Tag: Theatre

Day 995: Little Rivalry On The Prairie

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Newcomers to the city of Edmonton inevitably have questions regarding our perpetual rivals to the south, or what has come to be known as the Battle of Alberta. They don’t ask me – I purposely sport a fanny-pack and 20 pounds of camera gear when I wander about the city so that tourists don’t talk to me – but they’ll ask somebody. The answer they’ll probably get is “hockey”, which is blatantly misleading and 100% wrong.

Edmonton and Calgary have held a semi-snarly relationship for much longer than the history of professional hockey in either city. Far from a rivalry of mere convenience (we are the only two major cities in the province), the Battle of Alberta extends to fundamental belief systems, to political preferential treatment, to bigotry, inclusion, and of course… money.

Which is truly the greater city? As a lifelong resident of Edmonton, my honest answer is that I don’t care. Both cities are gorgeous: they have the Stampede, we have the continent’s most impressive Fringe Theatre Festival. They have proximity to the magnificent mountains, we have an exquisite river valley. They are the economic home-base of the province, we have a gigantic mall.

But enough of the niceness. Let’s see how this got ugly.

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The Battle of Alberta extends for centuries before there was even an Alberta over which to battle. The Blackfoot Confederacy was the political union among the Blackfoot tribes who moseyed about southern Alberta and Montana, killing buffalo and living a northern version of the indigenous lifestyle of the American Indian. Up in the boreal forest that covered the northern half of the as-yet-undesignated province, the Cree and their allies (known as the Iron Confederacy, making the history of this region sound like a bad-ass Native version of Game of Thrones) lived a subarctic lifestyle, which involved trapping and fur-trading. Read more…

Day 987: Wolfgang Mozart’s Love Of Poop

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The deeper I claw through the muck-pit of history, the more perverse and bizarre clumps of trivia get crammed beneath my fingernails. And just when I think I’ve scraped the scabby floorboards of curiosity, I stumble across the intensive breadth of study that academics have placed on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s apparent obsession with poop.

I’m not judging, mind you; it’s not like Mozart was passing off his digested lunch as foie gras at cocktail parties, and he certainly never pooped in a janitor’s mop bucket or anything – he simply had a penchant for scatological humor, that’s all. And don’t we all? Isn’t there an inherent absurdity in the most gastronomically magnificent entrée becoming the same wretched stink-pile you would have made had you snarfed a box of Pop Tarts? Just as a well-timed emission of flatulence can crumble even the most stoic of facades, every soul on the planet can share in a clever poop joke.

Not according to some historians and psychologists though; it’s not acceptable to assume that Mozart simply hit a few grounders for his fellow aficionados of the low-brow. No, a man who has crafted some of the greatest melodies in the history of sound must also possess a ribald wit and sophisticated gauge of appropriate merriment, right?

Guess again.

I mean come on - he was played by Otter from Animal House.

I mean come on – he was played by Otter from Animal House.

What some have interpreted as a slight defecatory obsession on Mozart’s part has been the subject of much debate and even some concealment by historians and scholars. In 1798, when a batch of his letters were posthumously sent to publishers Breitkopf & Härtel for a biography they were compiling, his wife Constanze expressed in her accompanying letter that while Mozart’s letters to his cousin were chock full of wit and wackiness, perhaps they should be somewhat downplayed in the finished book. You know – focus more on the music and less on the turd-gags. Read more…

Day 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West

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It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.

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The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about? Read more…

Day 896: When Footy Gets Kooky

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Chances are, if you’ve even so much as sneezed in the same room as a computer connected to the internet this week, you’ve absorbed some snippet of World Cup fever. The World Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world – more so than the Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Full-Contact Bare-Knuckle Finger-Jousting Championships combined. And due to the current impressive girth of our pudgy modern internet, which is just right for streaming the games to every interested PC, tablet and phone, they’re predicting this to be the widest audience for anything, ever.

Soccer is the ultimate sport to bridge together the citizens of this floating rock, mostly because the rules are simple and you can make a workable ball out of trash and/or roadkill. It’d be hard for a poor rural village to fashion together functional sticks to play hockey, hoisted-up hoops to play basketball or crudely-crafted anabolic steroids to play baseball. Soccer (or “football” – I know, I know) is where it’s at.

Apart from the degenerate wuss-bags who perform acts of atrocious theatre in hopes of drawing a foul for the other team, soccer really is a great game. And even though I’ll be spending the next few weeks getting caught up on the new season of Orange Is The New Black, I might allow myself to sip just a little bit of the tournament’s excitement. After all, soccer can – in rare cases – get a little weird.

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In my neighborhood, local interest for the qualification round of the 1994 Caribbean Cup was pretty much nil. But for fans in Grenada, the January 27 game against Barbados was huge. Having lost to Puerto Rico already, Barbados would have to win by two points in order to advance to the final round and bump Grenada out. For a country perpetually mired in revolutions and/or hurricanes, this was a big deal. Read more…

Day 856: When Death Sports A Mischievous Grin

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There are souls who live lives of absolute anonymity, only to achieve the briefest flicker of fame through their final moments on the planet. For all the millions who have succumbed to heart disease, auto accidents and auto-erotic asphyxiation, somewhere there’s a story of a drunken teenager who died playing chicken in a Big Wheels trike against his buddy’s pickup truck. As readers of these tales we exert a tiny flex of our “Huh. Interesting” muscle – the same one that endures a passive workout as we blindly flip through a piece of Buzzfeed ‘journalism’. But we usually stop short of worrying about the same wonky demise happening to us.

In this sense, the modern case of the unusual death serves less as a cautionary tale and more as a temporal distraction akin to a cat video, or a six-second vine of a 13-year-old boy getting caught twerking against a cardboard stand-up Frankie Muniz in his bedroom. But while I wholly condone chuckling away at the ancient tales of strange offings, like how Draco the ancient Greek lawmaker was smothered to death by a showering of cloaks and hats as gifts by a grateful stadium of citizens (mostly because I don’t believe that really happened), I advise mustering up at least a smidgen of empathy for the more substantiated tales.

After all, it could be you next, you never know. One minute you might be walking home from the store, three packs of powdered mini-donuts and a week-old Hustler tucked under your arm, when suddenly your skull is cracked open by an airborne tortoise.

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Our first is about a guy whose skull was totally cracked open by an airborne tortoise. His name was Aeschylus, and along with Sophocles and Euripides he is one of the three great tragedy-writers of Ancient Greece whose works are still performed today. His trademark was the trilogy, but his most famous works had a huge impact on theatre. His influence resonated over millennia, affecting dramatic expression, literature, and even music. Read more…

Day 820: The Mind Behind The Map

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Were we to kick aside the boulders of our base knowledge – the works of Newton, Galileo, Edison, Tesla, Shakespeare and the mighty triumvirate of Bell, Biv and Devoe – we would eventually reach the fortified foundation of our species’ early great minds. These are the men (unfortunately, the great female minds were generally thwacked into silence back then) whose cerebral gushings topped the intellectual charts back before the era of empirical science. Hell, we’re even going back before humankind had figured out how to build a decent pair of pants.

Ancient Greece was the time of Plato, of Aristotle, of Socrates – not to mention a number of titan thinkers who haven’t had numerous pizza joints named in their honor. Today I’m talking about the grand-pappy of geography, one of the first great mathematicians, a poet, an astronomer and a music theorist. He voiced an unpopular criticism of Homer’s Odyssey and developed a series of complex calculations that – well, had Chris Columbus read through them a few centuries later they could have really saved him some headaches.

This guy held the most prominent intellectual job posting of his era, and singlehandedly influenced the entire course of science, of map-making, and of how we keep track of history. His name was Eratosthenes. Don’t fret if you haven’t heard of him – I hadn’t until his name flittered across my computer screen this morning.

He was also known as 'Big Ol' Bulbous Chrome-Dome' to his friends.

He was also known as ‘Big Ol’ Bulbous Chrome-Dome’ to his friends.

Eratosthenes was born in Cyrene, a town in modern-day Libya that had been founded by the Greeks back in 630 BC. Thanks to the economic policies of the local head honcho, Ptolemy I Soter (one of Alexander the Great’s generals), Cyrene was a happening burg in which intellectualism and prosperity flourished. Eratosthenes had a standout mind, which led him up to Athens to complete his studies. He was taught Stoicism by the movement’s founder, Zeno of Citium. He became known for his meticulous poetry and a scholarly treatise on the mathematical foundations of Plato’s philosophies, none of which I will repeat here because I’d rather skip ahead to the juicy stuff. Read more…

Day 798: Macbeth — Umm, Sorry – The Scottish Article

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I live in a house with two theatre people. And just as they have learned to live with the eccentricities of a writer (it’s normal to scream obscenities at one’s fingertips, right?), I have come to adapt to the weirdness of their world. For example, during an exhibition of my daughter’s upcoming musical this week, a boy tripped over an expensive prop, hurling it to the ground, while another kid thwacked his head on a metal bar. Yet another accidentally face-butted a piece of scaffolding. Why did all this happen?

The Scottish Play.

We later learned that the director had to furiously scold one of the kids prior to the performance because he’d had the audacity to speak the title of Shakespeare’s Macbeth within the walls of the theatre. Just minutes later, things began to go wrong.

I’m not one to buy into superstitions, any more than I’ll plan my day according to my horoscope or buy a new car only when my tea-leaf reader tells me it’s a good time. But the Macbeth phenomenon is too juicy not to dig into, if only out of ravenous curiosity.

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Some believe the curse’s origins lie in a stolen cauldron used in the play’s first performance. Another thought is that the dialogue  William Shakespeare concocted for his witches, that the spells they utter are real, and that actual witches were ticked off at this accuracy. In order to believe that you’d first have to believe that the witches of Olde Englande spoke in iambic pentameter, and also that witch curses are a real thing outside of Hogwarts School. It’s said that during the premiere of the play, an actor died when a real dagger was used instead of the prop dagger – the curse’s first victim. Read more…

Day 749: The Manipulation Conundrum

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A few days ago I slaked my fingers through the questionable history of the television laugh track. While I have always been baffled that one studio audience’s instinctive responses to actual comedy might 1  have been slapped underneath decades-worth of other material, I had no idea there was one guy running the entire show from his garage. One guy whose job it was to make Small Wonder appear as though it was funny to someone. One guy who made us believe there was a studio audience atop bamboo bleachers on Gilligan’s Island.

A laugh track is a form of audience deception, but it’s not the only tool in the manipulative belt of the entertainment industry. And I get it – people slave for weeks or months in preparation for a performance, often to the point where the ‘funny’ disappears for them into the swampy churn of repetition and rehearsal. They don’t want all that work to simply hover in the air around their audience like an unwelcome fart.

So they’ll take a moment of hilarity-response from Milton Berle’s old show and make it sound like Happy Days never lost a step when Richie and Ralph left. And we’ll eat it up, just as audiences have done before us – back before television, when entertainment producers had to be a little more clever and a lot more clandestine with their work.

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16th-century French poet and playwright Jean Daurat was the first to plunk his toe into the smoky brine of audience manipulation. Whether it was moral or deceitful is a judgment call; Jean’s artistic guts were in the lines of this play, and he wanted a good response from the ticket-holders. So he did what any desperate artist would do: he bought a bunch of his own tickets and gave them away for free. Well, for “free” meaning that the recipients had promised to supply applause.

And it worked. Read more…

Day 740: You Bring The Gags, Charley Will Bring The Laughs

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It was once so commonplace, so natural, so subconsciously integral to the very essence of comedy that we hardly noticed it. The laugh track came with the medium; it was swept in as part of the original package, like the wheels on the first car or the door on the first refrigerator. It was the oily black fingerprint of television comedy, first by tradition then by mandate. If you didn’t hear laughs, you weren’t meant to laugh. Bing Crosby’s team brought the technology to radio in the 40’s when they had to jazz up the flaccid responses to some flat jokes. It seeped into  the realm of TV with ease.

In the early 1990’s, the state of small-screen comedy began to transform, and with this came a subtle erosion of the dominance of the laugh track. Those shows with the broadest base appeal – by which I mean the ratings hogs that comedy connoisseurs and critics tend to loathe… yes, Two And A Half Men, I’m talking about you – still make use of laughter prompts. But for the most part, as an audience we’ve decided we don’t need them.

Good for us, not so much for the fleet of companies that made their mint by plopping requisite ha-has into prime time programming over the past half-century. Except there is no fleet. Most of the laughter beamed into our homes all those years ago came from the fingertips of one man.

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That’s Charley Douglass, who was a sound engineer in the nascent days of television at CBS. Back then, many comedies were broadcast live from the stage to the screen. Those that weren’t live were shot with a single camera, with scenes re-staged several times to capture different angles. Studio audiences were used, but they couldn’t be counted upon to deliver the chortles when the writers wanted them to, particularly on the third or fourth take. Charley came up with a process to ‘sweeten’ the laughter. It was brilliant and effective, and when Charley was ready to leave CBS in 1953, the network claimed it was their intellectual property. Read more…