Category Archives: Arts

The importance of being Annie

VALENTINA-PoseWith Halifax dramaturge Annie Valentina, you don’t always get what you see.

Forthright and passionate about her craft, she’s also soft-spoken and circumspect. Neptune Theatre calls her its “Artistic Accomplice,” but she seems more of a persuader than partner in crime.

Still, she likes the title her boss, Artistic Director Jeremy Webb, gave her when he hired her last summer to help build a more inclusive and regionally relevant creative environment. “It could mean a lot of things,” she smiles over sips of black tea, “so it’s a good way of seeing.”

What matters now is how others in local theatre see her.

She’s certainly not an unknown quantity. Since emigrating from Norway in 2000, the playwright-producer has taken the indie scene by storm. Last fall in Halifax, she mounted “What to Expect When You Aren’t Expected”, a piece she composed and directed based on an academic examination of the experiences of LGBQ+ birthing women in Nova Scotia.

Says Dr. Lisa Goldberg, a Dalhousie professor of nursing who generated the original research with her colleague, Dr. Megan Aston: “It went better than I could have expected. She’s brilliant, and I adore working with her.”

All the same, Webb insists, “she won’t take crap from anyone.”

She’ll need that winning combination of protagonist and philosopher to help manage Neptune’s new Chrysalis Project, designed to support emerging artists. “There is a lot of wonderful truth-telling work coming out around here,” she says. “We need to show it.”

After all, with Annie Valentina, you tend to get what you need.

For: Halifax Magazine, May 2019

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The downtown party starts

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Just because Greater Moncton, after years of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing, has finally awarded itself a modest sports and entertainment complex in the western heart of the city, doesn’t mean the controversies have concluded.

In fact, in all the most significant ways, they’ve only just begun.

Exactly what sort of a facility will (should) this be? Has the community had a proper chance to review the planning options? What will transform the venue from an expensive hockey arena into a vibrant cultural space and back again. Indeed, how will the various clients and tenants shake hands to benefit all? And what, pray tell, is the deal with parking?

It may be a certain comfort to know that almost no capital project of this type or size at a downtown location in a metropolitan area of Canada (actually, anywhere) has ever proceeded without also generating a riot of objection and opprobrium. That is the nature of this particular beast.

Many reviled Maple Leaf Gardens in the heart of Toronto’s financial district as a monstrosity when it flung open its doors in the early 20th century. Yet, here’s what the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada wrote about it in 2006 upon its designation as a National Historic Site: “One of the most renowned ‘shrines’ in the history of hockey. . .the largest arena in the country when it was built, it was one of the country’s foremost venues for large-scale sporting events such as boxing matches and track meets, and non-sporting events such as concerts, rallies and political gatherings, religious services and opera. . .the Gardens holds a special place in the country’s popular culture: here Canadians welcomed a wide range of cultural icons from the Beatles to the Metropolitan Opera, from Tim Buck to Team Canada vs. the Soviets, from Winston Churchill to the Muhammad Ali-George Chuvalo fight.”

All of which suggests that the birth pangs and growing pains associated with integrating a brand, new cultural edifice into a community that maintains, at best, an ambivalent relationship with its downtown core will eventually subside. But not without effort, and not without a broad appreciation for the hard-won successes other cities have somehow managed to manufacture.

Consider, as examples, the two Londons – the original and its Canadian namesake. The former is home to the redoubtable Southbank Centre; the latter hosts the less expansive Budweiser Gardens.

Established in 1951, Southbank Centre has evolved by effectively engaging the neighbourhoods that surround it. Today, it boasts three main buildings – Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward

Budweiser Gardens, on the other hand, better resembles in both form and function, the as yet unbuilt and unnamed Moncton facility. Again, according to Wikipedia, the sports and entertainment facility opened in 2002 as the new downtown home of London’s Ontario Hockey League team, the London Knights. Significantly, though, over the years it has also become an important venue for other worthy distractions: “Budweiser Gardens was launched as a concert venue with Cher’s ‘Living Proof: The Farewell Tour’ in 2002. In 2007, Meat Loaf’s ‘3 Bats Live’ DVD from the ‘Seize The Night’ tour was recorded here. Cirque du Soleil chose Budweiser Gardens to stage its first-ever arena show, a rebuilt production of Saltimbanco.

Sting performed during his Symphonicities Tour on July 21, 2010, along with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2010, Budweiser Gardens was awarded as the Canadian Venue of the Year at the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards.”

For Moncton, the controversies will surely continue. Eventually, though, we, like other cities, will get our downtown centre right.

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Monuments or monstrosities

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Nothing so divides a citizenry than the idols its government choose to worship on its behalf. Time, of course, has a funny way of levelling the peaks and valleys of what, initially, seems like a ferocious debate of eternal consequence.

When the French built their Eiffel Tower in 1867, it was derided by the intelligentsia as, “this truly tragic street lamp”, “this belfry skeleton”, “this mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed”, “this high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney”.

In fact, Parisian artists published a formal complaint in the popular newspaper Le Temps, an excerpt of which read: “We come, we writers, painters, sculptors, architects, lovers of the beauty of Paris which was until now intact, to protest with all our strength and all our indignation, in the name of the underestimated taste of the French, in the name of French art and history under threat, against the erection in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower which popular ill-feeling has already christened the Tower of Babel.”

Nowadays, this formerly “monstrous” edifice is, arguably, France’s most loved symbol of Gallic civilization, the signature icon of the City of Lights.

What, I wonder, will we one day say about the so-called “Mother Canada” monument, the 24-metre-tall brainchild of a Toronto businessman who, having seen the graves of Canada’s war dead in Europe, thought it would be a swell idea to erect a statue in honour of them along one of the prettiest and ecologically significant coastlines in the country, Cape Breton’s north shore?

Indeed, what will eventually think about a memorial to victims of communism planned for a highly visible site in the heart of Ottawa’s government district, right next to the Supreme Court complex?

At the moment, and in both cases, the chattering classes are enraged (though the hoi polloi generally wonder what all the fuss is about).

Writing in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald recently, veteran columnist Ralph Surette was almost beside himself at the sheer effrontery of the Harper government’s moral and material support for Mother Canada.

“For those who still don’t fully understand the game, the ‘Mother Canada’ controversy should provide some enlightenment,” he needled. “The discovery that Parks Canada has furnished $100,000 to the project – after swearing that the statue in Cape Breton Highlands Park was a purely private project – blows the lid off the scheme. The political engineering on this comes from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“This is Stephen Harper building yet another monument to himself. It’s not just the money. The fact that the rules governing national parks have been casually trashed to accommodate the project has the PMO’s fingerprints all over it. No use hollering at Parks Canada bureaucrats. Like everyone else in government, they’ve been reduced to yo-yos of the PMO, detached from their guiding principles.”

As for the victims of communism memorial, controversy also attends. According to a recent editorial in the Toronto Star, “The problem with the project isn’t its size – though the original design was in fact far more intrusive than it needed to be. As we have written before, the issue is the very idea of turning a prime site in the middle of Ottawa’s government precinct over to a politically motivated memorial that does not speak to Canada’s own history.”

There is, of course, another solution to the various contretemps:

Stop erecting idols altogether.

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Let us all now praise Alice

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When news broke last week that Canada’s reigning master of short fiction, Alice Munro, won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, Margaret Atwood – a national trove of boundless quippery for a deadline-stalked press corps – offered the pithiest reaction.

“Okay, everyone’s calling Me to get me to write about Alice,” she tweeted. “Alice, come out from behind the tool shed and pick up the phone.”

In fact, Ms. Atwood did write about her friend, who, until recently, rusticated in Clinton, Ontario, for The Guardian last Thursday. In her piece, she wrote, “Whenever the Nobel is conferred, a deluge of media descends – like the pack of cards cascading on to that other Alice, she of Wonderland – not only on the winner, illuminated in the sudden glare of international publicity like a burglar trapped in headlights, but on every other writer who has known the chosen one. A quote, a reminiscence, an evaluation! Account for it! Why her? they clamour.”

Indeed, Ms. Atwood observed, “Munro herself is unlikely to say much along these lines: Canadians are discouraged from bragging – see the Munro story, Who Do You Think You Are? – so will probably spend much of her time hiding in the figurative tool shed. We’re all slightly furtive, we writers; especially we Canadian writers.”

One could easily extend the metaphor to include all citizens of the Great White North. Politeness may be our international brand, but that merely camouflages our instinct to break for the back door when uninvited company arrives through the front.

And, man oh man, has the company ever come calling for Ms. Munro, who at 82 is the first Canadian to win the prestigious prize for writing and only the 13th woman to do so. Her name enters a list that includes Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who actually refused to accept his 1964 honour on the grounds that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”

For better or worse, that does appear to be Ms. Munro’s fate. The arcana collectors have been working round the clock to answer the question: What do we really know about Alice?

For one thing, reports The Toronto Star, “she grew up in the countryside. Her father, Robert Eric Laidlaw, raised foxes and poultry, while her mother was a schoolteacher.”

For another thing, “Munro’s first marriage to James Munro, who ran a bookshop, produced three daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1972. She remarried, but her second husband, Gerald Fremlin, died in April.”

In fact, The Star itemizes eight other “should-knows” about the author before it reproduces the list word for word – just in case, presumably, you missed something the first time through.

No one, it seems, is prouder of Ms. Munro and her accomplishment than her long-time publisher Douglas Gibson who, in a letter to the Globe and Mail this week, argued that “all levels of government should immediately join forces in a race” purchase and transform two of the author’s former homes into literary museums.

“Arrangements to buy both properties – at a fair price, and an appropriate time – should begin today,” he declared. “Parks Canada should be involved, on behalf of the millions of future literary tourists who will surely flock to see ‘Alice Munro Country.’”

As the Globe reports, neither Queen’s Park nor Ottawa are especially enamored of the idea.

“I join all Canadians in congratulating Ms. Munro for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature,” Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq told the newspaper. “Unfortunately, under the current national historic site designation rules, her homes may not be eligible for designation.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne observed, “We believe that local municipalities are in the best position to determine how to manage those properties.”

Still, all may not be lost in the effort to lionize Ms. Munro. Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa Thompson told the Globe, “[The Nobel] is just a wonderful icing on the proverbial cake for Alice. We need to just revisit what’s already being done and if there’s anything more that can be done, I think all three levels of government need to, in partnership with Alice, determine what the right recognition is.”

That is, if they can coax her from her perch behind the tool shed.

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