Art & literature come out to play together at the Leon Rooke & John Metcalf Salon Exhibition

I had the great pleasure of attending the Leon Rooke and John Metcalf Salon Exhibition last night, hosted by Fran Hill Gallery at Rooke’s residence at 246 Brunswick Ave., Toronto—also the new contact space for the gallery since it moved from its St. Clair W./Christie neighbourhood Show Room. The event featured Rooke’s latest paintings and sculptures, and the Biblioasis launch of two new books by Metcalf: The Canadian Short Story and Finding Again the World—Selected Stories.

Ushered up to event in the spacious, open and bright second floor space of the home—with its striking sky lights, interesting nooks and gorgeous fireplace—several of us (including me) remarked that we wanted to take up residence there ourselves. And it was here that we wandered about, viewing Rooke’s art over wine and cheese, and  treated to a reading by Metcalf.

Comprised of small to medium-sized canvasses, and curious, detailed and often delightful sculptures and shadow boxes, much of Rooke’s (who is also an author) work in this exhibit has a light, playful, whimsical quality—with some of the pieces emerging with a richer, deeper palette and darker, mysterious and even erotic undertones. Be forewarned: Not all of the pieces on display are necessarily for sale (exhibit pieces are noted with a number, accompanied by a printed guide with titles and pricing) and at least one piece (the Fish sculpture, featured at the top of this post) sold last night.

Following a brief introduction by Biblioasis Publisher Dan Wells, Metcalf—who also worked for years as a highly respected editor, most notably on Best Canadian Stories, curating the anthology and shepherding writers—read us excerpts from The Canadian Short Story and The Museum at the End of the World. Part historical overview, part critical guide, part love letter to the form, The Canadian Short Story is anything but a dry, academic tome, despite its hefty size. Sharply insightful, and full of humour and interesting examples and anecdotes about authors; hearing the excerpt, it struck me as being the “inside baseball” for the short story lover. And the audiophile journey Metcalf took us on with the piece from The Museum at the End of the World (a series of linked stories and novellas) gave us sharply drawn characters; visceral and present details that pique the senses; and a curiosity shop environment that enveloped the intimate, almost confessional nature of the characters’ conversation—about the musicians, birthplace and evolution of the blues. I was so taken by this work of autobiographically inspired fiction that I left with a signed copy.

All in all, it was a lovely and inspirational evening of striking art, literature and people.

The Leon Rooke exhibit continues throughout the fall; give Fran Hill a shout at 416 363-1333 or franhillartgallery@gmail.com to book an appointment. The residence at 246 Brunswick Ave. is tucked in behind 244 Brunswick Ave., accessed by the walkway to the right.

You can visit the Biblioasis website or your favourite book shop to find works by John Metcalf.

Here are some snaps I took last night.

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Playfully whimsical, profoundly poignant & sharply candid ruminations in Dawna J. Wightman’s honey be

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Dawna J. Wightman. Photo by Vince Lupo.

 

Montreal-born Dawna J. Wightman is an award-winning Toronto-based actor, playwright and writer. Toronto audiences will recognize Wightman from her solo show Life as a Pomegranate, as well as Yellow Birds (Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks Festival, 2015) and A Mickey Full of Mouse (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 2016 and Toronto Fringe, 2017). She’s currently working on adapting her unpublished dark fantasy novel A Yarn of Bone & Paper, based on her ebook: Faeries Real & Imagined: How to Create Magical Adventures for Very Young Children, into a feature film. She’s also working with director Theresa Kowall-Shipp on her short Kid Gloves, set to shoot November 2018.

As part of the funding process for Kid Gloves, Wightman self-published and sold honey be, “a collection of sweet words and some that sting,” including hand-painted covers and “surprises” stuffed inside. The first 50-volume print run sold out in about a week; and a second run will be available this month, featuring cover art design by Wightman’s daughter Sabine Spare.

Much like Wightman’s theatre work, the stories, poems and snippets in honey be range from playfully whimsical to profoundly poignant to sharply candid—often all in the same story and sometimes autobiographical in nature. While there are no titles, each piece bears an italicized post-script at the end; in some cases, these take on a conversational and even self-deprecating tone, making for a personal, intimate read.

The themes of family, motherhood and friendship come up in several pieces. There’s the story about Mrs. Kay, written from the perspective of a precocious, neglected eight-year-old who finds a home with fellow misfit schoolmate Sandra Kay and her quirky family; and the goofy four-legged family member Bella in just a dog. Reminders that family can sometimes be found in unexpected places—and to never judge a book by its cover.

There’s heart-wrenching nostalgia with an ode to her son in little boy; and remembrances of wearing an itchy baby blue Phentex dress and being her mother’s go-fer at the bingo hall, in pretty little head. And the heartache and fumbling for what to say to a friend living with cancer tumble out in the visceral when we found out you had cancer and in the outpouring of loving, supportive words in the piece that follows.

Ruminations on body image and aging come up as well, from the erotic in late summer, to the sharply candid and calling bullshit on the ridiculous expectations placed on women’s bodies—professionally and personally—in tits and ass and #chubbyprettywoman, and the #MeToo shock of new neighbour.

Quirky, bittersweet, child-like grown-up, all of the stories in honey be are tinged with humour and poignancy, and the everyday acknowledgement of life’s remarkable moments. And one gets the sense that, beyond coming from a place of truth telling—there’s a deep longing to share these words. There’s a line in the movie Shadowlands, from a C.S. Lewis quote: “We read to know we are not alone”—one could easily also say “We write to let others know they are not alone.”

Copies of honey be will be available for $20.00 via emailing wightrabiit@gmail.com; website coming soon. Wightman will be performing a reading from the book at Stratford’s SpringWorks Festival on October 11.

 

SummerWorks: Memory, nostalgia & queer men longing to connect in the quirky, charming, poignant Box 4901

Thirteen letters responding to a 1992 gay personals ad sit in a box unanswered. What does the recipient say to these men 26 years later? Memory, nostalgia, connection and hindsight figure prominently in timeshare productions’ SummerWorks presentation of novelist Brian Francis’ autobiographical Box 4901; directed by Rob Kempson and running on the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage.

Long before the age of smartphones and Grindr, a 21-year-old Francis—then a student at the University of Western Ontario—posted a personals ad in The London Free Press looking for a connection in the small LGBTQ world of conservative London, Ontario. Of the approximately two dozen letters he received, 13 went unanswered and were discovered years later. Francis narrates and responds as 13 queer actors perform each letter.

Featuring actors Bilal Baig, Hume Baugh, Keith Cole, Izad Etemadi, Daniel Krolik, Michael Hughes, Tsholo Khalema, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain, Jonathan Tan, Chris Tsujiuchi and Geoffrey Whynot, the responses to the ad range from the bashful to the pornographic. Coming from a variety of men—ranging in age from high school senior to father figure—from various walks of life (“regular guy,” teacher, farmer, jock, “straight-acting,” leather community), the letters are sassy, charming, eloquent and humourous. The replies are frank, witty, sharply observational; and tempered with kindness, and the hindsight of age and wisdom.

There are some missed chances and missed bullets. All of these men share the same desire to reach out; longing for connection and a cure for aloneness, there’s a vulnerable authenticity in even the cockiest of responses. And the fear of being outed to family or housemates is as palpable and strong as the excitement and anticipation of a new connection.

Box 4901 has one more SummerWorks performance at the Theatre Centre on Aug 19 at 4:45 p.m.; it’s already sold out, but you can try your luck by arriving early to see if there are any no-shows.

SummerWorks: Pitching vulnerability in the frank, darkly funny, insightful …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next

Graham Isador. Photo by Jillian Welsh.

 

How do the stories we tell about ourselves reflect on us? And how do the stories we read shape how we see the world? Pressgang Theatre explores these questions, combining journalism and theatre together as playwright/performer Graham Isador takes us on a journey of personal story pitches to BuzzFeed in …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next. Directed by Jiv Parasram, Isador is performing in the Theatre Centre Incubator for SummerWorks.

Staged as a stand-up routine, while Isador’s solo show has elements of a comedy show, it’s a storytelling show—differentiated by a beginning, a middle, an end and a take-away. Having taken the path to writing and publishing, a piece catches the eye of the Reader editor at BuzzFeed; and he’s invited to pitch his stories, with the instruction to mine the vulnerability—for this is a key ingredient of serious writing. What follows is a challenging apprenticeship in journalism; one that is both gruelling and encouraging.

Cycling through various stories from childhood and youth to adulthood, he submits pieces torn directly from his own personal headlines: The worst day of his first job; a heart-wrenching break-up, precipitated by a horrible moment of finding out his girlfriend was cheating on him; looking after his injured mother while his father lay in a hospital bed in critical condition.

Isador is a masterful storyteller, delivering a performance that is frank, darkly funny and deeply moving. There is vulnerability in the directness, coupled with a quirky stand-up comic edge—reeling us in and keeping us at a safe distance as the storytelling takes on a confessional tone. Struggling with depression, he comes upon a chicken/egg problem: Is it these worst moments of his life that are making him depressed—or is it the telling of story after story of the worst moments of his life?

Is it true that serious journalism only includes the stories of struggle, hardship and tragedy—the awful, sad, worst moments of our lives? What do we get out of staying in bad situations? In telling those tales of personal woe? In reading them? The take-away is largely left up to us—some serious food for thought.

…And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next has two more performances at SummerWorks: Aug 17 at 10:00 p.m. and Aug 18 at 9:00 p.m. Get advance tickets online. Last night’s show was packed, so advanced booking advised.

Toronto Fringe: Art, longing & acceptance in the poetic, heart-wrenching, gender-bending The Bird Killer

Clockwise, from bottom left: Emerjade Simms, Tymika Tafari, Subhash Santosh, Mo Zeighami, Evan Mackenzie & Mike Ricci. Photo by Patrick J. Horan.

 

LET ME IN presents Justine Christensen’s poetic, heart-wrenching modern-day, gender-bending adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull with its Toronto Fringe production of The Bird Killer, directed by Patrick J. Horan and running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

A group of artist friends grapple with the day-to-day challenges of artistic expression, and personal and professional fulfillment—all while maintaining their relationships and support network. Masha (Emerjade Simms) is a keen observer of her friends’ goings-on, and acts as a host/narrator when she’s not directly involved in a moment. Wearing black to mourn the state of her life, her sardonic sense of humour masks a broken heart: her unrequited love of the driven, tormented playwright Kostya (Mo Zeighami). Kostya is with the nervous emerging actor Nina (Even Mackenzie), who stars in her new contemporary theatre piece. Singer/songwriter Medvedenko (Mike Ricci, who also supplies original music for the production) is Kostya’s loyal, hard-working stage manager; and taken with Masha.

Kostya’s wise-cracking stand-up comic brother Arkadina (Subhash Santosh) brings his girlfriend, renowned playwright Trigorin (Tymika Tafari), to an invitation-only presentation of Kostya’s new work; setting off debates of artistry vs. celebrity, and changing the group dynamic. He’s unwittingly set in motion a significant ripple within the group—and things will never be the same.

Beautiful, moving work from the ensemble with a piece that cuts close to home for all artists. Each character longs for love and professional artistic fulfillment, but finds it difficult to achieve satisfaction. Does acknowledgement and accolades make one artist’s work more important than another’s? How does an artist navigate authenticity vs. marketability? And, most importantly, how does an artist accept him/herself?

The Bird Killer continues in the Tarragon Mainspace, with two more performances: tonight (July 13) at 9:15 pm and July 15 at 3:30 pm.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

A gothic fairy tale of spiritual connections, mystical protectors & escaping a monster in Brenda Clews’ gripping, magical Fugue in Green

Like a bullet in slow motion, she floated over treetops for as long as it took to blink.

A gothic fairy tale of spiritual connections, mystical protectors and escaping the clutches of a monster, this is the opening line of Brenda Clews’ mesmerizing, magical novella Fugue in Green, published by Quattro Books.

Teen siblings Steig and Curtis struggle to survive live with their cruel, controlling and abusive mother Leica while their filmmaker father Reb is away working in England. Their monster mother is a catalyst for Steig’s escapes into the woods that surround their Vermont home, where Steig finds solace in nature. It is in these moments that we learn that Steig is a magical, elemental young woman who becomes the landscape she loves and shelters in. She also sees ghosts: her grandparents and a former teacher. And the ghosts tell her things. And she has a spritely sentinel: a bird man called forth from her connection to the woods to be her guardian.

Reb lives and works with his dreams—and dreams while awake—the everyday becoming surreal, expressionist visions that surround him; a visual poet, he creates poetry with images instead of words. And what of the mysterious and angelic Clare, a magician with a camera who arrives in his life at the precise moment he needs her—both personally and professionally?

Steig’s younger brother Curtis busies himself with more traditional, earth-bound teen pursuits. While not fully immune to their mother’s unreasonable expectations, unpredictable behaviour and wrath, he bears the least of it. And when their mother goes too far with Steig one day, Curtis launches a plan to flee their mother, contact their father and join him in England. Their journey to safety is fraught with terrifying memories and shared visions, but is also protected by forest spirits.

Secrets are revealed—with devastating results. Reb had no idea about the child abuse going on in his own home; forced to move beyond his own sense of guilt of being so distant from his children, who he realizes he barely knows, he’s determined to make a safe, supportive home for them. He’s been away too much and for too long. Meanwhile, back at the family’s home in Vermont, and realizing that her children are gone, Leica flies into a spiralling, destructive rage that echoes across an ocean.

Supernatural, spiritual connections emerge and reveal themselves; the battle between order and wilderness embodied in the relationship between Steig’s mother and Steig—and even Reb. Love, family, myth and metaphysics intertwine, winding around these relationships as the two children escape the witch at home and into the arms of those who truly love them.

Magical, sensuous and seductive, Clews’ words swirl around you and draw you in; mesmerizing with evocative colours and haunting, ethereal—and sometimes disturbing—images. A short, gripping modern fairy tale, it’s perfect for curling up for an afternoon or evening read, easily finished in one sitting.

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Brenda Clews

Clews is also an artist and a poet; you can view her work on her website, and on YouTube and Vimeo. You can also connect with Clews on Twitter and Facebook.

Interview: Lizzie Violet

Lizzie Violet—photo by Anna Lozyk Romeo

Happy International Women’s Day! Today’s post is an interview with an incredibly talented, hard-working, gutsy and generous woman in the Toronto arts scene.

Lizzie Violet is a writer, spoken word artist and horror aficionado—that “dark little girl with the crooked grin” who took her finely tuned, quirky sense of observation and love of zombie lore, and wrote it down. Evocative, darkly funny and sharply drawn, her writing ranges from hilarious and poignant personal storytelling, to socio-political observation, to chilling tales of the supernatural and deadly creatures from beyond the grave.

LWMC: You first become attracted to horror when you were a kid, staying up late with your dad watching old horror movies on TV. What was it that hooked you?

LV: Apparently, I liked to scare myself. Even as a young introverted kid, I figured out how invigorating an adrenaline rush felt. Even more so than watching the movies, the stories I would make up in my head scared me even more. I had an overactive imagination.  I was never afraid of the boogieman or the monsters in the closet. I was all about the bizarre versions of monsters and ghosts my mind would visualize or create and I would wonder if the creak in the stairs was a werewolf coming to gobble me up. I loved every second of it. Recently, my mom dug up some of the stories I wrote as a kid. You can see where it all began.

LWMC: You also became infamous around the school library for your interest in horror literature and biographies of serial killers. When did your love of the genre translate into wanting to writing horror-themed poems and stories?

LV: How that all started, was my Great Grandfather Bill died when I was 10 years old. I was really close to him. They took me to his viewing at the funeral home and to me, the man in the casket looked nothing like him. He had this weird heavy makeup on, including rouge and lipstick. At the viewing, I started asking a lot of ‘inappropriate’ questions about why he looked that way and what was going to happen to him now that he had ‘passed away’ (no one would actually use the word dead). No one would answer me. I had a melt down and then wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral.

After that, I would continually ask the librarians for books about death, eventually progressing to books on serial killers and hauntings. We used to get the Scholastic Book Club magazines and I would get upset when there weren’t books along that theme as an option. They (teachers and the librarian) became concerned about how morbid this young child had become. My parents were not pleased, to say the least. All of this pushed me further into introversion and a way for me to cope was to start writing. To everyone’s dismay… my writing was always horror themed. From that point on in my life I became death-obsessed. Not in a ‘wanting to kill myself way,’ rather needing to seek the knowledge about death. Why it happened, what happened to you and your body when you died. Why we had funerals. Did it hurt? Recently, I discovered a writer and YouTuber called Caitlin Doughty (her channel is ‘Ask A Mortician’); I wish I had known someone like her as a kid. She is open about death and death positivity.

LWMC: Over the years, you’ve written in a number of media, from poetry, to the story for I Hate Todd’s “Zombie Love” music video, to screenwriting, stage and radio playwriting, and blogging, including your new Not Vegan Now Vegan food/recipe blog. Do you have a favourite medium?

LV: Short stories. I am madly in love with short stories. It goes back to that adrenaline rush feeling. You have to get people pulled in and worked up in a short amount of words. The pressure to do that in under 10,000 words is exhilarating for me. If I had to pick a second, it would be screenwriting. I love storytelling in that format as well. When you read a book or a short story, the reader sees the setting or character differently. They create their own visual. When you put it on a screen, they get to see what you want them to see. They get to actually be in your head and that terrifying thought, is appealing to me.

LWMC: Last Fall, you bid farewell to Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir and tapered off your event production work. And, most recently, you quit your day job to pursue writing full-time. What led up to that decision and how has it been, adjusting to the new routine?

LV: I realized I had my fingers in too many pies and, because of this, I wasn’t getting enough writing done. When I don’t write, I actually get depressed. I sat back and took a look at what I have accomplished; what I could accomplish and realized I needed to be all in. Life is too short and I don’t want to ever have regrets for not trying. You only fail when you don’t make the effort.

I’ve been adjusting well. I freelanced for almost 10 years prior to my last job, and am able to focus and be productive. There are days when you just can’t be creative, and my mantra for those days is to do something else. Go for a walk. Write a list. Have a dance party in the living room. Dig holes somewhere. Just don’t let frustration take over. Sometimes you need to shake the cobwebs out—then you will be fine.

LWMC: What have been your biggest challenges? Your biggest rewards?

LV: Other than things being tight financially at the moment, I don’t really have any challenges. I do have a lot of rewards. Being able to wake up every day and write is the best feeling in the world. I am also lucky to have a partner who is supportive of my dreams.

LWMC: You’re working on a novel right now. What can you tell us about it?

LV: Without give too much away—it’s semi-autobiographical, yet still fiction, a ghost story and set in small-town Ontario. The two main characters are teenagers who don’t fit into society’s ideals of what a teenager should be and, did I mention, it’s ghost story. The title of the novel is Freaks & Grimm. In the next month or so, I am going to start hitting up open mics and read parts of the novel.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to shout out?

LV: Oh yeah! Going back to your question about shows, though I am no longer producing shows similar to the Cabaret, I am still producing shows that showcase my work. Heather Babcock and I are working on a new format for our RedHead Revue. Hoping to have a date for this spring.  I am also working on a YouTube channel called Lizzie Violet’s Lair.  The content will be segments on horror, b-horror movies, talks about death and the dead. I will have regular guests to chat about ghoulish things such as hearses, graveyard tours, the paranormal, ghosts, zombies and more. Oh… and don’t worry, we will also talk about horror-based writing. I’m working on the set-up and scripts. I’m hoping to launch it this summer. You should all subscribe so you don’t miss the launch: https://www.youtube.com/user/lizzieviolet1313

The RedHead Revue page is https://www.facebook.com/redheadrevue/.

LWMC: I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word?

All of them!  If I had to just pick one, it would be gloomy or serendipity. Can I choose two?

What’s your least favourite word?

Moist. Why does that word even exist?

What turns you on?

When someone gets my weird and morbid sense of humour.

What turns you off?

Phoniness. Say what you mean. Say what you feel. Don’t pretend to be something or someone you aren’t. Being authentic is important. Oh… damn… I sounded like a hipster.

What sound or noise do you love?

The sounds of a thunderstorm rolling in. Nothing more soothing than thunder and lightning.

What sound or noise do you hate?

The sounds of animals in pain. It breaks my heart.

What is your favourite curse word?

Motherfucker.

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue?

There isn’t any other profession. This is what I’ve dreamed of all my life.

What profession would you not like to do?

Veterinarian. When I was a kid, I had a brief moment were I wanted to be a vet, until I found out that they had to euthanize the animals.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

You made a wrong turn. It’s the other gates you want.

Thanks, Lizzie!

You can also keep up with Lizzie Violet on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.