Lonely Durer Painting

Lonely Durer painting in Prague, dreaming of its walk through the Alps on the shoulders of the 4 strongest men of Venice.

From last May, and including an explication of my ambitions with regards to this website that may not be possible now, given my schedule, but we’ll see:

Dear Sean (if I may),

once again, many thanks for your play script of A God in Need of Help. I have just started reading it and am toying with the idea of discussing it in an upcoming article of mine, which I will start working on in late summer. In this article, I will take a closer look at four or five contemporary Canadian plays which show that the canvas of Canadian drama has widened considerably over the past decade or so. I think your play would lend itself very well to the project.

Needless to say, it would be very helpful, if you could provide me with background material about the workshop, if there is any, and reviews of the production.

Looking forward very much to hearing from you, with all my best wishes,

A

+++

Dear A,

 
Thanks so much for your interest. 
 
The development of the play is ongoing despite the workshop being over. It was three weeks long and included a rudimentary staging of the play. 
 
However, the production itself won’t happen until next April, so I’m not sure how that will work with your essay timeline. 
 
Be that as it may, I can provide you with some of the background:
 
I wrote a little essay some time ago about the first impulses for the play that was published in this online journal. I can’t link to the article itself. It’s in the latter half of the issue. But it includes an image of the preliminary idea jotted into my notebook while on a train in the Alps (I find it amusing that I wrote down Richard’s name as the person I should send it to but then crossed it out).
 
I wrote a draft or two under the auspices of Crow’s Theatre with support from Artistic Director Chris Abraham (who is an old friend), but at that time I was merely trying to create a straightforward depiction of the journey to Prague, culminating in the painting’s presentation to the emperor. This straightforward depiction didn’t work for several reasons. 
 
The project also proved too large for Crow’s resources, so Chris tried to generate some interest for me at the Stratford Festival. Robert Blacker, the resident dramaturg there, was kind enough to give me a residency at the Festival to work on the play, but I lacked the profile to have a project of that size undertaken by them.
 
Richard Rose has taken an interest in my work from the beginning (I made my debut in 1990, when he was running Necessary Angel) but I have long failed to appreciate this because he’d given every other proposal I’d sent him a pass (most of the plays I’ve written have been prodigally experimental, not so much with style as with narrative.) Still, I’ve always known he would be a good fit with my work as a director, so, after some hesitation, I finally relented and sent this one to him. 
 
It was only after he offered a workshop for ‘A God In Need of Help’—and then further development, and then a workshop and production—that I realized I have always been able to rely on him to read any manuscript I sent him—a rare gift. 
 
Richard organized three short readings of the play over the course of several months, and then decided to embark on a deeper exploration with the 3-week workspace. I thought he would make a decision to produce after the workspace was completed, but I was surprised to get an offer of production just before Christmas 2012. The workspace was in March 2013.The production will premiere in April 2014.
 
During the workspace, Richard conjured a brilliant solution for the carrying of the cargo. The crate was represented by a huge empty picture frame that had three functions:
 
-to stand upstage against the back wall, framing a slightly larger than life-size copy of the painting,
 
-to stand freely downstage and serve as a sort of proscenium arch for each storyteller’s version of the story,
 
and, most impressively,
 
-to be raised above the heads of the four actors playing the strongmen, each at his own corner, so the dynamics and kinesthetics of their connection to one another is well dramatized: if one stumbles, the others have to react; if one abandons his corner to lunge angrily at another, everyone has to compensate to keep the crate from falling. It manages to convey the drama of burden without actually being that heavy. I love it. 
 
I’ve just created a website in which will be devoted over the course of the next year to discussing all the obsessions of mine that led to this play: Prague, alchemy, classical theatre, Venice, and, of course, the painting by Albrecht Dürer that is housed in an art gallery behind the castle in Prague. (I’m confused by the photo of the country mansion featured on the gallery’s website, since the gallery itself is in the city proper.) 
 
Here’s the latest draft of the play. Subtle changes throughout, major changes in the final scene. I just received another batch of notes from Richard, though, so it will continue to change. I’m gratified to find he is as engaged with it as I am.
 
I hope this is the sort of response you had in mind with your request for background. If you have any more questions, please don’t hesitate to write.  
 
Yours,
 
Sean Dixon

In order to let the members of an audience locate their empathy with you, you have to locate your empathy with them.

This is one of my favourite things to do (or rather, one of my favourite things to do successfully). The storytelling impulse is what literature and theatre have in common. I’m interested in both these forms, so the quickest way back to the root (for both) is to find myself in front of an audience telling a story, especially when that story is spontaneous, or ‘extempore’—without preparation.

It’s becoming a popular medium here in Toronto, this extempore style performance, with Trampoline Hall (‘The Malleable Personality’ the title of mine) being the mighty vanguard still marching, and, more recently, ‘The Spoke’ at Videofag. For good reason. We reveal ourselves in unique ways when we’re just talking. We use rhythms that cannot be captured in the recitation of a written piece. The theatre of everyday life is inherent even when we fail.

Extempore isn’t quite as tricky as it sounds either. The trick—the only trick—is to choose your story well. If you find yourself having to think your way through elements of the story and start worrying it’ll fall flat if you leave this detail out or that detail out, in just the right place—i.e. if you find yourself writing things down, making notes—chances are you’re telling the wrong story. Because when you tell a story to your friends, you don’t feel the need to do any of that. If you forget something, you’ll shout, ‘Oh! I forgot something!’ and make a meal out of the mistake. This is the way it works in front of an audience as well. All you know is that you want them to feel what you felt and know what you know, and you want to feel that in them. Mutual empathy. That’s the key. There can’t be any bullshit.

One way to think about it is the story has to have enough meaning for you that it will generate friendship in your audience. When you feel that friendship starting to happen, the story you tell will become that kind of story.

I have two examples. The first, a video, is not too bad. The second, a podcast, is more successful.

When The Raconteurs (formerly called something else) celebrated their first anniversary in 2011, they invited me to come tell a favourite story of mine. There was a  woman up just before me who was funny, charming and sexy. I started to worry that the audience liked her so much that this meant they would not like me, so when I arrived at the microphone, I began my story feeling trapped, worried about lack of empathy, feeling tired and sluggish and disconnected (and old).

You can see me halting and apologizing in the video. It’s not the greatest way to begin, but I got over it eventually.

Then, just the other day, I participated in a lovely pot-luck event curated by Erin Brubacher and hosted by Ame Henderson, called ‘our forgotten papers, or the one that got away.’ For this one I was nervous, hanging around beforehand, and I was going to be reading from pieces of high school poetry that struck me as self-serious and banal, so that was terrifying in advance.

But I also knew the story I was telling, I’d told it before, always to friends (albeit not with the poetry recitation aspect—terrifying).

So something of that kicked in. These twenty people in the audience became my friends.

NB there’s another one of these ‘forgotten papers’ events coming up on April 6th, for a potluck dinner. There’s an open group on Facebook. The next event is described as follows:

Next Gathering: Sunday April 6th, for dinner

We invite three people to share something they have written and left behind: Something poetic, something scholarly, something in the space between. Three papers, three times of life, three labors of love that got away. These forgotten papers are read in the company of 20 people made up of strangers and friends. Efforts and ideas are remembered. Perhaps only in that moment or perhaps in moments to come. It’s a potluck. So we eat. Red beverages will also be on offer.

Erin Brubacher and Ame Henderson

First Impulses

May 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

This online arts journal contains a little essay I wrote a couple of years ago about the first impulse to write the Venice/Prague play, sketched out in a notebook on a train through the Alps. The pages of the notebook are scanned in, and my jottings include the name of the guy who would come to direct the play, crossed out.

Take The Damn Money!

May 20, 2013 — 2 Comments

There’s an article in the Globe today by Marsha Lederman, that begins, “Don’t stop here. Go unlimited.” Oops, I’ve hit the paywall, I can’t even link to it. Never mind.

Instead, watch this detail from Philippe Caubère playing Molière preparing for his final performance on the night he died. It’s relevant (albeit elliptically) to the essay I would have written. Something about playing for keeps.

Okay, break’s over, I’ve started again in a new browser.

So there’s an article in today’s Globe and Mail about Caleb McMullen, Artistic Director of Vancouver’s Mnemonic Theatre Productions, and his super-size idea, first explored in a brilliant blogpost success story called Canadian Theatre Can Do Better, wherein he proposed strategies for all-too-passive audience-members to express contempt for the fakery of their fellow theatre-goers and the mediocrity of the performance in front of them.

The original blog post was coy about the vapid musical performance that had inspired the director to issue his j’accuseI remember snooping around at the time to ensure for myself that it wasn’t Ride the Cyclone, a show dear to my heart that had just opened in Vancouver.

But I was assured, admonished even, by many of the post’s fans, that the identity of McMullen’s sick muse was completely beside the point, the real point being more something along the lines of how we shouldn’t—as Canadian theatre-goers and artists—allow this shit to stand. Generally speaking of course. We shouldn’t allow the general state of this shit to stand. Or the state of this general shit. 

I distinctly recall laying my anxieties aside only when I checked out McMullen’s public Facebook profile. It featured a post about how Atomic Vaudeville was an “artistic inspiration” and the show itself “a brilliant fringe success story.”

Phew!

But today’s Globe article relates that the vapid musical in question was indeed Ride the Cyclone—a fact which, as far as I can tell, has not been revealed before.

Forked tongue, no? No wonder he seeks strategies for letting out the bad feelings.

Still, I guess when your show is offered a profile in the Globe and Mail, you have to give something back.

Either that or these gumshoe reporters really know how to muscle a scoop.

I don’t know why I cared so much, except that I loved Ride the Cyclone when I saw it at Toronto’s Summerworks Festival a couple of years ago. It was risky and weird and featured a cast full of dead children who each got the chance to relate their young life’s aspiration before being sucked up into the ether.

It had been conceived as a humble song cycle but the collection somehow achieved a cumulative, narrative effect that was very moving. At least to me. As far as allowing the general state of this shit to stand, I would stand for this shit, and did. No general word about it.

You’ve got every right not to like it, of course, but it’s one of those shows that betray compulsive, indefensible passions. If do you like it (or, rather, if you love it), chances are I’m going to feel a little bit sorry for every angry email and sarcastic tweet I’ve ever lobbed at you.

But if you don’t like it, chances are I’m going to see you as something other than an ally. Chances are, I’m going to question your taste, however passionately presented.

So imagine my dearth of surprise when I learned, from this very same Globe exposé, that the play Mnemonic is mounting to launch their latest strategy to encourage audience contempt—the money-back guarantee—is none other than ‘Proof’… 

(subtitled here, for the sake of this post, “Canadian Theatre Can Do Better with mediocre American scripts that rely on the cliché of the untidy math genius so offensive to my not-so-tidy math-genius father-in-law.”

Or, CTCDBWMASMUMGFIL, for short.)

All that passion, and they’re mounting ‘Proof’?

So Mnemonic is mounting CTCDBWMASMUMGFIL, and (the Globe has also revealed) they’re offering a money-back-guarantee. Wow. If I were in Vancouver right now I would get up and… go see something that takes a risk with untried material: a new play, I mean—like Ride the Cyclone was when I saw it, and, I suppose, like Proof was, back in 2000, despite the woeful clichés that make that story so offensive to my untidy math-genius father-in-law (and, by proxy, I suppose, to me), and before they made it into a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the daughter who manages to be both genius and tidy.

i wouldn’t go sit through the first act of a play I really don’t want to see just so I could give myself the unnecessary drama and emotional release of getting my money back at intermission.

Anyway, whatever happened to the idea that you might think you didn’t like something and then realize a week later, a month later, a year later, that maybe you actually did?

In that case, would you go back to the theatre and knock on the boarded-up front door, trying to return the admission money that was returned to you?

Samuel Beckett directed the first production of Happy Days himself, with his favourite actor Billie Whitelaw playing the woman’s part. She looked at all those monologues and feared that the audience would demand their money back:

“Oh Sam,” she said, “I’m so afraid I’m going to bore them.”

And Sam replied, “Bore them, Billie, bore them.”

Just don’t give them their money back, if you can possibly help it. We’re playing for keeps here.

I’ve always respected the idea of sacrificing for one’s art, but in my life the sacrifice has manifested itself in ways far less glamourous than I anticipated. Edith Piaf’s last words on this earth have been translated as,

“Every damn fool thing you do in this life you pay for.”

But I can’t imagine the Little Sparrow was talking about back troubles.

In April, at the Tarragon Theatre, we conducted a three-week staged workshop of A God In Need of Help (heretofore known as the Venice/Prague play). The level of inspiration/stimulation from working with seven brilliant, funny actors under the exacting direction of Richard Rose—who figured out how to conjure, in a small rehearsal hall, the illusion of four men holding a sizeable crate over their heads as they trudged through the mountains—kept me revising the final scenes of the play late into the night, night after night, over the course of those three weeks. A play is a funny thing; an exacting thing: You begin with an oyster of infinite possibilities, but by the time you get to your 5th Act (so to speak), there’s only one way it can go, the way it has to go, with precision, no matter how large the world you’re depicting.

And you have to find it, otherwise the whole play will feel like a waste of time.

The weather was bad so I rarely took my bicycle to the theatre. Deskwork plus lack of exercise conspired to put pressure on a pair of old nemeses, the L4 and L5 vertebrae, until they finally decided to take a break from one another, leaving the top of my body somewhat unmoored from the bottom.

(It’s a good sign though. The first time I hurt myself this badly was when I was within striking distance of finishing this book, subject of this blog. My Venice/Prague play is in good company.)

It got better than worse than better than worse then better, until last weekend when I stood up from a church pew (at the christening of a niece) and the old L4 and L5 attacked and repelled one another with such force that I’ve been left incapacitated for the last seven days.

Perhaps God is punishing me for my heathen play.

Things are looking up, though. Last night I responded, restlessly, to a Hong Kong/London poet’s tweeted cinephile quiz question—

—and received, for my efforts, a dialogue across a 12/hr time-zone, mostly about Winnipeg (surprisingly), since she is a fan of this book, so I sent her this song, and she sent me this essay in which she expresses the fond hope to depict Hong Kong as lovingly and idiosyncratically as Guy Maddin depicted that cold city in the very very centre of my country.

In the essay, she also writes,

The universe is indifferent. I want to have a balcony in my final home so I can leave it open when I am dead. I wonder why we often forget about a pain when it subsides. Same with love.

It helped me realize why I keep thinking this back injury is the worst I’ve ever had even though it isn’t. So I wrote to her,

I’m reading your article. It’s beautiful. I’ve been thinking lately about the memory of pain because I suffered a herniated disc last

Sunday and it’s healing very slowly. When I think about when it’s happened before I can’t recall how long it took, because when I think

about the things I did beyond the first day, I don’t remember the suffering part – I just remember the conversation or card game or walk.

It happened last last summer when I was staying on an 80 acre horse farm that was mounting a play of mine. I know it was really tough to

get around, from my cabin down to the cookshack, etc, but I can’t recall the pain. I remember getting driven to a chiropractor in Salmon

Arm, even, so I know I must have been suffering, but I don’t remember it. Just as I won’t remember that I was leaning painfully against a

counter top as I typed this.

She asked me to preserve it in a less tweeted, more written form. I started blogging again so I might tuck the above into an essay of my own.

Thank you for that, Tammy.

Playwright Blog Begins

May 19, 2013 — 1 Comment

Image

This blog begins with this. Based on a true story about a painting that now hangs in the Sternberg Palace Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic, that way, ➔

Or that way, ⇧, depending on where you are.

The story goes as follows:

In the month of April in this, the year of Our Lord 1606, his Imperial Majesty Rudolf the Second, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, being a great lover and patron of the arts, purchased from the church of Saint Bartolomeo, here in Venice, a painting by one Albrecht Dürer, a Northern artist of the last century. The Brotherhood of the Rosary. His instructions were for the painting to be swaddled with cloth sealed in wax. And then the, ahem, four strongest men in Venice should be got—this same honour to be determined in an open competition—to raise the protected painting above their heads and carry it to the Imperial Residence in Prague, Bohemia, (pointing) that way, thus preventing any injury that might be inflicted from its transport in a cart.

The painting is more commonly known, these days, as The Feast of the Rose Garlands.

I’ve visited this gallery a few times, to see this heavy painting, painted on poplar wood, the above snapshot of a detail having been taken with my dorky ipad as a visibly discomfited guard stood by too polite to tell me to stop.

I was so engrossed with this painting, that, in all my visits, I failed to ascertain there was a second floor in the gallery. So I have to go back. That won’t be hard. My father-in-law lives there. I was married there.

Here is how the Tarragon has described the play they will present next year:

1606 and Europe is at war over God. Venice’s four strongest men are charged with transporting a holy painting across the Alps to Prague. On their way, they are set upon by Protestant zealots—their escape is attributed to a miracle. Through this mystery Sean Dixon challenges the role of faith at the dawn of the Age of Reason.

I’m glad they chose to call it a mystery, because that is essentially what it is.

There was much research I made for this play, regarding the Emperor Rudolf, the cities of Prague and Venice, the 30 Years War, the artist Albrecht Dürer (his life and work), alchemy, painting, heresy, etc. Over the course of the next year, I plan to dump it all into this brand new blog.