news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

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.