Still The Same

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Something has been gnawing away at me the past week and I’ve been having a hard time articulating what exactly it is. The Toronto Fringe is on and my feeds have been flooded with emotional posts about the ups and downs of mounting a show, of the love people have felt when it’s received well, of the anger and abuse they feel when there’s an unfavourable review – the consistent thing is that everyone seems to rally around and declare their support;

“All Fringe shows deserve a 5 star review”

” This review was unfair, we need to all get out and support the show”

“I’m overwhelmed by the love and support I have received from everyone, thank you”

Looking at this you’d think we all exist in a very supportive, inclusive community.

We don’t.

I’ve written before about my shitty experiences with Theatre 20 and in particular, Brian Goldenberg, and doubtless some will read this and think I should let it go. The problem is, nothing has changed. At least, not for the perpetrators.

This year Brian has 3 shows in the Toronto Fringe Festival – a good friend of mine is acting in one of them, something this friend avoided telling me so as not to make things “awkward”. He knows the whole story. He was one of the first people I told, years ago, when this started. He doesn’t mind working with someone who knowingly discriminated against someone because of a mental illness and who thought that someone deserves to be fired if they try to assert their human rights.

This topic has come up several times in the past few days, while hanging around the tent, and I’ve been told by multiple friends that they know the story, believe me, but will not be saying anything or changing the way they interact with him because they’ve known him for a while and again, don’t want to make things “awkward”. Don’t want to cause any “trouble”. They support me, they’re just not willing to show that, or say that to anyone but me.

The same thing happened when I first wrote about this. I kept quiet for over a year, waiting until I had proof, posting the results of a legal hearing rather than sharing my own thoughts and feelings. I was right. That was proven, non-subjective. A lot of people read that blog. Quite a few sent me private messages and shared similar stories about the men in question. But no one from the community said anything out in the open. Nothing changed.

Around that time a reporter (someone who knows well and writes about the theatre) reached out to do an interview about it. I had hopes that, with this being published in something major, more would see it and maybe something would change. Delays caused it to eventually be dropped. I don’t blame him, he’s reached out a couple times to apologize, once quite recently. He said there may be something happening soon that could lead to him reviving the story – I hope so. But for now, nothing has happened. Nothing changed.

I saw Brian in the audience at a performance the other night, ironically for a show about a woman who struggles with anxiety and depression and eventually leaves her job because of it. Shows like this are celebrated because it’s “important to eliminate the stigma” around mental health, to recognize it as a serious, legitimate illness, to support those who are suffering – but here is a documented, proven case of discrimination having taken place in our own tiny community, and nothing has changed. He didn’t even bother to come to the hearing. It didn’t cost him his job, clearly hasn’t damaged his reputation. He did read the post, because he contacted the HRTO (with me cc’d) to accuse me (wrongly) of slander, so clearly he knows that this behaviour should be damaging, but his lack of recognition let alone an apology tells me he really doesn’t care.

None of this changed him, but it did change me.

I missed weeks of work leading up to the hearing, costing me money I couldn’t afford to lose, piling on to the already nearly unbearable stress I deal with from my anxiety, daily, I’m sure it damaged my reputation because whether it was justified or not, no one wants an employee who misses 3 weeks of work, and here we are, another year later, and I’m still feeling the residual effects. I question my importance to my friends, and whether there’s any point in confiding in them. I question the support of my community, and whether there’s any sincerity behind the daily posts about acceptance and inclusion. I question myself, and whether saying this will give me any peace of mind or just further isolate me. I question whether I want to be a part of a community that seems to be more interested in appearing inclusive and supportive than actually doing anything to achieve that.

It’s time for something to change.

Toronto Fringe Festival Review: Anywhere

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Anywhere - 2018 Toronto Fringe - Photo by Emily Dix

Cass Van Wyck and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster in Anywhere at the 2018 Toronto Fringe.

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing the latest by Dora-nominated playwright Michael Ross Albert (Tough Jews, The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome): the 141 Collective’s production of Anywhere. In this timely new thriller, Liz (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), a young business woman away at a conference, returns home to her AirBnB to find her host, Joy (Cass Van Wyck), has been waiting up for her. What starts as a cordial and relatively typical conversation quickly unravels as we learn of their drunken encounter the previous night, one that leaves the two women fighting in a dark and increasingly frightening battle for control.

The show has a stellar cast – Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster epitomizes the uptight, bland businesswoman, one whose life has become so mundane that a bus tour conference and night partying with a stranger, her single-mom AirBnB host Joy, is clearly the most thrilling thing to happen to her in months. As the night wears on drinks are poured and secrets are revealed, leading to the unnerving realization that all the patience and polite conversation is a front, and the audience meets the real Liz, one who is cutting, competitive, and fiercely cynical. As Joy, the single-mother to a terminally ill 8-year-old, Cass Van Wyck elicits both sympathy and disgust, as her lifestyle choices make us question her suitability as a parent, and her motives in revealing herself to her guest make us question her morality. The clever writing combined with the subtle acting choices of both woman leave us wondering who the real victim is in this bizarre game of cat and mouse.

While I was impressed by the acting and writing, the directing by David Lafontaine unfortunately left something to be desired. Staging was too stationary, and often I felt as though the actors had been told to move just for something to do. We lost the full potential of some well-charged moments that were oddly staged upstage, obscured by the large and, I think, unnecessary dining table. Too often the actors, as well as the majority of the set pieces, were playing in the same plane, making it so that the movement was noticeably less dynamic than the words and emotion being presented onstage. I hope this show continues to have a life after Fringe, and that some changes are made to staging to allow it to see its full potential.

Cass Van Wyck Cass Van Wyck and Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster in "Anywhere" at the 2018 Toronto Fringe.

Photo by Emily Dix

**SPOILER ALERT**

Aside from the unimpressive staging, the only issue I found with this play was in the last minute and a half, where the sudden change in in momentum left me confused, rather than shaken, as I think was intended. After a fight between Liz and Joy becomes physical, Liz whacks Joy over the head with a large, heavy chessboard, knocking her to the ground and leaving her seemingly, for a moment, unconscious. This is how I expected the play to end; Joy, now seriously injured if not dead, is left lying in a pool of blood on the floor, while Liz, realizing there is no turning back from the culmination of strange events in what should have been the most mundane of weeks, takes the place she held at the start of the play. I imagined Liz would sit down and wait, knowing that what led them to this place didn’t matter, because regardless of who was right and who had “won” the battle, she had been the one to call “checkmate” and end the war. She had sealed her own fate. Instead, Joy suddenly leaps from the ground, now covered in blood, and stumbles forward confused, shrieking that she can’t see. The lights dim as Liz cradles Joy’s bleeding head her in her hands, telling her not to worry because her son Ethan is “right there”. I’m not sure what we’re meant to take away here – is Joy’s confusion the result of a head injury? Of the night’s drinking? Both? Is Liz’s sudden compassion out of fear? Guilt? Is Joy dying? After an hour of well-scripted, naturally building tension I found these last few moments questioned all of the night’s events, but not in a way that left me intrigued so much as just confused.

**END OF SPOILERS**

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this production. In a digital age where we can learn intimate details about a person before even meeting them, Anywhere is a necessary examination of the difference between intimacy and knowledge, and with a knock-out cast of rising indie stars Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Cass Van Wyck, this is surely one to add to your “must see” list.

E.

Toronto Fringe Festival Review: The Joy of Sax

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What makes the Fringe Festival so fun is that you really never know what you’re going to get when you shuffle into the theatre at some odd time of day: I certainly wasn’t expecting what I saw this afternoon at The Joy of Sax, Flash in the Deadpan’s Toronto Fringe production. Described by the company as fitting into the “new genre of saxploitation comedy”, The Joy of Sax is a bizarre tale of a young man named Luke (Cam Parkes) who inherits his father’s saxophone and finds that he has a special gift – no, not a musical talent (much to my dismay, the only sounds to come out of the horn were loud, blasting screeches), but the inexplicable ability to arouse and lead to orgasm any who are within earshot of his “music”. Can’t say that it’s not original! Continue reading

Cheque, please!

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I get a kick out of little details in things, which is why I often spend too much time on small prop details that likely won’t be noticed by anyone but myself. Today’s example? The certified cheque prop needed for Bygone Theatre’s upcoming production of His Girl Friday.

Really, it’s a pretty simple one, and since we’re seeing the cheque before it’s cashed, I’m not going to the trouble of embossing it, I did however want something from around the right date, and double-sided.

Since this show will be on a real stage, and not something that requires the same accuracy as was needed for shows like Rope, which practically happened in the audience’s lap, I just searched for 1930s or 1940s certified cheques and settled on one from 1933;

walter-winchell-signed-check-issued-to-international-news-photos-1933-16

I found this through a memorabilia site – it works great as it doesn’t have a big distracting logo, its from around the right time, the right place, and has the fun added detail of being signed by a Walter (it comes from our character, Walter Burns). Again, chances are none of these details will be seen on stage, but still fun to note. I did want it double-sided, so that took a very small amount of photoshopping, about 3 minutes worth.

I opened the image in photoshop, and then selected the general colour using the eye dropper tool. Then, I did a new “fill layer” (Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Colour) so that I had a solidly coloured piece the same size as my cheque. The original image had a speckled appearance, so to do that I simply applied a filter (Filter > Filter Gallery > Reticulation).

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I chose the “reticulation” filter because, after browsing through a few like “film grain”and trying the “dust and scratches” one, I thought this looked the closest to what the front of the image looked like. So, voila! The back of my cheque.

I’m sure there are other (better?) ways to do this, but as I wanted to print quickly I just dragged both the front & back images into Word to print. I did 3 on a page (these will be for rehearsal, for the show I will of course have one for each performance, plus a couple back-ups), and since they are the same size just placed them in the same spots on 2 sheets.

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Then printed double-sided and there you go! Quick, easy, and I think certainly worth the few extra minutes to get something that isn’t white (and super-fake looking, imo) on one side.

All for now,

-E.

Propnomicon – Vintage Telegrams

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While scanning the web for some vintage mail labels (making props for Wait Until Dark) I came across Propnomicon, a great resource for building some creepy props. They have a ton of posts on telegrams, and even though that pre-dates what I’m looking for, I loved them so much I thought I’d share. Enjoy.

-E.

Mental Illness In The Arts

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I recently read a beautifully composed and poignant article by Shon Arieh-Lerer who I had the pleasure of meeting during the 2014 NYC Fringe when I saw his comedy show, His Majesty the Baby. Apparently, in addition to being very funny, Shon has an insightful view on the “Sad Clown myth”. As he explains in his article;

“…it was wrong and premature to apply the Sad Clown myth to Williams. He did not just commit suicide because he was depressed; he actually suffered from a horrifying disease whose symptoms are pulled from the dark playbooks of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and schizophrenia…The Sad Clown myth is false and destructive. It promotes a worldview that understands humor as a form of escape from a bleak reality that will inevitably triumph in the end.”

He goes further to address the unnecessary hardships comedians (and really, any artists in general) may endure when the idea that their talent springs from their illness is reinforced; “When you’re told that you’re funny because you’re mentally ill, you have a strong incentive not to seek help”.

Shon’s article makes an important point, and one that I hope people will read and give some serious thought to; it certainly got me thinking. Because in addition to these assumptions that mental illness can be a cause of, perhaps even the cause of one’s creative talent, it is also often assumed that it is an almost convenient affliction, one that they use as an excuse to dodge responsibility, or to gain sympathy. It seems that, to many, the stigma surrounding mental illness is supported by the misconception that, deep down, the sufferer has control over it, and can use the symptoms to foster creative ideas and when that fails, to throw a fit and escape any blame; it is “all in their head”, after-all.

…to many, the stigma surrounding mental illness is supported by the misconception that, deep down, the sufferer has control over it.

I’ll use my own case as an example. I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety with agoraphobia, a diagnosis that I received several years ago and have been undergoing treatment for since. It’s not generally something you go shouting in the streets, because despite all the happy ads that encourage you not to stigmatize the mentally ill, when there is something wrong that doesn’t create a clearly visible change in people, many are inclined to believe it somehow isn’t “real”. This is especially difficult when you work in the arts like I do; how can you work in theatre if you can’t go outside? How could you act onstage if you have anxiety? How can you smile and schmooze at fundraisers if you have depression? These are the questions that are seldom asked to your face, but instead whispered behind your back; well obviously she’s making it up, exaggerating it at least. I’ll answer this in the simplest terms I can; mental illness is not who you are. It is not the fundamental aspect of your personality. It is exactly what the name describes, an illness. And just as you would never say that a paraplegic’s personality is that they are paralyzed, you should not say that someone who has depression is simply a “sad person”, or that someone with an anxiety disorder is just “high-strung”; when you’re talking about actual mental illness these are just unfortunate factors the people have to deal with. It is something they are afflicted with, it is not who they are. And when they are able to overcome that anxiety and get onstage, or put on a smile to do their job, despite feeling awful inside, that is not something that should be used to criticize or discredit them, but rather the opposite. That’s just one step they’re taking on their way back to who they really are.

Mental illness is not who you are. It is not the fundamental aspect of your personality. It is exactly what the name describes, an illness.

While the arts community on a whole likes to think of itself as a very liberal, accepting group, I have been disheartened to find many small-minded and critical people near the top. In an instance that I won’t go into detail on now (because of pending legal action) I found myself shocked when reading a formal response, one vowed to be truthful, that stated quite clearly that I did not and could not have a disability because they, a) had not seen any example of it and, b) I could not possibly have agoraphobia since I traveled to NYC to produce a show this past summer (I encourage you to research agoraphobia if on reading that you are at first inclined to agree). My claim of discrimination could not stand not because they had not acted in a discriminatory way, but because apparently I simply do not have a disability (a producer and an ex-actor would know better than the psychiatrist and host of other professionals I’ve seen, I’m sure).

Just as Shon so simply puts in his article, “when you’re told that you’re funny because you’re mentally ill, you have a strong incentive not to seek help” so can be said for the struggle to beat your affliction; when your success in overcoming the symptoms is used as fodder to support a claim that you “don’t really have a problem” or that it’s “all in your head” you begin to question the point in trying. If you can’t overcome all the time, and the times when you do only turn more people against you, what’s the point in trying at all? It can become much easier to let the illness win.

…when your success in overcoming the symptoms is used as fodder to support a claim that you “don’t really have a problem” or that it’s “all in your head”…it can become much easier to let the illness win.

To go back to the questions that no one is directly asking, how do I do it? With difficulty. That’s the simplest and most honest way I can describe it. I love the theatre, and I am naturally an outgoing and enthusiastic person, it just so happens that for my adult life my brain chemistry has thought otherwise. And while I can’t speak for others, I suspect many of them in similar situations would say the same. There are famous cases of performers who suffer from near crippling stage fright (Barbra Streisand comes to mind) and yet still manage successful careers; does that mean that she does it without difficulty, or that anyone with the same problem can “get over it” if they “want to” or “try hard enough”? Of course not. And it should go without saying that every case is different.

For me, the greatest challenge with anxiety is its unpredictability. Some sufferers have consistent thoughts and fears, such as the worry that they will be trapped on a subway and run out of air. While there is a part of them that knows that not to be true, another part of their brain is telling their body that it will happen, and so comes the racing heart, shortness of breath and all the other fun symptoms. In my case, I have almost never had those accompanying thoughts, and so for years I had severe panic attacks without knowing what they were. Sudden dizziness, nausea, and impromptu blackouts had me being tested for things like diabetes or a heart problem. It wasn’t until a few years later that I finally had a doctor put their finger on it, and start to treat the actual issue.

So what to do? As a sufferer, do you give up and give in, knowing you’ll be miserable but not called a liar? Or do you keep trying, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, and always trying to block out not just the negative voices in your head but the ones around you, suspicious of your ever move? That’s the issue I’ve been struggling with a lot lately, and as I can’t answer it for myself I won’t try to for anyone else. But I will say this; try giving people the benefit of a doubt. It takes a really messed-up person to fake having any mental illness, and I’ve gotta say, even in that case I suspect it just means they have another one. There is nothing fun, or easy, or helpful about admitting you have an anxiety disorder, or suffer from depression. In fact, it almost always leaves you regretting speaking up, at least in my experience. The only reason I have in the past was the hope that our anti-discrimination laws would protect me where common-decency and kindness might not; maybe they can fire you for not showing up for work, or for not having a “fun” attitude, but they can’t get rid of you for an illness that is legitimately beyond your control. Or so I thought – we’ll see how that one goes.

There is nothing fun, or easy, or helpful about admitting you have an anxiety disorder, or suffer from depression.

At any rate, I’m saying this now in hopes that someone will read this and give a second thought to the critical glances and whispers, that instead of accusingly gossiping behind someone’s back they will actually go up to that person, if they want to know, and say, “how do you do it?”. Maybe that way they will actually gain some insight, and maybe even empathy. As a final thought, again, try not to let someone’s hobbies or career influence what you think they can or cannot be afflicted with. Doctors can catch colds. Comedians can be depressed. Singers can have anxiety. Just because the symptoms of a person’s illness seems contrary to their personality or career doesn’t make it less real, it likely just makes it that much harder for them to deal with. Mental illness isn’t who you are, it’s what stops you from being all you can be, and we shouldn’t be judging or assuming or criticizing those who have it, we should be trying to help find a way to get them back on track.

-E.

Read Shon’s poignant article, “Robin Williams’ Lewy Body Dementia Diagnosis Should Finally Crush the “Sad Clown” Myth”, in its entirety on Slate.com.

They All Lived Happily, Happily, Happily, Ever After…

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They all live happily, happily, happily ever after.
The couple is happily leaving the chapel eternally tied.
As the curtain descends, there is nothing but loving and laughter.
When the fairy tale ends the heroine’s always a bride.
Ella, the girl of the cinders did the wash and the walls and the winders.
But she landed a prince who was brawny and blue-eyed and blond.
Still, I honestly doubt that she could ever have done it
without that crazy lady with the wand.
Cinderella had outside help!

Sing it Winnifred.

I’m not about to go on a rant about how musicals set up an unrealistic set of expectations for a woman, but come on, Winnie said it loud and clear.

There is a prevalent idea that, as a woman, your life isn’t going to be complete if you don’t find the man of your dreams and get married.

I certainly subscribed to that.

I have a career. It’s gone from a job to a career in the past couple years, past few months especially, and I couldn’t be happier for that. I feel fulfilled at work, feel like I can see my hard work paying off, like it makes a difference, everything on that end has continued to go up and up for the past little while and it’s great.

But when you go through a big breakup, even if you’re sure (intellectually) that it’s all for the best, and even if your friends remind you, “you can do better” or “you have so many other things to be happy about”, it’s hard to kill that nagging voice in the back of your head that says,

Well now you’ve done it. How the hell do you expect to ever get married?

Which is pretty much the same as saying,

How the hell do you ever expect to be happy?

I want to get into some happily, happily ever after.
I want to walk happily out of the chapel eternally tied.
For I know that I’ll never live happily ever after ’til after I’m a bride!

I think it can be especially hard for artists. We have a terrible habit of wearing our hearts on our sleeves, and it doesn’t help that we are always encouraged to feel more than “normal” people and to express more; you can’t really call yourself an actor if you can’t show the extremes of all of life’s emotions. Plus, let’s face it, all of us that work in the arts are a little neurotic. And that’s fine. I mean, to do a job that requires way more hours, way more emotional energy and far less pay & respect than most other jobs out there, you’ve really got to be a little insane. There’s nothing noble or brave about it, just something mildly neurotic that helps to tie all of us theatre-folk together.

As a huge musical theatre buff, I find it hard to not fall for the gospel all the great shows preach; be true, try your hardest, and you’ll find your leading man who, not only is perfect for you, but who can sing & dance too. Doesn’t matter how many obnoxious traits he may seem to have at first, eventually (that is, by the end of the show) the heroine has found her green glass love; and we’re all the heroes in our own stories, right? So when is the show ending? Where’s mine?

I’ve never been one to waste any time with anything, fall off the horse, get right back up, so I’ve been making a point of getting out, meeting new people, and not letting myself mope. Not the easiest thing to start, but once it gets going it feels great.

I was surprised by something the other night, though. I guess it was my “Dorothy” moment, the whole “looking for your heart’s desire in your own backyard” sorta thing. I’ve gone on a few dates, met some interesting people, and have been looking to (albeit, slowly) get back on the same sort of track I was on before, but a message from a friend made me realize I was looking in completely the wrong direction.

None of these guys, past or present, have written to me in the morning or at lunch to see how my day’s been going.

None of them have been there to give me a pep talk about work, or life, or whatever it is that is causing undue stress.

None of them have said thank you for any of the time, or effort, or love I’ve put into things and none of them have done much of that in return.

But who has been there literally every day for the past month?

Who’s been the one to tell me to call when I’m home safe after a date?

Fuck this marriage shit. At least for now. I’ve got a career that I love and I am working with amazing people, in particular one of my best friends who I will get to spend a week in NYC with this summer. The goal for the next month, isn’t to stop dating, stop meeting new people, or stop any of the positive stuff that I’ve been working toward this month, it’s to remember that when any of it goes wrong I’ve already got the best support out there, in a friend who has been more than any of those guys have, or really, likely ever will be. And really, what’s better than doing what you love, with who you love?

Just gotta remember that.

Then I’ll be happily happy
Yes happily happy
And thoroughly satisfied!

-E.