Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Death of arts equals the death of communities

My cover story for this week's WE tackles the double impact of arts funding cuts and city bureaucracy on communities and their public events.

Public Dreams Society’s Parade of Lost Souls is dying a slow death. Despite once drawing crowds of up to 30,000 costumed revellers, funding cuts mean organizers can only accommodate 1,500 participants this year.
Public Dreams Society’s Parade of Lost Souls is dying a slow death. Despite once drawing crowds of up to 30,000 costumed revellers, funding cuts mean organizers can only accommodate 1,500 participants this year.
Credit: Larissa Sayer

Buried Alive!

It’s been 14 months since the death knell first sounded. Arts organizations that had been promised three-year gaming grants found their funds frozen and money already guaranteed by the provincial government would be pulled back.

That was just the first hint that the sky was about to fall. Following the initial shockwave, the province then threatened to cut up to 90 per cent of its arts funding (that amount has since settled at around 50 per cent).

It’s been suggested that the death of arts equals the death of communities. If this proves true, Commercial Drive looks to become the first casualty.

Small organizations like Public Dreams Society (PDS) are experiencing the one-two punch of funding cuts and City bureaucracy around large-scale gatherings in public, outdoor spaces. The result: two of PDS’s biggest events — long-standing annual community tent poles of the Commercial Drive area — have either left the neighbourhood entirely (as is the case with Illuminares, the annual lantern festival that helped reinvigorate Trout Lake in the ‘90s, which was relocated inside W2 Storyeum last year) or, experienced massive downsizing, as with the once 30,000-strong Parade of Lost Souls.

It’s all been a slap in the face for PDS, an organization that has spent almost 25 years contributing to the Drive’s transformation into one of the city’s most desirable neighbourhoods.

“[2008’s Parade of Lost Souls] was incredible,” says Laura Grieco, PDS general manager. “They shut down Commercial Drive, there were DJs up and down the street, there was an incredible street party,” she recalls. For the first time, she says, it seemed just as many people were there to watch as they were to participate. But organizers didn’t get much of a chance to imagine how the Parade of Lost Souls could continue to evolve. In 2009, having experienced the first wave of provincial funding cuts, they received a further blow from the City, a combination that forced the cancellation of last year’s parade.

“We were to the point where we were advised by the City that if we were to do another event [of the size of 2008’s Parade of Lost Souls], the costs we’d be incurring for policing — they suggested that it would be comparable to what they would allocate to the [Celebration of Light]. So, that’s huge,” Grieco says.

Muriel Honey, manager of the Film & Special Events Office, denies that the City conveyed the costs would be comparable. “Any comparison between the Parade of Lost Souls and the Celebration of Light would have been made to illustrate the range of services required,” she says. “In no way are the costs of civic services the same for these two events.”

Indeed, the costs aren’t nearly the same. While PDS would be on the hook for its policing costs, the Celebration of Light is actually City-funded. (It’s one of only two annual City-funded events — the other being the Remembrance Day ceremony.) According to a 2001 City Council report, Tourism Vancouver made a compelling argument that the Celebration of Light (then called the Symphony of Fire) become a civic event, due to substantial economic and cultural benefits to the city. Council agreed to cover the City’s services costs, provided other sponsors cover the remainder.

Almost a decade later, the City is still footing their part of the bill, which includes reimbursing the Vancouver Police Department for its policing costs. According to financial statements released to WE from the VPD, the price of policing 2010’s Celebration of Light was $604,000. In 2009, the first year the Parade of Lost Souls was forced to cancel, it was $690,000. And in 2008, when the City was desperately trying to clamp down on embarrassments like public drunkeness, homophobic assaults, and stabbings, the tally was $719,000.

Those numbers are eerily similar to the amount spent on crowd control for the Granville Entertainment District. In fact, policing the chaos of Granville Street could conceivably be seen as a twice-weekly public event, since it involves street closures, large crowds, and a heavy police presence. The cost of policing the GED (referred to as year-round “Liquor Deployment” in the VPD reports) has risen from $552, 223 in 2006 to $723,946 in 2009.

Without the benefit of municipal subsidies, this year’s Parade of Lost Souls has been officially scrapped, much to the disappointment of fans who hoped the parade could pull through despite the odds. In its place, PDS has created the smaller-scale Secret Souls Walk. Rather than taking place outdoors in Grandview Park (which is currently under construction), the Britannia gym (maximum capacity 500) will serve as a family-friendly open house for crafting. Additionally, organizers have arranged guided and self-guided tours through different neighbourhood streets, the locations of which won’t be disclosed until the evening of the event (Saturday, Oct. 30). At most, PDS estimates it will be able to accommodate 1,000-1,500 people — a far cry from the 30,000 participants who attended the event two years ago.

According to Grieco, PDS lost $35,000 in gaming and arts council money. Through additional fundraising efforts they’ve raised some of that money back, but not nearly enough to fund the Parade of Lost Souls.

“This year’s budget is under $10,000,” Grieco says, estimating that the cost of a parade the size of 2008’s would be between $50,000 and $60,000. “It would be a lot easier for us to just move on and say we’re a victim of our own success. But we have so many people who are just such hardcore supporters and it’s so distinctive to Public Dreams and so distinctive to the city. There’s so much support for it. We thought, OK, we don’t have the money, but how can we not do this? We just have to make it smaller.”

NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, Opposition critic for tourism, culture, and the arts, spent years working with arts groups on community engagement and has seen firsthand what PDS events can offer the area.

“Art sparks dialogue, debate, discussion — all those things that make communities healthy,” he says. “If you chomp away at what little funds go towards those kinds of things, it becomes increasingly difficult to get people out of their homes, or out from in front of their TVs, to talk to their neighbours, to have a laugh together. Illuminares and Parade of Lost Souls... put the arts into the hands of everybody. It’s not top down, sit and hide in a darkened room and watch. You’re actually an art maker.”

Steve Duncan, a long-time resident of Commercial Drive and founder of The Drive Is Alive blog, is also concerned about his community’s future.

“It was a shame to see Parade of Lost Souls almost disappear last year,” he says. “That had a big impact and people certainly felt a hole. Now that it’s coming back and it’s not in the same capacity, I think people really are feeling it.”

Duncan himself moved to the Drive nine years ago because of the neighbourhood’s reputation as a burgeoning arts and culture hub — a reputation built partly on organizations like PDS using outdoor public space in inventive and interesting ways.

“I think that it becomes a little bit more like Yaletown or places like that where we don’t have as much happening outside,” he says. “We don’t have as many large community events. People get turned off by going [inside]. If the weather’s good, they want to stay outside, and Halloween’s kind of traditionally an outdoor activity. I think people will start to go other places and find other things to do.”

Approximately two weeks ago, the City and PDS met for a last-ditch planning meeting. The City offered to offset policing costs after the event ends at 9pm. Despite the offer, PDS still doesn’t have the budget to pay for the policing necessary for a circa-2008 parade.

“There’s the desire there on our part and on the City’s part to keep these events going, but it is really hard without the infrastructure,” Grieco says. “When you start having that eroded by government funding being cut, it puts you on that precipice where you go the safe route rather than the more risky route.”

Commercial Drive is not the only neighbourhood at risk of losing a beloved and iconic public event. Terry Hunter, artistic producer of the Downtown Eastside’s Heart of the City Festival, (Oct. 27-Nov. 7) has also taken a wait-and-see approach.

“We’re taking it one year at a time,” he says, trying to remain hopeful that the province and the City will recognize the necessity of investing in arts in order to build thriving communities.

“Art gives people a sense of meaning, engagement, and hope,” Hunter says. “It can give them a sense of empowerment. And, it increases the livability of a community.”

That is, perhaps, the most frustrating part for neighbourhood arts groups. No one seems to want to (or know how to) factor in the intrinsic value of events like Heart of the City, Illuminares, and Parade of Lost Souls when it comes to a neighbourhood’s ability to flourish or flounder.

“We’re not to be credited wholeheartedly,” Grieco says of neighbourhood arts groups. “It’s the community that came together and really reclaimed that space. But, real estate values go up and gentrification happens, and there’s good and bad aspects of that. These kind of cultural events add value to the neighbourhood, and I don’t know if across the board that value’s being recognized by key people. I’m not convinced that everybody’s getting that clear equation.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sweeney Todd

I highly recommend Fighting Chance Production's Sweeney Todd. My review's in this week's WE.

Alex McMorran and Cathy Wilmot strike a devil’s deal in Fighting Chance Productions’ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Alex McMorran and Cathy Wilmot strike a devil’s deal in Fighting Chance Productions’ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Credit: Supplied

Up-and-comer gets deliciously down and dirty

Since making its debut in January 2007, Fighting Chance Productions has evolved from fledgling musical-theatre company to youthful powerhouse, with memorable offerings like 2009’s Rent and a campy production of Forbidden Broadway. Now, just a few short months after mounting an acclaimed production of Hair, the little company that could makes a bold play for a spot among the theatre scene’s heavy hitters (Arts Club, Electric Company, Playhouse) — but on a fraction of the budget. With its production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, it has scored its greatest triumph yet.

A gruesome tale of injustice, revenge, and blood-soaked madness, the Stephen Sondheim musical revolves around Sweeney Todd (Alex McMorran), an escaped convict who returns to London 15 years after being wrongfully imprisoned by the lecherous Judge Turpin (Arne Larsen). Todd returns to his former home above Mrs. Lovett’s (Cathy Wilmot) pie shop, where the pie-maker reveals that Todd’s wife went mad, took poison, and left their child, Johanna (Krista Gibbard), to be raised as the judge’s ward. Mrs. Lovett soon agrees to help Todd exact revenge on the judge, encouraging him to reopen his barber shop, thus kick-starting a ravenous murder spree and an ingenious, if revolting, method of disposing of the bodies.

Meanwhile, Johanna, now 16 years old, is a caged bird, locked away from society in Turpin’s house. From her window she catches the eye of Anthony (Chris Harvey), a boy incidentally indebted to Todd for saving his life, and they fall in love, much to Turpin’s chagrin. The old judge decides to marry Johanna, sparking a plot by the teens to escape his clutches. When it fails, Joanna is sent to an asylum.
Todd helps Anthony break her out, and subsequently lures Turpin back to his shop for a bloody climax, wherein all of the characters collide — some dead, some alive — in Mrs. Lovett’s basement.

Fittingly, McMorran and Wilmot command the audience’s attention at every turn. McMorran’s Todd has a crazed glee in his eyes; a hulking, haunted step; and a voice that sends shivers up the spine, especially when he’s reunited with his razors (“My Friends”) or recounting the horror that befell him at the hands of the judge (“The Barber and His Wife”). Wilmot neatly shifts from hilarious to hopeful, sharing her delusions about a future with Todd (“By the Sea”), followed by a heartbreakingly empty promise to protect her young ward, Toby (“Not While I’m Around”).

In addition to their individual performances, the duo are mesmerizing when they share the stage together, particularly during the hilariously grotesque “God, That’s Good!” They also amp up the sexual tension between their characters, adding depth to the depravity of their shared bloodlust.
Even the insta-romance between Anthony and Johanna, usually Sweeney Todd’s weakest element, gets a new lease on life. Harvey and Gibbard infuse their characters’ longing with a profound sense of urgency, elevating songs like “Kiss Me” from saccharine to substantive. Gibbard, particularly, is a revelation, hitting Sondheim’s difficult-to-sing syncopated notes with assured confidence.

Director (and Fighting Chance founding artistic director) Ryan Mooney challenges himself yet again with a small stage and an overflowing cast. And yet he has full control over the proceedings: the music, the set pieces (sparse and effective), and the actors move together in perfect synchronization under his watchful eye. His Sweeney Todd is a masterful marriage of music, melodrama, and the macabre. This young gun is blazing. Able to achieve so much with so little, Fighting Chance should have the bigger, more established theatre companies looking over their shoulders in admiration, for now, and with a little trepidation in the years to come.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs to Oct. 30 at Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery), 8pm (Wed-Sat). 7:30pm (Tues). Tickets $20-$30 from

Zooey Deschanel

My interview with Zooey Deschenal, actress/musician and one-half of She & Him, is this week's WE cover story.

“A lot of times people will just assume the guys write the songs and the girls sing them,” says Zooey Deschanel about She & Him, her collaboration with singer-songwriter M. Ward. In fact, she writes the duo’s music.
“A lot of times people will just assume the guys write the songs and the girls sing them,” says Zooey Deschanel about She & Him, her collaboration with singer-songwriter M. Ward. In fact, she writes the duo’s music.
Credit: supplied

Zooey Deschanel takes control in her music

Her long dark hair, framing a pair of piercing blue eyes, has inspired the hipster-chic look of countless aspiring, awkwardly cute ingenues the world over. Her starring role in (500) Days of Summer can only be described — in part, at least — as a love letter to her innate adorableness. She’s married to indie-rocker Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, and her parents named her after a J.D. Salinger character. She’s even the face of a U.S. ad campaign for cotton, for Christ’s sake. There need be no more evidence that Zooey Deschanel personifies “indie darling.”

And yet, there is. Deschanel — best known as an acclaimed actress with roles in Almost Famous, Elf, and Yes Man — is also one half of She & Him, the Americana-pop-folk duo she formed with singer-songwriter and guitarist M. Ward. The pair released their debut, Volume One, in 2008, garnering positive reviews and a sizeable audience for its mostly ’60s-inspired ditties about love and life. They’re now on tour supporting Volume Two, which was released in March of this year. And even though it’s two albums and almost three years later, Deschanel is still forced to correct people’s assumptions that Ward — who, in addition to recording under his own name, has been a part of indie-rock supergroup Monsters of Folk — writes She & Him’s songs. He doesn’t. This is Deschanel’s baby.

“People are confused because I don’t play on every song... but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t write them!” Deschanel laughs over the phone from her L.A. home. It’s a frustrated laugh, and she brings up the topic herself — evidence, perhaps, that this is a method of self-preservation.

“I guess I just have to take it as one of those weird things where I guess I’m flattered?” Deschanel jokes. “They think, ‘Wow, she couldn’t possibly have done this!’ I’ve talked to female friends of mine who are singers. A lot of times people will just assume the guys write the songs and the girls sing them — which, you know, Matt [Ward] produces the stuff and that’s a really important part of the process, and we’re all doing important things within the process, but I’m not just showing up and being a puppet. I am writing the music.

“And a lot of times people think I just write lyrics. I wouldn’t ever want to just write lyrics... I’m no Bob Dylan, you know what I mean? It’s not like [my] lyrics are amazing. It’s a whole package.”
Thanks to her lengthy acting career, Deschanel has built up a tough exterior that makes her capable of withstanding the cheap shots she’s required to take.

She claims she was nervous the first time she sent her music to Ward, but that she wasn’t really worried. “I thought the worst that could happen is that he doesn’t like them, and that’s not so terrible,” she says, matter-of-factly. When it’s suggested that plenty of other people might become wilting flowers when putting themselves and their music out into the world, Deschanel is firm in her conviction.

“If you’re going to be a creative person, you have to put yourself up for rejection a lot... You have to accept you’re not everybody’s cup of tea. And I think the more you work and the more output you give to the world and the more successful you are, the more people will hate you and the more people will love you. It’s very polarizing. Just being creative in general — people have strong opinions about you, and you can’t let that affect your view of yourself. You have to have confidence that’s unshakable at the core... but, you know, [you can’t be] so open that you just let it completely destroy you. It’s good to be a little tough.”

It’s that toughness, ultimately, that gives She & Him’s shiny, sincere sound enough substance to resonate with modern audiences. Deschanel’s lyrics have a hint of girl-power-style affirmation about them, a coy sense of humour that’s defiantly at odds with the innocence the songs’ melodies evoke.
The She & Him sound was largely influenced by Deschanel’s lifelong love of the Beach Boys. But her relationship to the classic American pop band goes beyond an affection for surfboards and brilliant harmonies — they were a lifeline to her native California throughout a childhood riddled with lengthy sojourns around the world, thanks to her father’s work as a cinematographer and director.

It’s telling that, though her music could have plenty of international influences, she ardently favours vintage Americana. “We’d listen to ‘Surfin’ USA’ just to hear — ’cause I’m from Pacific Palisades and it’s mentioned in the song. I was so homesick and we were so far away,” she recalls. “We didn’t have the Internet; it was the ’80s. There just wasn’t a lot of connection. We were in Yugoslavia and on this tropical island, and just places where there wasn’t even a hint... of the world we were from, just completely culturally the opposite. So, it was really important to me to just listen to this tape and hear the name of my hometown. I think to me, yeah, definitely travelling — more than it exposed me to other cultures, [it] made me realize how much I love where I’m from and how much I am distinctly Californian.”

Deschanel laughingly admits that she’s romanticized her home state to the point where nowhere else will do. But with one foot in Hollywood and one foot in the music world, there’s not much need for her to leave California. With the ongoing success of She & Him, and the self-chosen infrequency of her acting gigs, the inevitable question arises: Will the day come when music eclipses movies as top priority in her life?

“I’ve always been sort of a doer, you know? I just wanna do things. I don’t wanna sit around, I just want to do creative things,” Deschanel says. She talks for a few minutes about her love of movies — going to them and starring in them ­— but counters this by acknowledging that She & Him is a more satisfying creative experience. She likes the control she’s able to exert in the band, and working with a few trusted collaborators. She articulates her ambitions and restlessness, eventually winding her way to an answer that satisfies her. For now, at least.

“Doing movies, you’re compromising a lot,” she says. “Ultimately, an actor is meant to trust their director. Your job is to go on set and bring a perspective, but ultimately, the director’s the boss, and you have to be a real serious team player, which I can do, but it’s not my nature. If I had to choose, I’d probably choose writing music and performing music, because I’m doing all of it at once.”

She & Him play Sunday, Oct. 24 at the Orpheum Theatre (Seymour & Smithe), 6pm. Tickets $35 from Ticketmaster, Zulu, Red Cat, and Highlife.

Monday, October 18, 2010


My review of Red appears in this week's WE.


Directed by Robert Schwentke
Starring Bruce Willis, Mary Louise Parker, Helen Mirren

A comic-book adaptation catering to the over-40 crowd might not sound cool, but this newest addition to the over-stuffed graphic-novel film genre succeeds where others have failed. A grown-up action flick, Red layers laughs between the flying bullets and fierce blows.

The movie’s title stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous,” a code used to label former black-ops agents like Frank (Bruce Willis). His retirement is pure tedium, interrupted only by the bashful phone conversations with Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), the bureaucrat who processes the government pension cheques he tears up every few weeks, so he has an excuse to call her. When Frank’s house is suddenly shot to splinters by masked gunmen, he goes on the lam, dragging the reluctant Sarah along in an effort to protect her.

Frank regroups with his former covert team to topple his perceived nemesis, CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban), and take down the bad guys. The motley crew features Marvin (John Malkovich), a lethal, rightfully paranoid basket-case who suffers from flashbacks thanks to daily doses of LSD he was given as part of a CIA experiment; Victoria (Helen Mirren), a beautiful reservoir of icy calm who can fire machine guns without blinking; Joe (Morgan Freeman), a sly horn-dog suffering from stage-four cancer; and Ivan (Brian Cox), a former Russian spy who still carries a torch for Victoria.

The story unfolds in predictable shoot-‘em-up fashion, but Red’s draw is its strong cast, all of whom have great fun playing (mostly) against type. (Mirren and a machine gun? Brilliant!) And though this is a comic-book adaptation, there are no superheroes here, just plenty of delightfully implausible action sequences, sharp humour, and the visceral thrill of seeing actors dig in to elevate Red from merely decent to dangerously fun. —Andrea Warner

The Fantasticks

My review of The Fantasticks appears in this week's WE.


The Fantasticks is the longest-running musical of all time. Staged Off Broadway for 42 years, from 1960 to 2002, it was revived in 2006 and continues on to this day. And yet, having finally seen this theatrical mainstay, in the form of Vancouver Playhouse’s season opener, the resounding question I’m left with is “Why?” Why has this trifling endeavour endured? Mediocrity, thy reward is ever-lasting life — at least on stage.

Loosely based on the Roman myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, the action centres around two supposedly star-crossed lovers. Luisa (Bree Greig) and Matt (Colin Sheen) are basking in the glow of what they think is forbidden love. In reality, their fathers, Hucklebee (Mark Burgess) and Bellomy (Andy Toth), have built a wall between their properties and staged a long-standing feud to coerce the pair into marriage (because teens can’t help but do the opposite of what they’re told).

As if these contrivances weren’t enough, the last step in the fathers’ plan is to facilitate a reconciliation between their families by employing dashing and devious Spaniard El Gallo (Steve Maddock) to fake-kidnap Luisa with his two hired guns, over-the-hill and over-the-top theatre actors Mortimer (Simon Bradbury) and Henry (Christopher Gaze). The hope is that Matt will fight for Luisa’s honour, thereby becoming her hero.

Despite the efforts of a worthy cast, the Playhouse’s production proves oddly lifeless and flat. The convoluted book and lyrics by Tom Jones don’t help the cause any, but a good part of the problem here is the odd staging. Most of the action is confined to a 10-by-10-foot raised space in front of a background littered with fascinating props (like a merry-go-round horse) that have absolutely no context. But the worst aspect — at least from my seat in tenth row, stage left — was poor lighting that left the actors in shadows no matter where they stood.

The production’s one bright spot is Gaze, whose hammy thespian character literally demands the spotlight every time he appears onstage. In addition to being well-lit, he steals every scene, and his scenery-chewing as a slightly loopy, aging Shakespearean actor earns the biggest laughs (the in-joke here being that Gaze is the founding artistic director of Bard on the Beach). The rest of the performances fail to stir much in the way of response, but that’s not necessarily the fault of the actors. The show’s lengthy Off Broadway success isn’t indicative of its musical superiority — rather the opposite. The Fantasticks is the theatrical equivalent of a Twinkie: Just because you can still eat it after five decades, that doesn’t mean you should.

The Fantasticks runs to Oct. 23 at Playhouse Theatre (Hamilton at Dunsmuir), 8pm. Matinees: Wed & Sat, 2pm. $32-$59 from 604-873-3311 and

Greece Does Grease

My review of Greece Does Grease appears in this week's WE.

Cass King (left) and Melody Mangler (right) sing and strip in the burlesque mash-up, Greece Does Grease.
Cass King (left) and Melody Mangler (right) sing and strip in the burlesque mash-up, Greece Does Grease.
Credit: Supplied


The Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society has played a huge part in establishing Vancouver’s thriving burlesque scene. With its latest show, Greece Does Grease, company founder and artistic director Melody Mangler conceived of and then achieved the seemingly impossible: a mostly successful marriage of Ancient Greek mythology and the music of stage-to-screen musical Grease and its sad-sack cinematic sequel, Grease 2.

There are no T-Birds but plenty of togas in this burlesque parody. The story mostly focuses on Persephone (Miss Fitt), the doted-on virgin daughter of Demeter (Cass King, of the musical duo the Wet Spots) and Zeus (Bernie Bombay), who falls for bad-boy Hades (Basil).

Of course, liberties are taken with the ancient texts (Persephone was actually kidnapped by Hades back in the day), and the all-too-familiar songs have been loosely rewritten to suit the onstage shenanigans. It’s fun, however, to hear Grease’s campy ’50s-style classics reformatted and juxtaposed against such overtly sexual content. Bombay, who gets huge laughs with his portrayal of Zeus as an unrepentant pervert, has great energy in his ode to narcissism, “Greek Lightning.” Mangler, as bad-girl Hecate, cranks up the heat to seduce Demeter in the sexy girl-on-girl number, “There Are Bad Things You Can Do.” But it’s King, as a heartbroken mother at the end of her rope, who steals the show with her phenomenal solo, “Hopelessly Devoted to Genocide.” Infused with pain, longing, and heart, it’s the highlight of the evening.

The production, though original and creative, isn’t without its flaws. The humour careens unevenly from ridiculous to erotic, with the provocative occasionally derailing into the juvenile. The story is often stuck in exposition where a song would better bring the audience up to speed. And some technical snafus still need attention, particularly the microphones, which amplify the sound to almost skull-splitting levels whenever there’s a confrontation or a chorus of nymphs (pretty much every five to 10 minutes). But Greece Does Grease is never short on enthusiasm, triple-threat skills, or skin — a trifecta few other stage productions dare attempt, much less attain.

Greece Does Grease runs to Oct. 16 at Waterfront Theatre (1412 Cartwright, Granville Island), 8:15pm. $23-$30 from

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Park

I really loved Studio 58's The Park, and I think you will, too.

Over-earnest environmentalists fight off unscrupulous politicos and developers in Studio 58’s original musical, The Park.
Over-earnest environmentalists fight off unscrupulous politicos and developers in Studio 58’s original musical, The Park.
Credit: submitted

Studio 58 pokes fun at Vancouver’s foibles

Writing a fully realized two-act musical in college takes hubris. Writing one that’s as winning and entertaining as The Park takes talent. The versatile young minds at Langara College’s Studio 58 have both.

Written by Benjamin Elliot, Anton Lipovetsky, and Hannah Johnson — all either students or recent graduates — The Park’s first incarnation was as part of last year’s STEW, Studio 58’s performance series of one-acts. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, so the trio went back to work, fleshing out what is ultimately the quintessential love letter to Vancouver, albeit one that wholly recognizes and pokes fun at the city’s quirky characters and archetypes.

John (Joel Ballard) is a disgruntled parks worker who gets a pink slip after six thankless years on the job. In a moment of self-indulgent fury, he lets slimy millionaire Gabe (Dustin Freeland) talk him into signing a petition to turn Stanley Park into Stan Park, a concrete parking lot. But John’s also secretly in love with Geena (Amy Hall-Cummings), a fiercely aggressive environmental activist, and vows to help her with her own petition to stop the destruction of the park.

The three leads display versatility, good comic timing, and varying degrees of vocal prowess. Freeland’s a gifted scene stealer, but Ballard’s performance is quietly appealing. And the supporting cast has plenty of opportunity to step briefly and repeatedly into the spotlight. Although each has moments worth mentioning, Kendall Wright, who plays park supervisor Patricia, deserves singling out. On paper, Patricia is annoying, hyper-sexualized, and supremely melodramatic. Wright takes those qualities and skillfully ratchets them so far over the top that she somehow moves the character from grating to ingratiating.

The songs are clever, paying tribute to everything from Sondheim to AM ’70s gold. Opening number “Springtime Happening” is well-executed, kicking things off neatly, efficiently, and most importantly, entertainingly. The characters are briefly introduced, we get a sense of what’s to come, and the song lets us in on the tone of the ensuing two hours: humour mixed with hope. “Chicken Waltz” is hilariously violent but sweet, a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration of the crazy things we do for love, while “A to the Q to the Warium,” which features the juice-worshipping Vancouver “President,” is a great send-up of the city’s culture. Throughout, The Park’s style of gentle self-mockery proves endearing. The writers may make fun of their characters (and Vancouverites in general), but they never diminish them.

David Hudgens’s direction is lively and inventive, perfectly in keeping with Kayla Dunbar’s frisky but- fun choreography. The backing band, which includes Elliot, Lipovetsky, and drummer Spencer Shoening from local indie-rock band Said the Whale, keeps the momentum going. Taken together, the winning elements of The Park signal that a revolution is going on behind the classroom doors. Not content to merely produce the future faces of Vancouver theatre, by creating this homegrown musical and achieving a tricky balance of humour, heart, and social commentary, Studio 58 proves they are Vancouver theatre.

The Park runs to Oct. 17 at Studio 58 (100 W. 49th Ave.), 8pm. Tickets $10-$22 from 604-684-2787 and

The Salteens

My interview with the Salteens' Scott Walker.

Scott Walker (front) has resurrected his long-absent band, the Salteens, with more than double the members but without any guitars.
Scott Walker (front) has resurrected his long-absent band, the Salteens, with more than double the members but without any guitars.
Credit: Submitted

The Salteens scratch their seven-year itch

Seven years is a long time between albums. To wit: Not only did Facebook not exist when the Salteens, the Vancouver-based indie-pop group led by singer-songwriter Scott Walker, released its second album, 2003’s Let Go of Your Bad Days, neither did MySpace.

So, where did Walker & co. go? And how did they morph from a relatively traditional guitar-driven pop-rock band to the 10-piece chamber-pop collective that made the Salteens’ long-awaited third album, Grey Eyes?

I have a very soft spot for the Salteens — as, I’m sure, do many Vancouverites who are in their early thirties — so I’m happy you’re back.
Scott Walker: We talked about how... this record is so different, maybe it should have been a new band. Especially because we’re not teenagers — we never were — so the name’s getting sillier and sillier. But there’s still something about the aesthetic of what we’re doing, the group of people; we’re the same group of friends, still... It also seemed like the albums were natural progressions. The first album [2000’s Short-Term Memories] was more of A Hard Day’s Night — wait, I’m not going into a Beatles reference; that’s no good. (Laughs) The first record was very guitar-driven, and the second record we tried to incorporate more instruments, and this record it’s just all instruments — there are no guitars. We started the band as a bunch of music nerds trying to figure out how to play rock ’n’ roll, and maybe the less we play rock ’n’ roll, the better we’re getting.

What went on between the last album and this new one?
There was just a lot of growing up; a lot of the real-life things that happen take away from the time and energy you might have to be working on the things you might have been working on. We actually almost finished an entire album in that time span, but — ugh! — I just hit a writer’s block. The lyrics weren’t really all there, and the record just wasn’t coming together. And I’m kind of glad it all fell apart to some degree, because then we had to put it all back together.

Do you feel that this album is an accurate document of what was going on in the interim [during which Walker’s father died and his mother’s health declined due to Alzheimer’s]?
Yeah. I think lyrically it’s much more black-and-white. I used to be really obsessed with the grey area of relationships, constantly looking at two points of view and how do you know what’s right and what’s wrong... The band’s always been some kind of affirmation of trying to make life more interesting, or trying to do things that are more exciting or have more meaning, and that’s come under attack to some degree in my personal life. So, questioning myself and reasserting my position’s been an important thing for me.

Did you think at any point that you were done with music?
Yeah. It’s funny how you work a day job and you get home and you’re like, “Well, I could go out and make music or I could watch TV.” Now I know why people watch TV — they work all day and they’re tired, and it’s really easy to not try harder. But, ultimately, I realized that for those brief moments I was playing music, I was happier than when I was doing anything else, so that has to be there still.

Seven years is a long time and there have been some huge changes, be it in social media or technology or Canada’s place in the music industry.
I think any changes in technology, the music industry’s inherently closer to [them]. I don’t think they’re shocking or disarming. Bands and porn probably do more for how the Internet changes than anything else — and maybe people who make crafts at home.

The Salteens play Saturday, Oct. 9 at Biltmore Cabaret (395 Kingsway), 8pm. Tickets $10 from Ticketweb, Zulu, and Red Cat.