Opera House

On Saturday night, I walked in the footsteps of Emperor Napoleon III. Sort of.

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The central staircase, where once upon a time the rich elite came to be seen.

On Thursday, I met Victor, the guide on two walking tours I took, on the steps of the Opera Garnier. He gave wonderful details about the history, the design, the architect, and the sculptures of the building. He told us funny stories about the bees on the roof, the carp in the lake under the opera house, and the ballerinas in the attic. He made me feel like I knew the building, like it was a friend, and I found I really wanted to see the inside as well.

Part of me wanted to pay for the tour inside the building, but a little voice in my head piped up: wouldn’t it be better to go in and actually see a show instead? So when I got back to the apartment that night, I hopped on the internet and looked up what was playing.

The Opera Garnier was designed more to be a place for the rich and famous to show off their new clothes and jewels than to host performances (if you look at the floor plan, the space devoted to the actual theatre part within the building is relatively small given the building’s overall size) and apparently the acoustics aren’t great. These days most operas are performed at the new opera house across town and the Opera Garnier is mostly used for ballets.

I found one I liked the look of, and on Friday morning I stopped in to the box office. I was expecting to just ask the clerks about the various price options – a quick visit in and out. Like any normal box office. Little did I know. I ended up standing in line for an hour, and at that point I almost felt obligated to buy something to make it worth my time. Luckily they had restricted view seats for 12€. What I wanted was the experience of going to this fancy-pants opera house – restricted view was fine.

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No one does over-the-top gilded opulence quite like the French.

On Saturday night, I went to see a ballet called Rain at the Opera Garnier where the French glitterati have gathered since the 19th century. I felt deeply embarrassed that I didn’t have anything nicer than jeans and a sweater to wear, but it turned out I was hardly the only tourist there.

I arrived early to find a party happening on the steps of the opera house. Students and tourists milled around, some taking photos and others just sitting on the stairs chatting, entertained by a variety of buskers. None of them seemed to be there to see the ballet, though, they were just soaking up the atmosphere.

It was quieter inside. Tourists took photos of themselves posing on the stairs or sipped wine while gazing down from the balconies at the grand staircase and the people filing in. I ducked into every gallery, stepped out onto the balcony above the entrance stairs (and listened to a busker below sing Set Fire to the Rain by Adele in a thick French accent), and climbed to every level of the building to take photos back down over the central atrium.

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The view from my box.

My seat, it turned out, was in a box on the first level. I presented my ticket to a man dressed in black tie and he used a little key to let me into the box. There were six seats inside, and mine was the worst. Only a sliver of the stage was visible when I sat down. The clerk at the box office had assured me I could stand if I wanted to, and when I tried that the view actually wasn’t bad. When the show started, though, the two front seats in the box were still empty, so the rest of us all shuffled up a row and I ended up being able to sit and still see everything.

I really enjoyed the ballet. It was modern – the dancers wore loose clothing in neutral colours and their feet were bare. The music was largely percussive, made up of two grand pianos and several large xylophone-type things, as well as shakers and other pieces. The musicians played this steady, modulating rhythm non-stop for an hour and ten minutes, and at a certain point I was convinced their stamina must be as great as the dancers’.

The dance was simple, not fussy at all, and joyful. Like children playing. It seemed to span a day, from morning through until nighttime, judging from the lighting and some very subtle changes in the dancers’ costumes. I won’t pretend to understand all the symbolism, but I really enjoyed sitting there and soaking it in.

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The Chagall ceiling above the auditorium. Also, the famous chandelier – which did not, in fact, fall during the ballet.

The man with the key came back at the end to let us out of the box. I lingered a moment when the others left so I could hang over the edge and take a photo up at the ceiling. The frieze surrounding the chandelier was painted by Chagall, and I love his work.

It was a lovely evening. Very civilized. I’m very pleased I didn’t give up on the line at the box office when I was first tempted to.

British Museum

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A statue of Dionysus (they think), god of wine, ritual madness, fertility, and theatre, taken at the British Museum in London.

On Friday, I met up with my friend Dan at the British Museum – we try to hit a different museum every time I visit – for a wander and a chat. We have done the British Museum once before, but we only scratched the surface. Plus, I’m heading to Greece soon, and before I get there I want to see all the bits the Brits have stolen. In Greece, I’m expecting to find a load of little plaques that say, ‘this pot isn’t here because it’s in the British Museum’.

In the end we did more chatting than reading of display information. We may have also been distracted by a bog body (because: bog body!) and a short hunt for anything of Scythian origin (which, to be fair, is mostly research for a story I’m writing).

Also, the following neat bits:

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The Lewis Chessmen, taken at the British Museum in London.

I saw half of the collection of Lewis chessmen when I was working in Edinburgh and fell instantly in love. Particularly with a little berserker whose neatly carved teeth are chewing on the edge of his shield.

The Lewis chessmen are a collection of 93 walrus-ivory gaming pieces – mostly chess pieces – made in Trondheim, Norway, in the 12th century and found on the Isle of Lewis, part of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, in 1831.

I didn’t realize the rest (in fact, most) of the chesspieces were here at the British Museum (although, if I’d really thought about it…) and I was delighted to stumble across them. They have so much character in their little faces.

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Roman emperor Augustus, also known as Octavius Caesar from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, taken at the British Museum in London.

This noseless gentleman is the Roman emperor Augustus, who before he was emperor was Gaius Octavius Caesar, one of the triumvirate (along with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus) who ruled after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

I worked on a production of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra not so long ago, and spent a lot of time with the fictional version of this man. It was nice to find a face to put to the name.

Writing Around a Day Job

In August, writer Tom Pollock contributed a guest post to one of my favourite blogs, Terrible Minds, on the topic of writing around a day job. Given that’s something I’ve been struggling with all summer, I was curious about his recommendations, and it turns out I have a few things to add.

Mr. Pollock’s first piece of advice is: Plan Your Time.

“If you’re effectively trying to do two jobs at once, then time is likely to be your scarcest resource, and like any scarce resource, you’ll need to budget. Plan your week ahead, know when you’re writing.  Have a routine.”

A very good piece of advice indeed, except when it’s impossible. Not every job is structured and stable. Not every job is 9-to-5. Not every job is left behind at the end of the day. Mine isn’t.

Now, fair warning, my situation is unusual. My ‘day’ job is in the theatre. I love what I do, and I have no intention of giving it up, but the hours can be all-consuming and irregular (the drama school application pack called the schedule ‘anti-social’). Which means a routine is something I just can’t create.

I work six days a week, and since March I’ve worked upwards of 55 hours in those six days. But the configuration of those 55 hours within the week is different every time. I can’t say I’ll write for two hours every Wednesday night, because I might never get two Wednesday nights off in a row.

(This is also why taking classes of any kind – dance, yoga, writing, whatever – is challenging to the point of impossible. Hobbies are for the down time between contracts, and you just hope that the start and end dates of the classes line up with your schedule.)

The other issue I have with Mr. Pollock’s advice is that time is not the only resource that’s scarce. Even working nutty hours, I can find the time to write if I need to. I managed it up until July and wrote three short stories in that time in addition to keeping up my do-it-yourself writing course. The resource that is most scarce for me is energy. Mental real estate. Passion.

And it’s not about laziness or lack of commitment, it’s about being wrung out. It doesn’t help that I’m an introvert by nature. Being around other people requires energy, and I burn through everything I have in a 12-hour day. What is left, then, to put down onto the page?

And, going back to the question of routine, I can’t always plan for how much emotional investment a day will require. Let’s say I decide to write for two hours on Wednesday evening. Great. Some days the show goes well, and I bounce out of the theatre with a bundle of energy to sink into my story.

But if during the matinee on that Wednesday we have an understudy go on at the last minute because the principal actor got trapped in traffic on the highway (last month), or there’s an accident backstage (two days ago), or we get nailed by a huge storm and spend the whole show bracing for a possible power outage (last night), or the lead fucks up a line onstage and takes it out on everyone backstage when he or she comes off (oh, so often), or an actor is performing while sick or injured and requires extra care… Any energy, any bounce I had at the beginning of the day is gone. I’ve spent my passion at work, and there is none left for my writing.

And exhaustion is cumulative. I managed to keep writing from March through into July, but by then my reserves were spent and there was nothing I could do but hang on by my fingernails until the schedule eased up again. Which it did, two weeks ago. I’ve been building my reserves back up for those two weeks, and only in the last couple of days have I been able to start writing again.

In short, sometimes all the planning in the world still can’t make it happen.

So what did I want to add to Mr. Pollock’s advice?

Know your limits and work around them. I know my schedule is going to ebb and flow in this way, which is one among several reasons why I’m not writing a novel. I can start and finish short stories and blog posts in smaller bursts of time. I’m less likely to run out of momentum in the way I would on a longer project.

Keep good notes. Even if I’m not writing, I try to jot down ideas as they pop into my head. My brain often kicks up the best stuff while it’s busy with other things. I keep a file for each story I’m working on and collect the notes there so it’s all in one place when I’m ready to come back to it.

Don’t force it. Discipline is one thing, torturing yourself is another. If you’re running on empty, give yourself a break. For me, the very last thing I want is to end up dreading writing the way I dreaded doing homework in school. If writing is your passion, you’ll come back to it when your energy levels rebound.

And I’m curious now about how other people balance writing around jobs that don’t fit the standard 9-to-5 mold, jobs that require a piece of your soul. Paramedics? Parents? Lawyers? Shift-workers? How do you handle it?

 

Book Review: Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough, by John. J. Ross, M.D.

Apparently, Shakespeare died of mercury poisoning and Emily Brontë had Asperger’s.

The full title of the book is Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers. The author, John J. Ross, is a medical doctor who has gone back to examine the symptoms of several famous writers from history and give them up-to-date diagnoses of their various illnesses. There are ten chapters, each focusing on a different writer (or family of writers, in the case of the Brontës), with each chapter functioning as part biography, part medical history.

I raided the clearance rack at the bookstore not far from the theatre where I’m working this summer and scored six books for less than $40. This was the first one I read from the pile – and really looked forward to digging into it – because the subject matter just sounded interesting on so many levels. And on that front, for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. I enjoyed the pure nosiness of digging into the various biographies and the sometimes sordid details of the lives these writers led. The medical history of various diseases, their causes and their symptoms is gruesome but fascinating. And the historic medical treatment for those diseases could be a horror story on its own.

That said, the book was not well-written – the author is clearly a doctor, not a writer. For the bulk of the book, where he was simply explaining the details of a writer’s life or disease, Dr. Ross’ style was casual and certainly readable. But in three or four chapters, Dr. Ross decided he was going to write a little scene, as though we were there with Shakespeare while he visited his physician, and he did not have the writing skill to pull that off. The scene was still all about cramming in as much information as possible (which kind of felt like bragging, actually, in a ‘look at all the research I did’ kind of way), and the result was clumsy and awkward.

Dr. Ross was liberal with his diagnoses of Asperger’s and bipolar disorder – it felt like someone in every single chapter had one or the other. Or possibly both. He also acted as apologist for the appalling behaviour of several writers. Anything was excusable because they had literary genius. And in the chapter on Nathaniel Hawthorne he floundered for too long in the biography section before he got anywhere near the medical issues.

I found the chapter on Shakespeare the weakest of them all. (And, having lived in the theatre world for fifteen years now, I was most interested in that chapter.) There is a dearth of actual information, so Dr. Ross falls into the trap of assuming that since Shakespeare wrote about something, he must have experienced it. Dr. Ross counted the number of times sexually transmitted diseases were mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, and used an increase in that number to conclude that Shakespeare himself must have contracted one, and a later decrease in number as evidence that Shakespeare was then cured of it. Using the text of the plays as illustration for a point based in fact is one thing, using it as evidence of that point is something else entirely.

[I read a terrible biography of William Shakespeare called Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt that was an egregious offender on that front (I ended up throwing the book across the room halfway through). It was full of ‘Shakespeare wrote such-and-such, therefore he must have…’. And indeed, when I flipped through the bibliography at the end of Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough, Dr. Ross cited Greenblatt’s book as a source. So clearly bad habits are catching. If you’re looking for a good biography of Shakespeare – or if you’re interested in the history of theatre or Elizabethan England in general – I highly recommend 1599 by James Shapiro. That man has done his research, and he is a magnificent writer to boot.]

But I digress.

Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough is an interesting book only moderately well executed. That said, I probably would recommend it if this kind of history and trivia was your particular cup of tea.

Eurovision Melancholy

Yesterday was the Eurovision Song Contest and I’m still sad that I couldn’t watch it this year.

For those of you in North America who may not have heard of it (I hadn’t before I moved to Europe), the Eurovision Song Contest is kind of like a bigger, campier version of American Idol, where every contestant comes from a different country and the whole thing happens in one night. Also, campier. Did I say campier? So. Much. Camp.

I was first introduced to Eurovision while I was on tour with the circus. My colleagues were initially appalled that I’d never heard of it, and then felt the need to induct me into the cult. The circus was the perfect environment in which to experience Eurovision for the first time. The group was largely made up of straight women and gay men, and we were from so many different countries that it could get nicely competitive. We all gathered in someone’s hotel room (I can’t remember whose) with plenty of snacks and lots of wine, and it’s possible we laid bets on whose country would win. Since Canada doesn’t compete (the definition of ‘Europe’ in Eurovision is flexible and includes in this case both Russia and Israel, but it hasn’t bent far enough to yet include North America), I rooted for the UK, my second home, and I think I ‘won’ that night, as the UK placed second overall, higher than anyone else’s home country.

That was 2001. I stayed with the circus until mid-2003, and then remained in Europe until mid-2005. Eurovision was a party every year. But in 2005 I moved home to Canada, and Eurovision doesn’t even air here, so it mostly fell off my radar after that.

Until last year. Last year I was on tour with a show in the UK for the first six months of the year. In May, I happened to be renting a room from a lovely married gay couple in Liverpool. I got home from work one evening after the show, and was greeted by Adrian as I headed upstairs.

“We were out earlier, so we taped Eurovision and we’re just about to watch. Do you want to join us?”

“Oh my god, I think I do.”

There were snacks. There was wine. There was slightly bitchy commentary. It was awesome.

So I’m missing it this year. I’m told a bearded transvestite from Austria called Conchita Wurst won it this year. I’m looking for a way to stream the contest from Canada, but failing that, I may just need to look up Conchita’s performance on YouTube.

In closing, I’m going to leave you with my favourite performance from last year’s Eurovision, which was Greece’s entry:

And, just for good measure, the most WTF moment from 2013. This is Serbia’s entry:

WTF ARE THEY WEARING?! I can’t even understand. And I didn’t even show you the entry with the giant in it. Or the one where the woman’s dress telescoped up while she sang.

Righting an old wrong

Once upon a time – back when I was in theatre school – we put on a play about Orpheus and Eurydice. (The story is a part of Greek mythology, and I’m sure wikipedia has all the details.)

In theatre, one of the main activities on the first day of rehearsals, after going around the room and introducing ourselves to the group, is a read-through of the play. We sit around a table (or, more often, several tables pushed together) and all the actors read their parts out loud, with scripts in hand. It always starts a little flat, with actors feeling awkward and self-conscious with all these new people. It’s not intended to be a dramatic reading at all, just an introduction, but by the end of the play there’s usually more acting going on, more emotion in the voices. This is the first time we hear the play, the first time we get a sense of what it will become, of who the characters will be. It brings the text alive for the first time.

For this play about Orpheus and Eurydice, we did the read-through in a classroom, not in a rehearsal hall which is the usual setting. I can’t remember why. This classroom was on the top floor of the school, only just big enough to fit us all in. It was a warm afternoon in early summer, and we could see the dust motes in the sunlight pouring through the windows. We kept the overhead fluorescents off, and the whole thing felt more comfortable, less formal, than our usual read-throughs.

The text of the play was quite stylized, and something about the warm, somnolent feel of the summer afternoon melded with the words to create a thing of beauty. The reading was quiet and understated, but that allowed the tragedy of the story full reign. This interpretation of the myth was grappling with why Eurydice would choose to go back to Hades rather than escape with her lover, Orpheus. The idea was that her father was in Hades, having died when Eurydice was little, and the relationship between them was beautiful and heartbreaking. And that reunion was held up against the anguish of Orpheus at Eurydice’s death on their wedding night and his attempts to get her back.

There were a number of symbolic elements in the play, but in this perfect, nebulous read-through, everything fit. Everything worked. It became one of my favourite plays of all time on that day.

And then the director got hold of it.

The result was awful. Just… awful. None of the symbolic elements worked. The beautiful stylized language became flat and awkward. The character of the father, who I had loved, was pushed to become a hard, nasal, accountant type. It broke my heart.

I wasn’t in that production. I ended up working as crew backstage. I operated the stage left elevator door, and my friend operated the stage right elevator door (the characters entered and exited Hades via elevator), and between cues we sat backstage together in the dark. Half the time we mimed slitting our wrists to the play’s incredibly depressing soundtrack of French accordion music. The rest of the time we talked about how the play should have been done. We both had a LOT of opinions.

I’ve always wanted to see that play done properly. I nearly booked a trip to New York for it, once, but in the end I couldn’t make the dates line up with my work schedule. One day, though.

All of this to explain, really, why I’m writing a re-telling of the Orpheus myth for this week’s challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s blog: “I want you to write a story about Hell.”

 

Mary Stuart

First of all: Oh. Dear. God.

Second of all: I would say run, don’t walk, to see the Stratford Festival’s production of Mary Stuart at the Tom Patterson Theatre, except that it has sold out its run, been extended by four weeks, and sold that out too.

I’ve wanted to see the show since the casting was announced last year, and it did not disappoint. Seana McKenna, as Queen Elizabeth, and Lucy Peacock, as Mary Queen of Scots, going head to head was a sight to see. I adore both of them, and would watch either or both of them read the phone book with complete delight. Here, as two of history’s most powerful women, they shone. And they were ably supported by a strong cast, including Ben Carlson and Geraint Wyn Davies, who are two more of my personal favourites.

I didn’t love the way the script dealt with Elizabeth, especially toward the end, but Seana McKenna had me absolutely riveted with her performance. And in a situation where these two queens were facing off, bound in conflict, the audience never picked sides. We loved both of them, empathised with both of them, and we were rooting for them to put aside their pride and come to some kind of understanding. All the while knowing how it would end.

The audience was on board from the beginning of the play. They laughed in all the right places, and there was a low, delighted tone to it, of absolute complicity. During the pivotal scenes, the audience was silent – no rustling, no fidgeting, no coughing. We hung on every word. And during Mary’s last rites… I gasped – actually gasped – when she came out with her head shorn, and I dripped tears into my lap as she said her goodbyes to her servants.

The man sitting next to me was, I discovered, a fellow theatre professional. And there were a couple of moments we shared, when I felt a low hum rising in my throat and then heard him next to me chuckle softly. Both were sounds of utter satisfaction at a piece of staging so perfect in its moment, so simple and yet so effective, that it took us with surprise and delight. I was in love as much with the staging, with the lighting, with the music, as I was with the performances. This was one of those rare productions where every single aspect hit the right note at the right time. This is what theatre is meant to be. It doesn’t need to be expensive razzle-dazzle. It just needs to be done well, and with love.