Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On making it up as you go along

As NaNo draws to a close, I realize I haven't done nearly as much writing this month as I'd like to have done. But I did get to have a great conversation with improv actor and storyteller Dave Morris, from Paper Street Theatre, on Literary Landscapes, about the stuff that goes on when, as during November, people stare at a blank page and then force themselves to write things on it. Because Dave (and the rest of Paper Street Theatre) goes one better than that - he makes it all up on stage, in front of an audience, when blanking on what comes next doesn't involve getting up for another cup of tea, or checking Twitter. . .  it means silence while a room full of people wait for you to come up with the next thing.

It started when I went to see Paper Street's The Horror Within, put on in Ottawa by the (un)told storytelling series: three members of the troupe improvising stories in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. As a fan of the Great Elder Gods and the literature around them, I just had to go.

For the first half of the show, the three of them got suggestions from the audience - a place, an object, a job, something that might work in a Lovecraftian setting (they were handed a haberdasher, an ocean liner, and a magnifying glass) - and each of them took one of those things and started telling a story that would incorporate it. The three stories were essentially independent, but when the first speaker looked like the line of his first idea might have guttered out, the next would jump in with their story, and so on. Occasionally one person would interact with someone else's story - add a sound effect, or a voice, or act out a part - but the three stories stayed distinct. They also all picked up pace more or less simultaneously, and the segments each person told got shorter and shorter, until they all got to their climactic scenes.

When someone had talked themselves into a corner, the others would step in: when someone had made an error that had struck the audience as particularly funny, they'd work it in as a running gag, and when the actor couldn't think of yet another ornate, flowery synonym (man, does Lovecraft love his synonyms), the audience was with them when they finally gave up and said, ". . . thingy." The audience, I realized, was a part of the performance even more so, maybe, than scripted theatre, because the audience was with the performers. The audience knew they were making it up. The audience was okay with a couple of failed descriptions or moments of awkwardness.

For the second half, they got a suggestion for a title from the audience - my friend Jessica, who had never read any Lovecraft before and knew very little about his work, suggested the one they eventually went with, and won a Cthulhu plushie for it! - and then they created a more interactive, theatrical story, though still with a narrator figure (Dave, in our conversation on the radio, said that they'd found a narrator figure was essential to a Lovecraftian feel).

Anyway, coming out of that I realized I wanted to talk to them about a couple of things: how do they pick out the specific elements that characterize a writer and recreate them in improv? How do they prepare and deal with the moments when the ideas blank out, up there in front of an audience? What kinds of things can writers, who also have to just keep making stuff up if they want to get anything done, learn from the practice of improv?

So I got in touch with Dave Morris, and he agreed to come on the show, and this is what happened.

(Click to listen to the show, on CKCU On Demand.)


Monday, September 22, 2014

I finally get back to (un)told

Maybe it's because it's fall: I'm suddenly itching to go out and do things and see shows. And so I was pretty happy that I could finally, for the first time in a few months, get out to (un)told tonight.

The open mike storytelling series has moved: they're now in the Black Rose room of the Heart and Crown on Clarence. Or, to be more clear - that pub in the Market that is really a whole bunch of interconnected pubs where you're never really sure, once you've gone in, which one you're in? Go round to the back of that (the Murray Street side) and look for the little door next to the Black Rose. Or, wander inside, past miles of oak rails and tiled floors, till you see this:

 . . .and then go down the stairs. 

The room feels nicely packed with thirty people, it's cosy, and pretty quiet, because of the stairs.

The format is still pretty much the same - open mike, you can sign up in advance online at the website or, presumably, talk to Liz when you get there - and they still do the thing where they hand out little slips of paper so the audience can share their own stories on the theme of the day, in a smaller, possibly tweet-able format. (The stories from the slips are read out periodically, giving the writer a small taste of how the tellers feel: a clever move, I think.) Tonight's theme was "Fight or Flight."

And the audience is interesting. Definitely a younger crowd than you see at some other storytelling shows in the city. This was a twentysomething crowd for the most part (not everyone though), and tonight, I'd argue, predominantly male (another oddity: many other storytelling shows skew heavily to women. Then again, that might have just been the way it played out tonight.)

But, the stories!

Some memorable lines, and some impressions:

"'It's a fetish,' was the first thing he said." A woman waiting for a streetcar in Toronto gets approached by a guy who explains he just wants her to kick him in the balls. After making sure he's serious, and won't sue her or anything, she decides, well, she's got nothing else to do till the bus comes. . . this winds up spiraling into a strange sidewalk domination session, to which she remains a completely bemused party. Until the bus comes, and he asks for her number, when she says, "no, are you nuts?"

". . . the Grand Canyon, the vast space between a mother and child. . . " The fight: in a dreamscape campground, two momma bears face off over the same child, through a car windshield. The flight: across America's west.

"I have to confess, I've never really been a fan of outdoor sex." Stuck on a tiny island with your wife when a storm makes your northern Quebec lake impassable? Found a nice, comfy bit of flat stone where you could have a little adult fun? Then suddenly aware of a motorboat approaching, carrying two sketchy guys in camo and hunting gear? Convinced for some reason they're here to take your wife? All you have is a Swiss Army knife? What do you do? What do you do?

"So I turned the gas up to maximum and I walked away from that shit." Bad enough that the mouse crawled out of the barbecue when he fired it up for the first time. But to think it might have had a nest in there . . . and little mouse babies . . . when he turned on the gas . . . well, it had been on full blast for twenty minutes by the time he manned up and went back out there, so if anything was left of the mouse babies, it was only their souls that got into the burgers.

"I was going to die. They were all going to die. I closed my eyes and I could see her. Her lips. The smell of her hair. The feel of her body pressed against mine. And the train was still coming." . . . and you thought this was going to be a love story? This was a story with a first kiss, a remote town, young love, and a terrible storm that took out the train bridge. . . and a barreling passenger train heading for the loose rails over the river. . . and the best "gotcha" tall tale ending I've heard in a long while.

"If someone asks you where you live, don't give them a fucking address. Point right here, at your frontal lobes, and tell them 'Right here, and right now,' because that's all you've got." A raw, emotional account of living through a family member suddenly having a medical crisis and winding up in a vegetative state, and why that means you have to live, and you have to laugh. Also included a badass, tough-as-nails smoke jumper who was (almost) too shaken by grief to dig his wife's grave. And a couple of moments where the teller stopped and said to us, yeah, yeah, it's okay, you can laugh, it's funny, this is how life is. This is how death is. And it's kind of ludicrous.

"She turned around to her assistant and said, 'He has to do this! He has to do this! He has to do this! He has to do this!' She said it four times." All DJ was trying to do was vote. And it ended up with her walking in circles in the polling station, trying to calm down, because despite a driver's license and health card and birth certificate that all said she was female, the woman at the polling station was certain she was male. Was it her voice? Does she have 'one of those faces'? When just voting is a fight-or-flight situation, when "proving you're a person" and that you exist is even harder, how do you cope with it?

It looked to me, coming in after a couple of months off (and, I think, as my first time at (un)told as a non-teller) as though the series is going gangbusters. And it's doing some interesting things. A lot of the people who got up to tell were taking some big risks - not just in being emotionally invested, but in the ways they chose to tell. They banked on the audience coming with them, and most of the time, I think, the audience did. Even to some kind of painful places. It was a good night, with hushed moments and laughs trading spaces.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Linguistics geek meets doge

I follow Michael Quinion's World Wide Words newsletter, and he just summed up the Internet meme/fad "doge" (which I have been wanting to do) WAY better than me. I post it here for the edification and amusement of meme-followers and word geeks alike.

---

Such odd. Much cute. So passing fad. The internet phenomenon of doge has been fashionable for some months now and has attracted the interest of linguists. It originally tagged pictures of the Japanese dog breed shiba inu (in multicoloured Comic Sans font), so the name is a deliberate misspelling of dog (no link with the one-time ruler of Venice; don’t ask how it’s said as wars have been started over less and the consensus seems to be “any way you want”). Doge pairs a modifier and a noun to create a dissonant phrase. The main doge modifiers are much, many, so, very, such, plus three words that can be used by themselves: wow, amaze and excite. Typical phrases are very eat, much grumpy, so trick, which usually have meaning only when written on a photo. But I found a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in doge, which begins:

What light. So breaks. Such east. Very sun. Wow, Juliet.
What Romeo. Such why. Very rose. Still rose.
Very balcony. Such climb.
Much love. So propose. Wow, marriage.

What interests linguists is that it’s much more than just bad English. It has a strict grammar that deliberately subverts the standard one. You have to have a sophisticated intuitive understanding of English to write good doge. A newbie user wrote “Much respect. So noble” and was immediately corrected because it was too conventional — it should be “Much noble. So respect.” An article in the Daily Telegraph in February was headlined, “Doge: such grammar. Very rules. Most linguistics. Wow”, which pretty much sums it up."

---

I think that last line should be "so grammar. very rules. most linguistics. wow" - lack of capitalization included - but hey, it was the Daily Telegraph and I bet the editor wouldn't let them do that.

Doge fascinates me because it was so obvious that there were rules and grammar to it, which were unofficially, somehow, agreed upon (and argued about as though they were actual grammar) by people who learned the meme and learned to use it. Doge utterly baffles and confuses anyone who isn't in on the joke, but it doesn't take long to get in on the joke - just see a few doge pictures. Then reconstruct the general rules of the meme. To write good doge, the modifier has to disagree with the noun to the greatest extent possible. It has to be the opposite of the right word. Which is why I'd argue that "so grammar" is better than "such grammar." I can imagine using the words "such grammar" together in actual English. Hence, =/= doge. Though, I could be wrong: and of course, the rules of doge don't actually exist except as some sort of collective understanding between total strangers on the internet.



Lots of memes work like this - the Batman/Robin slap meme, the Boromir "one does not simply" meme. You know, after a few examples, where the text breaks, what sort of font to use (the meme generation sites that have sprung up do dictate some of those fonts: but one seems to emerge as the winner, making others look clumsy and amateurish, as though the user doesn't really know the language of the meme). And some are better written than others. Some are plain dumb. Some are created as in jokes for groups so small that the joke is lost on everyone else. But the successful ones can be really clever, and often pick up some universal frustration that a large number of people are feeling.


Doge, though, is a different breed (no, not shiba inu). Doge - a lot like its grandparent, lolspeak - is a language game. Part of the in joke with doge is "I know how to do this." Beyond "I know how to do this" is "I know how to do this and be clever with it." 

On a picture I posted on Facebook of me rock climbing into the sun, stopping to shade my eyes, I commented simply, "very sun. so squint. wow." That's just demonstrating that I know doge and I can do it passably, and fishing for a 'like' from someone else who's in on the joke. It's when you can do something like this, where the reader/viewer can be in on two completely different in jokes, and you've done something clever with the linguistic rules of doge (say, by finding an example of something that looks a hell of a lot like doge from long before the internet existed): then you've reached doge mastery. IMHO. 



Friday, June 20, 2014

A midsummer vignette

Walking down the canal tonight, Byron and I approached a group of teenagers hanging out on the park benches, singing "Barrett's Privateers." Well, trying to. They were bawling out the chorus at least, but then I heard them stumble: "What was the ship's name?" 

"I dunno. . ."

"Well, the something sloop was a sickening sight - "

And they all sang out "HOW I WISH I WAS IN SHERBROOKE NOW!"

And just as they all faltered and fell back into silence, we walked through the group. Without breaking stride, I said, "She'd a list to the port and her sails in rags and the cook in the scuppers with the staggers and jags."

They all stared, then burst into cheers and applause. One held up a hand and gave me a high five as I kept walking, and they all started singing, 

"GOD DAMN THEM ALL. . . I WAS TOLD WE'D CRUISE THE SEAS FOR AMERICAN GOLD. . ." 

I was a few feet away when they finished the chorus and dissolved back into laughter. One shouted "That was AWESOME!" and another yelled something like "Bless you!"

I raised a hand without looking back, like the hero walking off into the sunset, and remarked to Byron, "You know, if I've learned one thing in life, it's that knowing all the words to 'Barrett's Privateers' opens all kinds of social doors." 


Thursday, June 12, 2014

The final hours

I meant to post so much more about the Iliad and the process of working on it for this show, but, of course, life got in the way, and when I would get a moment I could post, I'd realize I could either post about the Iliad - or rehearse for it. And so it goes.

But now, we're 36 hours away, as I write this, from the first voice being raised on the stage at the National Arts Centre, and the beginning of the story.

I will be there in the audience at the beginning, and all the way up to my set, and beyond it. Nervously, and excitedly, waiting for my chance to pick up the story and carry it along, and watching to see the audience getting carried along with it. Watching some of them - maybe most of them - discover or rediscover it. And I will have a completely new perspective on the Iliad from when I started.

You want to know why it's lasted almost three thousand years? We fight wars, the human race. We're cursed with it, maybe. And in our wars, we can be at our most terrible and our most beautiful, our most tragic and our most triumphant. There are moments when people shine - and not necessarily when they fight: sometimes it's when they care for each other, or miss their families, or run back to tend the wounded. And there are moments when one fatal misjudgment can get you killed, or where a man stands shoulder to shoulder with a friend.

Spend as long as we have spent with it (as we, the tellers, have learned to know these people, talked to each other about them, thought about destiny and the patterns and parallels that keep emerging) and I think you'll come to the realization that the genius of the Iliad is that there are no sides, there are no easy answers, there's no "just war" or right side.

Or come spend twelve hours with us, and with it, and with all its complicated, courageous, petty, gentle, loving, frightened, monstrous, valiant, blazing human beings (and gods). I'm sure you'll never forget the experience: and I believe it will speak to you, about the sorrow and beauty of being human. It did to me.


Monday, May 26, 2014

What the Iliad has to do with Chris Hadfield

A couple of weeks ago, I got together with my setmate for the Iliad, Catherine Sheehan, and our "assistant director" Tom Lips, for a sightly belated team rehearsal/coaching session. Each group in a set has an AD who's helping out with some of the coaching so it's not all on Jan and Jennifer to get us to our best performances.

I meant to blog more about the whole process of learning my part of the Iliad, but you know how time goes. But I'd been feeling a looming sense of . . . unease . . . about my memorization process. Namely, that I hadn't really been working on it. But I decided something had to be done when the recurring dreams kicked in (the kind where you're rinkside at the Olympics, about to compete for Canada in pairs ice dancing with your friend Terry, and realize that you don't have a routine worked out, and you can't exactly wing it without finding Terry and talking it over first, and you can't find Terry anywhere, and the Russian team is already out there on the ice: not that I'm thinking of a specific dream here).

Anyway, my subconscious said, loudly, "FFS, Kate, get your crap together and memorize your stuff! What would Chris Hadfield do?"

(Yes. Really. He has a great chapter in his memoir about he doesn't really feel fear because he knows he is prepared for absolutely anything. How you never have to be anxious if you are really, truly prepared. And knowing how deathly nervous I'm going to be on June 14, I cling to that advice.)

So, I buckled down. There was a godsend of a night when I was babysitting my friends' son, and after I got him down for the night I walked around their living room learning the whole segment where the gods enter the fray and things get seriously fantastical. The success of that was encouraging. The second half (all the hand-to-hand combat) I managed by combining cardio workouts and memorization. I'd jump on the machine, put the binder I keep my script in on the console, and then start running, reading, looking away, repeating, then reading, looking away, repeating. . . Meant I could work on memorizing in convenient 30-minute or hour-long chunks, and I was getting some exercise too. Although I bet I was getting some weird looks from the other gym patrons.

I'm glad I memorize quickly. Within about a week, I could sit down, every night, before I switched out of "work" mode and into "wind down" mode, close my eyes, and say the whole 25-minute piece from beginning to end. So when I got to Tom's house to rehearse, I was pretty sure I could rattle it off. Though I wasn't so sure I wouldn't just be rattling.

I don't think I was. There were spots I thought I could put a little more into, but for the first time telling the whole thing in front of a human audience (my cats are another matter) I did okay. The words were all there (except one word, "astonishing," which blocked me every time, and which I have now changed, just to get it out of my way).

And when it came time to hit the all weekend rehearsal last weekend, I sort of got it, what Hadfield means, because as my time to tell started to loom, I was nervous, but mostly just excited to get going. To step up and take my part of the story forward, as one voice in the chain of voices taking us through. I felt like I knew my words and now it was just a matter of doing.