While killing time waiting for the latest Saturday Night Live to begin I stumbled across something much more enjoyable than expected.
As Father Figures (2017) begins to unfold, and I saw vague resonances to other recent films I tried to imagine the conversation as the film was being pitched.
Glenn Close is playing a mom who has been promiscuous in her youth, so much so that her memory of the conception of her boys is a bit hazy: not unlike the premise for Mamma Mia, although it’s not a musical. But instead of bringing the possible dads together on a Mediterranean isle, we get a journey of self-discovery.
Owen Wilson & Ed Helms are contrasting brothers who seem estranged, driving each other a little bit crazy. It’s not so different from what we saw in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), although this time Wilson is less of a jerk, more of the silly over-the-top fount of enlightenment & wisdom he played in the Fokker films, beginning with Meet the Parents (2000).
If you recall Helms from the Hangover movies you may be waiting for the craziness underneath that is ready to erupt.
It’s a classic pattern really, this idea of a journey of self-discovery, with conflict & male-bonding, . We’re sometimes verging into territory that is uncomfortable, but this isn’t as gross & scary as some comedies I’ve seen in the past few years.
One reason it feels so fresh is that Lawrence Sher is making his directorial debut leading a strong ensemble cast including JK Simmons, Ving Rhames, Harry Shearer and Christopher Walken, in addition to Wilson, Helms & Close. Sher has recently been an Oscar nominated cinematographer for The Joker after a long apprenticeship behind the camera, that certainly earned him his shot at directing.
While there’s a lot of testosterone in the film it’s refreshing, sensitive, while dodging many of the usual pitfalls. There’s little cliché or sentimentality. I am sure they’ll let Sher direct again after a strong start.
And then there’s Justin Malen, who wrote the script.
The mystery deepens when I look more closely. Malen’s entry on IMDB mentions Office Christmas Party (2016) and Wished another 2017 film, identified as a Chinese film, and for which Malen’s credit is under the name Hongwen Mai. So perhaps his career isn’t properly documented because he has changed his name.
While it may seem to be good that he has three films opening in 2021, none of them sound terribly exciting. Two of the three (Yes Day and Clifford the Big Red Dog) seem to be aimed at children and Bad Teacher 2 is a sequel to a forgettable film. Clearly the powers that be have noticed that the man can write, and have given him lots of work, perhaps insisting that he pay his dues. But I hope someone will eventually ask him what sort of project he wants to write. Full disclosure: I love children’s films. I was musing just yesterday that Gru (the evil genius/reformed hero of the Despicable Me cycle) sounds like a kid’s version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, and thereby empowered to mangle the language in a way one never hears in the adult cinema world. I remember Clifford from numerous bedtimes with the kids, and will likely see Malen’s creation one way or another. While the industry doesn’t always seem to respect children’s literature, I’m not the industry. I love Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, The Nutcracker & anything undertaken as art or entertainment intended for children.
I believe Malen has genuine talent. While the big actor names & Ivan Reitman as Executive Producer likely helped promote the project, it was the writing that made this such an enjoyable film. You’ll hear people complain about comedies that follow the deeply worn tracks of a genre so well that there’s nothing new anymore, and then when someone tries something genuinely new they complain because it’s unfamiliar & challenging.
Father Figures isn’t a predictable film. I think I need to see it again to have a better sense of it, but it held my attention. While it was only asked to fill the time before SNL it was the highlight of the night, and has me musing the morning after.
If you get the chance to see it, I’d recommend it.
Confession: this is a meta-review, a preamble to what’s ahead. I’ve been reading lots of books, and will write about them in the next little while.
Once again the pandemic seems to be changing our rules. I saw Singin’ in the Rain a few days ago, a film that I admire for many reasons, especially its illustration of the way a changing paradigm can upend and disrupt our lives. When the talkies arrived our ideas of excellence were changed forever. My favorite number in this film is one that for me captures the essence of musicals, the idea that the music goes where the word can’t. After a certain point in this scene the words cease to mean anything at all: so no wonder they venture into something totally meaningless. No it’s not Robert Wilson but this number seems very modern to me.
At one time –long ago—I was more like the studious fellow doing the tongue-twisters, not realizing that I was taking everything too seriously.
So speaking of the new & the changing paradigms, I’ve been avoiding e-books for years. It’s not an objection to technology, this avoidance of digital documents. But I do love the feel of a book, the smell of a book. Ah let me wander in the depths of a used book store, especially a music store. My collection? largely used books I’ve stumbled upon particularly the scores. Magic. How did they know I was looking for that opera? Of course I need to wrap my head around electronic scores, especially now that I’m composing again. Yes it’s embarrassing to admit how much I did using a pencil, although I did a few things with a tiny cheap program I bought for $20, which worked fine for the songs & music cues in Christmas at the Ivanov’s, (oh my dog so many years ago.)
But I’m now understanding something I saw before. I recall speculating on social media when I couldn’t find a bookstore that would carry Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, foolishly attributing this to something political as though the book were being suppressed. Silly me. Flash forward to 2020, when I can’t get a hard-copy of Alex Ross’s new Wagner book. I realize now that both times the key was not politics but logistics. An American best-seller will be made available in the USA first and only later will they get around to Canada & her tiny customer base. We’re like a blanket on the back of a behemoth, only useful to keep the animal warm, otherwise beyond notice. I’ve seen this pattern with other products.
So in other words I’m now fighting my aversion to the e-version. When I tried to procure a copy of Alex Ross’s new book about Wagner, the kind charming person from the bookstore said there were no copies available in this country.
This is only partially true of course because we were only speaking of hard copy. Digital versions? Different story.
I was softened up because I was already looking at other electronic volumes. A professor I know in the USA directed me to Paulo Freire’s A Pedagogy of the Oppressed, available as a pdf for download at no charge. I’ve been reading it.
I recall reading other old essays this way, such as several of Richard Wagner’s writings, and opera libretti that can be found online. It’s a way to side-step commercial market forces. Books that don’t make big $ are available this way. There are trade-offs. I can’t just shove it onto a shelf or lend it to a friend: at least I haven’t figured that part out yet. But I am shocked at how easy they are to read. I had thought the digital interface in your face would not be so comfortable. Surprise surprise.
So now I’m eagerly hunting for more books. Sometimes I get the old-fashioned hard copy. I’ve recently been reading dry Bob Woodward (a disappointment so far), funny Michael Cohen (an unexpected surprise at least so far), singer David Geary’s memoir, Sky Gilbert’s brilliant Shakespeare analysis (I am on my third trip through this remarkable study), Fareed Zacharia’s newest & John Lithgow’s funny new book.
When I need a break from all those words (just like Gene Kelly & Donald O’Connor in the video above) there’s always music. So I’ll write something about that.
And of course I’m reading Alex Ross electronically and so far loving it.
I will tell you more about these books in the next little while. I hope it’s helpful, with Christmas coming. Did you know that books make wonderful gifts?
It started out as a nightmare, that classic things going wrong dream, where you have a show to give or a piece to perform and don’t remember your lines.
I was to give a presentation or teach a class.
I had been hanging out with friends in a theatre space, something vaguely like the McMillan Theatre. No I’ve never done that before.
And I suddenly remembered that I was scheduled to talk about something upstairs, (even though hm, wait, isn’t the classroom downstairs?) So I was quibbling with the dream already.
I realized that I didn’t have the CD for the music I was supposed to discuss. And I didn’t have notes. For a microsecond I was nervous.
There are broadly speaking two kinds of dreams. I don’t mean “fun” and “scary” although I suppose that is also true. I meant to divide dreams between the ones where you are immersed in the dream as though it were your reality (and it can scare you because you believe in it), and the ones where you know you’re dreaming, which is called “lucid dreaming”.
So it dawned on me that I was dreaming.
And I had a marvelous epiphany during the dream. Ha, I should hope so. Who wants a banal epiphany or a boring epiphany? But I really mean it. As I noticed how odd the situation was – that I’m supposed to give a presentation when I’m not currently enrolled in any courses nor am I teaching—it hit me, that, wait, it’s 2020. Nobody is doing any of these things right now.
And I had the fun realization that not only was this a dream but hey, I could talk about anything I wanted in the classroom. Sure, that’s always the case: that a teacher doesn’t necessarily have to be a slave to curriculum or structure.
But I was particularly aware, that this was an opportunity, an unreal magical moment.
I miss the EJB, the theatres & concert spaces, the gatherings of people including the ones who are excited to be there. And even if some are bored I miss them too. I miss the whole kit & kaboodle.
It was nice to be temporarily immersed in a world that I’m not able to visit right now, and even nicer to know that it could be like a playground, in this dream. At one point I was rushing to take the elevator upstairs and of course it was in the wrong place, and when the door opened the floor was 3 feet away from proper alignment. I climbed in, amused that the floor was more like the dirt in the garden outside than a real elevator, an amalgam of recent experiences (I’ve been raking leaves this week, not riding elevators at the EJB). I climbed in thinking my jacket would get dirty and it would be fun explaining this to the listeners at the presentation: and knowing that, no I suppose it was just a dream.
The dream didn’t last long once I realized what was up.
And it was Saturday morning. I was grateful that Erika had let me sleep in, and had taken the dog outside for me, sparing me one of the usual morning chores.
Hm, come to think of it, it’s a pleasure to walk outside watching the dog romping around in the yard. Not a chore at all. It’s a pleasure.
I went to make coffee, to shake off sleep, to tell Erika about the dream…and to make the dog her breakfast.
We have lived for quite a long time in a culture here in the western world, where the consensus is often unspoken. While there may have been something friendly & cordial in our past, genuine collegiality is now the exception rather than the rule.
No I am not proposing cattle prods.
But maybe it’s also time to move past our fantasy of a gentleman’s agreement between contestants, given that no one behaves like a gentleman anymore.
I would point you to the NBA for an alternative. Why?
They have something called a shot clock, which is a way to regulate possession. You get your turn –not unlike what happens in a debate– but it’s limited to 24 seconds. If you can’t get it done in 24 seconds, if you are too cautious or if the other team’s defense is too good, the referee ends your opportunity, and the ball is given to the other team.
How would it work in a debate? suppose each contestant gets two minutes to answer a question from the moderator (and the mod is not a passive schlumph like what we saw in 2020 so far).
The clock runs. When your two minutes it up, the other person gets their turn.
If someone goes over time, it comes off the clock. So if for instance you do a Mike Pence and blather on for 30 or 45 seconds while the mod tries to stop you? that comes off your time for the next question, when instead of 2:00 minutes you get 1:30 or 1:15.
And the same could work with interruptions and heckling. If you disrupt 30 seconds of a reply, you lose 30 seconds of your own time.
Lest anyone say this isn’t how it works in Parliament: they have a Sergeant-at-arms lest The Speaker of the House is ignored.
Are we now fully into the era of reality TV, without any civility? Gameshows are the ultimate reality TV. If that’s the world we live in, why not give the mod a water pistol, to douse the transgressor?
I’m sure the prospect of a soaking wet comb-over would silence some people you can think of.
I wish there were a way to put the toothpaste back in the tube, to rewind to a time when people remembered decorum. Parliament demands it. Why shouldn’t we as well?
I regret the violence implicit in all of this. Wouldn’t it be amazing if debaters were required to listen to one another, and before replying, were required to spend 30 seconds paraphrasing the words of their opponent, to prove that they understand what’s being discussed? I can imagine a debate protocol where you are required to defend the point of view of your opponent. Joe Biden espousing the GOP ideals, Donald Trump defending Obamacare. Is that a mind-expanding exercise to dream of a debate as a kind of drama of identification?
I know what you’re thinking. “But that’s not what a debate is!”
(and here I’m recalling that Monty Python sketch, where John Cleese argues about argument)
Is this absurd enough for you yet? But at least they are not moderating debates with live ammo. I’m nostalgic just like Captain Hook, wanting to shout “bad form!”
Are we in a post-debate post-logic world?
Discourse is conversation ultimately, but if no one listens, is there a conversation?
Arkady Spivak is the Artistic Producer of Talk is Free Theatre, a company you may recall for some remarkable shows.
I remember tiny perfect shows like their adaptation of Candide, Parkdale Peter Pan or Dani Girl. I can’t forget bigger more complex shows such as Bulgakov’s Moliere, their co-productions of Assassins or The Wedding Party. These are among the very best shows I saw in the past decade.
I saw on TIFT’s website that they’re doing a pilot project of a basic income guarantee (or BIG) for artists.
Universal basic income is an idea that’s in the air. Andrew Yang ran for President in the USA, proposing that everyone over the age of 18 get a universal basic income of $1,000 per month, in response to worker displacement driven by technological automation. While he lost the nomination for the Democrats, his ideas got lots of attention. But it’s not new. In the 1930s there was a political party in Canada called “Social Credit” who had similar ideas, that all citizens should be paid a dividend as capital and technology replace labour in production. They were elected for the first time in the 1930s in Alberta. With the discovery of oil perhaps they no longer needed to offer the dividend, but the party would also win elections in Quebec & British Columbia. If you’re curious you could read more about a variety of basic income experiments in the world, and parties (usually in opposition, sometimes a tiny minority) seeking to advance the idea in countries all over the world.
The TIFT Artist BIG Project is a pilot project designed to offer a number of Artists (approximately 20) a minimum annual income guarantee each year, for a three-year period. The income would be earned through the Artist being engaged on various and separate projects with TIFT throughout the year, as determined by TIFT’s Artistic Producer (“AP”) and the individual Artist together. The BIG Project is NOT full-time and is NOT employment. Rather, TIFT would guarantee that the Artist is able to earn enough in fees from the separate independent contracts with TIFT each year to at least equal the minimum annual income guarantee. One of the goals of the BIG Project is the exploration of a new operating system, through action research, that would offer artists and theatre companies a more sustainable and effective paradigm in which to create theatre.
I wanted to discuss this with Arkady.
Barczablog:I am recording. I have a new phone. I tested it with some Wagner
ARKADY: If it’s good for Wagner it’s good for me.
Barczablog: So please speak clearly & feel free to be Wagnerian.
ARKADY: That has never been an issue for me.
Barczablog: I read about Talk is Free Theatre Artists Basic Income Guarantee pilot project on your website. Talk about it in your own words.
ARKADY: Sure. Yes. So this is not an idea we developed just because of COVID, just now. This has been kicking around for about a year and a half. Where it started, about a year and a half ago we launched a sort of study or enquiry, about professional artists (particularly those who are either in mid-career or approaching mid-career) as a support system. All of the artists who are around, might be 40, 41, years old, and ask “do we have a kid or not?” , “Do we have to live with the industry” Because as you know it’s a counter-intuitive thing to family life. You know, you’re not at home, you have to work at night.
Barczablog: And it may be different for a woman than for a man.
ARKADY: Especially for women, but you know not exclusively because there are same sex male couples who are adopting kids, it becomes the same thing. But for women, the biological clock is what it is, you cannot change it. If you’re 50 you’re less likely to have a child, than if you’re 40. We’ve been noticing these things… We’ve done a deep questionnaire to the ensemble membership of TIFT. What’s needed, what are your barriers, that sort of thing. There were five actions plans that came out. All of them but this one (that we’re talking about) were instantly implemented because they didn’t require study. So things like paid child-care, giving artists a child-care allowance. So you don’t need a study.
Barczablog: so parenthetically can I ask you to summarize what those other things are that you already did?
1-Paying child-care. 2-Shortening rehearsal day: instead of eight hours making it five hours, working 10:00-3:00 so mothers / fathers / caregivers can run home to daycare before the school is over. 3-And work five days a week instead of six days a week, and to compensate for that we just have to add another week of rehearsal which is not necessarily the worst case or the worst thing for creating art: to give it more gestation.
And those were the main things.
And one of those things became that: the reason that people become reluctant to adopt the lifestyle at 41 or 42 if they want to stay in the profession, they’ve worked for over two decades to achieve a certain positioning in the industry, where someone can hire them without an audition and that kind of stuff.
And why would you let go of that? After you’ve everything you were building towards. And you know it’s sort of counter-intuitive and the thing is the fear that, the moment you give up a part somebody else will play it and your career spirals out of control.
So we realized –and I put a little committee of artists together—that the best way to ensure the lifestyle is to promise people work. To promise them an income.
Because even for self-employed there was a government program. It is very difficult to decipher but it is possible. And it may have to be that the work adjusts itself to the lifestyle needs of an artist as opposed to the converse. ….But at any rate something was needed. And that’s when I came up with the idea of financial guarantee.
And then I said this is going to have to be a pilot project. And we got busy with tours and programming and all this stuff.
And then COVID happens.
And then we see the very first thing that happens is that everybody was thinking of contracts. And whereas after a certain healing & rebalancing other professions could make their own luck within theatres. So playwrights can in fact seek a commission from a theatre, because we can develop new work. Nothing stops us from developing new work. Or they could get a grant to develop new work, as an individual artist. And they could do professional development.
But an actor can do none of those things. The only thing an actor can do is be hired by a theatre and speak the material, the words given to them by a playwright. And they’re effectively shut out from all of the training programs. Most do not accept applications from actors partially because there are so many, and because –no offense—it’s very difficult to determine who is professional who is not, as an actor: for the purposes of an arts council. And so there is a huge degree of unfairness. So I started planning figuring out what we can do.
And so what this is, is a financial guarantee, a contract that there will be contracts, nothing more.
Successful applicants to the program will be offered a minimum financial guarantee per year. The minimum will be $10K per year. They could go higher. It really depends on how many will apply. If an artist is a mainstay in the company and they’ve earned an average of $25K a year over the past 3 years, we would probably look at the average per year. If they’ve been making $25-27,000 a year and we offer them $10,000: that’s kind of a slap in the face.
And this will be about 25% of the general work we offer to artists every year. So the premise is this. You are put on a financial guarantee, for three years. Then when it’s time to program the season I meet with a chosen person. And we discuss what work is interesting for them, given the career aspirations, what makes sense given the lifestyle marrying all those ideas creatively in professional decisions, because it’s difficult to separate them. And we come up with a program. They say “I always want to play Hamlet” and I say “well I see you more as a Claudius” and so we negotiate a work program. It is actor-centric but it’s not exclusively for actors.
And what sort of evolution they need from this program. And so then we decide what it is (the program). And when it is. It follows the same benefit of European rep system without surrendering to the shortcomings of it. And the shortcomings are that an actor has no artistic control. And they really work for an institution, you know? It’s considered their work ethic where their work opportunities are tied to the institutionalized vision or institutionalized legacy of this or that organization.
I’m a Moscow Arts Theatre actor. Fine…This is what it really is. It basically looks at and it still has the feeling of an ensemble & working together over a long period of time. But it looks at people as individual institutions that are working together, sort of like a European Union of actors.
Barczablog: it sounds like you’re doing several things at the same time. Not exactly a company, or a collective. I read what you described in the invitation. There are escape clauses built in.
ARKADY That’s right.
Barczablog: You’re trying to make the artists feel safe. You don’t want to box them in, always playing the same type of part.
ARKADY Well yes. This is not what we’ve been doing historically. We’ve never used people in the same light before, that’s number 1. I always operate on the “what is the scariest possible but rational proposition” for that person. Second of all an actor can always say “no I’m not doing it”. And then I’m on the hook financially, right? If we don’t come to an agreement on what you should do for year 1 or year 2 or 3, then I have to pay you out.
Barczablog: How many will it be?
ARKADY It will be approximately 20 we think, right now.
Barczablog: it’s a governance question & also an artistic question. You are not a tyrant, in my experience. In some artistic endeavors, especially if you go back 50 years, the AD was more tyrannical. We’ve seen a change to something more collaborative, co-operative, where the leader is facilitating rather than commanding. Do you expect to have a co-operative relationship among the artists, and they would be speaking amongst each other, and offering suggestions to one another. It wouldn’t just be the job of the artistic director.
ARKADY you’re 100% right. And the only way to run a successful theatre company is to keep everyone busy doing what they want to be doing. There is no other recipe to a productive & safe workplace in my view.
Barczablog: what if they start to see opportunities. What if Joe Blow, who has never played King Lear before, and they notice he would be great if he did x or y or z. They get ideas for adaptations & directions to go in. Maybe a dumb example I gave but you know what I’m driving at.
ARKADY you mean artists talking to each other?
Barczablog: and actually thinking about projects that they might do together.
ARKADY: Oh I will actually encourage that. Because for me to produce something, I don’t want to call it ”check-marks it ticks off” …but how many priorities does it take care of at the same time..? And if I have a project that seven of my absolutely cherished actors are useful to, then feel useful for, it immediately gets staged. I will ask them to cluster together. And meet each other and go for coffee. And pitch projects. I will counter offer them something. I mean if somebody gives me a feel that the work is not quite risky enough, not quite forward thinking enough, for complacent, that’s never going to be upper-most in my mind. So you know it is an artistic discussion, an artist participates in what it is that they want to say. And part of the program the very purpose of it is to ask people to take on other artistic functions and challenges.
Barczablog: How far can that go? Are you saying actors to become musicians or directors or writers?
ARKADY Well… musicians have to go to school for a long time. It needs to be something that is a professional contribution, not a hobby. It could be an actor who has appeared in musicals doing a classical text. It could be within their own profession. It could also be, what I like to do is to go to an actor, and say “why don’t you make your professional directing debut”. And we sometimes have one or two of those in a given year. Because I don’t run a million dollar organization.
Barczablog What about front office functions…
ARKADY If someone wants to go into administration I will let them. If they have $2000 still un-used, …I’m not going to ask them to clean toilets.
Barczablog But maybe the website.
ARKADY Exactly. It has to be self-interested. What I hope it does, is to actually bring artists to a bigger presence within the organization and how it’s governed. If you tell me you want to undertake marketing? I am more interested in hiring an actor to do marketing than a marketing professional. Will I ask you to do that? Not necessary. I’m doing quite fine. First of all in COVID one doesn’t have to market. Anything is a hit.
I will also say that this program is not for everyone. You really have to be actively interested. This is an action research project, meaning that we are learning and we are creating in this paradigm, with this new system, hopefully duplicate-able as we go. We have done some research a lot of thinking for it, but you know you can never prevent yourself, and that is why those webinars are important because they will help inform this through questions people ask. At the end of the day, what is here is that it’s not the only system with which we have a relationship with actors. There is still the conventional way.
Barczablog: so would it be fair to say your pilot is going to be a certain percentage of TIFT and if it catches fire it might grow and even become the entire company?
ARKADY I don’t think it should become the entire company. I sort of look at it as a Highway 401. There is an express lane & a collector lane. You choose which one you want. You can be totally stuck for three hours in either one of them, OR you get through in like six seconds. So my point is that it’s not for everyone. Some people just want to work, they want to show up for work and do the best they can. And they will have to go through a conventional process. And it is also possible and will happen that an actor who is not on that program will end up making more money than the artist who is. It’s just that they’re not part of the cohort that is looking to change the world.
Barczablog And of course every year will be different year. Different people, different chemistry & opportunities.
ARKADY Of course. And if you’re in the three year program as you see there are three uptown opportunities first of all you can forego one year entirely if you know your schedule, if you’re going to be doing a series on television, you can also apply to extend the terms of the program, extend the financial guarantee over a longer period of time, which is technically what I would do first before I say no to the year. You can always say no later on. And if you realize it’s not giving you any satisfaction (professional or whatever) there is nothing in it for you, ….
Barczablog You’re communicating with your participants, did you also expect to talk to unions about this?
ARKADY I didn’t, but there is nothing in it, all the contracts still have to be negotiated relative to each artist.
Barczablog so you don’t see any problem…
ARKADY In order for you to earn this money you still have to be signed on to an Equity contract or designers contract, musician, etc. You’re not getting any money on the side. You still have to work it.
Barczablog Okay. So guaranteed annual income. It’s been proposed in many places. There was a candidate in the American election, there are countries who have tried this, and discussed here too. During the pandemic artists are hurting, having lost gigs & income. This was something you were developing anyway? You did a survey… how long ago did you start?
ARKADY we started about a year and a half ago but this idea has been kicking around. The pandemic made it all the more necessary. It’s a coincidence. I hope it only goes to show how important that is.
Barczablog: Your survey: how many artists?
ARKADY the survey went out to 103 people on our mailing list: people who had done at least one thing with us in the last 5 years.
Barczablog: How many responses did you get back?
ARKADY There were 27 replies. People didn’t identify themselves by name but people identified themselves by gender & age etc
Barczablog: I can see this applying to many different disciplines: theatre, or dance, or opera or musicals. Do you see this as an important experiment that could be adopted elsewhere?
ARKADY I hope so.
Barczablog: Are you leaning heavily on govt support, or the city of Barrie?
ARKADY As an operation, if you’re talking about the company overall then absolutely because what we do is risky artistic projects, risky ancillary initiatives like this, and until they’re proven successful I cannot really go and get a sponsor. So the government generally speaking is much more certainly through arts councils, there is more support for risk work.
And I have a feeling even without this project there will be a better situation for the actors going forward. Because we actually now had to fight for something. Which as a country we’ve never had, on our own premises. We had war & had to send troops, but we never had to defend our land (well it’s not “our land”…), but our place. Number 1
And number 2, the way I consoled my colleagues, was “well you lost contracts”…. But everyone lost contracts. And you know, so… there is that.
Barczablog: I notice in the proposal, you have a preference for Barrie artists. If people have worked for TIFT before, you want to find local sponsors as well. Do you see this as a community building exercise?
ARKADY I see it as an arts community building not a geographic one. And that particular clause you’re referring to says you have to have previous work experience in the city, as opposed to have residence here. Or be from here. The thinking behind that is, …and by the way, not every contract will have to be fulfilled in Barrie. It is for all of Canadian artists. You just have to be legally allowed to work in Canada. But you can be anywhere in Canada, or live in UK….
Barczablog Okay Let me frame this around my own experience. I’m a Canadian Opera Company subscriber. They cancelled the last 2 shows of the last season, the first 2 shows of this season. And I just heard that the 4 operas in the 20-21 season are also cancelled. Do you see yourself working in a virtual arena for the next little while?
ARKADY Absolutely not. I think theatre is all about gathering. We’ve just programmed the entire September, outside performances, including a very big NAC project they’ve commissioned us to do, so I’ve squeezed in two-months-worth of programming that just closed on Saturday into the month of September. I don’t think theatre belongs online (and it’s not about whether it’s Stratford or whatever) I’m very glad for Zoom, for the conferences I can now do, the meetings you don’t have to get dressed, you can do a lot, it’s very effective. In terms of the actual content? what is actually important is the gathering itself more so than the story. I am perfectly happy to wait until we can meet again. OR Nobody says theatre has to have at least 50 -100 people. I am happy to do it for an audience of 1!
So you know, once this program is up and running, the idea is, instead of going to an artist and saying “can you give me 6 or 7 weeks of your time, we’re going to rehearse this particular thing and maybe tour it afterwards what is interesting we will work on more projects over a longer span. So I will throw ten projects into rehearsal. We will work one week at a time…., until it’s safe. And Moscow Theatre is where I grew up, and you start working on something without even knowing when the opening night will be. Because everybody is paid for by government. Every schedule was compiled monthly. And you would commit a month before, based on when it was felt it was going to be ready.
Barczablog: is there anything you want to tell me that you didn’t tell me yet?
ARKADY We are not going to answer every question. In fact I want questions to come out.
Barczablog your illustration with the Moscow Theatre was good because it shows that it can’t be always about making money or earning back the investment. Some theatre is experimental and that’s very exciting. And you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s what art is. It’s propositional.
ARKADY At the same time, raising revenues for my programs is 90% of what I do. I am more of a business man than a curator. But at the same time it’s not about commercial reality. It’s the business reality against a very specific artistic vision. Right? Because art has to be underneath everything. And anything can get away and deserves to be seen the question is, to develop an innovative business formula for that art, not as a reality in & of itself. We should not be afraid to commit to something instinctively & use the business sense to validate it.
Barczablog: so as a last question, you have the dates etc on the website & the deadline right?
ARKADY Yes the deadline to submit is Oct 23rd at 5 pm EST . Then our hope is to let successful applicants know by the end of November. I have a feeling it will be much quicker than that. Because there are internal reasons for that. I have to start programming season, I can’t wait until December. I want to give the evolution more time.
Barczablog: I’ll be interested to see how it unfolds. Thanks Arkady!
For further information go to Talk is Free Theatre’s website.
Is he really gone? Alexander Neef may be in Europe with the Paris Opera but it was already a promiscuous relationship, this General Directorship of the COC. Neef was working for his Toronto audience while at the same time taking on the role of Artistic Director of Santa Fe Opera.
People work from home during the pandemic. Here I am, musing at home all by myself, as I wonder: does Neef even need to be in Toronto to lead the COC? Hmm I wonder. At some point in the next few years he may finally be gone. I wonder when the Alexander Neef era will actually end.
Recently I’ve seen two fascinating pieces about Alexander Neef & the Canadian Opera Company.
I’m not sure which one I like better, but want to be honest in recognizing how much I like both pieces, and how they trigger my own thoughts.
I have been on both sides with Neef. I have been very supportive applauding many of his choices, wonderful shows & brilliant casts: yet I have been a persistent nag with the nationalist question for years. However Canadian our Canadian Opera Company might be, I think at this time of financial hardship in ALL artistic disciplines, one might legitimately compare them, asking what right the COC has to government support if they keep importing stars from abroad. The Canada Council is to support Canadian artists, not to fund luxuries: by which I mean the imports we can’t afford at a time like this.
“Yes we can” might be the answer to a question that has not even been articulated in the realm of the Canadian Opera Company as part of this question: what comes next. It’s vitally important to consider a few parallel organizations who actually believe that a Canadian could lead them, the ones I display as examples in this blog. Are we still a mere colony, foolish children requiring the parental guidance of Europeans to teach us about a culture that we don’t understand or appreciate?
Or to reframe this around the headline, admittedly borrowed from Barack Obama’s election campaign, are there doubters who think we must hire a European or an American to lead the COC?
Exhibit “A”: The National Ballet of Canada and Karen Kain. Fiscally healthy, led by a Canadian, coming to the end of her tenure.
Exhibit “B”: The Stratford Festival and Antoni Cimolino, led by a Canadian.
Exhibit “C”: Pacific Opera Victoria & Tim Vernon born in Vancouver.
Exhibit “D”: Vancouver Opera & Tom Wright, born in north Vancouver
Exhibit “E”: Opera de Montreal & Patrick Corrigan (Montreal born) & Michel Beaulac (Montreal born)
Exhibit “F”: The Canadian Opera Company, General Director: Alexander Neef. Who will succeed him?
Let me recount some of my favorite Neef moments • Semele, especially the self-righteous puzzlement in some quarters. • Wajdi Mouawad’s Abduction from the Seraglio & Peter Hinton’s Louis Riel: revisiting or even redeeming problematic operas. • Those three Ring operas in consecutive winter seasons, especially the tenors singing the role of Siegfried. • Cenerentola especially Lawrence Brownlee. • Ariadne with Jane Archibald & Adrienne Pieczonka. • Rusalka and Anna Bolena: two wonderful productions showcasing Sondra Radvanovky.
The bar has been raised higher under Neef’s leadership, the orchestra led by Johannes Debus sounding wonderful.
But if there were ever a time to consider this question it’s right now: when financial considerations loom large, when modest prudent steps are needed. Parsifal will wait. Expensive productions must be put off until the COC is able to afford them.
I was looking in the Canadian Opera Company’s latest publication, a shiny offering that arrived in the mail less than an hour ago, with the title “Audience Impact Report.”
Speaking of impacts the mailing included the obligatory return envelope & a request for a donation.
We’re considering it. No that’s not the royal ‘we’. One of us wants to help the COC more than the other. One of us needs deductions on her taxes more than the other. So we shall see.
It struck me as I was staring at the list of donors in the back of the book, that there are two primary pathways to impact a company such as the COC, and wow, my neighbourhood really impacted the arts.
#10 is where philanthropists Arthur & Susan Scace used to live, directly across from where I grew up. I saw with sadness that Arthur passed away just a little while ago, back in May of this year. He was always very kind when I saw him, across the street from us. Years later, I have seen his name mentioned in multiple places, as a donor to my alma mater University of Toronto Schools, the University of Toronto, as well as in support of companies such as the COC.
Their next door neighbours @ # 8 have made their impacts another way. This is where Alex & David Fallis grew up.
Alex is a wonderful actor & director, and now a professor in Newfoundland.
David is a brilliant conductor, the Musical Director with Opera Atelier and prominent in several other organizations such as the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.
I remember playing ball hockey with David & Alex. I recall David’s stirring eulogy for his father many years later at the same church where he could just as likely be seen & heard conducting the Toronto Consort. We rode the bus together en route to UTS when we were young.
On our side of the street (odd numbers directly across) I was a younger kid in the same house where COC baritone Peter Barcza (aka my brother) lived as a child.
We were next door to the house of Louise Morgan, the same Louise Morgan whose name is seen in several places around the Four Seasons Centre as a donor. I’d like to think Mrs Morgan (as we always called her) enjoyed hearing us, with me at the piano & Peter singing.
There were lots of other interesting people not far away in this part of town, such as Rod & Doug Beattie, or Dan Needles (of Wingfield fame), who if memory serves, rode the same Nortown westbound bus, getting off one stop before we did (at least when they were youngsters…). I wonder if the conversations that eventually came to fruition on CBC began on the bus.
Or Al Fleming, my favorite mathematics teacher and eventual UTS Principal, who would get off two stops before that (Roselawn I think).
If you’re over 50 years of age, you may be wondering about the resumption of theatre & concerts. We miss them. But we also know that there’s a pandemic on, and it’s especially hazardous for those who are older.
You may be watching the haggling between teachers & the province over the number of bodies to be in each class, dimly aware that a classroom won’t hold more than 40 people, while concert venues are much bigger, filled not with children but folks as old or older than you, sitting in close proximity.
Koerner Hall? Perhaps 1300 or more
Four Seasons Centre? Home of the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada As many as 2000 when it’s full.
Roy Thomson Hall, where we go to hear the Toronto Symphony and/or the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has a capacity of 2600.
So how is it going to work? If you’re like me, you want to know that these big institutions are taking as much care as necessary. But how much is that though?
I was talking to my mother about the Meindls, namely Rolf & Elfriede. Reverend Rolf passed back in 2012, while Elfriede left us a just a few days ago. Although I know very little about them, they were a part of my family’s history. I’m grateful to my mom for her excellent memory.
You meet nice people in church.
When my father was getting sick with the leukemia that was to kill him, he took my mom on a last honeymoon to Bermuda for ten days or so. This wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the Meindls. Although Elfriede and Rolf already had a couple of children of their own, they volunteered to take care of me & my siblings too: four kids on top of the two they had. My mom was telling me how Elfriede waved goodbye while holding my little sister in her arms.
The church was Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Scarborough. And though Rolf & Elfriede would move to Waterloo while Rolf studied at the seminary to become a minister, they stayed in touch. My mom used to visit regularly.
The Meindls made my mom Godmother to their youngest.
Rolf, would have a congregation in Nova Scotia where the family settled.
He was the minister, while she was the artist, maker of delightful ceramic figures.
Looking at the figurines my mom still has, I thought to photograph them to share them here. Although Elfriede may have passed, her wit lives on in these delightful creations.
We’re helpless in the face of a mystery virus. It seems that everywhere you turn in the media, conspiracies are all around us. The gentler word is “hoax”, that stops short of the kind of thing one sees with ideas of a “Deep State”. But the conservative population don’t have a monopoly on conspiracy theories. I’ve been seeing a ton of flak directed at Louis DeJoy, the Postmaster General of the United States, who is allegedly working to help the GOP steal an election. Is it true? Is DeJoy helping Trump win re-election? I don’t know. I simply want to think about the question from my own experience in the postal world, via my daytime job at the University of Toronto, and with an eye to our own upcoming election.
I first heard the word “paperless” back in the 1990s, when it was presumed that postal mail was a dinosaur, doomed to extinction. Canada Post Corporation (aka CPC) were caught in a perfect storm, where their service territories were growing while their revenues were expected to decline.
I will never forget a presentation from CPC in the 1990s when they articulated their corporate strategy, arguably the usual tactics of any big company of the time.
identify your customers
rank them by revenues (in other words who spends the most or the least?)
treat the biggest customers best
In other words if you were a big bank or a major company CPC wanted to be your friend, to make a kind of partnership. We see that now with Amazon, where CPC ships enormous volumes of parcels for CPC. If you’re a person wanting to send the occasional letter? You can still go to a postal outlet, but your dollars are not understood as crucial to the profits of the corporation. Clearly what CPC were doing was making profits their priority, rather than service. It’s no different in the USA, as the postal service struggles to stay afloat. Indeed I think Canada Post, the crown corporation, are further down the road to being corporate & less oriented towards service than the USPS.
Is it the same for culture? Well let’s see.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra have their Star Wars presentations of film with live orchestra, selling every ticket over four nights.
The National Ballet have The Nutcracker.
CBC has Schitt’s Creek & hockey.
You might say that without money-makers culture would be in trouble. OR you might also say that culture has already sold its soul. It’s a matter for discussion & debate. Your take on the question is likely political, an indication not just of what party you support but where you sit as far as artistic questions go.
For instance, there’s an image I saw on Facebook a few weeks ago.
Government agencies are always understood and interpreted via politics. Each party has a platform that’s a bit different, with their own ideas about funding healthcare, the importance of the CBC, of the necessity to support the arts, maybe even postal services (although that likely isn’t in the platform, not in 2020). Sometimes these questions get aired as part of the political discourse, sometimes they’re under the radar.
But in every case it’s really a question of money & service delivery. The question is ultimately a simple one that I’d reduce to a choice.
Is this activity (whatever we’re discussing, railways, television, healthcare, protecting the environment, or even postal regulations) to be understood as a public service, where its objectives are framed according to the good of people & a community? Do I as a little old dude who wants to send a few Christmas cards matter a whit compared to Amazon or CIBC, who send out enormous volumes of correspondence, parcels, letters.
Or am I irrelevant because this is business, where the only consideration, the only purpose, the chief objective: is to make money? Ultimately most activities are a combination, so the question is one of reconciling the two, where to place the emphasis. Canada Post Corporation will happily take my money, every dollar helps after all. But I’ll probably pay more per letter than CIBC because I’m not offering CPC enough incentive. I’m not their friend, just a stranger without any loyalty.
That’s part of the context for the creation of superboxes, serving newly built subdivisions without having to go door to door, thereby helping CPC reduce their service level while still fulfilling their legally mandated responsibilities. The phrase “service level” is highly useful to articulate comparisons in terms of a sliding scale, depending on available revenue. If it’s merely a business seeking to make a profit, the market will be a key driver. As a service we might understand things differently, especially if there are complex connections to other services & industries.
And all of those different services are competing for a limited pot of $, seeking to place themselves somehow at the centre of society’s sense of priorities. Will we spend money on opera if people don’t have enough COVID tests? This kind of question will likely move to the forefront if, as expected, we get a federal election in the next year, and have the opportunity to contemplate and compare what each of the major parties offers us as a platform.
Let’s think about this question as it might be posed for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation & other cultural industries, in the sharp focus of an election campaign.
Does it provide a vital service to the community?
Will the country pay for this service, can we afford the service even during financial downturns? OR is it something understood as a luxury?
Can it sustain itself somehow on sales revenues?
What happens to the service mission if sales revenue becomes the primary concern?
If we import our culture, buying rather than making content: who are we?
Have we properly identified the dollar value implicit in the byproducts of cultural industries (for instance, the way the Stratford or Shaw Festivals drive tourism)
We can see the same conversation in every sector, sometimes connected to politics, sometimes under the radar. Healthcare will always be an election issue, because it’s much clearer that our well-being depends upon our doctors, research, facilities etc. Yes they can also be offered for profit, as in the USA, but it seems clear in this country that the for-profit approach is fraught with concerns as we’ve seen in the high mortality rate in retirement homes. There are still gaping holes in our network, whether that’s drugs or dentistry or care for older citizens. It’s not yet proven conclusively at least in the public conversation as to whether the for-profit approach may help or ultimately leave us weaker, especially in emergencies such as the current pandemic, although that may come up soon, especially as we look at the aftermath of COVID19.
I’m recalling the wonderful Angels Atlas, part of a program I saw just before the lockdowns & cancellations began earlier this year, having heard that it is scheduled for the National Ballet’s return in 2021. I can’t help comparing two performing arts companies, both on the cusp of changing their leadership at this delicate time for the arts. One is inspiring me while the other is scaring me.
The National Ballet of Canada have been led brilliantly by Karen Kain, robust in their finances & Canadian talent pool. Who leads after KK?
We’re waiting to see who the Canadian Opera Company select to follow Alexander Neef, who is leaving.
One might ask whether the funding landscape has changed in 2020, whether there will be any quid pro quo from funding agencies watching the COC import so much expensive foreign talent, while often ignoring cheaper Canadians whose careers are hanging by a thread. Just as the artistic landscape may have been altered by the pandemic, so too perhaps with funding.
And speaking of “hanging by a thread” I’ve heard that the COC itself might be in a precarious position financially. I just renewed my COC subscription, as I wonder how they will cope with so many cancelled productions. Imagine the money spent on those shows, when they can’t recover even a dollar via ticket sales.
We live in interesting times, and there’s likely going to be an election soon. Erin O’Toole has said he will stop funding the CBC. Will Canada have any money left to continue the same level of support for the arts (thinking of funding agencies, but also indirectly via the CBC) as we try to recover from the financial downturn associated with the pandemic?
If you consider culture an election issue: get involved. Speak up.