A Thought

Everything is as it should be.
No one is looking when you do that thing.
People aren’t as bad as they sometimes seem.
You are always right where you need to be.
Everything’s gonna be alright.

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The problem with playwriting is that at some point you have to hand your baby over to a bunch of actors, probably a director, and maybe a producer.  None of these people have any qualifications to raise a child, yet there they are trying to get your offspring up on it’s feet and walking.  You can give them tips, you can point out what you know about the kid (after all, you were there at it’s conception and it’s birth) but you can’t actually stop them from doing what they will with your newborn.  All you can do is hope and pray that they are not as selfish or grandstanding as they appear, that they have learned how to read a script at some point, and that they have a  modicum of respect for anyone other than themselves.  And then you have to let it go.  I suppose that belief in some sort of higher power would be very helpful at that point.

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Burial and Trains

Music and trains.  When I listen to Burial I hear the streets of London.  It reminds me of the brief flicker of time when I lived in the North end of the city.  I spent a year living in Willesden Green, and Burial sounds like taking the train.  The tube emerges from the underground at points in the outer reaches of the city, and the passenger is treated to a view of the council blocks, graffiti, and urban grime.  To be honest I miss it a little bit.  There is something in the haunting melancholy of this music that stirs up those memories for me.  Burial is making a soundtrack for riding the train (he has said as much) and I can almost see the brick and concrete float by in it’s skittering rhythms.  Much like Detroit took the sounds of the machines that had driven the Motor City and made techno music out of it, Burial has pushed his machines into an expression of the deep sadness and wisdom of the streets of London.  Sometimes he makes me want to weep.

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Notes on The City.

Just some random thoughts and observations from an outsider living in The City:

1.  Manhattan is The City.

2.  The appearance of a public washroom in The City is like finding an oasis in the Sahara.  Make sure you use it before going anywhere else, because you don’t know when you will find another one.

3.  Starbucks is, in fact, the public washroom for The City.

4.  As a corollary to 3, Starbucks employees are the public washroom attendants for New York.  Someone should compensate them for this thankless job.

5.  As a direct result of 4, do not count on Starbucks washrooms always being available, especially late at night.  Sometimes the public washroom attendants decide they’ve had enough, and lock the washroom.

6.  As a result of 2-5, do not be surprised where you see people relieve themselves in The City.  I once saw a guy urinate in between two train cars on a moving subway.  When you’ve got to go…

7.  Don’t call it a washroom, it’s a restroom.  Use of the word washroom will garner you a blank stare in return.

8.  Union Square is the centre of Manhattan, not Times Square.  You might be surprised how often you find yourself at Union Square.  It’s a little bit like a hub.  All roads seem to converge there before heading off to their final destination.  Union Square is to New York, as London is to Europe.

9.  No one says please or thank you here.  It is not a question of manners, it’s a question of space and time.

10.  Space does not exist in New York.

11.  Time does not exist in New York.

12.  Due to the non-existence of space, real estate is of prime importance.  Expect all conversations to begin with a reference to where you live, and learn to get uber-specific with the location of everything.  Eg. I just bought a coffee at the deli at 5th ave and 21st st.

13.  Due to the non-existence of time, everyone is always in a rush, even if they don’t need to be anywhere.  This creates havoc at crosswalks, because nobody waits for the lights.

14.  Bikes don’t wait for lights or cars.  No traffic rules apply to people on bikes, they can ride on sidewalks, race through intersections on a diagonal (preferably in the dark without a light), and smash through clumps of pedestrians with impunity.

15.  If you are walking towards somebody and need to avoid a collision, you must make eye contact.  Not following this rule will cause a major hiccup in a well-oiled machine.

16.  People will smash into you and push you out of the way to get where they need to go.  This is especially true getting on the subway, and an especially prevalent habit in the elderly.  People need a seat.

17.  Related to 16:  seating is a scarce resource in The City.

18.  Related to 17:  you can find any kind of food from anywhere in the world  for next to no money at a food truck or in a deli.  People have an almost supernatural ability to churn out full menus from a tiny little grill in the middle of a busy street.  And it can be super-cheap.  If, however, you would like to sit down to eat (ie. at a restaurant) prepare to pay extra for the luxury of sitting down.

19.  Most people seem to think Brooklyn is pretty cool.

20.  Only people from Queens actually  know how cool Queens is.

21.  People from Manhattan seem to think they’re the epicentre of the known universe.  No one else cares, as most people who live in Manhattan seem to be from somewhere else anyway.

22.  The Bronx has a zoo.

23.  Staten Island has… a ferry?

24.  No matter how long you stay here, if you ain’t from here, you ain’t a New Yorker.

25.  Being a New Yorker is, to a large degree, a matter of volume.


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Capulet in New York

A month into my New York journey and things took a dark turn.  I’d gone down with some sort of mild flu and my knee was aching.  Who knows what I did to it – probably just too much pavement-pounding walkabout.  A friend of mine who’s been here a while claims it’s a part of the NYC initiation.  When you first get here you walk relentlessly.  Often it feels like I’m simply continuing to shuffle my shoes down the road to exact a toll of vengeance on the world.  How exactly a shotout knee joint and a burned out sneaker sole are avenging anything, I’m not sure, but there you have it, the foggy thought bubbles of a walkabout king.

So I’m holed up inside my sunnyside sublet with nothing but a hard drive stack of Sopranos episodes and my copy of Romeo and Juliet.  Not too far apart in some ways.  The Sopranos writers have yanked a page direct out of Shakespeare’s manual with the epic anti-hero Tony Soprano.  Shakespeare’s genius with character lies in his ability to give us such a panoply of sharply drawn people without ever passing judgement on them.  Richard 3 and Tony Soprano aren’t so far apart, as typically we can experience both sympathy and horror for these sociopaths.  In fact, we love them because they’re villains.

Back to the sublet: by day I would stare unendingly at the pages of my Shakespeare script, rubbing them raw in an attempt to crack the code that would allow the words to work their magic on me.  If I could only find the key, I knew the unlocked words would give me wings to fly.  That was why I was here – that was the whole reason for the trip to NYC – to borrow those wings for a while and float majestic above the clouds.  I had had the experience before and it was here in New York. I was back for more magic.

By night, I would again turn relentless.  No more pavement pounding, not with this knee.  Now the conduit of vengeance was marathon Sopranos sessions.  Late nights would fold my mornings into afternoons as sleep deprivation took it’s toll.  Until at last, I broke.

The solitary mind chatters.  Monkey mind crawls down out of the higher treetops and begins to drown out reason and wisdom with it’s incessant clattering noise.  This is where depression hangs his hat, where jealousy stokes her purple fires, where doubt and fear collude in corridors of pain.  The noise began to take it’s toll.  Three months in the capital of the world and all I could do was cry into my coffee about my woes:  I was depressed, I was sick, I was broke, broken and alone.  Worst of all, I couldn’t act.

The Shakespearean wings were nowhere to be found.  Here and there, I caught a fragment, a taster of the magic.  But mostly I stunk.  I could not deliver what was expected.  Energy waned, the words disappeared into a morass of lost verse, and I was left standing in the rehearsal room like a sad fucking clown with a bunch of meaningless iambs and trochees floating around my head.  It was bad.

The work had been done.  I had memorized lines, I had ripped apart the words with a dictionary, I had shown up with a game face on, and most of all, I had got here.  No job, no place to live, and no idea what I was doing, but I had packed my bags and come.  Now, a month later, I was holed up in Queens with a Sopranos obssession, fretting about my inability to do my job.  It didn’t help that I felt I should be out and about, taking advantage of the greatest city on earth, rather than moaning into a coffee cup and staring at a laptop.

I had to let go, and that was hard.  People talk about letting go, but what does it actually mean?  I knew I had to, in both my life and in my work.  And in fact, my life and work amounted to the same thing.  Life is like acting.  Those of us who act probably do so out of a need to learn about life.  I certainly do.  At least, this is what I have discovered.  Fear and a chattering mind were immobilizing me.  I couldn’t act on stage or in life. The fear in my life was preventing me from letting go of all that work, and that control and that obssession, and I had ground to a halt.

Time for action.  I went to the park.  I walked.  I took photos.  I grabbed a coffee from the touristy waffle truck and wandered for a bit, softly reviewing my likes for the day.  Then I went to rehearsal and let it all go.  Stop worrying, take direction, relax.  In the end, I wasn’t bad.  I wasn’t a genius, I wasn’t always on, but I did my job, I left, I went home, and I enjoyed myself.  I lived my life without trying to wrestle the day into submission.

Today the illness has passed, the knee problem is passing, and the fog has drifted off to another town.  The chatter is a little higher up in the trees, and the wings that I was looking for are sitting just over the hill.  Two weeks til showtime and I’m going to get those wings.  I just have to let go and let them fly to me.  I’m sure I will have dark days again, but for today everything is okay.

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My New York Odyssey

I was walking up Seventh Ave one day, heading from Greenwich Village to my rehearsal.  All that was on my mind was finding another slice of delicious New York pizza.  And there he was – Tyrion Lannister was crossing the road with his mother.  “You okay there, mom? or words to that effect.   This was a grand piece of street theatre for me, of course, and as I strolled nonchalantly away, I cast a quick glance over my shoulder to take in the scene one more time.  There was something wonderful about catching the Imp in the middle of Manhattan, helping mom cross the road.  I think my furtive glance may not have been quite stealthy enough; I’m sure the man caught me looking.  He may have even scowled at me.

One week later, Peter Dinklage won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister.  Apparently he thanked his mother.

In other developments: the acting front.  Theorists, teachers and practitioners often claim that actors have no choice but to use themselves in the roles they play.  This could be interpreted as meaning that an actor will simply  seem to be playing themselves in every part they take on.  Those who believe that an actor’s job is to inhabit the skin of another person, or to be transformative in some way, might take objection to this. “I don’t want to see the same person in every role.” Not artistic and boring, they say.

I don’t think that this statement really means this.  It means that all you have to draw on when painting a picture of a character is you and your experience.  This is irrefutably true.  You can’t draw on somebody else’s experience because it is their’s.  You can use your own experience though, and what you choose to do with it is up to you.

I recently realized that the full ramifications of this notion are actually quite daunting.  Most of the actors that I know have strengths and weaknesses.  People have blocks, or impediments to full freedom of expression, or they have an inability to listen properly, or some other quirk that holds them back in some way.  Whatever the tendency is within the actor’s work, will be the same tendency in the actor’s life.  For example, our valiant thespian may be an emotional powerhouse, able to turn tears on and off like a faucet.  Laughing one minute, raging the next.  Lots of fun to watch and, by all accounts, a good actor.  However, our thespian, may also be self-centred, unable to listen, irresponsible, and ultimately insensitive to others.  If this thespian is like this in life, then these traits will be manifested in their acting.  There is no choice in this.  No matter what character the actor is playing, they are going to have a hard time listening, and probably have a hard time reigning in emotional outbursts if the story calls for it.  They might be fun to watch, but may also be confusing, and even somewhat dangerous to others.

If this is the case, then to become a better actor, one has to become a better person.  The word better here is loaded and probably not the most accurate choice, but the point is clear.  What we are like in life, as a person, will delineate our ablities as actors.  It doesn’t mean that the characters we can play are limited – that’s a whole other question.  It does mean that our options as actors practising a craft are limited.

Hard to digest.  It is not easy to change who we are.  If it were, then we would all be perfect.  But the task is clear.  If I want to be better at what I do, then I have to take a very good look at myself and my own limitations.  If I want to improve as an actor, then I need to find out what is holding me back and make changes.  These changes are not technical adjustments, they are actual personality adjustments.  Not easy.

And to finish off:  The Soundtrack.

Mos Def, especially with Talib Kweli as Blackstar.  Somehow this stuff makes more sense in New York.  I don’t know, but it sounds better here.


And M83.  A long way away from Brooklyn hip-hop but there it is, French electronic shoegazer stuff.  It combines a lot of influences that I really like and provides a nice soundtrack to riding the 7 train from Queens to Manhattan.


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The Ballad of White Lightning

Last summer I had many adventures with my trusty old peugeot, White Lightning.   Life with a bike of this sort is fraught with perils and full of frustration and joy in equal measure.  What may have been a vintage machine is now a perilous rogue bike, full of rust spots, possessing only a front brake, and with a seriously wobbly back wheel.  Yet now that bike riding season is officially in full swing, life is somehow all good.

I had many stories to tell of White Lightning and my cycling misadventures last summer but this blog was not up and running in full form (unlike now, wink wink). This year I will chart the summer as WL and myself race up and down the highways, byways, and noways of Toronto and beyond.  Kensington bike shops  – this year I will write about your amazingly amusing slothlike repair times.

In other news, Game of Thrones continues to be a pure joy to watch.  Never haveI had the experience of watching a book that I loved to this degree realized filmically, and with such satisfying results.  The casting is spot-on, which is a real feat when you have to cast characters like Tyrion the dwarf – Peter Dinklage is brilliant however.  And the rendering of The Wall is worth the price of admission alone.

Other than Game of Thrones it’s back to movie-watching for now.  Hopefully I can keep the HBO addiction at bay.  With the Sopranos beckoning me, that may not be possible.

Drum and bass meets Shakespeare with the return of Caesar.  Jules and the boys will hopefully return in the winter – Caesar is not dead.  What was a serious blow to my fragile actor-psyche, with the cancelling of my Caesar project, has been rectified.  We will go ahead in the winter, with electronic music, a city in decay, a war-time bunker, and Shakepeare’s magical words.

In the meantime, the Pillowman starts up.  Unit 102 thrives and flourishes and brings the world Martin McDonagh’s modern classic.  Dark, oh so dark, and funny to boot.

Thoughts on acting:  the mindset is all.  Getting your head in the game in a proper manner is the most important thing.  Talent, blah blah blah.  Realizing where you want to be, and focussing on that may get you there.  Complaining and obssessing about the faults, brilliance, successes, failures, or otherwise of others, will bring you nothing but heartache and grief.  I’m watching it in action right now.  If I want to rise to the top of my game (and that will be different for me than for someone else), then why am I going to stop and allow myself to be held back by someone else’s problems and complaints.  I don’t have time.



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