A sneak peek at Heather Babcock’s debut novel Filthy Sugar

Heather Babcock photo by Astrid Monge. Filthy Sugar cover design by Val Fullard.

 

Two years ago, I had the honour and pleasure of getting a sneak peek at Heather Babcock’s debut novel Filthy Sugar after she approached me to give it a read and write a review blurb. Published by Inanna Publications, it’s set to be released on May 26—and was to have its official launch in Toronto at Queen Books the same day; but since brick and mortar book stores have had to move online, and with events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, authors and book sellers are now relying on virtual shout-outs and online book sales.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Filthy Sugar (and think it would make a great movie); and hope that Babcock will get to celebrate the launch of the book with colleagues and loved ones soon. Here’s my review blurb:

Filthy Sugar takes us to the mid-1930s, from the struggles of a working-class slum, to the hustle and excitement on and off the burlesque stage. Here, we follow redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle’s rise and fall from fame in a journey of self-discovery that reveals desires and reserves of strength she never knew she possessed. Erotic, compelling and full of richly textured characters, Heather Babcock’s storytelling is equal parts moxie and poetry—tinted with the heartbroken nostalgia of memory and lost dreams; and sparkling with striking, evocative imagery. More than a backstage pass into this world, Filthy Sugar shines a light on the challenges faced by working-class women. Dancing as fast as they can in order to survive, they must navigate the unapologetic misogyny and hypocritical social codes that govern their bodies and behaviour as they pursue their hopes, dreams and desires. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

You can pre-order Filthy Sugar online at your favourite book store website (I’m a big fan of indie book stores like Queen Books and Glad Day Bookshop) or on Amazon.ca

It will be some time before we’ll be able to attend readings and book launches in person again; in the meantime, you can get your own sneak peek at Filthy Sugar with Babcock’s excerpt reading on YouTube:

And if you’re a fan of 1920s and 1930s film and pop culture, check out Babcock’s blog Meet Me at the Soda Fountain.

Reaching out during COVID-19

In these strange new normal times of physical distancing, we’re reminded how important it is to stay connected—staying in touch with family, friends and colleagues, as well as neighbours who may need company or assistance, is so important for both our mental and physical health.

Even introverts like myself, while generally well-equipped for staying home and keeping our distance, can miss the in-person contact; the hugs, physical presence and closeness of loved ones.

It really reminds us just how much we need each other; and people are coming up with innovative ways to connect: co-worker meetings and even drinks time, and online weddings, via Zoom; people singing from balconies, reading plays and sonnets, recording music and sharing video; coffee chats over Facebook video chat or Google Hangouts; and people are actually using their cellphones to make phone calls!

At first, keeping safe space between us and others was called “social distancing”, but this has since been replaced with “physical distancing”—a more accurate, descriptive term that also recognizes the need for us social animals to reach out and connect with others remotely/electronically.

The two-metre spacing image has also evolved into a two-metre bubble—making sure we have safe distance in three dimensions. It also feels like a more protective space. Thinking about physical distancing in terms of a bubble made me feel a lot easier about going out for a short walk along quiet side streets in my neighbourhood on Sunday (I am well and not a candidate for self-isolation)—a beautiful, unseasonably mild day that I didn’t want to waste by staying indoors.

Being together apart can be challenging—but it’s what we need to do right now. And, together, we’ll get through this.

And just think how joyful those physical reunions will be!

 

For info, check out these websites:

City of Toronto: http://toronto.ca/covid-19

Province of Ontario http://ontario.ca/covid19

Government of Canada: http://canada.ca/covid19

 

A smile during wearying, uncertain times

With COVID-19 in our midst, we’re living in some intense, uncertain, life-altering times right now—and, frankly, we could probably all use a good laugh. Here’s a little smile: a throwback to my first stand-up performance with Dawn Whitwell’s Comedy Girl Level One class at Comedy Bar in Toronto. With thanks to my sis Colleen McKim for shooting/editing.

 

 

Wash your hands, practise social distancing, stay home if you’re sick, and keep up-to-date from medical officials and reputable news sources. And be kind to each other. We’re in this together—and we’ll get through this together. xo

ICYMI: cowbell on indefinite hiatus

Camille relaxing with a cowbell.

 

ICYMI: life with more cowbell is now on an indefinite hiatus as I ponder a new direction for the blog; for more info, please see my post from the end of January.

With the exception of a few shows I’d already committed to reviewing before the holiday (I have one more coming up in mid-April: Discord & Din’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt. Again.), I will no longer be booking reviews. I will, however, continue to broadcast boost, shout out and share/RT shows on social media—so if you’d still like to invite me, please do!

Shout-outs and support for the Toronto arts scene continue on cowbell’s Twitter account and Facebook page; and I’m happy to add Facebook events to cowbell’s Facebook Events page.

Enjoy Toronto’s rich and vibrant arts scene—and support your local artists.

Saying goodbye to the youth of Ireland in the lyrical, hopeful, entertaining Many Young Men of Twenty

Foreground: James Phelan, Tina McCulloch, Emmet Leahy and William Laxamana. Background: Martin McGuane. Set design by Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy. Costume design by Bernadette Hunt. Lighting design by Karlos Griffith. Photo by Gregory Breen.

 

The Toronto Irish Players take us to a time of desperate hope and dreams, leaving and staying behind, with its lyrical, hopeful and entertaining production of John B. Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty, directed by Gregory Breen and Tim O’Connell, with musical direction by Donna O’Regan and Dan Schaumann—and running at Alumnae Theatre, where it played to a packed house last night.

It’s Southern Ireland in 1961, as we enter a village pub that serves as a microcosm for the comings and goings of local residents—and a point of departure and return for the wave of young people being sent off to England to find work in order to help support their struggling families back home. Opening with vocalists Gemma Healey-Murphy and Orlaith Ní Chaoinleáin, accompanied by Dan Schaumann on acoustic guitar, then performing a cappella, we’re transported to a time and place with evocative music, sung in both English and Irish.

The intimidating Seelie (Donna O’Regan, in an imperious, dominating turn as the boss) owns and runs the pub with her whiskey-loving brother Tom (Martin McGuane, in a complex combination of childish obstinance and adult frustration). Peg (a wistful, but fierce performance from Aoibhinn Finnegan), a young unwed single mother with a talent for making up songs on the spot—including the catchy titular tune—waits tables, plays peacemaker and nurses a broken, distrusting heart.

The large cast of characters that parade through the pub is impressive, entertaining and revealing. There’s Danger Mullaly (a thoroughly entertaining, poignant Thomas O’Neill), the local scoundrel about town; adept at getting others to spot him a pint of porter gold as he peddles miniature holy pictures, he’s a lovable scallywag with his own tale of woe. Then there’s local farm family the Dins, led by patriarch and matriarch Daheen Timineen and Maynan (played with Irish Gothic severity and resolve by James Phelan and Tina McCulloch), sending a new pair of young adult children off to England. Kevin (Emmet Leahy, as the stand-up, protective elder of the two) and Dinny (William Laxamana, as the soft-spoken, anxious younger lad) have a foreman older brother waiting for them with jobs at a London factory. And as he awaits their train departure, Kevin takes a shine to Peg and promises to write.

A year later, the Din boys return for a visit—and one of them has brought a British wife to meet the family: Dot (played with vivacious flare by Sofie Jarvis). Their parents are preparing to send another pair off; this time, daughters Maggie and Mary (shy and anxious twins Healey-Murphy and Emma Darmody). Also bursting onto the scene are local fortune teller Kitty Curley (Anne Harper, with a larger-than-life jocularity and penchant for the mysterious), with her melodeon player colleague Davy in tow (Schaumann); and local member of Irish Parliament J.J. Houlihan (David Eden, in a pompous, entitled politician turn), who’s just procured a plum position for his underqualified son Johnny (Liam Keenan, quiet and unassuming). And there’s the new schoolteacher Maurice Brown (played with affable, awkward charm by Aaron Walsh), one of the few among the younger generation to stay behind—and who also has his eye on Peg.

Weaving lively and wistful songs with snatches of daily life, we’re in a world that has one foot in the past and the other in the future, as generations-old farming families continue to find themselves forced to give over to ever-changing modern times, sending their children off into the strange world and temptations of the big city in a bid to survive. Hopes and dreams of future prosperity blend with the heart of, and longing for, home; with brave faces and humourous antics masking the pain and heartache beneath.

many young men 20 cast & crew
Cast & crew. Set design by Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy. Costume design by Bernadette Hunt. Lighting design by Karlos Griffith. 

Melancholy and hopeful, spirited and wistful, Many Young Men of Twenty takes us to a period of youthful immigration—coming in waves that stretched well before the 1960s and onward into today—where young people must grow up quickly as they leave home for new countries to make a new life for themselves, often while tasked with supporting their families back home. Brave, heartbroken and anxious—yet hopeful, aspiring and determined. And universal in its portrayal of the choices and sacrifices that are made in the face of a changing world.

With shouts to the design team: Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy (set), Bernadette Hunt (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound), and the small army worked behind the scenes, for their fine, evocative work on creating this time and place.

Many Young Men of Twenty continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until February 29; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888.

A grownup cautionary fairy tale of loyalty, betrayal & love in Shakespeare BASH’d fast-paced, highly entertaining, resonant Cymbeline

Catherine Rainville. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

Shakespeare BASH’d invites us to hear a grownup cautionary fairy tale of loyalty, betrayal, ambition, jealousy, love and family. Relationships are put to the test with evil and foolish schemes, and women’s and commoners’ true worth—for better or worse—are grossly underestimated in its fast-paced, highly entertaining, resonant production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus, assisted by Bailey Green, and on for a short run at Junction City Music Hall.

Incensed at his only daughter Innogen’s (Catherine Rainville, bringing fierce strength and gentle vulnerability to the sharp-witted, independent princess) marriage to his ward Posthumus Leonatus (Jesse Nerenberg, giving an earnest, fiery passion to the popular, good young man), Cymbeline, King of Briton (David Mackett, in a chilly and decisive imperious turn) banishes the youth and puts his daughter under house arrest. Strongly influenced by his new Queen (Mairi Babb, deliciously arch as the cunningly manipulative, two-faced Queen), his second wife and Innogen’s step-mother, Cymbeline had intended Innogen for the Queen’s son Cloten (Emilio Vieira, giving a great comic turn as a quarrelsome, entitled idiot).

Having exchanged tokens with Innogen and fled to Rome, and despite pleas to the contrary from his level-headed host Philario (Kiana Woo, who gives a great multitasking performance, notably as the wily doctor and a saucy, irreverent servant), Posthumus agrees to enter into a foolish wager with Philario’s friend Iachimo (Daniel Briere, in a hilariously edgy turn as a sly, lascivious scoundrel of a Roman lord), whereby Iachimo bets he can prove Innogen false. Obtaining his proof through trickery, Iachimo wins the bet—and, out of his mind with anger and grief, Posthumus charges Innogen’s servant Pisanio (Bailey Green, bright-eyed and energetic as Innogen’s unwaveringly faithful right hand) with killing Innogen. Apprising her mistress of Posthumus’s plan for revenge, Pisanio helps Innogen disguise herself as the boy Fidele and flees the palace.

Meanwhile, in the wilds of Briton, banished noble Belarius (James Wallis, bringing a warm, protective sweetness to the rough seasoned warrior) hunts with his daughters Guiderius (Melanie Leon, suffusing the rough and tumble young woman with a mature wisdom) and Arviragus (Déjah Dixon-Green, bringing gentle, poetic tone to the stalwart younger sister)—and come upon a weary, hungry Innogen in disguise when they return to their cave dwelling.

Back at the palace, the proud Cymbeline—egged on by the Queen—incites war with Rome by refusing to pay tribute; and Cloten has learned of Innogen’s whereabouts and is in hot pursuit, intent on having her under any circumstances. Personal and political clashes ensue, secret plots and identities are revealed, and foolish assumptions and conflicts are set to rights.

When you go to a Shakespeare BASH’d show, the audience is treated like family; and Nish-Lapidus, Wallis and company are the gracious hosts—creating an atmosphere of welcome, warmth and inclusion that adds to its signature storytelling; using minimalist but effective set and costumes, focusing on the text and the relationships to deliver a production that is both accessible and resonant for today. This particular production nicely supported by music from Matt Nish-Lapidus.

And with a script that can easily turn to melodrama, the staging, pacing and direction go big with an edgy, dark sense of humour; huge, beautifully poetic declarations of love and fidelity; and impassioned action-packed narratives of conflict. A cautionary tale on a number of levels, what especially speaks to audiences today is the inherent misogyny; society underestimates and undervalues its women, for better or worse—blinding all, especially men, to women’s capacity for both good and evil. The play also speaks to a strict and accepted code of classism, whereby men and women alike are judged by their station in life as opposed to their character and actions—leaving the rich and powerful to do as they wish, often with little or no consequences. This play could have easily been called Innogen—but Cymbeline suits, as it is his actions and ill-conceived decisions that set these events in motion, causing both personal and national distress and loss.

Cymbeline continues at The Junction City Music Hall until February 9. Advance tickets are sold out, but if you get there early, they’ll do their best to squeeze you in. Please note the early curtain time of 7:00 p.m.; box office opens at 6:30 p.m. ($25 cash only at the door).

Upcoming hiatus & news

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

 

Hi all – Hope 2020 is being good to everyone so far!

life with more cowbell celebrated its ninth anniversary earlier this month and—counting two years blogging for Alumnae Theatre Company—that means I’ve been blogging about theatre for 11 years now. Time flies! It’s been an amazing 11 years, reviewing remarkable, mind-blowing theatre; shouting out Toronto’s rich and vibrant literary, visual arts and music events; and interviewing and getting to know various artists.

When I first started the blog, I had a permanent full-time office job, so I was able to put in the requisite time and energy on an unpaid after hours/weekend passion project; and, since its inception, life with more cowbell has grown in both readership and inclusion on media lists. Over the years, I’ve considered various ways to ‘monetize’ the blog, but in the end decided to keep it free and without strings attached.

A couple of things have changed since the birth of the blog. First, I was laid off my full-time job almost four years ago; and I’ve since become an accidental freelancer/contract worker (copy editing, proofreading and writing, in addition to working as non-union voice-over talent) as I continue to search for permanent employment. Also, as much as I’ve enjoyed shouting out the Toronto arts scene, especially theatre, I’ve found that I’ve been spending most of my free time writing about other people’s art instead of making my own. For a while, I considered that writing about other people’s creative work was my creative work. But after performing in Andrew Batten’s last play The Sad Blisters and exhibiting in ARTiculations’ 2019 Curio Shadow Box Show last year, and a day on location, acting in an indie film adaptation of a novel couple of weeks ago, I realized I really miss working and playing in that creative space.

So, I’ve decided I need to make a change. And to that end, I’ll be putting life with more cowbell on an indefinite hiatus as of February 1 as I ponder a new direction for myself and the blog. I already have a few review bookings coming up (Shakespeare BASH’d’s Cymbeline and Toronto Irish Players’ Many Young Men of Twenty in February; and Discord and Din’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. in April); I intend to honour those commitments—but, otherwise, I won’t be doing any reviews in the foreseeable future.

I’ve thought long and hard about this. In fact, it’s come to mind every New Year for the past few years. And even though I won’t be reviewing, I’ll continue to broadcast boost shows and performances/events on social media; and tweet, share and post about performances, events and exhibits I attend. When I return to the blog, I’ll provide an update on where we’ll be headed next.

To my readers, thank you so much for your feedback and support throughout the years; and big thanks to all the marketing/PR and production folks for including me on their mailing lists and inviting me to see so many amazing shows. The blog and I aren’t going away—I’m just hitting pause as I prepare for a return with a new direction. And I will keep shouting out Toronto’s rich and vibrant arts scene no matter what.

Cheers, Cate