It happens. Sometimes when we feel super passionate about something we run the risk of biting off more than we can chew. Last week when we published our article for the first weekend of the Fresh Meat Theatre Festival, we brought up some issues that were far too big for one piece to thoroughly and thoughtfully examine. We recognize that words have incredible power and that with that power comes great responsibility which is why we are working together with the organizers at Fresh Meat to continually edit and amend the article (as both parties view the Internet ‘review’ as being a ‘living’ document) to actively undo any hurt and/or feelings of erasure that we have caused. This week, I’d like to better clarify my point from weekend one while using the shows from weekend two as the creative departure point.
On a more personal note, I do sincerely apologize for publishing a piece that was very clearly not up to our normal standard of quality. When the turn-around can be less than 24 hours between the performance and the review of that performance being published, critics can often feel pressured to publish something on deadline as opposed to taking more time to edit and rewrite (especially when a run is short and knowing that artists are counting on reviews as publicity). This is by no means an excuse, but moreso evidence of the traditional ‘separatist’ relationship between Theatre Critic and Producer, whereby the two parties are to maintain the least amount of contact so the critic can, hypothetically, maintain their objectivity. Moving forward, we are excited to be opening up communication lines with the Fresh Meat team in a way that will allow us to collaborate on arts coverage in a way that benefits both organizations and, of course, the artists themselves and the community at large.
Getting back to the festival at hand, I do want to briefly reiterate the point I was attempting to make last week: while the move to diversity is to be admired, do the content of the pieces actually, in turn, reflect this? Are these stories actively reflective of underrepresented communities or are we just seeing a rehashing of stories and voices we are, mostly, already familiar with? Take weekend 1 for example: I chose to write almost exclusively about Le crip bleu because the artists who created and performed that piece belong to a community that historically has had much more limited opportunities to have its stories told/have members of that community cast in productions/have their own work produced as compared to the stories from the rest of the artists on that particular weekend, not to mention that they very clearly tried to push the boundaries of the genre of burlesque and challenge the way we view sexuality and physicality. This isn’t to disparage the other artists or suggest that they shouldn’t have their work included in the festival, but to make the point that artists are not necessarily entitled to having their work reviewed in a curated evening of performances, especially if they rest in the privileged position of having more opportunities to have their work produced and/or reviewed in the first place. I don’t personally see this as being a deliberate erasure of voices, but I do understand how it could be interpreted that way.
So, for this week I will go into a little more detail about all of the shows and offer my analysis of them. Discussion pertaining to the Festival’s outreach initiatives will feature in a separate piece to be released in collaboration with the Fresh Meat Festival organizers some time in the near future (so stay posted).
Folie by Aplombusrhombus (Created and performed by Madeleine Hall and Mitchel Rose)
Aplombusrhombus has done it again. Delivering a solid performance that plays with live and pre-recorded sounds, Hall and Rose have created a fun-loving piece of theatre that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The story remains a bit unclear but from what I could gather, Folie centres on two individuals who create sound effects for film and/or television soundtracks (though the nature of the film/television show is never explicitly revealed to us) and who clearly have some unresolved sexual tension between them.
What I respect about this company is that their aesthetic is always super clear on stage and I think we have come to expect that this company knows how to create performances that are very visually appealing. I do think however that this piece in particular runs the risk of resting on certain comedic tropes that have, at this point, been done to death. A good example of this is when Rose goes to move in to kiss Hall and he makes a comedic adjustment of his hand from hovering just above her breast to her shoulder – a joke which has seen its way into numerous Hollywood teen comedies and television sitcoms, though perhaps most notably in an infamous episode of Friends where Chandler and Phoebe play an awkwardly sexy game of chicken (FF to 3min for the specific bit). Humour that revolves almost exclusively around metaphors about genitalia and actions miming sexual intercourse are not, in my opinion, new or exciting and I think this company has the talent to push themselves further in this regard.
The most exciting element to this piece is its manipulation of live sounds, especially given their use of a non-verbal form of clown, and so not only do we have the performers on stage creating stories with their bodies, we also have them creating sub-stories (is that a word?) through the use of sound. This is perhaps best exemplified in the scene where they are enacting what I interpreted as a classic slasher film and they create most of, if not all of, the sounds detailing a woman’s walk home, her making dinner, the entrance of a mysterious intruder and the eventual murder. I can only imagine that it must be incredibly difficult to try and fit all of those ideas into a mere twenty minutes and I have a strong feeling that this piece will only get stronger as it’s developed into a longer iteration.
Holding Mercury– by 100 Watt Productions (Written and performed by Kristina Watt)
You have to hand it to Kristina Watt- known for her extensive professional work in Ottawa (and specifically her experience with classic material); the work she has been self-producing lately takes some huge risks on stage. Particle, at undercurrents two years ago, polarized audiences with its curious adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Wave and I would say that Holding Mercury at this year’s Fresh Meat Festival won’t be any less polarizing.
The show exists in two very different sections: the first features a neurosurgeon who is operating on the brain of her “friend” and literally and figuratively touching upon the different areas of the brain that makes humans feel emotions like lust, anger, and logic. (As a side note: Symphony of Science’s “Ode to the Brain” is actually an excellent precursor to Watt’s Holding Mercury.) Playing off Carl Sagan’s suggestion that since humans are no longer “at the mercy of the reptile brain, we can change ourselves”, Watt examines and reexamines the multitude of thoughts that exist in the brain and why this character might be experiencing them- the image of Watt cradling the ‘brain’ makes me think that this woman has experienced a great personal loss at some point. The second part comes as a complete 180 degree shift where Watt breaks it all down, slam poetry style.
I admit to being very initially confused by this shift in style. Dramaturgically speaking, it feels more than a little awkward having a musical accompanist enter the stage halfway through the performance only to provide the soundtrack to Watt’s words: this could have been just as effective had the music been recorded. It drags on a bit long with 6 or 7 different poems making it difficult to pick out throughlines and metaphors given Watt’s rapid-fire delivery.
What’s great about Watt’s work though is that it always leaves you thinking even after the play has ended. While it might not have been my favourite piece, it is one I can’t stop thinking about and asking questions of. The biggest conclusion I’ve reached is this: does the ‘weird’ shift signify a transition from left brain (i.e. the side that is more logical and given to reasoning) to right brain (i.e. the creative and emotional side) and thus proving the ability for us to change? In any case, I am interested to hear how others interpreted this piece.
anXiety womxn presented by ETERNITY (written and performed by Kelsey Rideout)
I have it on the authority of one of the Associate Producers of the Festival that this piece is supposed to be advertised by the Festival hosts as a Workshop (though it is not listed anywhere on the website) despite it not being introduced thusly at Friday night’s performance. AnXiety womxn is a solo show that integrates poetry, stream of consciousness, and movement to explore the many nuances and the exhausting, yet intricate thought processes anxiety can put an individual through. This piece gives me the most trouble as a critic because I am not really sure how to critique a piece where the artist has to pick up and read off of her script in the middle of the show. I am told that it was by complete accident that the appropriate preface for this piece was left out of the host’s script that evening (and was, in fact, introduced as a ‘First Draft Workshop’ on both Thursday and Saturday nights), so this isn’t a slight against any one party, but rather a means to highlight the importance of having specific framing devices when it comes to evaluating performance.
I will say that, given the subject matter, the performer’s having her script in hand could be easily worked into the piece as a dramaturgical element which has audience consider anxiety not just in the world of the play but in the real-life action of performing. Fringe veteran Gerard Harris, who openly admits to his physical limitations and incorporates them into his storytelling, is a great example of this. However, in the case of Rideout it comes across as being simply unprepared. Without the preface to frame our expectations of the piece, the use of the script comes across as a wholly confusing choice given the calibre of work from the other artists we’ve just seen. Rideout describes her piece on the Festival website as being “various states of raw and cooked” (“If your show was a meal what would it be?”, Fresh Meat ‘Shows’ 2017), which is an interesting concept except that, in its current iteration, this half-performance, half-reading isn’t really effective as either. Finding way in which the use of the script works itself into the piece as a whole could certainly benefit the entire performance.
InSight Choreographed and performed by Geoffrey Dollar
This show feels like it’s much shorter than the advertised 20 minutes, but is packed with a level of profundity that can be (unfortunately) quite rare in this city. Exploring what it means to lose one of our most dominant senses – sight – Dollar gifts audiences with a beautiful piece that uses both text and movement to express both the loss of one sense and the heightening of others.
As my colleague Ian Huffam so aptly pointed out: the form of this piece informs its content (something which is similarly exemplified by last week’s Le crip bleu). Dollar posits that he can count the steps between the door of the Arts Court Studio to the Fresh Meat stage and that humans often find comfort in quantifying things, however, there is no way to gauge how sensory loss affects you in an emotional sense. Dance is similarly like this: while you can measure the beat and the steps of the music, there is no way to measure the undeniable effect it has on people.
InSight marks an important journey into the world of movement theatre – as in theatre that isn’t exclusively dance or strictly drama, but uses both to express artistic ideas and concepts. This is particularly important at a festival like Fresh Meat, where the general idea is for artists to “test out new ideas in front of an audience”. Not only is the audience challenged in having to interpret an abstract non-verbal form along with Dollar’s words, but the audience is also challenged in having to shift our perspective to consider how an individual can engage with such predominantly visual mediums like theatre and dance while being visually impaired. As Dollar demonstrates quite expertly: the most difficult limitations a body has can often be the ones we make for ourselves.
What is really profound about this piece (and where some of the others fall a bit short in my opinion) is that the idea Dollar puts forth that he and the spectator “see things very differently” permeates every aspect of this performance. From the performer being monocular to the fact that Dollar is, in fact, a trained and practicing choreographer, everything about this piece encourages the viewer to consider things from a different perspective. The nearly seamless marriage of content and form makes this piece a rare gem in the quarries of the local Ottawa theatre scene.
In-Between Created by Helen Thai; Performed by Helen Thai and Franco Pang; Directed by Kristina Watt
Along with InSight, In-Between blew me away. Here is a show that takes all the ‘guidelines’ Fresh Meat gives their artists (i.e. 20 minutes, limited technical elements, and displaying a certain level of ‘Freshness’) and absolutely embraces them to create an incredibly well-thought out and fully realized piece of theatre. Last week I talked very briefly about some shows needing to find a semblance of ‘universality’ (i.e. the ‘nugget’ that makes people actually care about what’s happening on stage); In-Between is a piece that exemplifies this quality in spades.
Set to the timer of an on-stage rice cooker (with the rice cooking IRL), Thai and Pang tell the story of two siblings and their often strained relationship with their Vietnamese immigrant parents. For a 20 minute piece, the story spans an incredible timeframe starting from when the siblings are basically newborns and flowing into their lives as young adults. Essentially watching them “grow up” on stage, In-Between is a brave tale that explores what it means to exist in a place of not knowing where you belong.
Evoking feelings of familiarity through comic tales about their sibling rivalry and more emotionally-driven stories about the fierce love siblings often have for one another, the performers’ vulnerability is sometimes all too real on stage. Yet in the middle of these familiar feelings In-Between poignantly discusses difficult and nuanced experiences as people affected by diaspora. Thai’s character, for example, mentions that if it wasn’t for the war in Cambodia she and her brother wouldn’t even exist given that their parents first met in an internment camp for ethnically Vietnamese Cambodians. This is an incredibly complex thing for any individual to consider: the fact that your existence is necessitated by a civil war coming on the tail-end of a cultural genocide. Yet, this is something that most settler-Canadians will never, ever experience.
In its current iteration, this piece feels well suited to the 20-minute timeframe especially since the piece wraps up so perfectly with the rice being cooked on stage. I could certainly see this piece being extended into a full-length run, but I can’t help but feel like it would be too much (though I am always up for being proven wrong). Creator Thai has definitely used these festival guidelines to her advantage and, under the direction of the esteemed Kristina Watt, both Thai and Pang deliver some of the most honest and powerful performances I’ve seen at this festival.
This show along with InSight and Le Crip Bleu, in my opinion, have more than exemplified the spirit of the Fresh Meat Theatre Festival and given audiences something truly new and exciting to watch on stage.
I know this was a bit of a longer piece and I really appreciate you sticking through it to the end. Overall, we have the utmost respect for the team behind the Fresh Meat Theatre Festival and the active and thoughtful work they are doing to try and diversify our community. Our criticisms were never meant to ‘kick’ anyone when ‘they’re down’, but we won’t deny the hurt they caused. The way I see it is that: if you step on someone’s toe, you still apologize even if it didn’t hurt you. Though theatre criticism requires critical thought, it also requires accountability. Our only intention has only ever been to ask the difficult questions so we can push ourselves, as an arts community, further. The conversations we’ve had in the past two weeks have proved incredibly fruitful and we look forward to collaborating with Fresh Meat on a piece for our Community Voices series some time in the near future.