WHENEVER YOU’RE READY

(Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager)
By Shawn DeSouza-Coelho
ECW Press
394 pages
$22.95 (paperback)

Nora Polley’s very long tenure as a Stage Manager at the Stratford Festival was a distinguished one. Daughter of Vic Polley, administrative director for the Festival, she certainly had an easier entrée into the organization than many others, but she proved her mettle and deserved all the praise and special honours she eventually received. Polley evidently kept a diary, from which portions are used in this rather peculiar biography. Not strictly an “as told to” book, it presents a challenge to readers who need to persevere through many unnecessary devices and flat passages to reach a few valuable revelations.

After a Prologue in 1969, in which she breathlessly recounts how she fetched coffee for Nathan Cohen during his visit to Trinity College Drama Society, followed by an offer from Jean Gascon to become stage manager, the narrative wobbles and staggers for a long time. Overly generous quotations from Shakespearean scripts (sometimes repeated three times in one fell swoop) with parallel descriptions of technical cues for sound, lighting, and scene changes slow the rhythm. In one instance, the quotations run for the equivalent of six full pages, succeeding in little other than trying a reader’s patience.

There is a great deal of name-dropping (which is, perhaps, inevitable in a long career), but only trivial information as to why many of the dropped names are important. Polley’s capsule comments are frequently restricted to trivial adjectives about looks and coiffure: Leo Ciceri is called a “handsome actor from Montreal”; Barry MacGregor “a handsome British actor with lush black hair”; Rory Feore (brother to Colm) is described as having “short wavy hair and a constant vibration,” though it is not at all clear what he is vibrating to. Often only first names are used, and, for instance, only real theatre fans or scholars can determine who the visiting American actress (simply called Kathleen) was who walked out of a production because she couldn’t cope with Robin Phillips’s way of working. (It was Kathleen Widdoes.)

The narrative is highly idiosyncratic in other ways, exposing the lack of good editing for this book. Sometimes allusions are made to a character in a play without reference to the play’s title. There is also a strong sense of death that lingers as Polley recalls the passing of many family and theatre figures. There is a dramatic instance when Eric Donkin drops dead during a rehearsal, but there is also one strange episode where Leo Ciceri’s death is recounted in the middle of a description of a family turkey dinner, without any family member apparently having second thoughts about pausing over a wing or leg or gravy.

Fortunately, there are nuggets in the book. These are not usually the photos, which are generally too small and indistinct to be of much value to anyone other than an earnest archivist. What is of more interest is that Nora Polley reveals her vulnerabilities and antipathies on and off the job: a failed marriage; the deaths of relatives, friends, and colleagues; her triumph over breast cancer; some special friendships; a distaste for theatre politics (especially as manipulated by John Hirsch, who exacted his revenge against anyone who liked Phillips); her love-hate relationship with actors over their “bullshit political games” (to which I can relate with deep-down sympathy, knowing as I do that the bullshit has a whole lot to do with unjustified egomania); her genuine sentimentality for respected or beloved artistic directors (such as Phillips, David William, John Neville, Richard Monette); and her true feelings (not all positive) about her vocation and the direction of the Festival.

The best parts of the book are the glimpses into the sometimes quixotic, perplexing, unsettling natures of genuine artists. We learn that Maggie Smith wears only custom-made sable fur false eyelashes. We get to spy on Robin Phillips banging on timpani to pace actors or his fiddling with sliders on a dimmer board to set the mood. We also learn how he elicited marvellously spontaneous discoveries from actors in rehearsal. We discover the professional loyalty and consideration of Martha Henry and Seana McKenna who refused to sign new contracts unless Stage Managers had their own issues settled first. We learn yet again of William Hutt’s dry humour, Richard Monette’s early shyness about his body, and John Neville’s first duty as artistic director to rehire company personnel who hadn’t been asked back by Hirsch. Each reader will probably have his or her own favourite moments. Mine include Polley’s shocking discovery of and her pathos for the physical and, perhaps, mental deterioration of Robin Phillips shortly before his death, and, more tenderly, a vignette of Sara Topham reciting lines from Juliet as she sits beside Richard Monette’s grave.

While far from truly coherent, the book is the product of Nora Polley’s love for her vocation. A propos her career, she claims that “If anybody notices you doing your job, you’ve just made a mistake.” Polley is hard on herself for one big mistake she once made years ago, but she missed only two performances as SM all her career, and never through her own fault. She calls herself “stupidly lucky” to have worked with Phillips. She is too modest. The Festival has been stupidly lucky to have had her services for over half a century. And, ultimately, theatre lovers may feel lucky to have a book of some of her cherished memories.

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THE GOD GAME

By Jeffrey Round
Dundurn
326 pages, $16.99 (paper)
ISBN: 9781459740105

Lambda Award-winning Toronto writer, Jeffrey Round, should be a household name in households that value gay detective fiction. The God Game, his new Dan Sharp mystery (the fifth in a series), is suspense-filled, has a vivid sense of place, and shows off Round’s special talent in the genre. Its plot concerns the missing husband of a gay Queen’s Park aide who seems to have run off to escape gambling debts, and gay detective Dan Sharp is hired to track him down. The nuts and bolts of detective fiction are in operation (a dead MPP; a mysterious figure who makes or breaks reputations of rising politicians; two sisters who trade identities; a political journalist who comes to a bad end; etc.), and the novel holds the reader’s attention throughout. But I, who am not a connoisseur of or an inveterate fan of detective fiction, don’t read Jeffrey Round merely for his tricks of suspense. I value him for his true literary motive: an exploration of human relationships within the circumscription of milieu, circumstance, and character—in other words, the exigencies of our lives, especially of gay lives, that (as Edmund White puts it) express the introspective advantages of the “outsider, of the foreigner and of the pioneer.” As a creator of gay fiction, Round performs meticulous research (on anything from gambling and local politics to gay art, LGBT issues, Weimar history, rap music, and funerary customs). He demonstrates a sensitive understanding of minority groups, and he habitually exercises an ability to reflect in fresh terms on themes of love, parenthood, friendship, disappointment, and survival in a changing world.

Every Jeffrey Round novel has a vivid sense of place, and this one is no exception. This is an instantly recognizable Toronto, with a crack-addicted mayor, gay MPP, and ethnic and stratified minorities, and its ambience is palpable, whether it issues from old-money, WASPish Rosedale, the working-class area of Bathurst and Dupont, or Queen’s Park. And Dan Sharp easily transcends clichés of the genre by the facts of his identity and unfolding existential complications. He is a gay father to an occasionally doubting son, a conflicted same sex partner, and the estranged lover of a man who provokes him into reflecting painfully on how one learns to love “through disappointment and doubt.” And Round’s flashes of wit (his chapter titles, his acidulous comment on gay status symbols, and his sketches of character) are signs of literary finesse—perhaps none so much as this phrase that crystallizes Dan’s ex-lover: “Narcissus crossed with a Botticelli angel.”

THE VISUAL LABORATORY OF ROBERT LEPAGE

By Ludovic Fouquet. (Trans. Rhonda Mullins)
Talonbooks
401 pages, $29.9

ISBN: 978-0-88922-774-3
visual laboratory

Ludovic Fouquet opens his detailed study of Robert Lepage’s theatre with a list of described images:

a man conversing on the phone while sitting on a bed, and the stage opening             sideways to reveal another part of the bedroom;

a front-load washing machine transforming into a goldfish bowl when a video image of” a swimming fish is projected onto a windowed door,” and then the space opening like “the portal of a space capsule” through which the actor climbs;

a TV screen spinning around, blinding the audience, but when it turns back to the        actor, he has turned into “an old woman asleep in a wheelchair”;

“a mirror inclines and the actor takes flight, pirouettes, and disappears.”

All these images are from Lepage’s solo show The Far Side of the Moon (2000), and they contribute to the director’s reputation as “a magician of images.” Foquet underlines the fact (he does an inordinate amount of such underlining) that Lepage’s projects have been built around “a specific idea of the stage, fostering a wide range of distinctive effects, from the stage box, to the puppet theatre, to the screen.” In this way, Lepage develops his enticing theatrical language, “a visual, sound-based, musical, and only incidentally text-based language.” And this is why, argues Fouquet, that Lepage’s dramatic universe “must be approached from the point of view that stage design is a visual laboratory and the theatrical image is its apparatus.”

This contention seems sensible at first, but a closer look at the postulates raises some unsettling questions for those who are not simply Lepage devotees. For one thing, Fouquet’s imperial imperative (“must be approached”) is an academic decree rather than an intellectual lure. Second, a laboratory, visual or otherwise, implies scientific experimentation and measurement rather than artistic risk, and imagery is surely only more than apparatus. My objections to Fouquet’s tone grow more intense the more I read into his scholarly book that is inarguably important to the field of imagistic theatre. But before I expand my criticism, I shall acknowledge the book’s merits. This English-language translation comes eight years after the original French text, and it will undoubtedly appeal to artists, teachers, and students who wish to understand and draw inspiration from Lepage’s theatrical creativity. Its notes, chronology of productions, bibliography, and index observe academic propriety, and its text makes it amply clear that Fouquet is steeped in multimedia and knowledge about stage imagery. Moreover, the generous amount of black and white photographs of sets, design sketches, stage models, costumes, and actors is of real benefit to scholars and general readers. Every Lepage production seems to have been covered till 2014, and Fouquet is detailed to a fault, with virtually no visual effect going unexplained.

Structured in four parts and an epilogue, the book covers wide areas, ranging from two models (puppets/objects and the cube) in the visual laboratory to technological echoes (light and shadow, mirror, photography, cinema, video, digitalization, sound). He notes other experiments (such as orientalism and the baroque), as well as the lure of geometry (cubes, mills,  circles) and continuing collective creation, and concludes with some discussion of Lepage’s forays into opera. There are many splendid instances of explication, such as his explanation of how objects populate Lepage’s stage space, and how suitcases, backpacks, duffle bags, shoes, glass balls, small baskets, dolls, cigarettes, lighters, screens, mats, mirrors, cameras, microphones, and puppets provide references to our mundane world while resonating as emblems of other things. Fouquet argues that this image-based theatre is primarily “a theatre of perception,” and that Lepage’s world is based on “an architectonic view of the  stage,” with the overall shape of a piece changing through sequential combinations of elements such as lighting, video, film, photography, geometry, and sound. But such a view opens itself to challenges. Is this plenitude of elements and effects an enrichment or a confusion of aesthetic realms? How important, for example is it to see the front and back of an actor simultaneously? How does such visual wizardry illuminate character or text? Fouquet never pauses to raise these questions in the course of his breathless excitement, much less answer them.

When he celebrates Lepage’s ability to use video to divide the stage into different facets of the same reality that expresses the “visual architecture” of a story, he alludes to the film The Boston Strangler that exploited the split-screen technique, but without ever considering whether such an effect divides the viewer’s gaze and frustrates the focus. Sometimes he is clearly unaware that his sweeping praise is freighted with ironies that undercut his claims–as when he shows how objects and actors share the stage. With Lepage, the actor is encouraged to become a co-author during the production process, and is invited to participate in story development, but the actor does not seem to recognize that he is dwarfed by technology or so immersed in the image that he becomes its prisoner. Strangely, Fouquet does articulate this latter point himself, making it sound like a virtue rather than a flaw.

I recognize that all theatre is not text-based and that there is unquestionable beauty, ineffable mystery, and layered richness in Lepage’s best productions. Fouquet is justified in praising the set for The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994) for its interchangeable, mobile, transparent screens, or Lepage’s ingenious use of an inclining set in Elsinore (1995), or the director’s idea of a film-within-a-film in Polygraphe (1987), echoing Lepage’s demand that theatre speak a contemporary language, and above all, a visual one. Fouquet is also excellent in showing how Lepage dramatizes technology. But his scholarship is repeatedly extravagant but lacking in critical depth. For example, he never considers whether technology remains cold, whether in being its own message it doesn’t necessarily add or extend meaning. While glowing with praise for the stage design of The Tempest (2013) and its recreation of the theatre La Scala (Madrid), as if it were a sectional view, he does not demonstrate how this illuminates Shakespeare. He is quite content to accept Lepage as a technician or trickster, even celebrating when Lepage engages the audience by revealing the trick, but isn’t this facility superficial? Or to put it a different way, does not form outshine and swamp content by drawing attention to itself? It would be tantamount to a magician explaining how he performs his tricks or an actor explaining his technique.

Putting aside instances of academic jargon that have the sound of learned lumber, I do appreciate Fouquet’s discussion of Lepage’s calculated use of disorientation via a propensity for the foreign (Japan in The Seven Streams of the River Ota or Eonnagata (2009); Mexico in La Casa Azul (2001)) and an empirical experiencing of culture, just as I value his section on meta-theatre, but he is confusing about Lepage’s baroque and not very useful in his exposition of Lepage’s Shakespearean productions. He and Lepage seem to subscribe to “an aesthetic of the heterogeneous and of saturation,” but neither he nor Lepage engages with the question of baroque over-ornamentation, exaggerated colour, and density of irregular form almost bursting out of a frame or space. Fouquet’s descriptions and analyses do not probe questions of epistemology. Nor do they appear cool-headed. For instance, he does not question Lepage’s deliberate avoidance of the word “theatrical” in the 1990s when the director founded Ex Machina and justified this eschewal by claiming that theatre “is no longer an exclusive concern.” Quebec theatre had already begun to demystify the text and to widen the idea of the creator and of “continued collective exchanges,” but Lepage opted explicitly (Fouquet explains) for “a visual laboratory in which we see both the images and ourselves as audience looking at the image as it echoes to the point that we are drawn into the image’s centre.” But even more than this, “we essentially go into a box and discover the infinite.” Well, irony of ironies: the “deus” has been removed from the machine, or, rather, the “deus” is the machine that enables us to discover the infinite–though neither Lepage nor Foquet could summon up any metaphysic or theology to define this “infinite.”

True, Fouquet does acknowledge some of Lepage’s failures (such as The Dragon’s Trilogy (2003) and Eonnagata (2009), but sounds strangely fuzzy about the reasons for the failures. But worse than this, he fails to recognize some of the implications of his own assertions. After hundreds of pages of gushing praise of Lepage’s image-based productions, he is compelled to recognize the importance of opera libretto in feeding Lepage’s imagination. After reams of description of Lepage’s use of technology, he acknowledges Lepage’s recourse to a simpler mode of presentation in The Nightingale (2009) and The Tempest (2013), without counting on “technological crutches.” The phrase is Lepage’s, and it is extremely revealing. However, Fouquet merely takes him at his word without considering the implications.  Fouquet is also quick to accept other critics’ inflated praise of Lepage without demonstrating critical distance. When he quotes Wagner expert, Georges Nicholson, who praises Lepage for a vision “that Wagner would have wanted,” there is a virtually magisterial assumption that both Nicholson and Lepage actually know what the German composer wanted. This is an intentional fallacy that no real critic should abide. But Fouquet does not stop there: his breathless hero-worship impels him to a virtually apocalyptic conclusion, a sweeping generalization where Lepage’s theatre becomes a laboratory, “making the scientist a storyteller, the researcher an artist, the actor an author, and the singer an acrobat…Everything is upended, but nothing breaks. Or more, everything is upended and everything is transformed, leaving us in wonder, ready to become chemists ourselves.” Fouquet may think that his controlling metaphor is poetic; however, I see it as intrinsically flawed. Theatre can be many things to many people, and there is a strong modern or post-modern inclination to representing theatre as a laboratory of some kind, and there is no question that the best productions often have a magical alchemy. However, how does such a metaphor turn the spectator into a chemist, especially if the formulae and apparatus are controlled by the director as auteur?

So, while this book is of unquestionable value to theatre scholars and Lepage devotees, its intrinsic limitations (repetitions, dreary minutiae, and almost breathless praise) work against its being more than a formidable championing performance. Academics will love it, while critical general readers might not share this love to the same extent.