their own crew, holding their cameras--mounted on mini-tripods--in front of them as they walk the streets of Gastown. Occasionally the performers set the cameras down on the ground and interrupt their vérité shoot with some Busby Berkeley-style bits of song and dance--quite literally in the case of a group rap and an homage to Singin' in the Rain (though, ironically, last night Vancouver's skies were clear). Obviously, then, the conceptual parameters of the piece allow the performers some control over its outcome. At the same time, their various contingent encounters with the people whose paths they cross--some of whom are suspicious and brusque, others of whom are highly voluble and wonderfully garrulous--reflect back to us some necessary (because instantly recognizable) shocks to our collective civic nervous system. Simon, wanting to do good, encounters a homeless man early on and offers to buy him something to eat at the local supermarket; but soon after the man has convinced him that he can best help him out by buying him some ciders at the liquor store. And near the conclusion of  the film, looking to redistribute, as instructed, the wealth (in this case a toonie) he has managed to collect from a single passer-by, Simon places the money in the cup of a panhandler who says he'll use it to buy a beer.

Meanwhile, our casting agent is getting anxious because they're approaching the end of the film and he still hasn't found someone to kiss Simon. Mercifully, he comes upon a group of friends whom I took to be foreign language students (an interesting comment on the economic, geographic, and social intersections of the local and the global). He manages to persuade one of them--Rodrigo--to kiss Simon in his rabbit mask and they rush off to get their shot.

This accomplished, the team then climbs into a waiting rental car and hightails it over to the Playhouse, where we have been waiting to cheer their arrival. Only then do we actually enter the auditorium, with the footage (including a final sequence filmed from the balcony of the theatre) the collective has gathered projected before us on four side-by-side screens. It makes for a doubly uncanny experience, the déjà vu of what we are witnessing coming not just from the instantly recognizable images reproduced before us, but from the familiar (in ways both good and bad) story of our city they tell.

Given that, as PuSh Artistic and Executive Director Norman Armour announced in his speech following the screening, the Festival is so much about place (a theme echoed in the broadside published to coincide with the 10th anniversary, in which yours truly has a short essay), it was an absolutely spot-on opening. I look forward to what remains in store from PuSh over the next three weeks--and in the decades to come.

Happy birthday everyone!


Thursday, January 2, 2014

PuSh at 10

Another new year brings another PuSh Festival. This year is our 10th anniversary, and in the lead up to the event Communications Manager Bonnie Sun has asked a few of us "to provide a little insight into [our] PuSh experience and what the Festival has meant to [us]."

My thoughts have just been posted to the PuShing it blog here, alongside a very embarrassing photo of myself, aged 10.

The Festival opens January 14th, with Gob Squad's Super Night Shot at the Playhouse. See you there.