Sunday, June 24, 2012

Collective Consciousness: The Wrecking Ball and The Encampment

All art requires at least two people:  someone to make it and someone to see it.  My beloved ex John Huston used to say "without an audience, actors are just lonely people in a room, talking to themselves."

This week, my experiences as a spectator have been focused on two acts of creation that took many artists working collaboratively to bring to them to life.

The first was THE WRECKING BALL which, in this installment, took place in Toronto at the Theatre Centre.  It was a sweltering plus 35 outside and the theatre was packed to capacity.

Small wonder:  Brad Fraser, Jason Sherman, Djanet Sears and Cliff Cardinal among others wrote blistering political satire about incendiary issues so current it felt like eavesdropping on a backroom - or bedroom, in some cases, conversation. Censorship was a focus of much of the work, not surprising given recent events in the Toronto theatre community, particularly Michael Healey's recent departure from The Tarragon Theatre over his political satire PROUD.

The evening was a benefit for the Actors' Fund of Canada as well as the closing night of the Edward Bond Festival.  Bond himself was in attendance and read poetry he had written especially for the occasion.  It was a fitting tribute for a man whose career as a playwright never veered far from political controversy and a very exciting night of theatre.

This past weekend, I visited THE ENCAMPMENT at Fort York.  The collaboration was devised by Tom Sokolowski and Jenny-Anne McCowan, who put 200 tents and more than 200 artists together to share stories from 200 people who lived through or died during the War of 1812.

The show is open from 7:30 pm to 11:00 pm until today, June 24th.  I spent two evenings there this weekend with my friend Alex.  As the sun set, the sky turned pink, then red, the quarter moon rose and slid behind the clouds and darkness descended, we went from seeing the exhibit in daylight to experiencing it by the light of Coleman lamps under a night sky. As we stood on the ramparts of the old fort beneath the stars, we could feel the heat of the sun held in the stones as we looked out over the field of white, glowing tents.

"Dear Captain, I will marry you as long as there is enough of your body remaining to house your soul."
A wedding dress hangs in a spider's web with this love letter at the door of Anne Prevost's tent.

Two hundred years ago, Canada was a colony, not a country.  Americans, British subjects and Mohawk Indians owned African slaves and slavery was legal, an awful fact brought vividly to life in several of the exhibits. An account of three men 'subduing" a woman who had tried to escape her awful fate, dragging her into a boat and taking her to be auctioned was horrifying for its straightforward accounting.

There were public duels.  There was bravery and gallantry in battle and tragic loss. There was also treason which garnered brutal retribution from the State.  An alcoholic husband murdered his wife and five of their children in the family bed, I learned in a tent hung with blood stained sheets.  He was hanged.  There was fair commerce and fraud, social climbing and gossip.  There was love and there was loss and there were letters, dozens and dozens of letters:  between sons and mothers, between sweethearts and spouses and outraged editorials in newspapers.  No text or emails here:  letters were written on paper by hand and delivered by hand, often taking months to arrive at their destinations.

In one tent: Surrender:  a low white table with that word writ large in red and seven jars each labeled for something surrendered in a lost battle: pride, hope, respect, love.  You knelt before it like an altar and bowed your head to read, in supplication, on a tiny card suspended above it of the loss of a battle by a General who signed the treaty forfeiting the land he loved at his own kitchen table.  We were invited to write on a blank card and surrender a personal loss to one of the jars. My friend and I were both overcome with emotion.

Alexander Wood, a judge in Upper Canada, I learned, inspected men's genitals for scratches in search of a rapist and was accused of being a "Molly"a 19th century pejorative for a homosexual man, for his efforts to get a woman justice. Wood was gay and Toronto's thriving gay community will celebrate Pride next weekend on his former tract of land.

The installation was a part of the Luminato Festival as well as a commemoration in honour of the bicentenary of the War of 1812.  It was an experience of history inventively imagined, deeply felt and writ large.  Tonight is the final night sadly.  If you have a chance, by all means go.

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