International Day of Friendship

Thursday 30 July 2015
Happy International Day of Friendship, friends.

“Why did you do all this for me?' he asked. 'I don't deserve it. I've never done anything for you.' 'You have been my friend,' replied Charlotte. 'That in itself is a tremendous thing.” 
— E.B. White, Charlotte's Web

Quotable: This Is Happy by Camilla Gibb

Tuesday 28 July 2015

"There was something fierce and knowing about the love that grew between us, something clear and absolute and deep, and I knew, very early on, that I would love this person for the rest of my life. I hadn't known it was possible to feel conviction in love. My love for her felt thorough, pure, unassailable."

Fringe Binge #5: The Abigail

Monday 27 July 2015
This post originally appeared on Raise the Hammer. 

Playwright: Aidan Tozer and Dylan Stavenjord
Director: Aidan Tozer and Dylan Stavenjord
Cast: Aidan Tozer, Dylan Stavenjord, Hilary Wirachowsky, Soroush Toloue, Jennah Foster-Catlack, Damian Murphy, Marienne Castro, Kayla Vanderlip, Richard Mojica
Warnings: Mature Content, Strong Language, Gun Shots
Show Type: Drama
Audience: Mature
Running Time: 90 minutes

"You should have taken the money, old man," says one of the two Edwards who make up Edward, Edward, and Associates, a pair of gangsters who kill Abigail Brown's father and sisters in the middle of the night. Their plan to seize the family's home and land doesn't go as planned when Abigail, just a child, manages to escape the senseless crime.

In the years that follow, the Browns' home becomes known simply as The Abigail, a tribute to the little girl who got away. The home is blindingly beautiful, but evil lurks inside, and all who live there are in various ways touched by it. The landmark home becomes a historic hotel and later a brothel. The audience doesn't know it right away, but one of its inhabitants is a grown-up Abigail Brown looking to reclaim the house that was stolen from her family.

The Abigail spans many decades, beginning with gangsters and ending with hippies who adopt the Abigail as their own. Filled with many twists and turns. The Abigail is epic; possibly too epic for a small Fringe Festival stage, but you can't help but applaud the young cast for embarking on such a lofty production. Despite it's long run-time (90 minutes), The Abigail uses both humour and drama to keep its audience engaged.

Overall, The Abigail is an amusing trip through time, but often, it's unnecessarily profane. Baby-faced actors employ slurs that may have once been commonplace, but aren't appropriate today. This production employs every gender stereotype possible, but in the playwrights' defense, they're not dealing with decades that were kind to women.

The Abigail explores many heavy themes, among them violence and greed, but in the end, it's love that triumphs. This ambitious journey is one worth taking.

Fringe Binge #4: Death and Dating

Friday 24 July 2015
This review originally appeared on Raise the Hammer. 

Playwright: Magdalena BB
Director: Mark Kalzer
Cast: Magdalena BB, Dramaturgs: Joanne Latimer, Raymond Ho
Warning: Strong Language
Show Type: Comedy, Musical
Audience: General
Running Time: 45 Minutes

It takes a lot of courage to get up on a stage without the security blanket of any props or fellow cast members. With the exception of a sombrero, this is exactly what Toronto-based stand-up comedian Magdalena BB does in her one-person show, Death and Dating, which takes audience members on her journey of a breakup, dating, and recovery.

Beginning with a gritty version of "You're So Vain," Death and Dating is classed as a musical, but be warned. This isn't The Sound of Music or Chicago. Between the screeches of intentionally bad karaoke versions of pop songs from the 1990s, Magdalena recounts her experiences as a newly single thirty-something.

Death and Dating explores similar themes as another Hamilton Fringe Festival play, ONEymoon, but it's a much darker journey. There's a lot of yelling and a lot of anger. Quite frankly, Death and Dating can be grating. This play won't be for everyone.

In Death and Dating, Magdalena BB takes on multiple roles, which prove confusing, mostly the result of poor transitions and awkward timing. However, this is Magdalena BB's first one-person show, so with practice there's room for growth.

In the play's final moments, Magdalena BB finally asks herself the question she needed to ask all along. She asks herself how she's going to pick up the pieces and move on. We've all been there.

Death and Dating may not be polished, but it's relatable for every one of us who has ever suffered a broken heart and has had to pick ourselves up off the floor.

Fringe Binge #3: ONEymoon

This post originally appeared on Raise the Hammer. 

Playwright: Christel Bartelse
Director: Paul Hutcheson
Cast: Christel Bartelse
Show Type: Comedy
Audience: General, Mature
Running Time: 60 Minutes

Some performers just have it. You know, that perfect mix of confidence, charisma, and magnetism that is never obnoxious? Some performers can command a stage from the moment they step onto it, keeping audiences engaged until the very end through impeccable timing and laugh-out-loud humour. Christel Bartelse is one of those performers, and her one-person play, ONEymoon, is a must-see at Hamilton Fringe.

Set against a soundtrack of sickly sweet pop songs, ONEymoon is, simply put, the story of a woman, Caroline Bierman, who marries herself after being dumped on the eve of her wedding. Not only does she marry herself, but she also takes herself on her already-paid-for honeymoon, buys a house, and remains (mostly) faithful to herself. Caroline is quirky and likeable, despite her foolishness, and among all things, she's thoroughly entertaining.

Bartelse relies heavily on physical comedy, complete with a tap-dancing routine. Her chameleon-like abilities allow her to seamlessly transform into additional characters during flashbacks with ease. Among them are Caroline's overbearing mother and a bad first date she found while "man-shopping" online. Bartelse's boundless energy is what makes ONEymoon shine.

A word of warning for the awkwardly shy introverts among us: Stick to the back of the theatre. Bartelse has a habit of plucking members of the audience to do everything from officiate her nuptials to apply her sunscreen, which makes for awkwardly hilarious comedy that the audience loved.

Next up for Christel Bartelse is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where undoubtedly she'll have her audience laughing out loud. ONEymoon is non-stop fun, and you shouldn't miss it.

Fringe Binge #2: The Greening of Life

Thursday 23 July 2015
This post originally appeared on Raise the Hammer. 

Playwright: Peter Ormond, Michael Nabert
Director: Peter Ormond, Michael Nabert
Cast: Peter Ormond, Michael Nabert, additional cast members TBA
Show Type: Drama
Audience: Mature
Running Time: 45 minutes

"Peter was a wonderful gentleman," begins The Greening of Life, a play co-written, co-starring, and co-directed by the Green Party's Peter Ormond. But the Peter standing on stage overlooking his own funeral isn't the Peter Ormond we in Hamilton know. This Peter is a billionaire gold tycoon with a private jet and a gold-plated toilet. This Peter had little time to care about the issues, like climate change, that most of us think of when the name Peter Ormond comes up in conversation.

"Can such a man be redeemed?" asks a mysterious bearded and robed man who is neither God nor the Devil (played by co-director and co-writer Michael Nabert). Fictional Peter isn't a bad man. In fact, he's a lot like many of us. He meant to make changes that would benefit the environment. He even went vegetarian once. He donated money to hospitals and universities.

"You were told your whole life money was success," says the bearded stranger. The Greening of Life aims to prove that money isn't what makes a person wealthy.

At times, The Greening of Life felt less like a Fringe Festival play and more like a university classroom, as Nabert's character filled the room with statistics about climate change and carbon footprints. It's preachy and didactic, but ultimately, the play carries a positive message.

"I was one of billions of people," says Peter, dismissing his role as someone who profited from climate change, but as the bearded stranger tells him, "You have more control over your destiny than you think." Greening aims to tell the audience that we can all make a difference in the world before it's too late.

This isn't Ormond's first Fringe Festival play, and while it isn't perfect, it is an example of his willingness to adopt new and interesting mediums to share his platform. Ultimately, it's a play about choices that we can all benefit from seeing.

Fringe Binge #1: A Tension to Detail

Monday 20 July 2015
This post originally appeared on Raise the Hammer.

Playwright: Gerard Harris
Director: Gerard Harris
Cast: Gerard Harris
Type: Comedy Drama
Audience: Mature
Running Time: 60 Minutes

No subject is off limits for performer Gerard Harris, the brains and talent behind A Tension to Detail, a wickedly funny one-person show that tackles masturbation, meditation, and everything in between.

At the beginning of his performance, Harris warns the crowd that his play is filled with mature content, but also immature content. He's right on both counts.

In 60 minutes, Harris - a self-professed "divorced middle-aged man with no social skills" - shares stories from his own life through self-deprecating humour and excited energy. Performing barefoot, Harris employs no props except for a bottle of beer.

A Tension to Details begins with Harris's difficult birth in 1970s South Africa and ends with Harris's life today as a transplant from the UK living in Canada. The stories in between are candid to the point of making the audience squeamish at least once or twice.

Through his sharp sense of humour and captivating storytelling skills, Harris has a knack for making ordinary experiences incredibly entertaining. Each story he tells, whether it's about first love, lust, or any of the other topics tackled, is easy to relate to.

Chances are that I wasn't the only audience member recounting my own similar stories in my head while Harris entertained us with his.

Sharing his insight into the craft of storytelling, Harris tells the audience that in order to arrive at the play's "classic hero narrative," he needed to leave out 90 per cent of the facts. "We look for meaning in everything in life," he says near the end of the play.

A Tension to Detail successfully tells us that there is meaning, and even sweetness, in the most painful (or painfully awkward) moments in life.

Judy Blume at the Toronto Reference Library

Sunday 5 July 2015

Book signings are a strange but wonderful experience. For me, an anxious introvert, they mean standing in line playing conversations over and over again in my head: What will I say? What should I say? What will he/she say in response?

In the case of meeting Judy Blume last week at the Toronto Reference Library, my internal dialogue was even weightier than usual:
  • How do I sum up in approximately eight to ten seconds the influence Judy Blume has had on me as a reader? As an editor? As a woman?
  • How do I tell Judy Blume that I've reread her books countless times in hopes of re-capturing the exhilaration I felt when I first read them as a child? 
  • How do I talk to Judy Blume without being the one-hundredth person at the Toronto Reference Library to tell her that meeting her is the thrill of a lifetime. 
Ultimately, I didn't tell Judy Blume any of these things. I didn't gush. I didn't get bleary eyed like I had earlier when she was interviewed by Rachel Giese about her new book, In The Unlikely Event. I played it cool — Well, as cool as my anxious introvert personality would allow me to be. 

Judy Blume (I can't bring myself to call her Judy, and Ms. Blume seems too formal for someone who has been a friend, if only in my head, for close to thirty years) was everything I imagined her to be. Kind, sweet, funny, and willing to talk about any topic hurled at her. Meeting Judy Blume, and hearing her read from In The Unlikely Event, was a thrill of a lifetime.

"They (the publishing house) decided to publish [In The Unlikely Event] very quickly while I could still walk and talk." - Judy Blume joking about her age. She turned 77 this year.

"I don't consider myself a YA writer." ... "There was no YA even when I wrote Forever." ... "I don't like labels." 

"'Be a good girl, Judy.' That's what I heard from my mother. And I was. Not in my head, but I was."

"We wanted permission to have sex, so we got married." - Judy Blume on her generation's tendency to marry young. 

"Yes, every girl should have a sex life, but it doesn't have to be with a partner!"

"A librarian or teacher can put the right book in the hand of the right child and change a life."

Downton Downtown

Admittedly, I've never seen Downton Abbey, but as a sucker for Hamilton history, and a sucker for Whitehern (as evidenced here, here, and here), I couldn't pass up Downton Downtown, the difficult to pronounce garden party inspired by the hit British period drama. This year, Downton Downtown expanded it's reach to another favourite Hamilton landmark, St. Paul's Presbyterian. If you haven't had the chance, ringing the bells of St. Paul's is an experience of bucket list proportion.

As part of Downton Downtown, Mary Anderson read from her book about Whitehern's McQuesten family, Tragedy and Triumph: Ruby and Thomas B. McQuesten, a part of the event I sadly missed. It is, however, a wonderful book brimming with Hamilton history that I'd definitely recommend.

Independent media: The heart of democracy

Saturday 4 July 2015
This post originally appeared on the Hamilton Media Guild's blog.

“Independent media is vital in finding where niches are and amplifying the voices of people who aren’t usually heard,” said Terri Monture, a staff representative at the Canadian Media Guild. Monture was one of six participants at Independent Media and Democracy, the first panel discussion hosted by the Hamilton Independent Media Awards. The discussion, which was moderated by long-time Hamilton Spectator reporter Jeff Mahoney, took place on June 23 at the Central branch of the Hamilton Public Library.

Alongside Monture, the panel discussion explored the importance of independent media in a democratic society through the knowledge and diverse experiences of Michelle Both (Unpack Magazine, a publication of the Immigrant Women’s Centre), Luz Hernandez (La Presencia Latina), Ryan McGreal (Raise the Hammer), Nahnda Garlow (Two Row Times), and Joey Coleman (The Public Record).

“How and where we see stories impacts how we see ourselves,” said Both, speaking to what became one of the discussion’s central themes: The critical ability of independent media to cover the stories of marginalized people who don’t fit into the profit-driven mainstream media’s narrative. Unpack Magazine highlights the experiences and issues faced by women, immigrants, and refugees in Hamilton.

“Being represented and included in media can be transformative for the settlement experience,” she added.

Independent media’s crucial role of bringing a diversity of voices to the forefront of discussion was echoed by Hernandez, whose publication La Presencia Latina unites and informs the Hispanic community by focusing on and delivering positive news. Garlow, whose publication, Two Row Times, prides itself on presenting an authentic Haudenosaunee voice, cited independent media’s ability to present Indigenous perspectives that are often watered down in mainstream publications.

“When we explain in our voice, people get less afraid,” she said. “The gaps close.”

“I don’t think there has ever been a time that independent media has been so relevant,” said Mahoney, who, despite his long-standing position as a member of the mainstream media, remained objective. In an age when traditional media is too expensive to produce and the mainstream media is struggling to monetize a digital model, independent media is crucial. This is especially true in Hamilton, a city where discourse among citizens is affecting real change.

“In the local sphere, citizens can make a difference,” said McGreal. When Raise the Hammer emerged in 2004, discussions in Hamilton were missing many crucial perspectives. While McGreal recognizes that a safe crosswalk might not be as exciting as global climate change, local media empowers people to become active in their communities. Raise the Hammer was instrumental in engaging citizens in discussions surrounding LRT.

Despite its many successes, independent media is not without challenges, most notably, creating a model of sustainability. Most independent media outlets operate on a small, or even non-existent, budget, and many are run entirely by volunteers. While some publications rely on an advertisement-based revenue model, “ads would destroy our model of trust,” said McGreal, who is committed to keeping Raise the Hammer advertisement-free.

“I believe people will pay for stories, even if they don’t read those stories,” said Coleman, who is well-known as Canada’s first crowd-funded journalist. “They just want to support the citizen watchdog.”

One thing is certain. The face of journalism is changing. Citizen journalists, equipped with little more than a cell phone, are forcing the mainstream media to up their game.

They’re covering city council meetings, interviewing activists, and reporting on city politics before decisions are made.

“Journalism can come up from the roots,” said Mahoney. “Professional journalists need to acknowledge this isn’t a secret priesthood.”

In her final remarks, Terri Monture summed up the lively and informative Independent Media and Democracy discussion best: “Independent media is truly the heart of democracy.”
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