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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

"Original Practices" for Shakespeare: Faithfulness or Fundamentalism?

The Festival Theatre's thrust stage.

Last week I was teaching about group therapy in Kingston Ontario, and decided to stay on and drive to Stratford, close to where I went to graduate school in the last millenium. The festival at Stratford was a welcome diversion from psychology research so I would attend regularly, and since moving to Vancouver I’ve often taken the opportunity to stop in while visiting Ontario in the summer.

Monday night I attended the Festival’s opening of Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare’s cautionary tale about teenage impulsivity). It was helmed by British director Tim Carroll, who has a long association with London’s Globe Theatre, an open-air recreation of the theatre that Shakespeare’s company originally played in.

Like most companies presenting Shakespeare, Stratford often shifts the circumstances of the play somewhat. Sometimes it’s World War I, sometimes the future, sometimes the gender of one or more characters is switched.

The current version of Romeo and Juliet is done in “Original Practices,”(OP) meaning naturalistic lighting, no amplified music, no sound assist, and very little directorial blocking (telling the actors where to stand and when). This is the way the plays were done by Shakespeare himself, largely out of necessity. There was no electrical light, no audio technology, and, apparently, there was often no director of the play in the modern sense.

So how does this work in the enclosed Festival Theatre at Stratford? After all, without artificial light no one would see anything at all.

The sense of an afternoon performance is given by having most of the house lights on, so the audience is plainly visible, and no use of lighting effects for shifting the mood or audience’s attention.

The increased presence of the audience allows the actors to address the crowd directly. Shakespearean soliloquies are directed straight at the audience rather than looking like spontaneous inner dialogue. Bit players can kibbitz with those in the front row. In the case of Stratford’s R&J, the Nurse angrily heaves bread loaves at a retreating character, landing many of them in the seats. An illiterate Peter, given an invitation list, helplessly hands it to someone in the front row for assistance. A few comic bits work well this way.

But for a play to succeed it has to engage the audience. Vast swaths of the population hate Shakespeare because it has been presented to them as a dusty museum piece – a cultural vegetable that is supposed to be good for you even though it is just about indigestible. And for the most part, that’s the result of the OP production of R&J. When you contemplate the fact that these are the conditions in which most audiences saw Shakespeare’s work in times past, the overwhelming thought that occurs to you is “Oh, those poor people. How did it ever catch on?”

The answer, it seems to me, is that the audiences themselves were different people. They lived in a world of drudgery, plague, and strife. Never having known amplified music, complicated lighting effects, or stagecraft, they didn’t expect it. The experience of seeing a group of people putting on a play would have been profound.

In 1933, the original version of King Kong frightened, amazed, and thrilled audiences. The special effects were astonishing. Today, it’s still possible to watch the film and appreciate it, and you can find yourself wondering “How on earth did they manage that in the 1930s?” But it’s a different experience, and tends not to grab you by the throat the way it did its original audiences.

In elementary school I saw my first stage production – a musical put on by the high school down the road. To my eyes, the illusion was complete. An altogether different universe appeared on stage in front of me, and infinitely old, mature, and accomplished professionals seemed to vanish altogether in their roles. It would be nice to see a film of that production – I suspect that although I could appreciate their efforts, it would have a much-diluted effect on me now.

What I’m suggesting is that theatre is interesting not because of what appears on stage, but because of a relationship between the production and the minds of the audience. The effect of a play depends on both the mechanics of the play and the characteristics and history of the audience. It’s possible to reconstruct the former but not the latter, and as a result the relationship is completely different.

For example, imagine seeing an “original practices” version of a Sophocles play – declaimed in ancient Greek. This would be a profoundly interesting experience if done well – but it couldn’t possibly produce the same effect on a modern audience as an ancient one. Not because the modern audience cannot feel the same things, but because the stimuli that elicit those feelings have shifted.

As a result it seems inevitable, at least to me, that OP productions will tend to reproduce the form but not the impact of the plays. Certainly that seemed to be the case Monday night. The audience response was remarkably lukewarm for a season-opener and people scattered into the night quickly. The reviews have been unenthusiastic, to put it mildly. (A particularly brutal and mean-spirited review by Richard Ouzounian in the Toronto Star seems to be an example of wounded childish rage rather than sober judgement.) One reviewer talked of staying awake by counting his fingers.

The proponents of OP seem to feel that they are being loyal to Shakespeare, eschewing the bells and whistles that really can just distract from the plays themselves. But what would Shakespeare himself have done?

“Okay, Will, we’ve had 400 years of technological development and have invented whole new fields of sound, lighting, and blocking – and unlike you we now have the money to have sets and furnishings – either naturalistic or impressionistic. Whaddaya want?”

It seems inconceivable that he would go for the difficult conditions under which he had to labour. Or that he would see his own Globe Theatre as being, coincidentally, the pinnacle of theatrical presentation. My guess is that he would seize upon modern technology and exploit it mercilessly to sharpen (not distract from) the presentation of his plays. And he would look upon the OP purists as having missed the point.

But go.

The Stratford Festival is one of North America's greatest theatrical experiences, and richly deserves an audience. I saw four plays while I was there and three of them (the other three) were terrific. Blithe Spirit shows a classic Noel Coward at his witty, brittle, and somewhat brutal best. Mary Stuart portrays a fictional meeting between Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots before the latter's execution, a complex dance of motivations and political intrigue that avoids pointing fingers at obvious villains - this may be the hit of their season. And The Who's Tommy (which I attended because it fit the schedule, not because I was drawn to it) is a big, expensive production that completely engaged the audience and seems clearly designed to travel elsewhere when it is done at Stratford. Plus, the town of Stratford itself is beautiful and well worth a visit.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Film: Some Resources

One of my sidelines is talking to groups of healthcare workers about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) issues. People often come dragging their feet to these talks, anticipating dire and politically correct drabness, but we usually wind up having fun. I prefer to give these talks outside big urban areas – people in smaller centres often come with more genuine curiosity and an open point of view, whereas urbanites often shrink with the paralyzing fear that they might ask or say something wrong.

The talks are invariably too short to give as much detail as people might like, so I provide suggestions for further reading. I know, however, that most people have an “I really should read this” pile from floor to ceiling, so the odds are this is a futile gesture. Isn’t there a more entertaining way to learn about these communities without slogging through a diversity education text?

Why yes, in fact, one can develop at least some familiarity with things by watching selected movies. Film portrayals of LGBT populations are notoriously problematic – distorted, needlessly tragic, stereotypical, or outright wrong. And I risk the wrath of readers by mentioning any of the below, all of which can, I’m sure, be found wanting by someone. No doubt I am leaving some readers’ favourites off the list, either because I’ve genuinely neglected them or I haven’t liked them myself. But I’m open to comments and suggestions.

Trailers for most of these movies are available on the internet (for example, at

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). Three Australian drag queens set out from Sydney across the outback in an unreliable bus, heading for an appearance in Alice Springs. Along the way they deal with unsympathetic attitudes, their own personal issues, and questions related to gender, familly, and even parenthood. Comedy.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999).  A dramatization of the life of Brandon Teena, a trans teen who lived as a boy. Tragedy follows the discovery of his biological gender. A documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, is also excellent. Drama.

Breakfast with Scot (2007). A very light Canadian film in which a gay male couple (one a lawyer, the other a former NHL player) take on temporary custody of a boy who turns out to be much more flamboyant than either of them, pushing their noses in their own discomfort with being out of the closet. Comedy.

Brokeback Mountain (2005).  Ang Lee’s celebrated film in which two men, hired to herd sheep, fall in love and continue their affair for years afterward. Sometimes criticized for being yet another angst-filled and unhappy portrayal of gay men, the performances are uniformly excellent and the place of their relationship alongside heterosexual marriages is quite true to life. Romantic Drama.

But I’m A Cheerleader (1999).  A cheerleader is sent to a sexual reorientation therapy camp by her concerned parents. A fairly silly film but one that mercilessly and deservedly parodies the idea of gathering gay teens together to make them heterosexual. Arguably a bit hard on the religious. Over the top comedy.

The Celluloid Closet (1995). A documentary about the portrayal of lesbians and gay men in film from the beginning of the medium to the 1980s. Surprising, moving, and often very funny. Worth watching for dozens of moments, not least the one in which screenwriter Gore Vidal reveals the subtext of Ben Hur. Narrated by Lily Tomlin.

Cloudburst (2013). An elderly American lesbian couple, threatened with being split up by well-meaning relatives, flee to Canada to get legally married. Olympia Dukakis is gruff, hard-edged, and surprisingly vulnerable as she realizes that she may not be able to cope with the increasing disability of her partner.

C.R.A.Z.Y.  (2005). A young gay man growing up in Quebec deals with homophobia and his difficult relationship with his father. An acclaimed portrayal of the difficulties of coming out and father-son conflict. Comedy-drama.

Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992). A National Film Board of Canada documentary about the experiences of lesbians in Canada in the 1940s-1970s, interspersed with references to a subgenre of lesbian pulp novels. Enlightening and often very funny, as the interviewees, many of them quite elderly, describe the machinations required to live within a disapproving culture.

Fire (1996).  Canadian Deepa Mehta’s film about a Delhi family in which an unfulfilled wife begins a love affair with another woman within South Asian culture. Drama.

The Kids Are Alright (2010). The offspring of a lesbian couple attempt to locate their sperm donor father. What could easily have become easy slapstick develops considerable depth in its examination of a lesbian family and the complications of finding and integrating the birth father. Comedy-drama.

Longtime Companion (1989). A harrowing chronicle of the impact of HIV/AIDS in 1980s gay life. For those who did not live through this time, when over half a million people in Canada and the US died (well over a hundred times the death toll of 9/11), the film is a sobering look at the reality. Drama.

Ma Vie En Rose (1997).  A Belgian family struggles with their young son’s self-identification as a girl. Humourous at times, but with a deeply compassionate and serious look at the conflict that can ensue. Drama.

Mambo Italiano (2003). An Italian-Canadian man stuggles with coming out to his traditional parents, against the wishes of his police officer boyfriend.  The histrionics of his Montreal-based parents (Paul Sorvino and Ginette Reno) are beautifully (over)played. Comedy.

Milk (2008).  The story of Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), a gay community organizer in San Francisco, who was elected to city council (the first openly gay American elected to office) and who was subsequently assassinated.  Drama.

Prayers for Bobby (2009). Sigourney Weaver plays a deeply religious mother who cannot accept her son’s homosexuality, with tragic results. Based on a true story. I found this one a bit far-fetched at first, particularly the point of view expressed by the mother.  But a young man I know watched this, riveted, and said at the end “That’s my mother. That’s my life.”

A Single Man (2009). One day in the early-1960s life of a gay college professor planning to commit suicide following his partner’s death in a car accident. An examination of life for people who had to be secretive in order to survive, and the toll it cost them, as well as the surprising sources of light in dark places. Drama.

Transamerica (2005).  A trans woman learns that she fathered a son, who accompanies her on a cross country trip just before she undergoes surgery. One of the few films to deal directly with trans issues, done with a good budget and designed for the general viewing public. Comedy-drama.

The Wedding Banquet (1993). An early Ang Lee film in which a gay Taiwanese man living in New York stages a sham heterosexual wedding for the benefit of his parents.  An interesting portrayal of problems within bicultural gay relationships, and very very funny. Comedy.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Depression Leapfrog

What's the REAL destination?

One of the great problems with clinical depression is that it attracts almost all of a person’s attention and energy. The temptation is to focus exclusively on the ailment and its resolution.

As a consequence, many people find that most of their time gets taken up with depression management strategies. Their days involve appointments with physicians and therapists, consulting with other healthcare professionals, taking naps, planning graduated exercises to get out of the house, figuring out what to eat, trying to detect negative thoughts, and so on.

It’s exhausting.

Many of these activities are quite helpful. But they run the risk of making the person’s life all about depression and not at all about recovery or “normality.” All thoughts about “what will I do when I’m better” are put aside until that day dawns.

But the handing of control over one’s daily life to the illness sometimes serves to make it more powerful. And the relinquishment of all one’s regular routines, pleasurable events, and goals for the future may feed the very dragon we are trying to tame.

Consequently, I often invite depressed clients to imagine that we had an instant and utterly effective cure for the depression – a magic pill, or the waving of a wand. “So imagine for a moment that it’s gone. This whole thing is over. If that happened, what would you do? What would you want in your life?”

In other words, if your energy was back to normal and you didn’t have to spend every ounce of it fighting the depression, where would you like to allocate it?

I try to get as long a list as I can from the person. Some of the items may not be practical right away, such as “I’d return to work full-time.”

We can, however, usually identify a few activities the person could start doing without waiting for the wand to have its effect. “I’d see more movies” can become part of the therapy, as can “Take up my hobby/sport/avocation again” or “See friends more often.”

The intent is to jump past the depression to the desired outcome, and then spend at least part of our efforts aiming straight at the destination rather than focusing exclusively on the barrier that seems to sit in the way.

I like to do this kind of work at least twice in the course of therapy for depression. 

The first time is when we first embark on the journey. “What if, a few weeks or months down the road, the depression is completely gone? We follow you around with a video camera for a week. We can’t see what you are feeling or thinking, but we can see what you are doing. What would we see?” This enables us to make the reclaiming of at least part of this “well life” an early task of therapy.

I like to revisit the question once the person has made some real progress. Their energy is better, and their ability to envision a fulfilling life is likely to be greatly enhanced. “So you’re doing pretty well. Imagine you take this pill (jelly bean) and it’s completely over. You don’t have to focus on the near horizon of depression recovery any more. What do you want to include in your life?”

Most people imagine that they will recover in sequence: They will begin feeling a bit better. Then their motivation will begin to return. Then they can begin to take on the elements of a better life.
The sequence is perfect, but backward. “First you will begin living at least a bit of the life you would like to have if you were not depressed. Then your motivation will return. Then the mood will lift.”

We need to leapfrog past the depression to the real destination. Then we need to make that destination at least a part of the therapy - in addition to the symptomatic and stabilization work we may be doing.

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