In between all the fundraising for theatre companies and writing killer error messages and complaining about Alan Rickman movies, I’ve forgotten to post links to some of my recent stories and things. Anyway, I’m not going to get you all caught up, because that’s boring. But I will direct you to today’s Popcorn Panel, in which I try to defend The Runaways against accusations of shallowness from the inimitable Jill Murray (who was kind enough to send me a copy of her awesome new book Rhythm and Blues last month – you should buy it) and Christine Estima.

For once, I was the only one who liked the movie, although Jill and Christine make solid points, especially about Dakota Fanning, who is far too delicate for this:

That song has been stuck in my head for most of the week.


Truly, Madly, Shitty

March 22, 2010

Why did I watch a mostly forgotten high concept romantic comedy from 20 years ago last night? I don’t know. Curiosity about Anthony Minghella’s first feature film, maybe, although I’m not really a fan of his writing. More likely it was curiosity about this particular high concept – I am a sucker for a good supernatural romantic comedy. Unfortunately, despite several BAFTA awards and an excellent performance by Juliet Stevenson, this is not a good supernatural romantic comedy.

I’d been meaning to watch it for awhile now based on I can’t remember whose suggestion. One of the plays that is bumping around my noggin trying to get written is about a woman who falls in love with a ghost, so I figured it might be useful to see what else is out there based on a similar theme. If you haven’t seen Truly, Madly, Deeply, it’s about a woman (Juliet Stevenson) who is grieving over the (recent? The film never makes that clear) death of her beloved cellist boyfriend (Alan Rickman). Despite a loving and supportive group of acquaintances, she is unable to move beyond her grief, and one night while she is sadly playing the piano, Rickman reappears after playing a duet with her. At first it’s all great, she’s thrilled to have her man back, but then he starts doing weird ghost stuff and she falls in love with a guy who teaches disabled kids instead.

The first twenty minutes of the film are an extraordinarily moving portrait of Stevenson’s grief – she’s wonderful. But once Rickman shows up, the film goes off the rails. First of all, the parameters of their relationship before his death are never explained: how long had they been together? How long has he been gone? At first, she’s thrilled that he’s back, despite a couple of cruel ghost-y jokes he plays on her (disappearing and then sneaking up on her), and they have a few adorable scenes together. Then it just gets stupid. Rickman starts inviting over weird ghost friends to watch old movies. They move the furniture around and are generally annoying, and the relationship between Stevenson and Rickman begins to suffer, mainly because he acts like a ghostly buffoon. In the meantime, she meets a cute non-dead dude and begins to see him, except she feels guilty and awkward because of her jerk ghost boyfriend at home. Maybe it’s all meant as a British parody of Ghost, but considering the emotional first twenty minutes, it certainly doesn’t work that way.

It’s all very frustrating, because it’s such a promising premise, and there is quite a lot to like about the film. But Minghella’s script is trivial where it should be poignant, and rather than being charmingly quirky, its zanyness only serves to diffuse the film’s themes. He’s too busy filling his movie with distracting nonsense when he should be developing the relationship between Stevenson and Rickman.

It would not be difficult to turn Truly, Madly, Deeply into a good movie. The themes are there. The premise is there. The performances are there. The point is that Stevenson needs to move on and love again in the world of the living – presumably, Rickman comes back to help her make that transition. But what’s with all the weird ghost buddies? There are plenty of challenges and constraints to be found in a relationship between a dead man and a living woman – why did Minghella feel the need to clutter up his script with all kinds of stupid business? Why doesn’t he trust and respect his characters or, for that matter, people who may actually be grieving for a loved one? If I watched this movie after losing a loved one, I wouldn’t feel moved, I’d feel furious and insulted.

Oh well. At least it’s a lesson in how NOT to write a romantic comedy about a ghost.

Last week I had the pleasure to interview the lovely and talented Maev Beaty and Allyson McMackon for this story in the Toronto Star about Theatre Rusticle‘s new show, Birnam Wood, a sort of retelling of MacBeth told from the perspective of the trees.

I’m normally wary of movement-based theatre (I’ve been subject to a lot of bad modern dance – you know, the sort of thing that is more accurately described as flailing, without meaning, or merit, or music), but Theatre Rusticle does wonderful, accessible work. They excel at telling a story through movement, with enormous charm and humour, but with emotional depth as well. I haven’t seen Birnam Wood yet (next week!), but I did get a look at the set during our interview, and it’s pretty great.

I’ve recently added a couple of new slashes to my already /-filled career. Both involve writing, just very different kinds. And so the answer to “And what kind of writing do you do?’ grows ever longer. In addition to arts (and whatever) reporting and blog writing and playwriting, I now also do copywriting and grant writing. And now I feel a little bit like Willy Wonka as he’s listing all the ways his great glass elevator goes.

The copywriting is the more different skill I’ve had to learn. First of all, there’s a lot of weird formatting stuff that I’m still figuring out. But I really enjoy the mechanics of it, probably in part because I’m still so new to it. But it’s refreshing, you know, to have no real personal investment to the material you’re writing. Obviously, I care about doing a good job, but it’s not emotionally involving in the way that most of my other writing is. Which I love, because it leaves me with a lot more energy to work on plays. Also, it’s really funny to be praised for writing a great error message (when the site I was working on launches, I’ll link to it so you can see my TRULY EXCELLENT error messages).

The grant writing isn’t exactly new, since I have written grants before (well, one) – I’ve recently been hired by Roseneath Theatre to help them do some corporate fundraising. I’m thrilled to be working with Roseneath – the artistic director, David S. Craig, pretty much invented theatre for young audiences in Canada, and is quite an extraordinary playwright himself. Last night he gave a talk about creating theatre for young audiences for the Playwrights Guild of Canada, and it was such a privilege to hear him share his experiences and wisdom and to perform excerpts from some of his own excellent plays – a brief overview of the history of Canadian theatre for young people. He also has plenty of interesting things to say about how to write about “issues” in a dramatic, interesting, and sometimes ambiguous way (as opposed to the cheap, obvious way issue plays are often written for young people).

But although I do know how to write a grant, I am very, very new to the fundraising game. And the theatre administration game. So I’m learning a whole bunch, and it might take me a few more weeks before I am even any good at this job, but I love the office, and they seem to appreciate me so far, and if anyone has any tips about fundraising, please please please let’s talk.

I picked up The Play That Changed My Life a couple of weeks ago, which is a lovely collection of essays in which various American playwrights recall the seminal theatrical moments of their childhoods that made them crazy enough to select theatre as their lifelong profession. It’s really sweet and fun, and surprisingly inspiring – the writers all manage to twig that moment in time when everything is new and magical without being all twee and annoying about it.

There are a few plays that changed my life and right now I’m going to tell you about the most embarrassing one. I doubt that this story will inspire you. It’s definitely not cool. There’s a lot of crying on the couch and compulsively writing Sondheim lyrics in my notebooks instead of taking notes in class. But sometimes the truth is as ugly as a frizzy-haired 13-year-old bawling on the sofa and freaking out when well meaning relatives call it “Into the Forest”. And, for better or worse, this is the truth: I was not the same after I watched Into the Woods as I had been before.

It was a normal night in 1995, meaning I was probably scowling at my sisters, stomping around upstairs, and avoiding doing my homework. And then I turned the tv on and, since Seinfeld wasn’t in syndication yet (was it? Maybe it was. In any case, I couldn’t find an episode of it on), I flipped to Bravo, home to reruns of my favourite terrible show, Fame. A musical I didn’t recognize was playing, but since I liked musicals anyway, I stuck with it. Two hours later I was a blubbering mess, sure I had just witnessed the pinnacle of human creative achievement, and feeling like I’d been given something crucial that I hadn’t even known I’d been missing.

You're missing all the flowers.

Lucky for me (in retrospect, this is debatable), Bravo was showing Into the Woods again the next day, so I could tape it and watch it every single day for the whole next year. (That’s not an exaggeration for effect. If anything, it’s an understatement.)

No, I wasn’t the same after that first viewing of Into the Woods: I was far more annoying. I was an irritating and socially inept adolescent before I discovered Stephen Sondheim, but afterwards I probably could have used some anti-psychotic medication. Even my best friend, who would herself yammer on ad nauseum about The Yardbirds (no, no one I knew liked anything normal, like Oasis, or whatever the kids were listening to back then) got sick of my nonstop chatter about all the ingenious double entendres in Sondheim’s lyrics and how clever and symbolic the double casting was and how Joanna Gleason is the greatest actress of all time and why isn’t she more famous and OMG I WISH I HAD HER DARK AUBURN HAIR!

Into the Woods didn’t exactly change my life for the better, not immediately, anyway. Instead, it helped plunge me into the type of analytic obsessiveness mustered only by depressive young teenagers. (Of course, that was probably due more to timing than anything else. And it could have been much worse! Imagine if I’d watched Interview with the Vampire instead!)

This is how all my classmates looked at me when I wouldn't shut it about Sondheim musicals.

But Into the Woods did magnify the already festering inkling that theatre was all I really cared about, the only thing (aside from the occasional game of Tetris or maybe a Twix bar) that got the dopamine racing through my mopey little brain. I already liked theatre before I watched Into the Woods. But after that night, theatre wasn’t just something I liked. After that night, theatre was something that I needed: to watch, to do, to live. It was still a couple more years before I worked up the self-confidence to actually audition for a school play (that’s another story, and a much happier one), but I can pinpoint the moment when the hunger for art that would eventually send me to theatre school was born, and it was the night that Bravo decided to air the PBS recording of the original Broadway production of Into the Woods.