Sunday, October 28, 2012

Remembering a friend of the arts in Canada

Earlier this month we learned of the passing of a dear friend of the arts and of artists for many years, Walter Carson, who died peacefully in Toronto at the age of 100 back on October 8th.  Walter was a true one-of-a-kind soul, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for what he gave to the arts over the years.

Walter Carson has been called a visionary philanthropist, with a passionate commitment to the Shaw Festival, National Ballet of Canada and other cultural institutions.  At Shaw he was a close friend of the Shaw Festival's founder Brian Doherty, and his renovation of the Royal George Theatre stands as a tribute to both of these old friends.  In the 1990s, Walter helped the festival build a much-needed training, research and creative development centre and always provided yellow roses to decorate the lobby of the Royal George during performances.

Walter was always there when needed by the arts community as a whole, but no more than with the National Ballet of Canada.  Artistic Director Karen Kain released a statement after Walter's passing saying "The National Ballet of Canada in its entire history, has only ever had one patron like Walter Carson.  He helped us achieve what we wanted to do."  She added "He was unfailingly in the audience at almost every performance and was a warm and encouraging presence for the dancers both backstage and in the rehearsal room.  He will be deeply missed by every member of the National Ballet, dancers and staff alike."

Carson's legacy will never be matched, I would imagine.  At the National Ballet alone, he underwrote no less than 12 new productions for the company:  Musings (1991), The Taming of the Shrew (1992), Romeo and Juliet (1995), the full evening programme Inspired by Gould (1999), The Firebird (2000), The Contract (the Pied Piper)(2002), Stravinsky Violin Concerto (2004), In The Night and West Side Story Suite (2007), In The Upper Room (2008), Watch her (2009) and Romeo and Juliet (2011).  I remember in my days going to the National Ballet performances in Toronto seeing many of those earlier productions he underwrote, with the last one being in 2002 with The Contract, which was an amazing piece of stage work.

In addition, in 1996 Walter gave the lead gift in the company's capital campaign to build its new home named in his honour, The Walter Carson Centre for The National Ballet of Canada.  It is a lovely building right on the Toronto waterfront between the Gardiner Expressway and Queen's Quay, and I remember attending the opening there many years ago.  In 1998 he supported the tour to New York City and in 2000, Mr. Carson launched a successful $1-million fundraising campaign for the National Ballet entitled "Inspired by Walter Carson", matching every dollar raised up to $ 500,000.  He instigated a matching campaign in 2005 of $ 100,000 to help The National Ballet meet its Next Stage Campaign goal.  He did the same in 2006 towards new productions.

Walter Carson's legacy also extends to the Art Galleries of Ontario, Hamilton and Windsor, plus arts projects such as Toronto's The Glory of Mozart Festival.  In 2001, he created the annual Walter Carson Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts, administered by the Canada Council and worth $ 50,000.  But in addition to his philanthropy towards the arts, he also established the Walter Carson Fund for the Homeless within the United Way's endowment The Tomorrow Fund.

Everything Walter touched quite literally is better now for him having done so.  His own accolades include being appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1995, becoming an honourary member of the Canadian Actors' Equity Association in 1997 and receiving an honourary degree from York University in 2005.

Donations in Mr. Carson's memory can be made to The Walter Carson New Creations Fund within The National Ballet of Canada Endowment Foundation.

We likely will never see his type again, and we should all remember him fondly the next time we attend a Shaw Festival performance at the Royal George Theatre or go to a production with The National Ballet of Canada in Toronto.

Thanks, Walter, for being there.

October 26th, 2012.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Theatre and concert etiquette

It's been a while since I last entered what I call the high-rant district, wherein I essay on a topic that sticks in my craw of sorts, but with the end of another summer theatre season nearing, I thought I would  address yet again a pet peeve of mine of long standing.

As a theatre and concert-goer for almost four decades now (yeesh!) there really is not much I have not seen while sitting in the audience.  I'm not talking here about what's going on up on the stage, but rather in the audience.  You wouldn't believe what people think they can get away with when the lights go down - or even before.  So every now and again I like to get up on my proverbial high horse and get a collective litany of social sins off my chest.  It is cathartic, let me tell you, and good for the soul, so here goes.

One of the worst things you can do in a theatre while the performance is underway is to talk - loudly - to the person beside you.  I have heard more than my share of so-called private conversations I have no desire to be privy to, yet people seem to labour under the misconception they are in fact at home in their favourite easy chair watching television.  There are other people around, don't forget, so if you must talk to someone during the performance, please keep it at a whisper and short, and those around you will appreciate it.  While we're on the topic of verbiage during a performance, singing is even worse, and this I find is particularly acute during a popular musical.  Years ago when Stratford staged The Sound of Music at the Festival Theatre, a lady in the row directly behind me decided to sing along with the performers - rather loudly.  I know there are Sing-along Sound of Music productions around now, but this lady was clearly not aware this was not one of them.  A word of advice:  if you were not hired to be IN the production, you are better off not singing WITH the production.

In years past one of my big complaints was the constant unwrapping of hard candies during the performance.  No amount of cajoling from theatre staff has ever remedied this situation, although gentle humour appears to help.  The Stratford Shakespeare Festival during the Des McAnuff tenure has taken to having the Artistic Director voice a rather light-hearted approach to the perennial problem, and it seems to have helped.  I know of one theatre company years ago even offering hard candies - already unwrapped - in a large bowl by the entrance to the theatre.  Clever idea, but given the number of people who still do not wash up after visiting the washroom, not the most sanitary solution to the problem.

The problem with unwrapping candies is there simply is no good time to do it during a performance.  Usually it is about thirty seconds after the play has started, which I find doubly annoying since a minute ago while the lights were still up you had the time and the verbal cover of the audience still talking to mask the noise, but no, you had to wait until everything is quiet before you think you need a candy.  Now, how do you unwrap it?  Logic would dictate, one supposes, you quickly unwrap the candy if you absolutely must have one during the performance, but in most cases people try to do it s-l-o-w-l-y, thus stretching out the agony for those around you who would like nothing more than to hear the performance they have paid good money to attend.  Get it over with quick if you must unwrap at all.

More than candies these days, the worst offender to solitude during a performance guessed it:  the cellphone.  People still don't get it:  turn the thing off in the theatre and others will thank you for it.  You are likely not the Prime Minister of the country nor a mafia don who always has to have contact with the world, so do us all a favour and turn the thing off.  At one Shaw performance this season, a gentleman in the row across the aisle from me allowed his new smartphone to ring loudly through several rings, twice, before he stopped it.  Everyone in the theatre could hear it and it was frankly embarrassing.  Of course, he had an old-style phone ring, which made matters even worse.  When an usher talked to him at intermission, he explained, apparently, he just got it and didn't know how to turn the darn thing off.  An honest mistake, perhaps, but his wife shot him a look that made a death stare seem bearable in comparison.

With smartphones all the rage now, and yes I succumbed myself earlier this year, people just can't seem to do without the things even during a performance.  The number of times the darkness of the theatre has been broken by that luminous object as a person tries to "sneak a peek" when others won't notice...believe me, we all notice.  I so often see people scrolling through items on the screen just as the lights go down, I am concerned they might go into social contact withdrawal for the hour or so the lights are down.  C'mon people, give it up for the time it takes to enjoy some live theatre!

Finally, I want to address an area that I am sure will label me once and for all an old fuddy-duddy, or worse.  Has the world lost the ability to dress for the theatre?  I know it is recreational time for you and you are not at work after all, but really, can you not bring even the slightest sense of occasion to going out to the theatre?  Time was you dressed up for the theatre, and some still do.  I am one of them, in fact, as there are now so few opportunities to do so in this more casual age.  But still, doing without cutoff shorts and a tee shirt with a questionable cartoon on it can't be that difficult, can it?  You don't have to go overboard, but treating the theatre as more than merely an extension of your dress-down weekend is not really a bad thing.

While we're at it, a few words about men with hats.  I know, hardly any man has worn a hat other than a ball cap since President Kennedy was inaugurated in 1960.  But some still do and the good sense rules once prevalent still apply today.  With more men rediscovering a nice fedora or panama in the summer, here's a quick primer courtesy of David Rotman, the legendary Toronto hatter on Spadina I used to visit when I first got back into hats myself years ago.  We see in old movies a man removing his hat every time a woman approaches.  Not really necessary, said David.  Simply touch the brim with your forefinger as you nod and smile.  A nice, small gesture that speaks volumes.  But the bigger problem is when to actually remove the hat.  Many men these days who have rediscovered a nice hat don't bother to remove them - ever.  General rule of thumb:  if you go indoors, you remove your hat.  In an elevator?  Remove it there, too.  A few years ago I attended a concert at the Avalon Ballroom at Casino Niagara and a gentleman in one of the front rows continued to wear his fedora throughout the show!  Unless you are Sinatra circa 1963 worrying about your receding hairline, you remove your hat while indoors and certainly while in the theatre.  I hold mine in my lap or slip it under the seat.

At classical concerts, dressing properly in the traditional sense can translate on either side of the footlights, by the way.  Tradition has always dictated formal black in one form or another, with the men always getting the short end of then stick here.  Women musicians will often wear a formal dress or gown, but many can get away with a black sweater and slacks, as it looks formal enough at a distance.  But male concert musicians have to shlep around in a tuxedo of questionable origins.  That's fine enough, I suppose, but consider this:   If you go to a larger centre such as Hamilton or Toronto, for example, white tie and tails is the norm at classical concerts, and the look is always right.  I know, it is an archaic outfit now worn only by concert musicians, conductors and those pretending to be Fred Astaire, but the look really does say something special.  I was at a chamber concert last winter, in fact, and Douglas Miller, principal flute with the Niagara Symphony, was one of the soloists.  He was in white tie and tails and quite frankly looked fantastic.  Much better than the standard-fare tux worn for the Niagara Symphony concerts.  Now, musicians will bristle at the thought of having to go out and buy tails for heaven's sake in this day and age, but trust me, the end result is worth it.  Again, it brings a sense of occasion to the proceedings.

That goes for conductors too, by the way.  Dress down or "jeans concerts" aside, if you have the tails, gentlemen, wear them while on the podium.  You might not look like Stokowski up there with a cloud of white hair, but you'll look pretty darn good, and I have it on good authority the women love the look by the way.  At the debut Masterworks concert this season, for example, Niagara Symphony Music Director Bradley Thachuk tried to look a little more hip wearing a black suit and open collar black shirt.  Fine for a small chamber concert outside of a standard concert hall where everyone might be more casual, but at a classical concert in a concert hall, sorry but tradition for this writer still rules.

There.  I have it all off my chest now and I can get on to other things.  Have I told you about my new smartphone?  Give me time, I will...

October 19th, 2012.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Busy weekend coming up in Niagara

There are some weekends you almost can't keep up with all the things going on in the Niagara Region, and for me personally, it will be filled with events from start to finish.  If you have some time this weekend, you might like to tag along and enjoy some great entertainment.

Perhaps I should qualify this first event as far as the 'entertainment' value is concerned, but it is for a very good cause.  Saturday morning I and a couple hundred other like-minded male souls will be converging on the Pen Centre for the 7th annual Walk a Mile in HER Shoes event, to benefit Gillian's Place in St. Catharines.  Gillian's Place, formerly Women's Place of North Niagara, is now located at the former Victoria School on Niagara Street and provides a wealth of services for women in need throughout the community who suffer at the hands of an abusive partner.  In addition to providing shelter from domestic violence, the agency also provides counselling and other services to assist abused women and children in the community.  In the last year alone, they received almost 1,700 crisis calls; Niagara Regional Police, however, responded to over 7,000 domestic violence calls in the past year.  So not everyone either knows about or chooses to use the services provided at Gillian's Place, but those who do find understanding, compassion and considerable assistance to break the cycle of violence and make a new life for themselves.  It is not easy hearing some of the stories each year at the Walk a Mile event, but it serves to drive home the need for Gillian's Place and other like-minded agencies in this day and age.

So, about 12:30 tomorrow afternoon, about 200 or so men will 'walk the walk' in high heels at a fun event that raises money and awareness for Gillian's Place and the services they provide.  It is a fun event, certainly, but more importantly it helps to raise a lot of money needed by Gillian's Place to simply maintain the services they have.  Last year, for example, about $ 83,000 was raised at the event; this year organizers are hoping to break through the $ 100,000 barrier in order to help those in need.  I will be among the walkers, of course, as I have been most years since the event began seven years ago. If you would like to come out and support us guys we would appreciate it; pledging to help out the cause will be appreciated even more.  We'll see you there as we start out from Sears Court to walk the one-mile distance around the Pen Centre just after the noon-hour.  Should be an adventure!

There have been a lot of events planned in Niagara this year to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, of course, and it really ramps up this weekend with events at Brock's Monument at Queenston Heights Park on Saturday, and a special 1812 Bicentennial Celebration Concert to kick off the Niagara Concerts season Saturday afternoon at the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls.  The event, starting at 3 pm, features Maestro Kerry Stratton and The Toronto Concert Orchestra with guest clarinetist Kornel Wolak in a concert that will feature a musical composition commissioned by Niagara Concerts in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Queenston Heights.  There is also a gala dinner following the concert, with tickets for just the concert or concert and dinner still available by contacting Niagara Concerts at 905-358-6174 or emailing

Also getting underway this weekend - actually opening night was Friday night - Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects launches their much-anticipated new season at the Seneca Queen Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls.  Their exit from the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines last season raised a few eyebrows, I gather, but if the audience is willing to follow them to the new location in Niagara Falls, everything will work out fine.  The quality of productions staged by Lyndesfarne is always first-rate, and this season-opener, directed by Artistic Director Kelly Daniels, promises more of the same.  It is, however, a rather unnerving play by Stephen Mallattrat titled The Woman in Black, based on the Susan Hill novel of the same name.  The thriller deals with the story of a young lawyer who travels to a remote village to settle the estate of a widow, Alice Drablow.  There, he discovers the vengeful ghost of a woman who is terrorizing the locals with horrifying consequences.  Just in time for Hallowe'en, too, this play!

I am looking forward to catching a later performance of The Woman in Black, and if you plan to as well, it runs through to October 28th from Wednesday to Saturday evenings and matinees on Wednesday and Friday at 11:30 and Saturday/Sunday at 2pm.  For tickets and further information, call Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects at 905-374-SHOW or go online to

Finally, on Sunday afternoon the Niagara Symphony (nso) presents the first of their Pops! concerts for the season with Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducting a concert titled Light Opera to Broadway.  The concert, starting at 2:30 in the afternoon, features as special guest artists the father and daughter team of Richard and Lauren Margison.  Richard, of course, is one of Canada's brightest lights in the operatic world and his daughter Lauren is now following in his footsteps.  Together they will present a programme backed by the nso that will feature a lot of lighter material designed to be easy on the ears.   This will be a great way to kick off the Pops! series this year at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University.

As always, I will be in the lobby before, after and at intermission with a wealth of great music available for purchase through A Web of Fine Music, so I hope you will stop by the table to say hello and perhaps make a purchase or two.

Tickets for the concert are still available by calling the Centre for the Arts box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or you can pick them up at the door.  Keep in mind, though, with most of the Pops! concerts now being held just on the Sunday afternoon, seats will be more at a premium this year.

So, just a few of the many events planned throughout the Region this weekend.  If you ever laboured under the misconception there is nothing to do around here, this weekend should certainly dispel that notion!

So, everything from high heels to batons this weekend in Niagara.  Enjoy the fun!

October 12th, 2012.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Fall getaways to Shaw and Stratford

It's been a few weeks since I last wrote about our two main theatre festivals in Ontario, and with both having just about three weeks to go before the season ends, I thought I would revisit both this week and look not only at what is still playing at each, but also how each festival did this year.

Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake has a few shows continuing until near the end of the month, and all are well worth seeing if you have not already done so.  The lunchtime show at the Courthouse Theatre, Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, closes tomorrow in fact, so only one more chance to catch this relative rarity.  I rather enjoyed this early look into Bernstein's creative mind, giving us hints of what would come a few years down the road with such shows as On The Town and West Side Story.  The music is very early Bernstein, to be sure, but you can see the early genius here, and the cast is absolutely first rate.  I only gave the show two out of four stars simply due to its limited appeal and the fact it would certainly be an acquired taste; that being said, I thought it was nice the festival decided to bring the show back even for just a little while.

The big musical this season is, of course, Ragtime, and it lived up to all the pre-show hype and then some.  Ragtime is a great musical, but it took the creative vision of Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell to bring all the creative forces together to make this production of the musical with a troubled history really work.  If this production had opened on Broadway in 1998 I think it might have fared better than the original show that received its world premiere in Toronto two years previously.  An exceptional cast and staging make this show a clear winner and worthy of a four out of four stars rating.  You had best hurry to get tickets to this one, as it closes at the Festival Theatre October 14th and word has it the show will not be extended.

Two shows continue until later in the month:  William Inge's powerful drama Come Back, Little Sheba continues at the Royal George Theatre until October 19th and Shaw's Misalliance closes out the Shaw season October 27th, also at the Royal George.  Come Back, Little Sheba offers some of the finest performances at the Festival this season, with Corrine Koslo and Ric Reid simply outstanding in their respective roles.  This was one of my favourite shows of the season and rated a perfect four out of four stars, and you really must see this show before it closes October 19th.  Misalliance, directed by Eda Holmes, is a very stylish take on the classic Shaw play that is easier to handle than many of Shaw's wordier plays, and runs only two-and-a-half hours.  I loved the sets and costumes for this play as well as many of the performances, in particular Tara Rosling's exotic and sexy Lina Szczepanowska.  I gave it three out of four stars and it closes October 27th.

For tickets to any and all of the final shows at Shaw this season, go to

Over at the Stratford Shakesepare Festival, they celebrated their 60th season with some hits and a couple of misses this season, with some of the big draws still playing through the month of October.  At the Avon Theatre, Gilbert & Sullivan's ever-popular The Pirates of Penzance continues until October 27th.  It is a fairly high-energy show, but not one of my favourites this season.  I felt the show was suffering an identity crisis and was more than a little silly in spots...well, more than even a G&S show should be, really.  It rated a two out of four stars for me; a fun show but better offerings even this late in the season can be had.

One of the early winners this season at the Festival Theatre was Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, continuing as well until October 27th.  Director Chris Abraham had a lot of great talent to work with on this show, and top to bottom it is a solid offering.  Things get off to a slow start and even Tom McCamus as blowhard Horace Vandergelder can't keep things moving on his own until his comic foil, Dolly Gallagher Levi, played by Seana McKenna comes on the scene.  McKenna very nearly makes the entire show, and when the two of them are together on stage the real magic begins.  One of the best shows of the season, The Matchmaker rated a solid three out of four stars.

I was very much looking forward to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing this season, primarily because former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton was the director here, and he did not disappoint.  I talked to Christopher just last week about this show, and I was left with the impression it was not the easiest show he has ever worked on, but you would never know it from the end result.  This has lots of nice little touches that all go together to create a wonderful production with a very strong cast.  I liked it a lot in spite of the fact I fell ill during the show; still and all, it rated a strong three out of four stars.

The so-called family show at Stratford this season was You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the musical about the round-headed kid in the yellow shirt with the black zig-zag pattern on it, created by Charles M. Schulz about sixty years ago now.  This was a gentle show designed for both kids and adults, and it has a lot of nice creative touches in it, including some nice choreography by director Donna Feore.  But I felt overall it missed the mark somewhat, and rated only two out of four stars.  It is not a bad show, but I felt the appeal of this one might be somewhat limited.  Still, it continues at the Avon Theatre until October 28th.

Finally, the other big musical this season was the Harry Warren/Al Dubin classic 42nd Street, which continues at the Festival Theatre until October 28th.  Director Gary Griffin has a fine cast to work with here, but I still felt the return of Cynthia Dale as Dorothy Brock was rather muted, as really, her immense talent is wasted in this role, I feel.  Great to see Cynthia back in Stratford though, so that is a good thing.  The rest of the cast is very strong, with a special mention going out to Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Peggy Sawyer, the young up-and-comer who takes over for an ailing Brock so 'the show will go on.'  I gave the show three out of four stars; not the best show at Stratford this season but a crowd-pleaser all the same.

For tickets to any of the remaining shows at Stratford this season, go to

So, overall how did both festivals do this year?  Almost the exact opposite of last season, in my estimation.  Shaw celebrated their 50th season last year with a great production of My Fair Lady and some other shows that did well, but many were not exceptional.  Stratford, on the other hand had a great season last year with hit after hit, and artistically speaking, I felt had the stronger season last year.  This year, however, they had some misses along with the hits, so Shaw came away with the crown this season.  I don't know if it was the pressure of living up to expectations due to the anniversaries each celebrated:  Shaw last season and Stratford with their 60th this season, but Shaw just seemed to hit the mark more often than not this season.  Both had great seasons overall, mind you, but Shaw just did that much better this year I found.

Speaking of Shaw, they recently announced their 2013 season and the big musical next season will be the 1950 classic Guys and Dolls, which played at Stratford several seasons back as well.  Also on the playbill next season will be Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan also on the Festival Stage, and Matthew Barber's Enchanted April, adapted from the novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim.  Over at the Court House Theatre, Blair Williams directs Peace in our Time:  A Comedy, adapted from the Shaw play Geneva by John Murrell; Jay Turvey gets to direct The Light  in the Piazza, based on the novella  by Elizabeth Spencer; and rounding out the Courthouse lineup is a double-bill for the lunchtime show:  Trifles  and A Wife for a Life, by Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill.  At the smaller Royal George Theatre, Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara will be directed by Jackie Maxwell; Morris Panych directs W. Somerset Maugham's Our Betters; and Brian Friel's Faith Healer will be directed by Craig Hall.  Finally, at the Studio Theatre, Eda Holmes directs Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.  So once again next season, there will be no Shaw play on the mainstage, and in fact only one purely Shaw play on the playbill, although Peace in our Time is based on a Shaw play.

So, there you have it, my final thoughts on the 2012 seasons at Shaw and Stratford.  I am already looking forward to returning to both for 2013!

October 6th, 2012.