Jacques Brel is Living Somewhere Between Cabaret and Recital…

In every situation where I have excelled and felt empowered, encouraged and infused with a strong sense of my own potential, my inspiration has been drawn from those who are older, and more experienced, and whose work excites me and makes me want to learn and to be better. I may get into trouble for saying this so candidly, but even so, here it is: the institution that I currently attend makes me feel like I am merely fulfilling the scholarly component of my life (going through the motions as solely a means to an end in a vacuum of “No, you can’t”- and role models are a diamond in the rough.
So rarely do I hear of PhD students reaching out beyond the Drama Centre, possibly because it is mildly discouraged, and the fissure between the academic study of drama and the practice of creating theatre there is so wide a small planet could fit between them. One of the few exceptions I have is Chris Jackman, who works diligently to find the balance between his scholarship and his practical goals. His most recent project is Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which he directed and is playing at the Cameron House until Saturday March 28th, 2009 with his newly found theatre company open corps. For this alone, I give Chris Jackman props and encourage him to continue to forge his path in the theatre community wherever his curiosity takes him.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is an American revue of the songs of Belgium singer/songwriter Jacques Brel which debut at the Village Gate Theatre in Greenwich Village in 1968 to moderate success, and enjoyed subsequent international revivals. It is a difficult show to tackle. There seems to me to be three successful ways to elevate a string of songs from being a concert (or recital), to being a musical. The first is to write a story which uses only song to tell a linear story, as we can see in a show like Les Misérables or Rent. There are also shows like Cats that tell a rather narrative story, but rely on things like dance to give them strength. The second is to write a song cycle, like Elegies or Songs for a New World, which does not have a single story, or concrete characters, but nevertheless explores a clear theme, with a clear arc that culminates into a sort of through line. The third is to take a bunch of random songs written by a celebrated figure and to force connections upon them by writing a script that somehow weaves them all together in a linear way. Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You are two such examples. Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris tries to present the random songs written by a celebrated artist without a libretto, but the sense of drive, the through line or theme, is never there.
I think I can imagine this show working in the hands of an experienced group of well-known Cabaret singers, as they have learned how to tell a story entirely through song, how to create honest, clear, unique characters entirely without context and how to express a myriad of sometimes contradictory motivations, objectives and emotions while belting their faces off seamlessly. And that can be one of the most difficult things to ask of a performer. Sharron Matthews is a master at it, but talent like hers is unique.
In Jackman’s show, I got a strong sense of the performers performing. They all have good voices (and they play their own instruments), and I found the general ambiance to be very Brechtian, as every cliché of musical theatre was on boisterous display and I wasn’t sure why. I could see the singers singing, I could see the actors trying to illicit the emotion, but I only got one brief glimpse of an actor just being, once in the song “Jackie.” I know Jackman is supremely interested in process, and so I find it very interesting that his show makes the audience so aware of the wheels turning and of the work being done, but without a context of a story, or even a theme, the political or social potential of the Verfremdungseffekt has nothing to latch hold of.
As an introduction to Brel, this show has piqued my interest in his work and I find that I have a newfound appreciation for how difficult cabaret can be, and how integral those transitions between text and song can be for the actor to get her bearings. I wish I knew more about Jackman’s process and what he was interested in discovering or exploring, but it seems like the biggest obstacle this show faces is this revue’s reliance on the performers’ absolute command of the cabaret genre, which doesn’t lend itself well to young artistic academics trying to learn.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris plays at the Cameron House until Saturday March 28th, 2009. 408 Queen Street West (at Spadina). Doors at 7:30. Show at 7:45pm. Tickets are $20.00 ($15.00 for students) and to reserve please email jacquesbreltoronto@gmail.com

Get Off On The Right F.O.O.T

There is a small theatre that some of you who frequent the Toronto Fringe Festival may be familiar with called the Robert Gill Theatre. It is part of the University of Toronto, and it is news to people often that Hart House Theatre is not the University’s only theatre. I am here to tell you that not only does the Robert Gill Theatre exist, but it is also is the site of theatrical activity all year round!!
This week the Robert Gill Theatre, located within the Graduate Centre of Drama on the third floor of the Koffler Building (214 College Street), is the site of the 15th Annual Festival of Original Theatre (F.O.O.T) on from Thursday January 29th to Saturday January 31st.
Why should you go? I think this is a fair question. The practical theatre world and the academic theatre world very rarely collide, and often I feel like I must saw myself in half in order to even attempt to exist in both. As a playwright and theatre aficionado I read Stewart Lemoine and Daniel MacIvor plays, and I sift through http://www.playbill.com/. As a reviewer, I go to Tarragon, Soulpepper and the Canadian Stage Company. As an adult I read Steinbeck and Irving, as a person I root myself in Barrie and Seuss. And we can all relate, on some level, I think, to that.
As a scholar I read articles with titles like “Aller à la mer[1].” I read Artaud and Grotowski and far too much Schechner. However, the [ideal] aim of the graduate study of drama is to read and to learn in order to stimulate new ideas about how things could work practically on the stage. Ideally, it is about putting heady ideas on their feet, and seeing where that leads. My simple answer, why should you go to this Festival of Original Theatre, is that I think we need to bridge the gap. I think the theatre world and the academic world need to collide.
I think actors and directors and playwrights should go to a little piece of a festival of this sort, if only just to see what goes on in this strange academic world. It’s not about competition. It’s not about brain versus body or book versus experience. It’s about being able to use all the resources that you have available to you, and to immerse yourself in the thing you love. And if the thing you love is theatre, I guarantee you will find an interesting idea, or a kernel of one, at F.O.O.T. Maybe it will inspire a play, or a directing choice, or make you question something you once thought was set in stone. Or maybe it will just make you so grateful that you’re out there practically doing what you love, rather than in a stuffy classroom nitpicking it theoretically. And that is entirely fair too.
F.O.O.T always has a theme, and this year it is violence and its representation onstage. The keynote panel on Friday January 30th at 7:30 is sure to be an amazing discussion with the brilliant director and actor David Storch and one of Canada’s most successful playwrights Judith Thompson speaking about the Canadian Stage Company’s production of Palace of the End. I can’t think of two people more qualified to speak about staging violence than Storch, whose Artistic Directorship at the Canadian Stage Company last year also included The Pillowman and Misery, and Judith Thompson whose plays are sometimes parodied for their violence. It is also one of those rare experiences where you get to hear the thoughts, perceptions, and anecdotes from the people who created this piece of theatre. It doesn’t matter who you are in the theatre community, you are going to learn and grow from that sort of experience.
The Festival also includes performances, and if you’re interested in new work in development, I would suggest checking them out. Chris Jackman is a very creative young PhD candidate and he is staging Let Us Talk of Something Else: Violence and Death in the Music of Jacques Brel. Jessica Gardiner directs the first act of Dan McCarthy’s True Irish Hearts: both are on Saturday, January 31st at 8:00pm.
There are also readings from plays that have been written by playwrights within the Graduate Centre for Drama including The Curse of the Human Spirit by Ron East, Baby by Michelle Turner, and The Burning Shed by Leah Jane Esau from 4:30pm-6:30pm on Friday, January 30th. You should come by to support the development of Canadian theatre and to hear the work of some of the great playwrights of tomorrow.
Finally, F.O.O.T is an academic conference. Is it a theatre festival disguised as a conference, or a conference disguised as a theatre festival? I’m not sure. And I know the idea of a conference may immediately alienate some of my readers. It alienates me a little bit and I’m in academia. However, basically, students and other theatre experts from around the country are coming to the Robert Gill Theatre and reading some papers that they have written. Some of the titles sound fascinating. Seriously. There will be papers about violence in Shakespeare, about rape jokes in Restoration drama, about Sarah Kane, about The Duchess of Malfi, and ‘tis a pity she’s a whore, and violence as it is staged in film, and the Marquis de Sade (of course) and much, much, more.
The best part is that F.O.O.T is mostly all free, and it functions entirely on a drop-in basis. There is something going on at the Robert Gill Theatre from Thursday January 29th (2:00pm-10:30pm), Friday January 30th (12:30pm-10:30pm) and Saturday January 31st (10:00am-10:00pm). The only shows with admissions are Thursday and Saturday at 8pm, which are still very reasonable ($8.00 for the public, $5.00 for students). There is no obligation to stay for long periods of time. You have nothing to lose. And there is free food. It’s a win/win all around.
We are all in the theatre. Ergo, it can be argued that we are all geeks (embracing that term as one that denotes the highest achievement of theatrical brilliance, and used in the most endearing of ways). Let’s all be geeks together.