Monthly Archives: June 2010

“Me, a name I call myself….”

Do you remember The Sound of Music and that pesky song, “Me, a name I call myself…”? Well, I’m a bit worried about that, to be honest.

“This blogging business,” I said anxiously to some friends. “You don’t think that it is a little too much, well…me-me-me-ME?”

“That, dear Janet, is the definition of a blog,” they said.

That’s fine for those who love me, but what about the huddled masses who would rather not. I met a friend at a party last week, and she said I was “a blogger sans peur et sans raproche.” I liked that, because frankly it’s something I don’t hear a lot. As for George Stonyk, Linden House director, he said kindly: “Janet, you are born to blog.” (So now at least I have the title of my upcoming autobiography — “Born to Blog,” by Janet Uren.)

In fact, this conversation made me remember that, though the blog may by definition be a hymn to me-me-me-ME, a play is anything but. A case in point. Imagine if you will, a middle-aged actor. Yes! It’s me-me-me-ME! I am wearing a flowered skirt and a pinkish sweater with tasteful little diamond buttons all down the front. I am clutching a big medieval sword in both hands — it really was a very strange play — and ranting away about the execution of Charles I as I back steadily into the wings. One moment, I’m there in full view, flushed with lunatic fervour. And then I’m gone, leaving George Stonyk to prance around the stage pretending he’s a drum. (If you didn’t see this production, you are probably really regretting it now!)

While Mr. Bardolph prances, Miss Doufet (me-me-me-ME) is effecting what may be the fastest costume changes in theatre history. Fast enough to make my head swim, anyhow. And believe me, this is not the kind of thing you do alone. I had about six seconds to transform myself from a dumpy little lady with big ideas (height somewhat to the south of five feet) into the sombre figure of a masked executioner (seven feet in his stocking feet). In other words: nix to the flowered skirt and diamond buttons and “Hello darkness my old friend.”

Yes, it is dark in the wings — too dark to see the three fairy godmothers, clothed in black from head to foot, who converge on me like a choreographed hurricane. My job is to stand perfectly still, hold out my arms and make no trouble. Someone (it’s Barbara Merriam, stage manager, I believe) takes the sword from my left hand. A big black cloak folds around me back to front (that’s Janet Kiff-Macaluso, assistant stage manager, who is standing behind me). I fumble to get my hands through the slits on either side of the cloak even as a beard on an elastic band slides down over my face (coming from Marlene Spatuk, assistant director, on my right). The beard — which I am now trying to spit out of my mouth — is followed by a mask. And, finally, a big hairy wig is jammed low on my forehead, completely depriving me of sight. The sword is thrust back into my left hand, and Bob’s your uncle!

Released by my keepers, I shoot like a hairy black comet back on stage. George, who is getting tired of being a drum, is glad to see me. The audience, as far as I can tell, is stunned. As for me, I am literally dressed to kill.

You see what I’m getting at? It’s not good to be alone on stage, in the wings or anywhere else. Fellowship, that’s what we need on this long and bumpy road. Merry companions with whom to share triumphs, disasters and the odd stiff drink. Someone to help when you need to spruce up your appearance and have exactly six seconds in which to do it.

I have to admit, I suffer from a little streak of independence… (Did I say “little”?!!) I live alone (although, for many years, there was the single massive exception of Jake the Dawg). I work alone (except for my clients, whose irritating little habits I am prepared to tolerate because they send me cheques from time to time). But I do NOT make theatre alone.

Actors may get a lot of attention — the me-me-me-ME syndrome — but they are only the tiny tip of the iceberg. Nobody would have the courage or indeed the ability to go on stage without the assurance, for example, that Bob McKellar is up there in the lighting booth with an expression of composed intelligence on his face as he contemplates a lighting board that you couldn’t persuade me to touch at gunpoint.

Even writing a blog is not as lonely an act as you might think. The first blog I attempted was an utter failure. I wrote three long paragraphs of unmitigated drivel before I came screeching to a discouraged halt. The problem, I realized, was that I was talking to myself instead of to your average intelligent reader. (No fun talking to yourself: that’s why I have to have a dog in my life.) I hit the delete button and tried again: but this time I imagined that I was writing to amuse my partners in crime — the Linden House gang. It worked. The result is still drivel, but drivel I am proud to share.

The point I am making, not very coherently, is that we are in this adventure together — I and a group of about ten people with similar mental health issues. Nobody makes a play on his or her own, and I don’t want to. We are a band of brothers/sisters, and if I ever give any of my sidekicks cause to leave me, the gods will surely weep for me.

They are all so outrageously competent. Not that I let it get me down, but I am not like that. Just consider last year’s programs. That was the only last-minute job I kept for myself. I had this mad idea that we would be able to recycle programs that people left after every performance on chairs or the floor, thereby saving…what? A few dollars? Anyway, I resolved to harvest the left-overs and print just a few extras every day.

As plans go, it was a non-starter. To begin with, only about three people abandoned their programs on any given night. I don’t know what the others did with theirs. Maybe they ate them during the intermission. But there I was, still stubbornly determined to print the daily quota as we went along. A simple job? I agree. So how did I manage to create a new and different program-related catastrophe on a daily basis. One night I managed to get the whole supply of programs locked away in an office at the theatre. Another day, I forgot to place the order with the printer. The next day I remembered the order but forgot to pick it up. And so it went. (I sometimes wonder if I should try for admission to a sheltered workshop?)

Anyway, I mentioned this story to the gang, by way of indirect praise in my annual closing remarks. This is when I stand on the staircase above my living room and maunder on about the show while those with any kind of instinct for self-preservation shoot off into the kitchen to get another drink, leaving me to persevere with the stragglers.

“The only thing that went wrong with the production,” I announced to said stragglers, “was the programs — coincidentally, the only job I kept in my own hot little hand.” Afterwards, Marlene came up to me with a compassionate air and said: “Janet. Next year, if you like, I’ll look after the programs.” I closed with the offer and grappled her to my soul with hoops of steel. In other words, I said “Yes, please!”

In conclusion, dear reader, if you’re planning to come to Blithe Spirit next fall — and I highly recommend it — feel free to eat your program at intermission. There will be lots more the next night. Because, you see, we are a team, and Marlene is looking after it.

As for me-me-me-ME, I’m sticking to something simple — like acting.

Set for trouble

I woke up this Saturday morning with a funny feeling of apprehension. You know that feeling. “Oh what have I done?”

Sadly, it wasn’t a misspent Friday night that was on my mind, but rather a purchase made — dead sober — at about 3 o’clock on the previous afternoon. That was the hour when I accompanied my sister to HomeSense, where they practically give away a kaleidoscopic array of funky furniture, pottery and ornaments. Something for even the most tortured imagination. I came home with a bench upholstered in pseudo-zebra and two cushions, ditto, edged with a deep border of chocolate brown feathers. You see, I have begun to turn my attention to the set for this year’s production of Blithe Spirit.

For me, the set is the single most troublesome aspect of production. Lacking talent with hammer and saw, I am uncomfortably dependent on others when it comes to construction. Oh I know, I can’t sew either, neither can I sing: but it is carpentry that causes the really spectacular trouble. The hammer gallops away with me, and the nail bends. The saw, instead of cutting a neat line through the wood, cuts a kind of spiral. How does that happen? And the paint ends up in my eyelashes, every time. I have a very discouraging record.

Indeed, the quality of my handiwork is so appalling that it amounts to a character flaw. It might even constitute a public danger. I remember a carpenter who worked for me once, a wise and gentle man from Jamaica, looking at me with great sadness, shaking his head and saying slowly: “Ahhhh, Jaaanet, you are a hasty wooman.”

I am willing to give up carpenty in favour of car-racing, if that would be a better fit, but finding an affordable handyman is not easy. As for volunteers, those with the requisite skills are a fussy bunch, not easily bent to my will. I’ve seen this sort of thing before. When I bought a rather decayed house some years ago, I realized that renovation was going to require some sacrifices on my part, and I spoke frankly to a group of unmarried male friends. (Despite all evidence to the contrary, I persist in believing that all men are born with hammer in hand and chivalry in their hearts.)

“One of you is going to have to marry me,” I said sternly. “It doesn’t matter which. That you may decide amongst yourselves.” Well, they turned me down flat, every one of them. Can you believe that? I tell you, it’s a cold world out there.

So I am forced to haunt the halls of HomeSense. Of course, it is ridiculous to buy furniture for a set, when the Ottawa Little Theatre is willing to rent it. The dean of amateur theatres in Ottawa, the OLT has been staging plays for 97 years now — and that means literally hundreds of plays over time. Their sets have included everything from medieval castles and British drawing rooms to Japanese teahouses. The flotsam and jetsam of those productions — fireplaces, old gramophones, medieval columns and even some vaguely realistic trees — are jammed into a dusty warehouse in east Ottawa. You can even find a massive gilt throne there, if you ever need one.

Linden House has leaned heavily on OLT in past years and has been lucky in its mining of that warehouse. This year, for some reason, I am restless. I blame the director. Some weeks ago, he said musingly: “I see the set as art deco.” I leapt into action like a dog when someone shouts: “Squirrel!”

First: I needed information. I got some books on art deco and thumbed through the pictures with gathering gloom. Art deco, it seems, can range from chairs apparently made out of giant origami to couches shaped like mahogany bananas, from lotus pillars reminscent of an Egyptian temple to tables of glossy, tubular steel. Swamped with choice and worried about bankruptcy, I felt a headache coming on. I fled to Wikipedia, hoping for guidance more attuned to the simple-minded. There I read:

“Art Deco was an opulent style…. Its rich, festive character fitted it for modern contexts, including the Golden Gate Bridge, interiors of cinema theaters…and ocean liners….”

Ocean liners? Oh dear. As wonderful as the Aladdin’s Cave at OLT had proven in past years, I had seen nothing there even remotely resembling an ocean liner. I read on:

“Art Deco is characterized by use of materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, lacquer and inlaid wood. Exotic materials such as sharkskin…and zebra skin were also in evidence. The bold use of stepped forms and sweeping curves…chevron patterns, and the sunburst motif are typical of Art Deco.”

Zebra skin! At last, I was on to something. Aluminum too. When my sister mentioned seeing a table at HomeSense in glossy metal and glass, I seized on the possibility as a terrier seizes a rat. We zoomed out to the shop and, sadly, found that the mirror-encrusted table would not do at all. I glanced around despondently, and then I saw it — a bench upholstered in pseudo-zebra! I looked at the legs. Could that be a “sweeping curve”?! And that dark wood, surely it was “exotic”?! Art Deco at last!

It wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t fall easily. I hemmed and hawed. I circled warily. I looked at the price tag several times, hoping each time that it would have decreased a little. (It hadn’t.) Finally, reason triumphed over passion, and I decided to leave the bench behind and live with regret.

On our way out of the shop, we happened to pass through the cushion section, and there they were. Two zebra-striped cushions with a border of thick brown feathers at the edge, simply the silliest cushions I have ever seen. I had to have them. Probably you wouldn’t have these cushions in your house on a bet, dear reader, but that is only because you do not live in the age of art deco. But our characters do. When the first Mrs. Condomine (the ghost) refers to the execrable taste of the second, she probably had precisely these cushions in mind.

“Eureka!” I cried. “God has spoken. ‘Buy that bench,’ He says.” And so I did. Now I just need to do a bit more research on that pesky chevron and find a good place on our set for a sunburst, and there you are. Art deco (more or less). It’s going to be grand!

As for the long term, I find that I now own a zebra-striped bench, and I have mixed feelings about that. Given that I live in a tiny house already crammed with furniture — really boring furniture, I now realize — this bench will simply not feel at home. I’ve already offered it, once it retires from the stage, to various relatives, but they are strangely reluctant. So I guess it’s going to be a star attraction at the annual New Edinburgh Garage Sale next year. (Come see me. We can do a deal).

As for the zebra-striped cushions with the brown feather edges, they are going to my sister for her birthday. That will teach her to take me shopping.

The Battle of the Bolt

After four years of costume-making, they know us — my sister and me. When we march through the door of Fabricland in search of low-priced cloth for costumes, staff members take cover. The thing is, my sister and I differ in one certain, fundamental way. I am a perfectionist when it comes to costumes; my sister is a pragmatist. If I have heard it once, I have heard it a hundred times: “It’s on stage. No one will know the difference.” The phrase reduces me to frothing rage, every time.

I love costume. I love period costume in particular. Give me for preference a dress that looks like a ship under sail, like those jewelled walls of fabric worn by Queen Elizabeth I. These, in my view, are the perfect clothing for just about every occasion, except possibly tennis and white-water canoeing. Silly, isn’t it? I sometimes think that my interest in theatre is actually as shallow as a wish to play dress-up.

As for my sister, she takes the reasonable view that we should make our costumes as economically as possible. Of course, she has a point. But what can I do? I walk into Fabricland with a budget firmly in mind. And then I lose my grip. Instantly.

And so begins the annual Battle of the Bolt in full view of the astonished staff of Fabricland. Sometimes we pause for a moment in full spate, smile apologetically at the astonished woman at the cutting table, and say sweetly: “We’re sisters, you know,” as though that explained something, before resuming hostilities and our lamentable tug-of-war over the bolt at issue.

Costumes, depending on the play, can be a major production expense. Indeed, one of the factors we have to consider in choosing a play is the number of characters and costume-changes. We have been looking longingly at Pride and Prejudice, for instance, but have so far shied away from the costly line-up of Regency clothes and wigs. Oh well. One of these days.

Yet almost my favourite part of production is costume design, and that interest is mainly rooted in a love of colour — bold, solid colours that work with and against each other, sometimes with a shimmer or pattern woven into the cloth. You can almost paint a scene with costumes and, unlike your average watercolour, the painting is dynamic. It forms a new pattern on stage with every movement of the actors. I like to think that the brightness of its scenes has become one of the hallmarks of Linden House over the past three years.

I say costume “design,” but in fact the process is really closer to a treasure hunt. We go out and scavenge as much as we can for a particular period. Blithe Spirit, which we will stage in October 2010, was written in 1941, but we have chosen to situate it around 1930 instead. That was a period when the exuberance of the flapper era was beginning to yield to long, slim lines of the later decade. It was an elegant, yet playful time.

The treasure hunt for a play begins in the back of my closet, where I keep a few glorious dresses that, I must admit, my social life seldom lives up to. This year, the ghostly Elvira will float on to the stage in a filmy white dress embossed with creamy white blossoms. Thanks to the dollar store, which sells long strands of white and ivory “pearls,” we will also adorn her hair with a Cleopatra headdress à la 1920. Ahhhh!

Obviously, my closet has its limits, and the search continues online. It is amazing what — if you are recklessly willing to confide your credit card number to perfect strangers — you can acquire online. This year, I found a little straw hat from around 1930 with a big peach-coloured bow. The doctor’s wife will wear it in Act II when she calls on the Condomines.

Vintage hats are not cheap, however, so we obviously look first at Boutique Vivi (otherwise known as Value Village). It is surprising what good stuff people throw away. It is also surprising how, if you look carefully, you will find dresses very reminiscent of the 1930s, though made much later. However, it is always the colour that catches my eye first.

Speaking of colour, the fabric store is the next stop on the costume hunt and, as I always go with my sister, that is the scene of the annual Battle of the Bolt. Our long history puts me at a disadvantage right from the start. Claire met me first when I was just a week old and she was an intellectual five. I was not at my best just then, and clearly I didn’t impress her. I still don’t.

I do mean well. I start the annual sweep through the sale racks at Fabricland with a list in hand, determined to be sensible, and I am as pleased as anyone when I find a good stretch of fabric at half price. It all falls apart, however, within minutes. Let me loose in a field of fabric, and I am like a cat rolling in catnip.

On my way back from the sale table with two or three bargain bolts in my arms, I am forced to pass through a minefield of round tables piled high with cloth in every colour of the rainbow. I seize a bolt. I seize two, never looking at the price, and arrive guiltily at the cutting table, where Claire is pondering a piece of inexpensive broadcloth.

“Look at this! It’s perfect for Ruth in Act II,” I say defiantly.

“How much does it cost?” my sister asks suspiciously. She finds the price tag. “Look at this — $60 a metre! That’s ridiculous. Take it back!”

“Claire,” I say, willing to negotiate. “Look at the pattern! Look at the colour! This is just right!”

“Nonsense. No-one will see the pattern. It’s just a play.”

By this time, we are both raising our voices. I have very likely seized the bolt protectively, because she is trying to take it back to the display, and — as mentioned – the sales lady is looking alarmed, clearly wondering if she should call 911.

My sister always wins these battles. Last year, however, she made a fatal error. She successfully forced me to return a bolt of scarlet silk and to invest instead in boring broadcloth for the manufacture of a romantic nightgown. She had pointed out, accurately, that the costume was only on stage for about a minute and that the pattern called for six metres of fabric. It didn’t make sense to buy silk. I sullenly agreed and went home with the broadcloth. Then Claire left town for a month.

I called a taxi, headed right down to Fabricland and bought the silk. I do not regret it. The nightgown did its bit last year and is living happily now in the back of my closet.