news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Monday, 30 December 2013

Infinity Rehearsal Journal: December 20-21, 2013

Clare Preuss is Volcano's associate artistic director. She's keeping tabs on the beginnings of Infinity, a new play by Hannah Moscovitch currently in development... 

I write this final Infinity workshop 2013 entry from Pearson Airport, ready to take off for a family holiday season in Switzerland. I feel inspired to share excellent new Canadian theatre with the rest of the world.  This is one of the reasons I’m so delighted to the be the Associate Artistic Director at Volcano – Ross and team are not only dedicated to creating some of this country’s most poignant, touching live performance but they are also committed to touring productions to countries across this planet.

Hannah has written a play with many universal threads that touch our hearts and stimulate our minds.  After this productive and collaborative two weeks of development, it is my hope that audiences in Canada and around the world will have the opportunity to experience this touching piece of theatre.

In the final two days of this round of workshop process, we gathered to refine the staging, musical, choreographic and text based creation that we have conjured up over this time together.  Then, on Sunday, we had the opportunity to share the piece with an invited group of artists and loved ones.  It was a passionate day of presentation of and conversation.  Now, the Volcano team continues to work toward bringing a full-fledged production to audiences in Toronto and beyond!  

Infinity Rehearsal Journal: December 17-20, 2013

Clare Preuss is Volcano's associate artistic director. She's keeping tabs on the beginnings of Infinity, a new play by Hannah Moscovitch currently in development... 

We dove into week two and went right to the heart of Hannah’s incredibly evocative piece.  This team is incredible!  Hannah has found a story line that deeply connects theoretical physics, music, human relationship and the legacy we leave our children.  It is an emotional, thoughtful script that requires virtuosic performance and a highly imaginative creative team.  I come away from the first four days of this week’s exploration truly in awe of the company gathered to jam on Infinity.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the creative team, lead by choreographer Kate Alton, created what I secretly call the lonely atom dance.  It is a beautiful and upsetting piece of dance that encapsulates the tormented love of a husband, wife and their eight-year-old daughter.  I find Kate’s choreography to be quite emotional as we follow daughter Sarah Jean’s attempt to find order in the chaotic reality in which she is being raised.  

Why the lonely atom dance?  Well, first of all, at times in the dance, all three actors look like atoms bouncing off each other, trying to connect but unable to do so.  Also, when Elliot and Carmen meet at a party years earlier he mentions to her that he is a theoretical physicist who studies the nature of time.  They get talking about the specifics of what he does and finally, Elliot talks about listening to atoms and hearing their dull ache, their longing.  Carmen replies "They sound lonely?" and after Elliot agrees she concludes "The atoms are lonely."  It is one of the most beautifully funny and also terribly sad moments in the play and one that I feel foreshadows so much of what comes as these two people begin a tragic love affair and parental partnership.

Witnessing Kate and team co-create this piece is satisfying.  I enjoy how the characters’ journeys are so clear and that this dance in the middle of a text based piece is necessary – the only way they can express themselves in that moment is through dance.  It is brilliant visioning by Ross, Kate and Kong Kie to create a dance sequence at this point in the play and delightful collaboration by all artists to come to this poignant piece of movement.

For the last two days, we’ve been semi staging the play – finding the right balance of blocking and classical workshop reading vibe for our invited presentation on Sunday.  It is wonderful to experience Ross and the team’s innate ability to play with various staging possibilities with courage, speed and precision.  It is delightful to see how different a scene plays depending on the physical relationship of the characters.  I know this intellectually but it feels like magic every time creators put theory into action - as we make choices on stage that fundamentally shift the meaning and impact of the words being spoken.  I think the team has come up with a nice balance of staging and music stand reading.  Of course, we haven’t run it all together yet so, we will see how that goes before I get too sure!  Hannah has been busy writing in TV land all week and joins us again tomorrow.  So, we will show her what we’ve got and then, once we have all tasted what we’ve put together, we can assess the stew we’ve cooked up so far.  

If today’s weepy rehearsal hall is any clue, we’ve got a moving play on our hands!  

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Infinity Rehearsal Journal: December 13-15, 2013

Clare Preuss is Volcano's associate artistic director. She's keeping tabs on the beginnings of Infinity, a new play by Hannah Moscovitch currently in development... 

As we delved into the second half of the first week of the workshop, we were in the thick of play development.  On Friday, we continued to investigate the piece scene by scene, finding the aspects of both character and story that are useful to continue exploring in more detail.  The piece is really coming to life and some deep questions are being asked that will allow the play to grow in fullness and clarity.

On Saturday, we had the great honor and pleasure to welcome world-renowned theoretical physicist, Lee Smolin, in rehearsal.  We read the play for Lee and were thankful for his enthusiastic reaction and clarifying notes regarding both the physics and the relational content of the play.  It was our first big snow day in Toronto and, at the end of our rehearsal Lee was trying to make a hair cut appointment but the cabs were taking forever to come - so, I volunteered to cut Lee’s hair and he accepted!  I’m Ross’ hairdresser as well and it was a delightful impromptu experience at the end of a completely inspirational day.

The Infinity Team: actors Paul Braunstein, Amy Rutherford,
and Haley McGee; violinist Andrea Tyniec; and (seated)
choreographer Kate Alson and director Ross Manson

Sunday was split into two distinct sections.  We began the day by taking all of Sarah Jean’s adult solo moments in the play and stringing them together to find the internal arch of Sarah’s present moment journey.  This experiment was very helpful in finding the drive behind Sarah Jean’s monologues – what she is working to figure out.  After our break, the rehearsal hall was opened to Volcano’s supporters.  We gathered for a potluck lunch that was followed by Andrea playing some music from the play as well as a reading of a scene from the piece.  The mood was jovial and everyone seemed to enjoy this sneak peek at this dynamic and innovative new piece.

Infinity Rehearsal Journal: December 10-12, 2013

Clare Preuss is Volcano's associate artistic director. She's keeping tabs on the beginnings of Infinity, a new play by Hannah Moscovitch currently in development... 

The Infinity team has gathered at the welcoming Aluna Theatre rehearsal space for another round of workshopping Hannah Moscovitch’s deeply moving and intellectually stimulating play.  We have congregated numerous times in the past year for short, one-day workshops. These mini workshops have all been fruitful as Hannah continues to develop the piece under the direction of Volcano’s Artistic Director Ross Manson and with the support of actors, Paul Braunstein, Haley McGee and Amy Rutherford along with choreographer Kate Alton, composer Njo Kong Kie and violinist Andrea Tyniec and myself, Associate Artistic Director Clare Preuss.

It is such a delight to have the luxury of a two-week workshop process as it gives us the ability to deepen the textual, physical, movement and design elements of the play with a continuous flow of collaboration.  The first three days of this adventure have been very rewarding.

On day one, we began with some fun and illuminating physical warm up lead by Ross.  Then, we each brought in five objects and placed them around the border of the hall.  Some of these objects were meaningful to the story of the play and others were mundane, everyday objects.  Each actor picked three pieces and we then asked the actors a series of questions about the objects, which they answered in character.  This exercise proved to be an ideal way to delve into the shared back-story of this family of three - unearthing potential commonalities and links in behavior as well as points of long-standing tension and challenge.  That afternoon, we began reading Hannah’s newest draft of the piece.  We almost made it to the end of act one.  It was a full and productive first day!
Actors Paul Braunstein, Amy Rutherford, and Haley McGee
On day two, Ross once again led us in some group warm-up.  This time, we had fun imitating each other’s walks, which is always a great laugh, but also proved useful for the actors as they are portraying a family unit and this kind of body awareness is a useful tool in feeling intimately connected to each other.  Following the warm-up, Ross led an exercise to devise two archetypal gestures for each actor.  This Michael Chekov-based technique provided results that were compelling and will help both Ross and choreographer, Kate Alton, develop the physical world of the piece.  After break, we got back to reading the play and almost made it to the end of the text.  Following rehearsal, Ross, Kate, Hannah, Kong Kie and stage manager Isabelle Ly had a script meeting and Hannah left eager to make some changes.

On day three, Hannah brought in a whole new draft!  We dove right into it and worked through the play at the table, engaged in scene work and discussion.  One of the big questions the team is mulling over is the use of music in the piece.  As both mother (Carmen) and daughter (Sarah Jean) in the play are violinists while the father (Elliot) is a theoretical physicist, we are keen to discover how the powerful music that Kong Kie has composed and Andrea plays can support and partner the text-based work.  We also continue to investigate the relationship between Sarah Jean’s solo adult scenes and the childhood scenes she shares with Carmen and Elliot.  By the end of rehearsal day three, the team seems inspired and ready to continue the development of this play rich with poignancy.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Urgent issues facing Canadian artists

Volcano AD Ross Manson just sent the follow email to our fans and followers. If you'd like to subscribe to Ross' updates, please email

Two pieces of news from government regarding the arts community are extremely troubling, and should concern us deeply. I propose some actions on our part - writing councillors, MPs and the new Minister of Culture. Here's what's troubling me:

1) The recommendation from Toronto city staff to renege on a promise to increase per capita arts funding in Toronto. The initial increase was made possible through the billboard tax - conceived and fought for by artists, for artists - and since then, council has committed to making enhanced arts funding part of their operating budgets moving forward. This is from the NOW Magazine piece:

"If council reneges on meeting the 2016 target it will be the third time the city has missed a deadline to increase arts funding to $25 per capita, a level seen as the standard a decade ago when it was reached by Montreal. In 2003, council endorsed a plan that set 2008 as the target, and once that was missed, approved another report in 2010 that set 2013 as the deadline. As Toronto has struggled, Montreal has increased its arts funding to $55 per capita."

This recommendation is not yet enacted. If we push back hard as a community, council will not pass it. But we must write our Councillors to let them know we care. Even a two-liner will suffice. I expressed fury to my Councillor. Find your City Councillor's email here.

2) Buddies in Bad Times has lost its Department of Canadian Heritage funding for the Rhubarb Festival with no explanation as to why. This stinks of an arbitrary measure coming from the conservative government. Of course, there is no proof of that, because the process is opaque. But that in itself is troubling. This is from the eloquent statement issued by Buddies:

"What is troubling this time is that we have not been given any clear indication as to why we no longer meet their criteria. This has left us surprised and confused. Why do we no longer meet the program's objective? We did not propose any significant shifts to the festival in our application. There has been no announced change in policies or priorities. The only source of new priorities that we can see at Canadian Heritage is the appointment of the new Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, the Honourable Shelly Glover."

Buddies has a right to know how and why Rhubarb suddenly no longer fulfills this objective, after 35 years. Please write to the Minister of Culture and cc your MP. Feel free to copy and paste from above.

Mister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages:
Find your MP here.


Friday, 15 November 2013

After Arts Day: Our Future with City Council

Meaghan Davis is Volcano's Manager of Communications & Enrichment. She is also an organizer on Arts Day at the City, and a steering committee member for ArtsVote Toronto.

With all that's going on at City Hall right now, it makes me so incredibly HAPPY to have good news to report on civic life in Toronto.

November 8, 2013 was the 4th Arts Day at the City: an initiative led by TAPA that brings members of the arts community to City Hall to champion our issues with Councillors. A tremendous amount of hard work, enthusiasm, and passion was put into this project by many people - both organizers, and supporters in the community like you.

It paid off.

I want you to know how successful your efforts have been:

  • This year, a record 29 Councillors took meetings with us, either on Arts Day or in the days preceding / following it.
  • There was a lot to celebrate - like Council's unanimous commitment to get our municipal arts funding up to $25 per capita by 2017.
  • There was a lot to report - including incredible growth in arts activities in wards all over the city (you can read the full Arts Day message here).
  • And we had a clear message for Council: commit to the second phase of funding promised for the 2014 budget.

And it's happening. An increase in funding in scheduled to be part of the 2014 budget (even budget chief Frank Di Giorgio said so!).

Volcano GM Meredith Potter, The Theatre Centre's Franco Boni,
and Susan Wright from the TAC with Councillor Di Giorgio

Students at the Randolph Academy
This is a HUGE victory for Toronto's arts community. It's a sign of how strong this community is, and how much we've improved our relationship with the municipal government. This kind of progress happens:

  • because of your participation and civic engagement.
  • because of those critics within our community who have challenged how we advocate for our interests time and again, demanding we step up our collective game.
  • because organizations like TAPA, TAC/F, Arts Etobicoke, Beautiful City, BfTO, East End Arts, Lakeshore Arts, North York Arts, Scarborough Arts, and Urban Arts rally for events like this.
  • because our colleagues at the provincial and national levels are working hard to do the same.
  • because of grassroots activity like Theatre Passe Muraille's ingenious EA Nights, which bring dozens of City staffers out to the theatre.
  • because people like you write to your reps in government and tell them what's important to voters.

High fives all around!

Tiny artists at Lakeshore Arts
I want to share this success with Volcano followers because, if you're at all like the people in our office, you're feeling frustrated and infuriated at the state of politics in Toronto. I must admit, the day before Arts Day was the most discouraged I've felt in the past three years of working on this project. You might remember November 7 as the date the Toronto Sun and Toronto Star released a second, awful video of Toronto's current mayor. I thought Arts Day - and everything we've all been working toward - would get lost in the chaos.

I was wrong.

Progress is possible regardless of how big the distractions are - we can see it happening right now. It's worth celebrating. And it's worth asking: what can we do next?

I don't believe change happens because of one person. One person can make a difference (or a lot of noise...), but change is a collective action. It's up to the community to decide that the status quo isn't good enough. 

So please keep it up! 2014 is an election year, and Arts Vote will definitely be a part of it. We hope you'll get involved (email me), and that you'll help us continue to champion the things that make Toronto a great place to live.


PS: want to feel good about your city? This might make you smile:

Sheridan Theatre Class of 2015

Monday, 11 November 2013

Ross in China: Ancient Beijing / Contemporary Beijing

The next two days I spend on foot or in cabs, walking around central Beijing, exploring an arts complex in the south of the city, visiting some ancient sites, and seeing some very modern ones. These are the highlights:

1) The Lama Buddhist Temple

A lovely, tranquil site despite the many tourists, and worshippers, and tourist / worshippers. Incense wafts through the air. Young and old spin brass prayer wheels or kneel holding burning incense to their foreheads. The ancient temple site - converted to a temple centuries ago - is a large complex of many ornately hand-painted buildings containing many statues of the Buddha, in his many manifestations. One of the most memorable is an 18 metre tall Buddha carved out of a single piece of sandalwood. This Buddha is enormous, blue, and barely contained in the three story temple in which he stands, with giant flowers on his shoulders. The atmosphere everywhere is calming and lovely. And there are a plethora of young, and hiply dressed, worshippers. Buddhism, it seems, is cool.

2) Best Dumplings EVER

An hour or two later, I wander into a tiny place on a narrow hutong (alley) that has a sign out front: Various Dumplings. I order the "8 kinds of green vegetables" dumplings. Astonishing. Delicious. The woman who serves me asks me to point out where I am from on a map on the wall. This map - unlike the ones I grew up with in Canada - features China in the middle. North America is a foreshortened landmass squeezed over on the right. As anyone who saw that episode on the West Wing knows, maps are political. The Dumpling Woman is delighted to learn I am from Canada, and she points to the TV while telling me why. I have no idea what she is saying, being a dolt language-less tourist in this country, but I like her, her food, and her friendliness. She poses for a photo, taking off her work coat and straightening her hair. Sadly - only in this photo did her warm smile disappear. Maps are political, and cameras miss the truth.

The hutong her shop is in - like the one my hotel is in, like the ones I wander through for hours - is typical of old Beijing. Apparently, these alleyways used to be ubiquitous, but vast networks have been torn down to make way for the "modern city." In central Beijing, however, there are still many to be found. It is this network of smallness in the midst of vastness that really draws me to the city. 

I realize I like this town a lot.

3) Tiananmen Square

Huge. That's really all I have to say. I just look at it from the northern edge - where the entrance to the Forbidden city is. No tanks or men with grocery bags. Just a vast empty space, ringed with tourists. Although, two days after I stand here, and in this very spot, an attack occurs wherein 5 people are killed and forty injured as an SUV ploughs into the tourist crowd, and then detonates. Early news reports indicate it is an attack tied to Uighur separatists. 

4) The Forbidden City

Also huge. Too big to see in an afternoon. What I hadn't clocked before was that the name "city" isn't a misnomer. There are many, many buildings, and many vast open spaces. It gets its name from its 500 year long stint as the home of the emperor - where no one could enter or leave without the emperor's permission. Although, in modern Mandarin, it is officially referred to as simply the "Palace Museum." 

What most appeals to me is a ceramics collection in a building I wander into - a display of China in China, from about 7000 years ago to now. Some of the most ancient of these relics look, to my eye, as modern as anything I could find in a fancy store in Paris or Berlin. It turns out that perhaps my favourite piece - simple, elegant, beautiful - was made in about 5000 BC. It's a shocking discovery. Human artistry doesn't evolve, it seems. It may shift from one era to the next, from one style, form or fashion to another, but we are no more or less creative than ever. This 7000 year old vase is beautiful to my 21st century eye.

A jarring slap in the face is the exit from the Forbidden City at its northern wall. I walk out in a revery, and am accosted by a sea of aggressive entrepreneurs trying to sell me memorabilia, watches or rickshaw rides. Also ranged along this street are beggars - a collection of some of the most mutilated humans I have ever seen - with missing limbs, enormous scars, crutches, and horrifically burned faces. Several are singing, karaoke-style along with boom boxes, displaying their injuries to the sea of tourists. This is a pageant of desperation under the shadow of an emperor's palace. I wonder how long something like this has been here. I hurry past, overwhelmed. These few hundred metres are unlike the Beijing in which I have been wandering for the last two days, and I am eager to return to calm anonymity of the hutongs and dumpling shops.

4) 798 Arts

Housed in a vast factory complex designed by East German engineers in a Bauhaus style the 1950s, is a collection of galleries, cafes, and shops. For a Toronto resident, it feels exactly like the Distillery District, but about 20x the size. The whole thing is referred to as 798 Arts - after the number name of one of the old factories. At first it is hard to find an artist among all the bars, cafes and restos with their plethora of lattes and laid-backedness. I think the artistic heyday for this area may have passed a few years ago (there is, apparently, another similar district further south and less commercial - one which I am sad to have only learned about when back in Toronto). Nonetheless, I find some lovely work in a few of the galleries, and am amazed at how the commercialization of Artsyness is happening here as well. One thing I don't see is overtly political art - unlike at a similar (but less commercial) complex I visited in Shanghai, and unlike the work of the famous nearby resident, Ai Wei Wei (currently under house arrest). Still - it's a great place to visit, and one sees why Chinese visual art is the arguably the hottest in the world: there's some great work happening.

5) Layer Code 

I visit the Peoples' Liberation Army theatre (about a 1000 seat hall) to see the work of the dance company I visited on my first day in Beijing: Beijing Dance LDTX. It is a fascinating show. The pre-set is riveting: a large white box set with a succession of enormous tiled video images of each of the dancer's faces in extreme close up on the upstage wall - the faces shift in slo-mo, with each tile moving at a slightly different speed, as an atmospheric soundscape plays. It's enormously compelling. The piece runs about an hour, and the first 15 minutes are amazing. The choreographer knows how to make satisfying, extremely athletic movement, and the dancers know how to dance it. The design is gorgeous - high-end light and video effects. So far so good. But then - like so many dance pieces in so many countries (that aren't Belgium!) - the piece doesn't develop beyond its athleticism. The movement offers no dynamic change - depth and complexity don't develop, and the whole doesn't ever add up to more than its constituent parts. Granted - this is one of the hardest things to do, especially in an abstract form, but I can't help being saddened. I sooo want this to be mind blowing, but it is, instead, another dance piece that has a great potential it doesn't quite realize.

I think perhaps cities like Beijing, Tehran and, yes, Toronto all suffer from isolation. Too many young artists in these places don't get to see enough of the best work on the planet, first-hand. China and Iran suffer from political isolation, and English Canada from a combination of geographic isolation with a self-imposed lack of interest in the the very best contemporary work (how often did Pina Bausch's company visit Toronto, for example? Answer: once, when most of the young artists in the city were still toddlers). Without direct experience of each others' work, artists can't be at the top of their game. It's that simple. As China opens, and as more connections happen, I expect this to change with companies like LDTX. For English Canada, I live in hope...

6) Square Dancing, Hutong Style

My final night in Beijing is unforgettable. Beijing-resident American producer Alison Friedman and I go out looking for a drink among the hutongs. We find a tiny place called the Malty Dog, which seems to be hosting a square dance evening. Yes: square dance. Random. A group of young Chinese patrons are dancing to the fiddle and guitar music of a couple of white guys with hipster beards. The fiddler speaks Mandarin. The guitar player calls in English. It is an unexpected event in a Beijing back alley. Moreover, the guitar player comes over to talk to us, and it turns out he's from Pickering. He teaches at a local university. THEN, as he he talks, Alison realizes that she is putting a tour together for these guys - but it's all been over email, and they haven't met face-to-face until now. We dance. 

About an hour in, a Scottish friend appears with three Chinese theatre folks. The Scot is Graham McLaren, who is now an Associate Artist at the National Theatre of Scotland (he is known to Toronto for his shows with Necessary Angel: Hamlet and Andromache). Graham is in town to put together a project with China's National Theatre, and this is the only chance we've had to have a drink together. His Chinese assistant from Scotland is with him (a delight to be around), as is perhaps the only indie producer of experimental work in China, and a young director who has just finished RADA's directing program in London (another whip smart young'un). It's a fun bunch, and we talk shop, drink some amazing micro-brewery beer, and square dance. At one point, Graham turns to me and says, "It's like the gold rush! There are people from all over the world searching for the opportunities, searching for the gold, but not having any real idea where it is. Everyone's making it up as they go. The atmosphere is electric." He's right.

I can think of no better way to say goodbye to this place. It's a great trip, and, for me and my wee company, Volcano, a new connection is made to a region that is accelerating into all of our futures...

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Ross in China: Beijing

Oct. 22

1) Today I travel to Beijing. I brave the Shanghai morning rush hour in the subway to get to the train station. Now I know what a city of 25 million feels like going to work. It's an extraordinary experience. Despite the many subways I've been on in many countries, this is something new. The combination of politeness and orderliness (people line up in front of where the doors will arrive) with full-on pushing and extreme human compression (people surge forward and squeeze through any opening to get on board the train), is not something I've really been through before. Nobody is angry or vindictive or upset - just doing what has to be done to get on a subway when millions of other people are doing the same. I am both alarmed (with the overwhelming numbers) and impressed (with the calm efficiency). Is this metaphoric, I wonder?  Is your typical passenger in the Shanghai subway behaving the same as China does in the world?  Simply claiming a position calmly, yet assertively, because that's just what needs to happen?

2) I get to a massive, gleaming, modern train station to board the bullet train. We accelerate smoothly to 300km an hour as I leave Shanghai for Beijing. The trains can go faster, apparently, but they have been slowed down for safety reasons. Still, they are faster than anything in the West, and certainly make our trains in Canada look prehistoric (I think of the diesel link to Pearson airport being built in Toronto - we are still using 19th century technology while China is firmly in the 21st century). I make the 1500km journey in just over 5 hours. On the way, I pass endless pods of building cranes and high rise apartments rising out of the smog around new factories. The scale of the construction is awesome. 

3) I arrive in Beijing and get a cab straight to a meeting at the Beijing Dance LDTX company's home in the south eastern part of the city. The city is huge, and it take an hour to cross just a part of it. "LDTX" is an acronym for something that translates as "Thunder Rumbles Under Heaven", and this company is one of the best known modern companies in China. An organizer of the festival in Shanghai said this was the one company I should really meet with. They are experimental, contemporary and they understand international touring. Alain ParĂ©, from CINARS in Montreal, told me the same thing. I am not disappointed. I sit down for a coffee with the genial Artistic Director, Willy Tsao, and it's the most refreshing meeting I have in China. Willy is a bubbling, funny, and straight-talking senior artist in China. My talk with him is really the first in-depth chat I've had with a Chinese artist since I've arrived. He is from Hong Kong, and has built his company entirely without government support. This gives him a leeway that is rare. He has two theatres, one in Beijing (a lovely 200 seater, in the building we're meeting in - a large, renovated auto repair place) and another in Guangzhou. He has a company of 14 dancers on the payroll, with several in-house choreographers. All of this is funded by family money from Hong Kong. So a family with textile wealth that is willing to back the artist son - and this, in turn, allows for an unencumbered pursuit of a contemporary art form - both things that are unusual in China. The government, he says, doesn't bother him other than to provide 5 no-go zones for content: nudity, Falun Gong, Tibet, and two other independence struggles (these words came too quickly for me to recognize which ones). He says he is willing to live with this in exchange for the freedom he has to otherwise do as pleases. He speaks of Shanghai somewhat disparagingly, and the kind of policy that is creating "firecracker art" there - flashy shows that provide a big bang, and leave nothing behind. He gives an example of the government buying out the Boston Symphony's contracts in order to bring them over to open a new arts centre. This extravagance, he says, is driven by policy seeking to turn Shanghai into an "International City". He speaks of a more serious artistic scene in Beijing, especially situated in any work happening outside of policy control. 

4) I take another cab to my hotel, and am delighted when I finally get there. In stark contrast to Shanghai, I am staying in a small, old Beijing courtyard hotel, situated near the middle of the city in a maze of back alleys. I meet American Alison Friedman for dinner (she has lived in Beijing for 12 years, and is the director of Ping Pong Arts). She says I'm lucky to be in a place like this. I agree. We walk along tiny alleyways, with washing, pets, and communal bathrooms, to get to a restaurant with cheap, plentiful and yummy food. The vibe is utterly different from Shanghai, and I like it.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

An Important Message from Arts Day in Toronto

Earlier this year, City Hall committed to reach a $25 per capita funding level for Toronto artists by 2017. IT'S UP TO YOU - artists, arts workers, students, and patrons - to make sure they follow through on that promise!

On Friday, November 8, TAPA and the Friends of the Arts Network will converge on City Hall for the 4th Annual Arts Day at the City. Show Toronto Councillors just how important their support is to our community by getting involved today:

TWEET your message of support with the hashtag #artsdayTO. We're telling council that 2013 was #justthebeginning - there's a lot left to do before we make it to $25 per capita!

POST your message of support on Facebook with the hashtag #artsdayTO.

SHARE the Arts Day at the City video.

EMAIL your friends / colleagues / patrons and ask them to show their support for the Toronto artists they love by voicing their opinion online or directly to City Hall.

and most importantly:

CONTACT YOUR COUNCILLOR to tell them you care about the arts, and you VOTE! If you don't know who your councillor is, no worries! Just click here.

You can also download the Arts Day "Just the Beginning" sign (click here) and share a photo of yourself with it to lend your face to the campaign. Or better yet: shows us that gorgeous mug in person! RSVP here to attend the Arts Day press conference at City Hall on November 8 at 9:30AM - the more the merrier!

And remember...Arts Day / November 8 isn't the only day to connect with your government representatives. Make sure your Councillor / MPP / MP knows what's going on with the artists they represent year-round!

Funding isn't guaranteed until it's in the budget! It's your art, and your future: make sure City Hall knows how important municipal arts funding really is to artists and audiences across Toronto. If you'd like more information about Arts Day and how you can get involved, feel free to email Meaghan Davis, Volcano's Manager of Communications & Enrichment and one of the Arts Day organizers.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Ross in China: Shanghai Summarized

As I leave for Beijing, these are my Shanghai impressions:

1) This was my first trip to Asia. I was excited, nervous, and, as Nicola Barker might say, wide open.

2) I spent 6 days at an international theatre festival and conference. I saw work, met people, and listened to many speeches.

3) The people I met were mostly foreign artistic directors from across the globe, producers, and agents. I bonded with some terrific Aussies (from Sydney Theatre Co.Melbourne Theatre Co., the OzAsia FestivalCritical Stages, and a children's theatre co. - an entire cohort of mischievous merrymakers). Sadly, I met almost no Chinese artists. The festival hasn't yet figured out an effective mechanism for the foreigners to be able to meet the Chinese in a social context.

4) An awareness dawned on me that the predominant language of the Chinese presenters was a marketing / economic language. Gradually, I realized that several of the speeches - from some Westerners, some other non-Chinese Asians, and from some respected Chinese scholars - were trying to counteract the trend to see the arts as a commodity. It's a road many countries have gone down in an attempt to gain influence or support or status, and it's fraught with trouble. Art is much more to a society than a widget. Policy makers and cultural practitioners must remain vigilant about placing our collective imagination on the level of an assembly line. The rules aren't the same.

5) I saw a spectrum of shows. The ticketing at the festival was chaotic and disorganized, so I was often disappointed to not get into shows I wanted to see, and was similarly disappointed by shows I did see. The quality varied enormously. My favourite stuff was on my last day, when we made a tour to two traditional opera companies, and saw excerpts of their work. One Peking Opera company did selections from an adaptation of Hamlet. It was riveting: acrobatic, sung, spoken and highly stylized, with an astonishing level of training in the performers. From there, we visited another opera company who performed not in Mandarin, but in a local Shanghai dialect. Here we saw jaw-dropping martial arts / acrobatic feats from two traditional stories, performed by their apprentice performers (ranging in age from 16 to 18). Here were fully multi-disciplinary forms with a long history of virtuosity. From there, we saw a more contemporary mask / dance telling of a story about an old woman who goes blind, and her fisherman husband who cares for her - also wonderful. 

6) On the final day, I was part of an informal conversation with one of the festival organizers. It was an epiphany. He spoke of the RAW (Rising Artists Works) program - what a fight it is to keep it (a fight with the government, that is), and how proud he was of these young artists taking big risks to make contemporary work. He had tears in his eyes as he spoke. Here was a man who loved his country, and wanted the next generation to be able to adapt to emerging forms, to find ways to reinvigorate the ancient forms (like Peking Opera) that the young are becoming less and less interested in. The RAW work I saw was terrible - amazing skills, some strong ideas, but no matching ability to realise these ideas in a rigorous way on stage - no good direction, no good dramaturgy. But to this organizer, he was seeing the future, and it made him proud. Context is everything.

7) The day after the festival, I walked through the streets of Shanghai. I visited a contemporary gallery complex (M50) and saw some wonderful - and political - contemporary visual art. In this, China is a leader. I met a Belgian visual artist who has been living in Shanghai for 8 years. He spoke of the giant increase in rents in the last two years, and how the city may not be affordable for much longer. For now, though, it's still a better place to make work than Europe - materials (canvas, light boxes, etc) are higher quality, arrive more quickly and are much cheaper than in Belgium.

My final impression of Shanghai was of acceleration. Money is being poured into this city. Its status as an International City is being actively promoted and backed up with billions by the government. The struggle is building a cultural policy inside this headlong rush that is grounded in something real and true and built by artists rather than by government. Still, as I traveled in the immaculate subway to the enormous gleaming train station to board the high speed bullet train to Beijing among the throngs of polite people and responsive and responsible workers - I was deeply impressed. 

This is the future.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Ross in China: cultural policy, with some "jaw-dropping" numbers

Sunday, October 20

The sunday session begins with a forum on cities and cultural policy - what art can do for a city.

John Howkins, UK: a tall, thin, white-haired British consultant, with, apparently, a giant IQ. Here's what he says:
  • the essence of a city is people and ideas. That's it. Economy, business, infrastructure are all secondary.
  • what makes a world city? Not size, economy or location, but culture.
  • what IS culture? He tries not to use this word, but identifies several meanings for it. In Art, the meaning is tied to aesthetics. In anthropology, the meaning is tied to a way of living. In biology, the meaning is tied to a medium for growing things. In computer science, the meaning is tied to an operating system. The latter meaning he explored with cities, citing London as having an open-source operating culture.
  • the key question for cities now is: how are we using the best ideas, the best people, to improve a city? He talks of international expos as occurring only in the rapidly developing world, since their effectiveness still holds there. In the developed world, there hasn't been an expo for a long time, since the internet is now the source for the types of global connection that used to be situated in expos. He maintains that the new expo is the international arts festival, which promotes the kind of connection that is impossible on the internet.
  • looking ahead to the next 20 years, he maintains that two pairs of linked factors will determine the success of cities: Change and Diversity are the first pair. Cities need to promote these things successfully. Learning and Adaptation are the second pair. A city needs to be in a constant state of learning and adaptation to be successful.
  • he reminds us all that once we are out of school, learning is something we manage ourselves. The responsibility is ours. He finishes with the statement "the cities I know best and love are always learning". A note for Toronto's mayor Rob Ford?...

Michelle Boon, USA, the commissioner of cultural affairs for the city of Chicago speaks next.
  • Chicago has enacted a new cultural plan, its first since 1986. 
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel drove this initiative, and put $1 million USD into it (note to the reader: keep this figure in mind for when we get to what Singapore has been up to...). Michelle says that this mayor is probably the only ex-ballet dancer mayor in the US. 
  • through a public consultation process, her department found that the citizens of Chicago consistently ranked Arts Education as a top priority. 
  • Chicago has undertaken an initiative to find ways to link the non-profit arts sector with the for-profit arts sector. 
  • after the session, I speak to a few North American heavyweight ADs who say the Chicago speech had a lot of spin in it. The fact is, the money is not there. The support is inadequate for the goals. Space in the cultural HQ building is being closed down for lack of support. 

It's here that my alarm bells go off. The goals of the people who manage these sectors are rarely in concert. Sometimes the art can travel from one sector to another, but always, I would maintain, in the case where a serious artist was nurtured in the non-commercial sector. I recall here an earlier conversation with the head of the Hong Kong Arts sector who is trying to rebrand the "not-for-profit" sector in more positive terms as the "for purpose" sector. Profit vs. purpose. Put that way, the difference is clear. After the session, I speak to a few North American heavyweight ADs who say the Chicago speech had a lot of spin in it. The fact is the money is not there. The support is inadequate to meet the goals. Space in the cultural HQ building is being closed down for lack of support. 

Next up is LIU Wenguo, China: the man who runs the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While I've been here, I've learned that this festival is, in fact, not really a festival, but an umbrella. There is no curator. The festival is a brand that groups together many shows that are in progress at this time. It's giant, but not focused. Mr. Liu speed reads through a speech, and the simultaneous translators have difficulty keeping up. As a result, I miss a lot. Here's what i caught:
  • the festival is a way to showcase China to the world. It espouses values such as tolerance, excellence, magnanimity and modesty.
  • "Big Shanghai" is the idea being fostered: a city that is inclusive, international, and innovative.
  • "Innovation is the soul of the Arts, and innovation is key to the development of a city."
  • the message is that Shanghai is the birthplace of modernity in China. It is a modern powerhouse. Looking around the city, that seems true. The infrastructure is amazing. The city is vertical, gleaming and moving forward like a bullet train. It seems that, at least within this festival gathering, arts, culture and innovations are key interests of this modern China.

Up next is Benson Puah, Singapore, a man I've heard speak a couple of times before at ISPA in New York. He is the diminutive, smiling genius of arts and culture in Singapore. He used to run the Singapore Arts Festival, and now has reduced his workload to just one giant institution, the Esplanade theatre complex. He seems always at peace with the world, and two steps ahead of everyone else. Generous, modest and brilliant. If anyone should run the world, I think this guy might be the best candidate.
  • he begins: "Good morning. I am between you and tea break." He smiles, and promises to be brief, and to stay away from the quicksand of powerpoint.
  • he speaks of the 1989 report on the arts in Singapore, and how that report led to the creation of Singapore's arts infrastructure. 
  • a new plan in 2000 moved away from art as a spiritual need, and instead stressed the creative economy. The emphasis on art as an economic tool led to unprecedented growth as Singapore used culture as a way to market itself to the world.
  • Benson said that this economically-driven plan exposed itself as being only part of the picture, and that something vital was missing. In 2009, another plan was made that stressed the relationship between Culture and the Community - that Art is Art, not an economic tool, and the spiritual health of people is related to the health of their Arts and Culture, and their ability to interact with it.
  • as Singapore has moved rapidly from third to first world status, it has become increasingly mixed race. He cites some stats that sound very Canadian. He affirms the role that art has to play in understanding a place's shifting identity. This is very similar to the point that Aussie Andrew Bleby from the Melbourne Festival made a couple if days ago, and that I heard at the conference I went to in Kampala last month. Art can help us process Identity.
  • Benson speaks of a recent fight with cancer and the epiphany it led to. In the ward he was in, the patients were from many cultures, undergoing the same ordeal, dealing with the same pain. There was a strong sense that our blood is the same colour, and that cancer doesn't discriminate. He understood in a new way the importance of tolerance and understanding, and the possibility of shared identity across cultural difference.
  • the emerging challenge in Singapore (and one that China is also processing) is how to preserve tradition. In a global culture that provides so much instant gratification, slow skill acquisition is difficult to promote.
  • now the jaw dropping stats of a city state putting its money where its mouth is (and in stark contrast to Chicago, or, well, most of our cities in North America): Singapore Arts Council is about to increase its budget by 140%. Art is being deployed as a key tool in the education system. $210 million USD are being spent to develop a new Cultural plan. Culture is at the centre of the city's planning.
  • Benson says he is happy and fortunate to be in this city at this time. (He contributed much to this vision being realized in Singapore, so he's also to be thanked.) Ultimately, he says, this is all about who we are as people. Policy / money / governments can only take us so far: it is up to the people to invent themselves and their culture. I agree, but I also wish, as do doubtless many of the people listening, that my own government's policy would take us as far as Singapore's.
HUANG Changyong, China: the head of the Shanghai Theatre Academy is next up (after the tea break). This is another machine gun fast speech and leaves the translators struggling to keep up. I follow little of it, but do glean the following:
  • China is positioning Beijing as the Chinese Cultural Centre, and Shanghai as the International Cultural Metropolis. 

Hans-Georg Knopp: another super-bright policy consultant type, who lives half the year in Berlin, and half in Shanghai.
  • he speaks of Berlin. After the war, culture was literally the rescue of the city. There is nothing more important than culture.
  • the regulated and unregulated nature of culture in Berlin is key to its success. He speaks more of this unregulated aspect. Street musicians do not need licenses. Restos and bars face no restrictions on opening hours. This leads to a roughness in Berlin that is key to its success. In polls, a majority of visitors cite Berlin's subculture as being as important as its High Art.
  • he speaks of the wisdom of policy in Berlin, where policy makers and artistic leaders are brought around the same table to set cultural policy. He says that there is an inherent gap between cultural policy makers and cultural practitioners, and that cities must find a way to fill this gap.
  • artists are mobile. They go to places that are cheap and interesting. The roughness and affordability of space in Berlin has made it home to many artists, and this, in turn, has given the city the number two ranking of cities in the world, after New York - another rough and artist-full place (although space there ain't exactly cheap..).

Scott Galbraith, USA, the head of the Bushnell Centre for the Arts in Hartford CT. 
  • this slick powerpoint lecture seems hopelessly out of place in this context. It feels like cutting edge 1990. The city has invested in a plan called iQuilt, and the Disney like name seems appropriate to the city-theme-park plan, with an emphasis on fun stuff and test-drives for Broadway shows. 

Chris Lorway, Canada
  • Chris speaks of his time running Luminato, and how he converted the festival from a "Bucket Festival," where what was on at the time became what was on at the festival (similar to SPAF), to a festival with curation and a plethora of major commissions (with a nice nod to The Africa Trilogy that Volcano built for Luminato). It's a succinct and accurate view of a major festival, and one which tells the story of how festival programming decisions can begin to animate and reflect a city's identity back to the citizens. Good job, Chris!

A couple of final points are made in the discussion at the end of the session. Huang Changyong speaks of the necessity of arts education. In a city of 25 million, this is the way to give the people access and awareness of something of value: art. 

Hans-Georg Knopp wraps it up by saying that "Culture asks the question that nobody else dares ask." What could be more important to a civilization?

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Ross in China: a few performances, a few thoughts on Canadian cultural diplomacy

Friday, October 18: Evening

Tonight is the official opening ceremony of the 15th China Shanghai International Performing Arts Festival. We are taken by bus to a miraculous downtown theatre: a marble and glass cultural palace with thrilling architecture and about 2000 seats. 

Shanghai Cultural Square (Photo: Kreun Ip)
The interior is a bit overdecorated, and the show starts with a hierarchy of speeches. Names are read of most distinguished guests (party members, politicians). The hosts are affable and fabulous. They introduce someone who introduces someone else who introduces someone else who declares the festival open. Each speaker speaks from a different part of the stage, with the final, most important speaker, finally using the podium. Each speaker is greeted by a loud fanfare of classical music over the sound system as they approach the stage. Once the formalities are over, the curtain falls, and what I imagine to be a small army of technicians installs a floor and set for the Ballet of Monte Carlo, who are about to dance Swan Lake. 

It's a terrific company. The dancers are exquisite. The choreography is new, blending modern movement with pointe work. After some initial worries I become captivated by the piece. 

As at every performance I attend, there are cameras in use throughout. People talk. People come and go. People read their smartphones. The Chinese audience norm is not something we from the West are used to - or perhaps we are used to it only in the context of a youth audience. Someone theorizes that during Mao, meetings of more than three people were prohibited, so the theatres became a place to talk. I'm not sure if this is true, or simply speculation. 

The one conspicuous missing component is an orchestra, and the absence of live music in such a sumptuous theatre at an opening ceremony seems strange.

Saturday, October 19

Today I skip the morning session and go to explore the former French Concession neighbourhood south of where I'm staying. I find there a web of little alleyways crammed with wonderful and eccentric shops, with cafes, and with many tourists (most of whom are Chinese). I get a latte and blog.

Back at the Festival base (the Hotel Intercontinental), I have lunch with an Australian, an Israeli and another Canadian. 

I think Canada has the largest contingent of foreigners here - buoyed entirely by the Quebec contingent, a group of about 10 from CINARS and various performing arts companies and agencies. Quebec has admirably rushed to fill the vacuum left by the Harper government's utter withdrawal from using culture as a diplomatic tool. Now, where Canadian embassies offer no support to visiting artists, Quebec consulates do. I think I am the sole representative of English Canadian theatre here.

The afternoon is filled with short musical showcases of Chinese artists (and a few foreign artists). I sit in on some wonderful music. There is one man who plays a traditional Chinese stringed instrument like Ry Cooder - a virtuosic blend of musical influences at play. Another group sounds incredibly Celtic in sound, although singing traditional songs in Mandarin. It's a great afternoon. 

Things go horribly amiss in the evening. We are all bused to RAW - a program of works from young, emerging Chinese artists. We see three pieces. They are dreadful. There is a collective instinct to escape. Afterward, I join the directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, the Melbourne Theatre Company, and a few other Aussies AD types at an Italian resto close by, where we marvel at what's just happened. We're joined shortly by the National Theatre of Scotland, and folks who run things in Chile and Denmark, and Latvia and Singapore. I wonder how all the adults involved in choosing and overseeing the work we've just seen could possibly have thought it was beneficial to China, or to these young artists, to showcase this work to artistic directors from around the world. I doubt anyone here will go to the RAW events tomorrow.

What I miss this evening across town is the big event: Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra is playing under the baton of Pinchas Zukerman. A fleet of VIPs has come with it, including the Governor General and Laureen Harper. So I guess our PM does still see culture as a tool, but only at the high end with the occasional big flashy event.

It's a bust of a night. But I adore the company of the Aussies!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Ross in China: a jet lagged morning, and a few words from the Festivals

Friday, October 18: Morning Session

A day of speeches begins. The theme is the importance of preserving cultural diversity the world over, as recently put forward in a UNESCO resolution - to which, I believe, China is a signatory.

The morning begins with an address from a visiting UNESCO official that, though in fluent English, is almost entirely incomprehensible. I suspect the speaker is whip smart, but she speaks in an unremitting monotone I suspect is fostered by the crushing bureaucracy of the United Nations. OH MY GOD it is a hellish slog through this speech: lots of multi-syllabic words and complex sentences delivered almost entirely without inflection. This is followed by a respected Chinese academic who is somewhat more animated, but unfortunately, a soporific speaker is hard to follow - especially when the audience is extremely jet lagged. I begin to understand what it might be like to work at the UN, and am strangely comforted in my career choice...

The Chinese scholar, TU Weiming (who teaches at both Harvard and Peking University) is an advocate of the new Confucianism. One of the many fascinating things he maintains is that in
the 21st century, technology has increased human capacity to learn and to relearn, but also to unlearn. This, coupled with the idea that while Heaven is ever present but not omnipotent, means that humans must take care of the direction their societies move in. Confucius, he says, felt a duty to not set himself apart and pray, but to rather live IN the world, in order to transform it. We ignore this at our peril.

Jonathan Mills follows. He is the Artistic Director of the Edinburgh festival. I have still not recovered from the first speaker, and Sir Jonathan's style is not exactly invigorating. But he is no slouch, and he makes a point that I am happy to hear made: when we use economic language to talk about art, we do both our societies and art a disservice. 

UNESCO ambassador TAN Dunn speaks next - he is about as famous and well-regarded a composer as China has ever produced. But I can absorb almost nothing at this point. We are hours in. Mr. Tann does speak of the duty he feels to use his privilege well, while at the same time he doesn't quite understand why he feels compelled to always experiment, reach further, do more. But this is the way it is. The final speaker is TIAN Qinxin, director of China's National Theatre. I have no idea what she says. The simultaneous translation is difficult to grasp, and the jet leg is full on. Which is too bad. She is another big deal here in Shanghai, but, again, something less than a magnetic speaker. The whole morning is an argument in support of the communication skill of actors - a skill that I ache for from this group of brilliant and distinguished commentators.

We break for lunch.

Friday, October 18: Afternoon

The afternoon sessions are back-to-back collections of international festival artistic directors. I've never seen so many of this breed gathered together in one place. 

The introduction is from TIAN Qing, who is the director of the China Academy of Art, and Institute of Music. I am quite smitten with him. 

Mr. Tian begins with an cooking analogy to describe the importance of diversity. If you add water to water, your soup won't be very good. He speaks about the importance in China of not simply copying Western forms, but of preserving / creating Chinese forms so that the soup tastes good. 

He goes on to talk about the massive mistakes that have been made during China's rush to industrial modernization. By not paying attention, there have been tremendous environmental losses. He warns of the same dangers in a rush to cultural modernization - that in not paying attention, China will experience massive cultural losses. He speaks of certain traditional forms that have already been lost, and how, once gone, they are forever gone. His speech is a plea to pay attention to what Chinese culture is. 

"If we throw the seeds away, there won't be trees and flowers in the future."

The next speakers are all engaging - thankfully! The director of Finland's consortium of festivals, Kai Amberla, is the first humorous speaker we've had, and so is most welcome. His speech is terrific: a strongly worded call to always remember that art is art, not a commodity. We must make room for the optimal conditions that allow art to function - we must welcome disasters, passion, and diversity. He talks of the relationship between public policy and culture, and that how, without an active cultural policy, diversity will quickly fade away. Diversity, he says, is a choice - a political choice. For him (and I agree), culture is all about passion, and without passion there is no diversity.

Andrew Bleby, from the Melbourne festival, is also a wise speaker. He speaks to the purpose of culturally diverse festivals in Australia: through art, we get to know ourselves.

Mary Lou Aleskie, from the Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, makes a point that fame is relative and becoming even more so in the globalized world. There are diminishing returns in star programming, since one sector of an audience may never have heard of any particular "star." This, paradoxically, gives her more freedom to program based on interest. The artwork has become more important than who is making it at her festival.

Piotr Turkiewicz, from the Festival Wratislavia in Poland, speaks to how he has carved out space for innovation in his programming. His audience has learned that the point of the festival is not to know the names of the artists, but to expect that the art will be thrilling. This kind of innovation is central to his idea of art: "Only dead fish go with the flow," he says.

The other speakers - from Hong Kong, Lithuania, Shanghai and Taipei - are fascinating. All are running enormous institutions, but institutions that are, by their very nature, flexible and quick to adapt. 

The last word is about legacy. Andrew Bleby, from Melbourne, sums it up. There are three legacies a festival can leave: art work; support for local artists; and connection, the fostering of global conversations.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Updates from China

Right now, Volcano AD Ross Manson is in Shanghai for the China Shanghai Performing Arts Fair, alongside delegates from all over the world - including a strong Canadian contingent! He's sent us some updates from 12 hours away, including tips that conference presenters have shared on breaking into the Chinese market...

Tues, Oct 15

China. My first trip. 

I depart Vancouver at 11am, and spend the next 13 hours or so on an airplane. Four movies, three meals and a sleep. This is the longest flight I've ever been on.

Wed, Oct. 16

I arrive at Shanghai Pudong Airport in time for rush hour. I'm met at the arrival area (wasn't expecting this), and climb in a car with David Baile - a Canadian who now runs ISPA (the International Society for the Performing Arts) in New York. We drive.

Shanghai is now the biggest city on earth. It has added millions to its population over the past decade or so, and a great amount of infrastructure. There are now over 23 million people living here. That is almost three New Yorks. Despite this, the traffic moves quite smoothly on a plethora of well-built highways. Everything seems relatively clean and orderly and functional. I think about how horrific traffic is in Toronto, about the squabbling over four new subway stops, and the planned diesel train link to our airport (there is a magnetic levitation train here that travels at over 400km/h - whisking people downtown in 8 minutes), and I wonder at how far behind we are. With its sea of high buildings, Shanghai seems like the future.

I check into the Holiday Inn. This will be my home for the next six days. I go outside to wander around. The neighbourhood is not one to write home about: near a train station, full of multilane roads and fast food outlets - far from the famous concession neighbourhoods and the Bund (where all the skyscrapers are). But I still get a terrific meal of noodles. I have managed to keep myself awake for 24 hours, and have eaten five meals in that time to keep going. I go to bed at a Shanghai bedtime, and hope I can deal with the jet lag (a 12 hour time difference from Toronto).

I'm here.

Thurs, Oct 17: Afternoon

The big event today is a workshop for all the foreign delegates on "How to access the Chinese market." I take notes:

1) KE Chaoping speaks. He is the General Manager of Hangzhou Theatre, the guy in charge of the Eastern China Venue Alliance, and the Executive Director of the China International Venue Alliance. So: a big deal guy. 
  • there are venue alliances in China: North, South, East, West, Delta. They program work together, and operate, as far as I can tell, something like the various touring schemes in the UK. They recently came together to form the national organization that Mr. Ke chairs. 
  • The China International Venue Alliance has 263 members. 
  • 50 of these are viewed as presenters.
  • the HQ is in Beijing.
  • 30 provinces are represented.
  • the Alliance has a license to operate from the Ministry of Culture (I begin to gather that licenses from the government are key in China).
  • the Alliance prefers to deal directly with overseas artists, and they particularly look for longterm relationships. Given the size of this Alliance, I am not sure WHO to connect with to begin such a relationship (a delegate from the Philadelphia Orchestra asks the same questions, and gets a non-answer: essentially "make friends, and see what develops").
  • the Alliance prioritizes work that meets the demands of the various venues. I'm not sure what these demands are.
  • a foreign company must find the right partner inside China. Mr. Ke mentions that there are tiers of alliance partners, such as hotels, stadia, and "professional stages."
  • in China, taking a show for a one month, or even a one week run is very difficult. Currently, bookings are more likely to be for one performance, or a for just a few performances.
  • again, finding a reliable partner in China is key. The Alliance is a way to ensure that partners are reliable.

2) BAO Chaoyang speaks next. He runs the Western China Alliance, is the General Manager of the Kunming Theatre, and the Vice President of the China Alliance. Here's what he said:  
  • he's from Western China. Several (although not all) of the cities in his region will take Western touring projects.
  • in China, there are many many arts companies, but very few with longterm strategic capability.
  • the Chinese market is very sensitive to cost. This is a way to say they don't have much money. So a low-cost project is an advantage.

3) Vivian Yu speaks next. South China venue partner. Runs the Xinghai Concert Hall
  • she emphasizes that foreigners need an understanding of the Chinese performing arts market, and Chinese government policy.
  • she hears a lot of complaints from foreign arts companies: Chinese tax burden, paperwork, regulations, having to provide receipts, etc. So, she says, touring in China requires patience.
  • she underlines the fact that there exist some enormous cultural difference between China and the West. An example: Chinese presenters will not worry about making changes at the last minute, despite whatever communication has occurred in email, etc. The only changes that are not fair ground are things specifically agreed to in contracts. 
  • face-to-face meetings are preferred to virtual meetings. Similarly, seeing work live is preferred.

4) Frank Chen (who is one of the Shanghai SPAF heads, and who has been chairing this workshop) speaks:
  • touring groups need a license from the government.
  • nowadays (after a 20 year struggle), only one month is needed to obtain a license. Licenses are also granted by cities, rather than on a national level. It's unclear to me whether this is an advantage, but Frank seems to think it is. A question from the crowd asks about possible pitfalls, i.e. what happens if some local licenses are granted, and some are not. There is not yet a clear answer to this.
  • taxation. A favourable policy is still in process. Frank asks that his foreign friends write with examples of a fair taxation policy for visiting arts companies. 

5) HUANG Jian (Jeff) speaks next. He is the founder of - the first online ticketing service in China.
  • Jeff doubts whether China is actually a big market.
  • that said, he launches into some statistics: 100 Billion RMB in tickets sold every year.
  • 20-25 billion RMB in tickets sold in Shanghai.
  • 30 billion RMB in tickets sold in Beijing.
  • he speaks of tiers in Chinese cities: 1st tier have a per capita average GDP of $5k USD; 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier cities have a per capita average GDP of about $3k USD.
  • more than 10 million people in China buy tickets to 4-6 performances per year.
  • 15-20 year olds buy cheaper tickets (movies, concerts).
  • older demographic buys live performing arts tickets.
  • there is a high correlation between the GDP of a city and the strength of its performing arts market, so it's wise to pay attention to this measure.
  • the most popular performances in China: 1) pop star concerts; 2) k-pop; 3) music of what he calls "fashionable" or "fancy" shows.
  • the drama market is particularly strong in both Beijing and Shanghai, with sales rates coming close to rates seen for movies.
  • Jeff predicts that the post-90s generation will be the biggest consumers of performing arts in China.

That's it. We all chat and exchange business cards. Frank introduces me to a rep from a Beijing dance company, saying that their work is close to Volcano's in terms of innovation and multi-disciplinary forms. We set up a meeting for when I get to Beijing next week. Nice guy.

My impression of the whole session is that all the language is capitalist - the talk is entirely about markets and stats and sales, and nothing is said about art. Of course, these are managers, not artists, but I find it ironic that market speech dominates this conference in a communist country...

Thurs, Oct 17: Evening

We all climb into buses and are taken to the harbour for a boat cruise. This is jaw-dropping. The river is populated with skyscrapers. We see what is going to be the second tallest building in the world, currently under construction and nestled among already extra-tall buildings. Shanghai has spent unimaginable amount of money on construction. 

We cruise the river, and talk and drink and eat. I end up at a table with Chris Lorway from Soundstreams and a delightful plethora of Australians (A Barbie of Australians? An Irony of Australians?). This is a fun group. After the cruise, we climb in taxis and, on Chris' suggestion, we travel to the Waldorf Astoria. Wow. This is a magnificent 1911 building. Old world luxury. We drink some $20 drinks and have a blast. At the next table, there is a group of Chinese guests wearing tuxedos and gowns. In this perfect time capsule bar, with silk bow ties and an American jazz singer, it feels like a romantic recreation of old Shanghai. What $20 drinks buys one...

Monday, 26 August 2013

Ross in Uganda!

Volcano AD Ross Manson is in Kampala, Uganda this month for the first annual Kendu Hearth Conference.

He'll be blogging from Have a look!

Thursday, 11 July 2013

On Peggy Baker

ROSS MANSON: I first got to know Peggy Baker just over a decade ago while building a show with Kate Alton called Mortality. We asked several famous writers to each address their own mortality in monologue form. we were putting together a dance theatre piece — scored by John Gzowski — that spoke to the great divide we will all cross over. Each writer was paired with a dancer. I cold-called Carol Shields and, to my shocked delight, she said yes.

Carol Shields
Carol was paired with Peggy. The haunting irony of this is that it was during the development of the show that Carol was diagnosed with cancer, and given only a limited time to live. She threw out the piece she had been working on for us, and began another, detailing her own death (which can be found in Brick Magazine, issue 72). Carol was a gift to us all: her humour, her wisdom, her utter lack of ego, her curiosity.

Peggy Baker in Mortality
Photo by John Lauener
Peggy was the perfect artist to realize Carol's words through movement and voice, bringing her own considerable wisdom and depth of insight to the topic. This was a very special time for me, meeting and working with two of the country's greatest artists, who seemed light-years ahead of me in terms of artistry. I watched the serious, dedicated, yet light way they both had of going deep.

Carol never saw Peggy dance her words, but Peggy's performance of them changed my life. I've seen Peggy's own work get more and more refined and shimmering over the years. I've been influenced heavily by her opinions, her dancing, and have watched her teach her masterful classes with a sense of awe at what she can inspire in students. if you can, study with her. she is a rare and exquisite thing.

Visit to learn more about Peggy's class, Movement for Actors, and other courses at the Volcano Conservatory. To register, email

Director Director Director

ROSS MANSON: I can't remember exactly when I met Jennifer Tarver, but it was a loooong time ago now. We were both becoming directors on the experimental fringes of Toronto at around the same time (early 90s). I have always been a fan of her mind, and her energy. Her work has spoken for itself, and has taken her from small rooms at the Music Gallery and the Theatre Centre to Stratford and New York.

Ross Manson: actor
Photo by Nir Baraket
Recently, I had the pleasure of auditioning for her. I haven't acted in Toronto for probably a decade, and Jennifer is one of the few who actually remembers that I WAS an actor (my acting work actually subsidized Volcano for the first decade or so of the company). She brought me in for the role of a director in a show she is directing this coming fall in Toronto. So there were three directors in the room: her, me, and the character, with the first two trying to understand the third.

Jennifer Tarver
Photo: Liz Lauren
We had two sessions together, and it was a pleasure. She is honest and brilliant, and focused on bringing the work to the stage in as deep and affecting a way as possible. I didn't get the part (a bit of a relief — I'm too busy!), but the audition experiences were themselves fun, fulfilling, and more like a real exploration than an audition — to her credit. I imagine her class will be similarly engaging. We're lucky to have her.

Visit to learn more about Jennifer's course, The Physically Active Monologue, and other classes at the Volcano Conservatory. To register, email

A Remarkable Trip

Robert Wilson's The Black Rider
Photo by NYNYNY on Flickr
ROSS MANSON: Sigrid Herzog directed me in a show in Toronto in 1989 (Big and Little, by Botho Strauss). Her approach — and that of the German team surrounding her — opened a window for me on a whole new way to make theatre. I visited her in Munich the next summer, and she was kind enough to set up theatre tickets for me to see the best work on at the time. I saw Robert Wilson's work in Hamburg (The Black Rider: amazing), and Berlin (Orlando: dreamlike), Peter Stein's work in Berlin (Roberto Zucco: astonishing), Tankred Dorst's work in Munich (Kaspar: the audience booed the director, deservedly so), and Klaus Maria Brandaeur on stage in Vienna (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: utterly bizarre). We also took a drive to her famous brother's house in the Austrian Alps, and spent the night. I got to hang out with her and Werner (who asked me my opinion of Donald Sutherland, and fed me an Austrian farmer snack of onion leaves, black bread and dark wheat beer — delicious).

I was a 20-something Canadian actor dropped into an elite of theatre and film in Europe. The trip blew my mind open, and set me on a course that I am still on today. It showed me that one never knows where things might lead.

Sigrid is worth meeting, and worth learning from. She is now one of the leading educators in the german theatre system. There are a few spots left in her class (but only a few). This opportunity will likely not come again.

Visit for more details on Sigrid's course, Body & Imagination, and other classes at the Volcano Conservatory. To register, email