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My lovely and brilliant friend Julie Laurin filmed this. It is so strange watching yourself, and noticing the lines in your face, and the way your bottom eyelid flickers, and how much you bite your lip. Also, I think my dress is very pretty.

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Several weeks ago I attended a play at the National Theatre called Travelling Light, and it was a wonderful production. But the interesting thing about my experience with this play was not the any one aspect of the production, but how it – as a whole – affected me afterwards. Which is not to undervalue the qualities of this play: despite an unnecessarily sentimental ending, this is a strong and witty script about the creation of film, stemming from small-town ambition, complete with endearing Jewish personalities, a neurotic young film director, and his beautiful assistant turned silent film actress. And it had Anthony Sher, who is a fantastic stage actor.

My experience is not something I can explain in objective terms. I suppose the best way I can describe it is that it had this intoxicating, contagious energy that stayed with me the entire walk and tube ride home. I found myself walking so quickly I was practically skipping down the street with nervous excitement. I just wanted to keep moving. Even waiting at a crosswalk, I could barely keep still. I took out my iPod touch and started filming my route, paying close attention to the quick turns in the road, observing small details as I passed. Similar to when I became acquainted with Harriet the Spy and immediately bought myself a spy notebook just like hers; but, in this case, I thought I could be a film maker. Granted, the little video I created was far from imaginative, and it is, in fact, so boring to watch, that I won’t even bother sharing it. But the point is, at the time, something electric happened, and it felt fantastic.

I mention this only because sometimes going to the theatre can be an exhausting experience, which is why, I think, it isn’t as popular as it once was. Watching videos at home requires far less emotional sacrifice. But if a play is poor quality or simply ‘not for you’, the effort it takes to watch and stay engaged with a live performance can feel wasted when the experience is not gratifying. Still, once in a while, during or following a performance, you find yourself in a similar state to riding down a steep hill at full speed on your beloved bicycle (sometimes more therapeutic than therapy, I recently discovered…) or flying down a particularly lush snow hill with a sharp wind hitting the parts of your face not covered by ski goggles. And those moments are somehow magnified, multiplied by the closeness of theatre, by the intimacy of sharing the same space. And that’s why I keep going back – hoping to renew my acquaintance with that feeling.

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I’ve never been altogether concerned with finances, and I realize that is a total luxury. Thanks to a decent-sized scholarship and a handy parental connection at the University of Ottawa, I didn’t have to worry about tuition fees. I also saved money by living at home for the first three years of university. I haven’t developed a smoking habit, I rarely drink, and I’m generally frugal by nature. But I’ve never had to think twice about going out with friends, or going to the theatre, or buying a pretty dress – at least not for financial reasons.

Upon arriving in London, I had to handle a few initial expenses: namely paying my first month’s rent, paying a deposit, buying a cell phone, and purchasing a few basic living essentials, like soap. So there goes £1000 in the first week. Since I wasn’t yet earning money in London, I transferred funds from my savings account back in Ottawa: I can only take out £200 at a time, and I’m charged $5 or so for every withdrawal on top of the exchange rate. Which makes me grind my teeth indignantly.

Yesterday I did some calculations regarding my spending this past month, and I was shocked to realize that I had spent almost £350 in one month, not including rent. Yikes.

I estimated the following expenses for October:

  • £80 Groceries
  • £75 Travel: tube, overground, bus
  • £75 Theatre tickets / poetry shows
  • £120 Other: going out, books, household stuff, clothing

Okay, so clearly I would save a lot of money if I stayed home all the time. But I’m in London, for heaven’s sake. It would be stupid to live here and not attend the theatre. And to be fair, I bought tickets in advance for two shows in November and December, so that section includes expenses beyond the month of October. Also, a round-trip to central London costs just over £5, and I estimate that I went into town 15 days in the last month, hence £75. I am very careful about spending a reasonable amount on groceries, and I usually buy from the market stands and discount stores. And as for the final category… yes, I like to go for lunch with my friends, and yes, I did buy cleaning supplies one weekend, as well as some socks and stockings. Shocking.

So now I’m trying to figure out how to budget my earnings. Since I’m only working part-time at the moment, I imagine I won’t have much more than £300 spending money (i.e. not spent on rent) each month. And if that’s the case, I will have to cut down a bit, which will be difficult, since I had intended to see more theatre and attend more poetry shows and acquaint myself even more with London next month. Plus I wanted to visit Paris, travel around Europe… Ah, who needs groceries anyway!

And yes, I could very easily dig into my savings and give myself more spending money, but I don’t want to do that. I am determined to live within my means, within the confines of my earnings. I’ve met so many people who spend money they simply don’t have; they owe money to friends and institutions, but they still can’t help buying a new jacket or going to Toronto for the weekend. And I never want to be like that.

So what now? Should I live frivolously or responsibly. Should I use up all my savings, or just wait for my next paycheque. Or stay on the lookout for a second job. You know, I hear the adult film industry pays really well…

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I’m on a mailing list called Master Class that occasionally sends out notices for theatre artist talks occurring at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Today at 2:30pm I went to see one of my favourite film actors, Natascha McElhone. Most people would probably recognize her as Jim Carrey’s love interest in The Truman Show. But I adored her in Surviving Picasso, her first major film, and as young Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway. She is strikingly beautiful and a captivating performer.

Composed. Sincere. Fierce. Gentle. Thoughtful. Mischievous. Maternal. Elegant. Opinionated. Steadfast.

I didn’t take proper notes, so please pardon the paraphrasing.

Natascha McElhone

After theatre school, I played Dunyasha in a production of The Cherry Orchard with Russian director Mishe Mokier, who spoke no English. He often refused to make use of his interpreter; he was very eccentric. And yet he was a most powerful director because he could communicate with very few words, or sometimes none at all, and he only spoke when necessary. Sometimes directors who speak too much and offer excessive feedback, though they may have great vision, are not always the best at working with actors. His one piece of advice to me: just sing.

When you’re young, you often feel the need to please everyone. When I had children, I stopped caring about what people thought of me. Because they were my world.

If my children were on set with me, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. I would be watching them. They’re far more interesting than me.

From playing Lady Anne in Richard III Shakespeare in Regent’s Park to playing opposite Anthony Hopkins in Surviving Picasso.

I wouldn’t do that film because I hated the script. It was ridiculous. But then my agent said, but Robert Deniro’s in it! And I said, only if they fix the script. And my agent came back to me later and said, David Mamet had a look at it; will that do?

Mrs. Dalloway. That film wasn’t going to happen due to a number of set backs. Then they called me on Friday and said we’re going to film on Monday. We did all the flashback scenes in seven days. When you watched it, did you notice that there weren’t many close-ups? That’s because those take longer to film and require several more cameras to shoot. We didn’t have the time, nor the money.

If you think you’re not being cast because you’re American, then play British at the audition. You’re an actor. You’re going to play a role anyway.

Just go to the party. You can always leave early.

In Hollywood, everyone thinks they’re getting somewhere because the producers make them think they’re getting somewhere. You’re wonderful. I love your work. It’s so emotional. And then you realize they’re saying the same thing to everyone. It’s different in London: you may receive fewer offers, but at least they tell you the truth.

I always had an opinion, and an opinion isn’t always what everyone wants to hear.

Afterwards, I shyly approached three girls chatting. One of them had asked the question about being an American trying to get work in London. Another had raised her hand, but hadn’t had the chance to ask a question. And the third I’d been noticing throughout the event because she occasionally gazed back through the crowd, and I thought she had a penetrating look (and told her so); a gingered Cate Blanchett, perhaps. We talked about the event and about working in theatre in London. I gave them my business card, and already two of them have added me as friends on that social network thing.

As I walked away from them, I had visions of the four of us meeting on weekends and reading aloud from Shakespeare plays and perhaps even producing a play or a film together. Because that happens sometimes, you know? You meet some people at an event, and that’s all it takes. Natascha had spoken, in fact, about how important it is to find like-minded people and start something, anything. And my imagination ran with that idea. It may not be these three girls, but I hope to discover my theatre clan… and who knows what might happen.

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Over the last five years, I have worked as a publicist for numerous theatre companies and arts organizations in Ottawa and beyond. While I have tended to develop strong attachments to these groups, I have always maintained a healthy degree of objectivity in working with them; able to view their work from an outsider’s point of view, to see through the eyes of the media and potential audiences in order to create relationships between the various parties.

This objectivity is much more difficult to maintain when promoting my own work. I often find myself straddling (ahem) the line between vanity and self-deprecation. Do I tell everyone how totally awesome I am, or do I let them formulate their own opinions by simply providing them with the facts? Since I don’t have that objective distance, I might not be my own most reliable judge of talent. So, to a certain extent, I have to rely on the favourable opinions of other people, and not only on my own sense of good taste.

Two such people – local poets Graeme Loh El O’Farrell and Sean O’Gorman – were sweet enough to create a short promotional video to advertise my upcoming feature show with fellow poet Nadine Thornhill at the Spoken Word Plot on April 11 . Here’s the clip:

This is where the self-deprecation comes in: even though I really like what these guys have done with the video, I still think I look like a total dork (or perhaps “adorkable”, as Nadine would say). But is that just because everyone finds it weird seeing themselves on screen? I’ve been told that my poetry (or perhaps more aptly named “poetic monologues”) works well in performance, but does it translate on screen? Heck, I don’t know.

I’ve heard that a promotional video can “make or break” a marketing campaign. So here’s my question: does this video inspire you to bring a truckload of friends and family to my show, or does it make you want to run screaming in the other direction? I would love to hear from people who have seen me perform, as well as from people who had no idea that I have a life outside my computer.

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I would like to draw your attention to the following video.

Here, Shane Koyczan performs his own spoken word piece entitled “We Are More” in a promotional video created by Canadian Tourism.

He performed the same piece at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics Opening Ceremonies atop an intimidatingly tall stage structure surrounded by millions of people with millions more watching him on live television.

I thought that was pretty cool.

There have been some valid criticisms about his poem and performance. As someone familiar with Shane’s poetry and music, I have to say he’s written and performed better. His piece utilized numerous Canadian cliches (intentionally, as the poem does clearly state that “we are more” than these cliches; but still) and doesn’t really say anything truly revolutionary about Canada.

I completely acknowledge this. And yet, it really doesn’t bother me: because I think that the supreme coolness of having spoken word – performed by a reputable spoken word poet – at the Olympics far surpasses any quibbles I or anyone else might have about the content. Though a mention of the Francophone community, I agree, would have been nice.

Some people (heck, most people) in Canada have never heard of spoken word. This was a gentle, accessible introduction to the art form: perhaps not the most exemplary piece we could have offered (it was used as a tourism video, for heaven’s sake), but something decent that garnered a lot of attention and will very likely inspire people to look up spoken word on the internet, and thereby discover other amazing spoken word poets across Canada and around the world. I am grateful to Shane for creating this buzz around the art form.

Here’s something I’ve realized: whenever you do something interesting, noteworthy, or appear in any sort of public arena, it is inevitable that some people will love you and others will find something to hate about you. Regardless of whether or not it was your intention to be controversial.

This morning I noticed that some people were writing rather harsh messages on Shane’s Facebook Group, calling the poem “fake” and accusing him of “bastardizing” the art form*. I found this… unnecessary. It seems that these people wanted what this poem wasn’t: they wanted (and I’m paraphrasing here) an activist piece that pointed out what is wrong with Canada and what we can do to effect change.

From what I understand, this poem was intended to be celebratory, not an excuse to make grand statements about the tar sands in Alberta, the homeless situation in Vancouver, our pathetic federal government, or cuts to arts funding. Yes, these topics are important — but do you honestly think the Olympics committee would have programmed a political tirade for the opening ceremonies? Does everything have to be about anarchy?

Honestly, though, I want to know: what should this poem have told us about Canada? Should it have been celebratory or critical, or both? Are these whiny little buggers just jealous, or are they making a valid point?

By the way, there is a full version of “We Are More” on the House of Parlance website. Have a listen.

*One of these comments has now been removed by its author.

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When my brother was much younger, he would make model buildings out of paper and tape. They would be replicas of castles, of palaces (including a phenomenal one of Versailles), and other structures of note. He would also create little figurines to inhabit the space, perhaps imagining how they interacted once upon a time.

I think he would have loved this production of Kamp (from company Hotel Modern, the Netherlands) at the PuSh Festival. Just look at this set:

Kamp

According to a recent article on the show, there are 3500 hand-made clay figurines used in the performance. They are arranged, re-arranged, and animated by three performers; these mute performers are always visible and always present, though not the focus of the piece. The focus is on the buildings and the figurines that are captured by a video camera and displayed in real time on the white screen backdrop. The audience catches glimpses of the gas chambers, the sleeping areas, a nazi drinking party, the hard labour forced upon the prisoners, and one particularly wrenching scene in which a sadistic soldier beats one victim to death with a shovel.

It is difficult for me to understand the sheer magnitude of the Holocaust and its destruction; statistics and numbers mean very little to me, and that is often all we are given in history books. The most striking thing about this visual display was actually seeing these numbers, these statistics come to life: row upon row of figurines, their swollen faces staring out from the screen, the camera slowly and carefully capturing every detail; dozens of figures piled into the showers; dozens of bodies thrown into a pit. It hits you hard.

The performance is only one hour long. But the audience on Thursday evening stay for yet another hour to attend the talk-back. Some audience members had actually been to Auschwitz and said they found this performance much more personal and affecting.

One particularly interesting question was asked: how far can you push an audience? At what point does the horror and destruction become too much to bear? I’m thinking specifically of the scene with the shovel; it almost made me ill. Is this something we should strive for in dramatic theatre, or is it just too much?

Here are a couple more close-up photos:

Kamp

Kamp

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