The Reason for Time

Whole minutes passed when I didn’t think of my man and the swimming lesson set up for the next day, if no one was murdered before then, or the cars stopped, or a bomb go off somewhere…

On a hot, humid Monday afternoon in July 1919, Maeve
Curragh watches as a blimp plunges from the sky and
smashes into a downtown Chicago bank building. It is the
first of ten extraordinary days in Chicago that will
forever change her life.

Racial tensions mount as soldiers return from the
battlefields of Europe and the Great Migration brings new
faces to the city, culminating in violent race riots.

Each day the young Irish immigrant, a catalogue order
clerk for the Chicago Magic Company, devours the news of
a metropolis where cultural pressures are every bit as febrile
as the weather. But her interest in the headlines wanes when she catches the eye of a charming streetcar conductor.

Maeve’s singular voice captures the spirit of a young woman living through one of Chicago’s most turbulent periods. Seamlessly blending fact with fiction, Mary Burns weaves a compelling and evocative tale of how an ordinary life can became inextricably linked with history.

Available at all the usual on-line outlets or at your favourite independent bookstore.

Vancouver, B.C. launch, Saturday, April 23, 3:30 PM, 1220 East Pender

Toronto launch, Saturday, April 30, 3:30 PM, Victory Café, 581 Markham

"A Pickpocket Looks at a Saint...

..and all he sees are his pockets." Something I read years ago, which has stuck with me. I took a look at Vancouver recently, trying to see it as my visitor might, and what struck me was the abundance of aboriginal art imagery. Travellers arriving at the international terminal at Vancouver Airport immediately encounter totems standing near pools of water that then cascade over stones. Among the major works by First Nations artists are the Musqueam Welcome Figures and Bill Reid's fabulous piece, Spirit of Haida Gwai, The Jade Canoe.
Bill Reid's Spirit of Haida Gwai, The Jade Canoe, at YVR

In the great hall of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia totems stand almost as tall as the old growth trees from which they were carved, some them well over a century ago. There's a hushed quality about those who walk among them. It feels like a sacred place. Stanley Park too has a totem pole site, the most visited tourist attraction in Vancouver, apparently. Nine totems there, all replacements for originals from the northwest and lower coast villages where they originated in the 1920's.
Museum of Anthropology, U.B.C.

Characteristic northwest coast aboriginal designs show up in store windows, on banners, on brochures, on posters. Granville Island - with its huge public market, several theatres and the Emily Carr College of Art - has more than one shop featuring First Nations art. Most of the general, usually higher-end gift stores do too. In one wall-sized glass case I admired the sculptures worked by Inuit carvers. The elegant beak of a long-necked bird emerged from the tusk of a sea lion, visible transformation. Then there's the opposite end, i.e. familiar depictions of ravens and whales printed on mass produced t-shirts, and totem poles made of plastic in Gastown souvenir shops.

While First Nations people struggle back from a colonial mentality that tried to destroy them, we rely on their culture to help form our regional identity and their support to protect the west coast environment. As one advocate for an environmental organization told me, "We can't go ahead with anything unless the First Nations are on our side." Although he wasn't talking about the pipelines threatening to bring oil to the pristine northern coastline, without First Nations support, those pipelines aren't going to happen.

So ironic. We may appreciate the cultural distinctiveness and the environmental values of the First Nations, but there's still such a long way to go before the brutal effects of colonialism are reversed. This was reaffirmed earlier in the year when the RCMP reported that 1,017 women and girls identified as Indigenous were murdered between 1980 and 2012—a homicide rate roughly 4.5 times higher than that of all other women in Canada. What's more, as of November 2013, at least 105 Indigenous women and girls remained missing under suspicious circumstances or for undetermined reasons.

Despite the beauty I saw in Vancouver, we have not yet moved past the time when a predator looks at an aboriginal woman and sees prey.

Huddled Masses Yearning....

Introducing the reforms he intends to make to immigration laws in the U.S., President Obama referred to the Statue of Liberty. "We didn't raise the Statue of Liberty with her back to the world," he said, reminding listeners of the pride with which the U.S. used to accept immigrants. But now, with the masses huddled along the southern border, or surging across it, not to mention those who arrived even decades ago and have been huddled somewhere outside the law, pride has turned to fear, to anger.
 Immigration is a problem for many first-world countries, especially at receiving locations where newcomers have to be processed, housed, given medical care. Political parties that favour stricter immigration laws are on the ascendance not only in the United States but also in Britain, France, Austria, and Switzerland. Italy struggles to deal with literal tides of Africans rolling in with the sea after perilous journeys. Nevertheless, war, gangs, tyrants local and national, withering poverty, and climate change refugees continue to replenish the stream of those who risk the very lives they are trying to better in boats, with the infamous coyotes, with gun toting vigilantes who take it upon themselves to patrol borders. You can't blame a person for wanting to improve his lot and the lot of his children, and in time, once the considerable tangles are sorted out, receiving countries are inevitably enriched. The language problems that plagued their parents are something the second generation - some of them stand-up comics - only joke about. You get your Apple Stores in which the only similar characteristics among staff are the red t-shirts with the white apples below faces of various skin shades and features: One old white guy, many young south and east Asians, a couple of blacks, a man who might be related to Mohammed Morsi. Nearby, across from the central branch of the Vancouver Library, whose collection includes books and journals in 16 languages - from Arabic to Vietnamese - there is a two-block stretch dominated by ethnic restaurants, including Ebi Ten Japanese fast food, SK Mediterranean Restaurant, Coco Noodle Express, Rolls Kitchen, Pasta and Pizza, Belgian Waffles, Creative Felafel, Orange Julius, Chopped Leaf offering rolls with southwest, Bankgok, Greek and Mexican fillings; also Japadog, Curry Fusion, Papa Beard Cream Puffs. And that's just one side of the street. While there has long been a TNT Market on the outskirts of a gentrifying Chinatown, with Chinese junk food and a huge seafood department, and teetering stacks of pre-wrapped sushi to go, there is now the H Market, with Japanese and other Asian specialities as well as cornflakes and ice cream and a well stocked produce department a block from the city's main intersection at Georgia and Granville Streets.
Immigrants en route to Italy.
     Typical Vancouver. In Canada, one out of five people are immigrants and the largest percentage comes from Asia, although 200 different ethnic origins were reported in the last census. To those who worry about a national identity when the population is composed of so many nationalities, it's a leap to accept that our diversity IS our identity. But the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who fostered Canada's multicultural policy during his time said,
     "National unity if it is to mean anything in the deeply personal sense, must be founded on confidence in one's own individual identity; out of this can grow respect for that of others and a willingness to share ideas, attitudes and assumptions. A vigorous policy of multiculturalism will help create this initial confidence. It can form the base of a society which is based on fair play for all."
     And offers plenty of eating out choices. My daughter recently fantasized about living in a small town. She wants a quieter life, but doesn't think she can give up ethnic food. Funny how acceptance starts with taste. How the effects of immigration are something we often experience first by literally swallowing them.
     Two images from one day: The owner of the local Chinese restaurant, Ming, hand in front of her mouth, embarrassed as she struggles with the unfamiliar pronunciation of English words during a tutoring session. Later, I unwrap a new computer that also began its journey in China.

(From the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, second stanza)

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
- Emma Lazarus

The Play-ing's the Thing

There was none of the fizz of an opening night. The bar was closed, the lobby dim. Not even ticket takers waiting to take money and cards; only a lone attendant at the entrance handing out a two-sided sheet that detailed the afternoon's event. But when the house doors opened, there were about forty of us facing a stage where five music stands had been placed in front of five straight chairs. Soon the dramaturge, the person who oversees the acquisition and development of scripts a theatre may produce, came out to explain the program, called ReACT, in which works in progress are presented to audiences for the first time, so that the playwright can, well, gauge their reaction.

     Then all the usual things happened. The house lights dimmed, the stage lights brightened. An actor walked onstage and stood in front of the music stand that held his script and began to speak, and there we were, in his hands, as he began weaving the illusion that would hold us, or not; that would create a temporary world where characters revealed themselves and the conflict between them that would create the tension that would involve us, or not. It's magic, really, theatre. Take a engaging character, and there was one in this case, Joy, played by Susinn McFarlane, give her something to go for; if we care about her we will be caught up in her progress towards that goal. We will feel for her when she gets slapped down, and feel a gradual unfolding of contentment when she succeeds. If she has a smart mouth and unpredictable behaviour, so much the better, funnier, more dramatic.
     It is magic for the playwright too, to hear/see words he imagined alone at his desk take on life in the person of an actor who is perfect for the part. To follow the smooth or not smooth segues from one scene to the other, to see if he has made everything clear enough that the audience gets it, but not so clear that viewers have nothing to think about later.
     In "Comfort and Joy," by David King, the wild and crazy title character Joy, who was invited to share Christmas dinner with the parents of her son's new girlfriend, gets taken down a peg. Maybe too many pegs, some audience members thought. This response and others will guide the playwright through another draft of this script slated for production next year.
     Non-playwrights, even avid theatre goers may not understand the importance of programs like ReACT at Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre. With live theatre attendance in steady decline, the chances of getting a new play produced have gone from slim to spectral. But plays are meant to go "up," onto the boards, onto a stage where people arranged in front or around can see them. "If there's no audience, there just ain't no show," the classic rock group Chilliwack sang.  And so, because play-ing's the thing, there are these opportunities, more opportunities it seems to "workshop" a piece, or participate in a staged reading series like ReACT, than to have the actual production every playwright wants, an opening night where people arrive in their particular version of dress up clothes and the lobby is chattery, the printed program includes photos of the actors and their bio's, and a production history that might include, like the work I saw in NY this past summer, a string of "workshop" performances.  Although many plays run straight through now, the evening might be stretched out with an intermission where folks stand in groups drinking wine from stemmed glasses or plastic cups and talking about the first act. Of course the writer's wishlist assumes critics who will write reviews that are not only positive but thorough, insightful.
     From the moment a playwright picks up a pen or sits down at a computer, everything is unpredictable and that may be part of the drug.  Will the idea work, will a producer see its possibilities?  Will it get as far as a workshop and then a full production? Even with those major hurdles out of the way, it's just the beginning, because one of the enduring wonders of a live performance is that it is different every time, even with the same actors, the same script. Enter the world of theatre, just walk through the doors and you are part of the drama. Anything can happen.

A Gatsby-esque Twelfth Night

Imagine a meeting between F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Shakespeare. Hey, I've got an idea, says Will. Let's transport my popular English comedy Twelfth Night to the site of your American tragedy. The decadence of  West Egg ( Long Island) and the class consciousness of its residents are perfect for my characters, who are, most of them, titled, and not above the kind of cruelty latent in Tom Buchanan. And it's all about mistaken identity, too, or at least people pretending to be someone they are not.

In this summer of The Great Gatsby, I found it odd that the director of Bard on the Beach's Twelfth Night, Dennis Garnhum, apparently should ignore the popularity of the movie and the revival of Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, and instead invite the audience to imagine that it was 1913 and Viola had been shipwrecked at a European Spa, called Illyria. All those men in light coloured suits, the drinking, carousing. Are they trying to say something about Gatsby I wondered, shortly into Act 1. Is Feste the Nick Carraway-type character? But wait, weren't the women's dresses wrong for the jazz age, and, and...

I know that theatre folk are always looking for new ways of presenting Shakespeare, but here the choice seemed less than well thought out. With setting and costumes so obviously referential, the production would have been served by making better plot or thematic use of the implications. It might be done without altering the script. On the other hand, why not a different setting altogether? Still, it was a very enjoyable production with a wonderful performance, as usual, by the multi-talented Jonathan Young as Feste, the wise fool, and also by the newcomer Rachel Cairns, who played a convincing Viola. I loved the scene just before intermission, when each principal character crosses the stage by him or herself, pausing for barely a beat, before striding down one of the tunnels to offstage. We knew what each was thinking, though no one said a word. Of course on the main stage, the backdrop open to a sea/mountain view of Vancouver is always the star of the show.