Thursday, February 27, 2014

Concert going is about to change...and not for the better

It has been a while since I entered what I call the High Rant District and let loose with a good tirade, so I think I am about due.  My incentive came about an hour or so ago when I read an online post from the Los Angeles Times describing a concert in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Tuesday evening featuring Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, currently on a six-city tour of the Sunshine State.

After concluding the concert with Ravel's Bolero (oh, yay!), Slatkin, according to a release issued by the orchestra the following day, quieted the applause from the crowd and announced:  "You've heard that we're the most accessible orchestra on the planet, and tonight you're going to be the most accessible audience on the planet.  For the first time I'd like to invite you to turn (on) your cellphones for a change, and cross the stage's barrier by capturing this moment and posting our photos to your favourite social media channels."

Then, facing a bevy of smart-phones flashing away, Slatkin and his musicians provided an encore piece to conclude the concert, William Walton's "Touch Her Sweet Lips and Part" from the score to "Henry V."

Geez, why didn't they announce to the audience they would like everyone to synchronize their cell-phone flashes to the entrance of instrument passages in "Bolero" so it builds to a flashy crescendo in more ways than one?  That would be just terrific, wouldn't it?

The orchestra spokesperson, with a straight face no less, stated afterwards the orchestra has no advisory against taking cell-phone pictures at their home base in Detroit, and since pictures continually pop up online, she said "so we know people are doing it.  It's never caused a disruption."

Well maybe not for you, lady, but for some of us, this just hammers yet another nail into the coffin holding what used to be known as concert-hall decorum.  The orchestra's desire is to, apparently, have concert-goers "commemorate the moment."  Commemorate what, exactly?

I can see the postings now on Facebook to some of the pictures:  "Gee, Slatkin is starting to stoop a little, have you noticed that?" or "That suit jacket just doesn't fit - just look at the creases across the back!" or even less likely "I think the bowing of the concert-master was a little off on that passage."

In the lobby after Tuesday's concert, we're told, people were abuzz with everyone talking about "how great it was."  Really?

The fact is, none of the pictures and resulting postings are at all relevant in my mind.  This is just a clever way on the orchestra's part to pander to the public's insatiable appetite to take pictures of anything that moves - and some that don't - and post them to social media in order to advertise just how great the orchestra is connecting with their audience and increase their "Likes" on Facebook.

Here's my problem with taking pictures at concerts of any kind:   it is annoying to the musicians, which is why it is generally not allowed.  All those flashes out in the darkness can be more than just a distraction for them.  But what about the audience?  I don't want to sit there with someone a few seats over leaning forward trying to get that perfect picture rather than just sitting back and enjoying the concert.

I have never, ever seen a picture taken at a concert that is worth looking at.  It is either too dark or too far away or both.  And why do you need a picture at a concert, anyway?  Can't you just say "I went to a great concert last night" and then use actual words to describe what you saw?  People used to do that all the time, you know.  I don't need a blurry shot of...nothing in order to illustrate the fact you didn't really have a great seat for the concert at all.

And don't get me started on cell phones in the concert hall besides taking pictures.  When did we lose the ability to simply disconnect from society for a few hours and simply enjoy the concert?  You likely paid good money for those tickets, right?  Why not get your money's worth and enjoy the concert?

Last evening for example, I attended the Measha Brueggergosman recital at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Marilyn I. Walker Centre for the the Performing Arts at Brock University.  Great artist, great concert.  At the end, everyone stood and applauded, except for a guy an aisle over from me who already had his head buried in his cell-phone to check who knows what.  Please, just try to do without for a couple of hours.  You can check at intermission, is that not enough?

Beyond the concert hall or any other music venue, classical or otherwise, I find people simply take too many pictures now simply because they can.  The quality is often substandard and the quantity is absurd.  I have a friend on Facebook who routinely takes pictures of EVERY element of EVERY trip they have ever been on.  One memorable weekend trip to Toronto resulted in 96 pictures being posted to Facebook afterwards.  96 pictures of a weekend jaunt to Toronto!

Sad to relate, but people just don't care you just bought some cheese at the St. Lawrence Market on Saturday morning.  Good for you.  But why do you need a picture to "commemorate" the event?

Here's a tip for you:  stop taking pictures of your life and start living it instead.  You'll be the better for it.  Trust me.

February 27th, 2014.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

My second home these days...Brock University

Now that I have moved well past the half-way mark of my time with the Brock radio station, CFBU-FM, which ends late May, by the way, I took note this week of just how much time I have been spending up at Brock University as of late.  Just this week alone, I have had or will have at least five trips up the hill to be on campus for various activities.

Truth be told, I had hoped to spend more time up at the university since I have always found my time there to be well spent and the conversation - no matter what the topic - always to be very stimulating indeed.  I just didn't know going in what form the time up there would take, but it has been wonderfully varied and rewarding.

One of the joys of doing my job at CFBU-FM is on my show, Inquisitive Minds, I interview Brock professors and grad students about some of the work they have been doing on research projects of every description.  So three times in that hour, Wednesdays at 11, I basically get a 20 minute lecture on topics ranging from new cancer research to Arctic exploration to the development of a video game to teach math skills to schoolchildren.  And I get paid for this!

Without exception, I find the people I interview to be accessible, very knowledgeable, and able to bring the subject matter down to a level the ordinary person on the street - like myself - can understand.  That is what I wanted to achieve going into this project back in September:  take complex subject matter and make it accessible to a wider audience.

The trips up the hill have taken many forms over the past several months, from lunches and meetings with people I depend on to help coordinate interviews for the show to actually recording those interviews on location to just hanging out up there on my own time soaking up the information.

The last couple of days I was doing just that, in fact.  I had Dr. Karen Fricker in the studio for last week's show talking about the colloquium she organized called The Changing Face of Theatre Criticism in the Digital Age, which ran Friday and Saturday.  I attended most of the sessions both days and would love to have been there for all of them, but other commitments took me away later Friday afternoon.

The panels proved interesting and the conversations on all levels were extremely stimulating.  In particular the panel Saturday morning with three heavyweight participants, J. Kelly Nestruck of The Globe & Mail, Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star, and Princeton University Professor of English and Theatre, and ardent blogger Jill Dolan, with the topic of the discussion entitled Bloggers, critics and cultural legitimation.

Being a casual theatre reviewer myself in the past, I was particularly interested in the comments of all the participants, and the rise of social media as a vehicle for offering theatre criticism in new digital forums.

Congratulations to Karen Fricker and the rest of her team for all the hard work producing and presenting an intellectually stimulating dialogue that I am sure will continue long after the colloquium has ended.

This afternoon, I am back up at Brock for the Niagara Symphony Pops! 3 presentation "Shakin', Not Stirred!" devoted to the music of James Bond films.  Maestro Bradley Thachuk leads the NSO and the Jeans 'n Classics Band for the afternoon performance at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre, Centre for the Arts, and tickets should still be available for the concert at the box office prior to the 2:30 show.

Unfortunately I won't be selling music at this concert due to space restrictions, but I do have some of the great music from James Bond films available through my website, by going to or emailing me directly at

Also over the past week I have undertaken another freelance project on behalf of Dr. Lisa Barrow, one of Brock's bullying experts, as we have been in studio recording an audiobook version of her book, In Darkness Light Dawns:  Exposing Workplace Bullying, published by Purple Crown Publishing.  Monday morning I begin editing the audio files and making them ready for public consumption, which should happen sometime later this year.

On Tuesday of this week, I head up the hill once again for the Celebration of Brock University Research event to be held from 2:30 to 4:30 in the Guernsey Market at Brock.  I hope to make some valuable connections for future interviews on the show while there, and learn more about some of the great research projects underway at Brock.  But right afterwards, I have an important job do do myself while there.

Last month, I interviewed John McNamara, Professor of Child and Youth Studies at Brock about the upcoming Three-Minute Thesis event, or 3MT for short.   Basically, the competition began in Australia in 2008 at the University of Queensland and has grown to a global competition ever since.  In the competition, graduate students compete to present their thesis in only three minutes, in the process making it succinct, funny, interesting and relevant to those in attendance who might not necessarily know all that much about their subject matter.

There will be the preliminary rounds this Tuesday, and the Brock finals come up April 7 during the 9th Annual Mapping the New Knowledges Graduate Student Research Conference.  The winner of that competition goes on to the 2014 provincial competition at McMaster University on April 24th.

But back to this week, and the preliminary competition Tuesday afternoon.  I have been invited to be a judge for this event, and I am thrilled to be a part of it!  This should be both fun and educational for both the judges and the audience members alike, and probably very nerve-wracking for the participants.

I'm not sure how much of a contribution I can make but I am ready to give it a go and see how much I can absorb of the ten presentations in the preliminary round.  It runs from 4:30 onwards at Pond Inlet, and I would imagine anyone who wants to attend can if they wish.

Finally, I head back up to the Centre for the Arts Wednesday evening for the performance by Measha Brueggergosman, the absolutely astounding Canadian soprano performing in recital.  I had a chance to interview Measha back in the fall in order to write the article that appears on the front cover of the present issue of Centrestage Experience magazine, by the way, and she was a joy to talk to.  I can hardly wait for that performance this week!

So there you you think I am a member of the Brock community by now?  Not directly, mind you, but indirectly I feel I am very much a part of the knowledge network that makes up the university experience, and I must say, I am loving every minute of it.

Here's to more great experiences in the future!

February 23rd, 2014.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Theatre criticism in the digital age to be discussed at Brock this weekend

This week on my radio programme Inquisitive Minds on the Brock University radio station, CFBU-FM, I talked with Dr. Karen Fricker, assistant professor of Dramatic Arts about a colloquium being held Friday and Saturday of this week on The Changing Face of Theatre Criticism in the Digital Age.

As an occasional theatre reviewer myself for almost 40 years now, I am looking forward to attending at least some of the discussions to be held in the Sankey Chamber at Brock.  It is free and open to the public, by the way.

Dr. Fricker elaborated on the overall thrust of the colloquium in our interview, explaining the panelists will essentially be debating the question:  is everyone a critic?

Ah yes, the eternal question for theatre-goers.  Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion and I'm sure you've had yours over the years, as have I.  But what qualifies as legitimate theatre criticism today anyway with social media being so pervasive in modern society.

I often see postings on Twitter and Facebook detailing someone's thoughts on a performance they have attended (or more often, while they are attending it, but that is another debate we can have some other time) and they are all very well and good, but what purpose do they serve?  What constitutes valid criticism today and who is qualified to offer it?

If you follow theatre criticism in print journalism in this country, you don't have that many choices anymore, frankly.  Arts reporting is becoming such a rare commodity in the newspaper world it is almost nonexistent in many cities.  Here in Niagara, for example, my esteemed colleague at the chain of Sun Media papers, John Law, carries the arts banner high and proud day in and day out.  But he is pretty much it here in Niagara.

There is online reviewing offered by local arts blogger James Wegg and myself, too on occasion, but beyond that the well is essentially dry around these parts.

You look to Toronto for most of the theatrical print journalism now, and even then, you have two main contributors:  Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star and J. Kelly Nestruck of The Globe and Mail.  Both are the established leaders in their field and cover a wide swath of live theatre both inside and outside of Toronto proper.  Mr. Nestruck, in fact, is clearly attempting to become something of a "national" theatre critic, which means he is almost constantly in transit to somewhere in this vast country.

So, what is to become of the art form known as theatre criticism in this new digital age and who will be taking part in it?  Those are questions that will no doubt be posed this weekend at the colloquium at Brock, and both Mr. Ouzounian and Mr. Nestruck will both be in attendance on Saturday to weigh in on the subject.

Dr. Fricker outlined the panel participants for the event held over two days, and the list is quite substantial.  On Friday, events begin at 2 pm with a presentation by Brock dramatic arts students from the third-year class, Studies in Praxis - Theatre Criticism.  That will be followed at 2:30 by a panel discussion "Critics and the arts in Niagara" which will run through to 4 pm.  Panel participants are as follows:

- Jill Dolan, Princeton University professor and noted theatre blogger
- Monica Dufault, artistic director, Essential Collective Theatre
- David Fancy, associate professor of Dramatic Arts, Brock University; co-artistic director, neXt Company Theatre (chair)
- John Law, arts and entertainment writer, Sun Media
- Sara Palmieri, co-founder, In the Soil Festival
- Stephen Remus, minister of energy, minds and resources, Niagara Artists Centre (NAC)
- Steve Solski, director, St. Catharines Centre for the Performing Arts
- Candice Turner-Smith, managing director, Niagara Symphony Orchestra

The second panel on Friday begins at 4:15 and runs to 5:45 with the discussion "Embedded criticism:  a new way forward, or criticism as PR?"  Panel participants are as follows:

- Maddy Costa, critic and blogger
- Dr. Karen Fricker
- Andy Horwitz, founder,
- Jackie Maxwell, artistic director, Shaw Festival
- Jacob Gallagher-Ross, assistant professor of theatre, University of Buffalo (respondent)
- Lawrence Switzky, assistant professor of Drama, University of Toronto at Mississauga (chair)

Things heat up on Saturday morning and continue until 1 pm.  Things get underway at 10 with a welcome and presentation by Brock dramatic arts students from the third-year class Studies in Praxis - Theatre Criticism, followed at 10:30 by the first panel discussion of the day, "Bloggers, critics and cultural legitimation" with some heavy hitters as participants:

- Jill Dolan
- Dr. Karen Fricker (chair)
- Andy Horwitz (respondent)
- J. Kelly Nestruck, lead theatre critic, The Globe and Mail
- Richard Ouzounian, lead theatre critic, Toronto Star
- Holger Syme, chair, Department of English and Drama, University of Toronto at Mississauga, and blogger (
- Odette Yazbeck, director of public relations, Shaw Festival

Finally, the colloquium wrap-up will take place from 12:15 to 1 pm, with participants Maddy Costa; Jill Dolan; Karen Fricker (chair); Rosemary Drage Hale, director of the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Brock University; and Andy Horwitz.

So, how do you plan to spend your Friday and Saturday this weekend?  If you care about the arts in general and theatre in particular as I do, you know where you'll be!  I don't know how much my schedule will allow, but I will make every effort to get to as many of the discussions as possible.

For me personally it has been a true love affair with the arts for almost 40 years now, from the early days as a precocious young broadcaster in the 70s when I was a member of both the Toronto Drama Bench and the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, to now as I love to celebrate the arts in this space on a regular basis.  For how much longer I will be actively involved in reporting on the arts remains to be seen, as I no longer have a commercial media outlet at which to hang my hat, but we'll see how the upcoming season progresses.

Raise the curtain and furrow your collective brows...The Changing Face of Theatre Criticism in the Digital Age is about to begin...I can hardly wait!

February 20th, 2014.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Composer revealed as a fraud!

I read last week in the National Post an article by Martin Fackler outlining Japan's collective outrage over one of their most celebrated modern-day composers has apparently been revealed as more of a fraud artist than composer.

His name might not come immediately to mind here in North America, although serious music lovers will be familiar with the work of Mamoru Samuragochi, a 50-year-old supposed musical genius who also happened to be deaf.

Well, it turns out he isn't a composer and maybe even not deaf, either.  The revelations were revealed last week by Samuragochi himself, who admitted he had hired a ghost-writer since the 1990s to write most of his music.  Faking his deafness was apparently an attempt to win public sympathy.

So, how did all this happen and why did Mr. Samuragochi finally feel the need to unburden his soul of such news?  Blame the Sochi Olympics.

You see, the real writer of such Japanese classical hits as Samuragochi's Symphony No. 1 Hiroshima and the Sonatina for Violin, which was to be used by the Olympic figure skater Daisuke Takahashi for his short program in Sochi, Mr. Takashi Niigaki, a 43-year-old unknown composer and part-time lecturer at an important musical college in Tokyo, decided enough was enough.

He had threatened to go public about the deception before, but persistent begging not to on the part of Samuragochi averted a public scandal.   Until now.  Mr. Niigaki just couldn't stomach the idea one of his songs would accompany an Olympic skater representing his country, thereby making the skater Takahashi a co-conspirator in the crime.

So he did what he considered to be the honourable thing and went public with the deception, revealing he had in fact written more than 20 songs for Mr. Samuragochi since 1996, for which he was paid about US$ 70,000.

My first thought when I saw that figure was, that doesn't sound like much money, really, considering the amount of music he produced while working under wraps and the length of time he was doing it, and considering how many of the works had become bonafide hits in Japan.  But, who knows?  Maybe he was comfortable with that amount of money to prevent the guilt from becoming too great a burden to bear all these years.

The really sad part of this story is Niigaki's claim Samuragochi was faking his deafness, saying Mr. Samuragochi was successfully pulling at the collective heartstrings of Japanese music-lovers, all the while claiming his loss of hearing at the age of 35 turned out to be "a gift from God."

As you can imagine, Japanese society is not amused by all these revelations.  The reactions have ranged from anger to disbelief to even embarrassment on the part of Japanese media for their failure to uncover the deception from the beginning.

Orchestras across Japan are cancelling concerts featuring Mr. Samuragochi's music, and one is even considering a lawsuit to recover revenue from lost ticket sales resulting from the cancellations.   This in a country where litigation is considered far more extreme a reaction than in America, for example.

So, what can we learn from all this?  Well for one thing, we should not just fall for every heartwarming story without perhaps stepping back first and questioning the validity of the story.  I know, we all want to believe the feel-good, heartstring-pulling stories; we all fall for them hoping society will indeed show their softer side and really believe the story being told.

Aside from that, I find it interesting people find it appalling a so-called gifted composer used a ghost-writer all this time, while books are routinely written by ghost-writers on behalf of celebrity and non-celebrity people, and everyone seems fine with that.  What's the difference?

I'm not absolving Mr. Samuragochi of his deception by any means.  Why he felt he had to go this route is beyond comprehension, really.  But this is not the first time this sort of deception has happened and you can be sure it won't be the last, either.  History is littered with fraudsters and those who think they can get away with it but ultimately get caught, both in classical and popular music as well as elsewhere.

We all love a good, heartwarming story about someone making good in the face of adversity.  But even if Mr. Samuragochi didn't write the music himself, the music is still valid on its own terms.

Give Mr. Niigaki his due, for sure.  Enjoy the music still, absolutely.  But forget about the public outcry over the whole deception and move on.  In the overall scheme of things, as history has shown us so many times before, it's probably better that way.

February 15th, 2014.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The arts are alive in February

If you are like me and pretty much sick of this winter, and the all-too-familiar catchphrase "Cold enough for ya?" perhaps you would like to take a cue from the bear population and simply hibernate until spring arrives.

But there is an alternative:  if you have to endure the remainder of this winter, at least make the most of it and enjoy some great performances coming up over the next week or so.  To that end, I've compiled a short list of some of the locally-produced performances coming up this week you might just want to enjoy.

This evening, for example, the Department of Music at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University presents The Avanti Chamber Singers at St. Barnabas Anglican Church in St. Catharines.

Directed by Dr. Harris Loewen, the choir will present premieres of two new works by Niagara composers:  Requiem by Matthew Therrien and De Profundis Clamavi by Matthew Royal, composed specifically for the Avanti Chamber Singers.  Organist Lesley Kingham and the St. Catharines Chamber Music Society Strings will accompany the singers.

Tickets are available in advance from any choir member, at Ryson's Music on Court Street, or at the door this evening.  The concert begins at 7:30, by the way.

Sunday afternoon at 3, Primavera Concerts presents a concert titled Forbidden Music, also at St. Barnabas Church.  Musicians for the concert include soprano Sharon Azrieli and pianist Shoshana Telner along with special guest, violinist Jacques Israelievitch.  The concept of the concert is music by composers banned by Hitler and Stalin, such as Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, Weill, Hindemith and Rachmaninoff.

For tickets, call 905-329-9987 or go online to  You can also pick them up at the door tomorrow afternoon.

The popular Tuesday music@noon concerts presented by the Department of Music at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts continues this Tuesday, February 11th at noon, in the Concordia Seminary Chapel at Brock University.  The recital is by Piano, Voice and Instrumental Students in the Department of Music at Brock, and is absolutely free and charge and open to the public.

Finally, the Department of Dramatic Arts at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock presents Jehanne of the Witches by Sally Clark in the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre, Brock University.  This new MainStage production pretty much has it all:  black magic, illusion, sexuality and the use - and abuse - of power.  Sound interesting?

It's a Canadian play performed by the students of Brock University Department of Dramatic Arts and is written by award-winning playwright Sally Clark, recounting Joan of Arc's story with historical accuracy, as well as exploring modern feminist ideals, as well as Christianity and Paganism.

Needless to say given the subject matter, the play contains sexual themes and occasional strong language, which means likely nothing you have not heard before, but just so you know.

Performances are Thursday, February 13th at 7:30pm, as well as Friday, February 14th at 1 and 7:30 pm, and Saturday, February 15th at 7:30 pm.  For tickets, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or visit  Tickets should be available at the box office prior to the performances as well.

Now, when you look at that list of what's coming up just over the next week in the dead of winter in St. Catharines, what do you notice?  Three-quarters of the performances are through the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock.  So, with a brand-spanking new location going up downtown right next to the St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre, just think how nice it will be to catch these performances and many more right in the heart of St. Catharines in a year or so?  You can imagine the difference this will make to our downtown core day in and day out, year in and year out.

Granted, people will still complain about parking, as they always do when coming downtown, but hey, the venue is going to be spectacular and you'll have so much more to experience downtown once everything is up and running.  Besides, if the performance is in the evening or a weekend, some of the parking will be free, which is not something you see up at Brock, right?

So let's get the anticipation going for what is surely going to make for a much more vibrant, exciting downtown St. Catharines before you know it.  It's coming...let's embrace the change!

February 8th, 2014.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

More two-way traffic coming to downtown St. Catharines

Last evening I made my way to the council chambers at St. Catharines City Hall to take a look a the proposed changes to the remaining one-way streets in downtown St. Catharines.

I was one of two members of the public visiting for about half-an-hour last evening, in addition to St. Patrick's Ward Councillor Mark Elliott and soon-to-be-sworn-in St. George's Councillor Laura lp and representatives from Delcan, who worked on the study presented to the public yesterday.   I am hoping things were busier in the afternoon and earlier in the evening than when I arrived at 7 pm.

Anyone who has traversed the downtown streets the last few years since the major conversion back to two-way traffic has to admit the move was a wise one and a long time coming.  Sure it is slower to get through the downtown now, but that was the point, really.  No longer do we have the Daytona 500 on St. Paul and King Streets when they were one-way only.  You now get a chance to notice what there is downtown that's worth stopping for.

Okay, I know we still have some empty storefronts to deal with, but really, would you rather race through the downtown like you still can in downtown Hamilton?  That setup is efficient, but heaven help you if you miss your turn off from either King or Main Streets!

Anyway, almost all the last vestiges of one-way traffic in downtown St. Catharines will be history in about five years time according to this study, providing of course funding is available to do the conversions.  None of them are major projects, although the five-way intersection at the end of St. Paul Street, long considered a nightmare to try to figure out will be a little more complicated to deal with.

According to the study, Niagara Street will remain one-way from Church to Geneva Street, but a dedicated lane from the Geneva/St. Paul/Queenston intersection will handle the one-way northbound traffic on Niagara.  In addition, the Niagara Street lane will be taken out of the intersection equation entirely, which should make for a better traffic flow through that area.

As for Queenston Street, it will be converted back to two-way traffic from Geneva to Riordon in order to accommodate the wine route, designated along Queenston Street.  The wine route passing through our downtown has been the major impetus to converting roads back to two-way in the first place, and considering the Geneva/Niagara/St. Paul/Queenston intersection would be enough to drive anyone on the wine route to drink in short order, it is good we finally got the mess sorted out.

So in a nutshell, you'll head in both directions east-west on St. Paul and Queenston, and both directions north-south on Geneva.  You'll only be able to head north (sort of, since it is on an angle) on Niagara.  Got that?  Good.

Now, on to the other traffic planning nightmare still lurking in the downtown:  Church Street from King to Court Street.  Oh, what fun this would be!  With a planned realignment of the Church Street and King Street intersection (that's an intersection?!) they figure two-way traffic can flow through that stretch with no problem.  So essentially all of Church Street will be two-way, along with King Street. That realignment will be interesting to see once it is officially opened.

And you thought roundabouts were hard enough to figure out!

Okay, that leaves just one more street to deal with and that is William Street from St. Paul to Lake Street.  It was not converted to two-way traffic the last time because of truck loading issues at The Standard newspaper building, but since that issue resolved itself this past summer with The Standard moving out of their old home on Queen Street, there is no reason why they can't do it now.

Sure, some of the parking issues have to be resolved in that area, including the exit from the Ontario Street parking garage at William Street, but that should not be too difficult to figure out.  What might be more difficult is getting drivers used to the idea once they exit the parking garage after so many years of just having to turn left from either lane.

William Street is not a major downtown thoroughfare, but just think how nice it will be when you come down Lake Street late afternoon and rather than sit in the long conga line of cars heading southbound on Ontario Street, you can just go south on William to St. Paul, west on St. Paul and continue on through the intersection or turn left onto Westchester.  Whoops, was I supposed to keep that traffic tip secret?  Sorry about that...

Anyway, I applaud all involved in finally taming the five corners beast at one end of the downtown and helping to alleviate some of the traffic congestion at the other end.  Who would have imagined, traffic congestion in downtown St. Catharines...been quite a while since we had to deal with that, right?

But consider this:  with the new Meridian Centre, Performing Arts Centre and Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts complex all set to open within the next two years downtown, can we really afford to wait five years to implement all these changes?  Hopefully they can be fast-tracked somehow so we can get everything done by the time all the new venues open to the public, but that might be too much to ask considering the major cash outlay from all involved to rebuild the Burgoyne Bridge.

At the very least, we need to get the William Street conversion done by the end of this summer, which should be not too expensive.  Just imagine the gridlock on Ontario Street when something is happening at the Meridian Centre and people are trying to get into the Ontario Street parking garage.  Although I believe it only exits onto William now, perhaps an entrance from William Street could also be considered in order to improve the traffic flow on a game night.

Let's start thinking ahead and get this done before the Meridian Centre opens in the fall.  If we are going to make downtown a destination point for so many reasons, we also have to ensure people coming in and out of the downtown core enjoy the experience of doing so on all levels.

February 5th, 2014.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Things are looking up for our two major theatre festivals

Okay, it is February, and my self-imposed exile is now officially over.  Thanks for your patience, and rest assured I have lots of subjects lined up in the weeks ahead as we get the new year underway covering the arts world and beyond.

Two items crossed my desk in the past little while showing our two major theatre festivals in Ontario, Stratford and Shaw, are both on the comeback trail and on an upswing.  We'll look at both today and where they go from here.

Late last year, the Stratford Festival reported ticket sales for 2013 increased 11% - the largest increase since 1999 - and the Festival regained valuable ground last season, exceeding the season's goals.  Attendance reached more than 480,000 with ticket revenue pegged at $ 29.7 million.  Already, 2014 ticket sales are already up over last year by about 11%, which is very good news indeed.

Last year was the first with Antoni Cimolino at the helm as Artistic Director, and by all accounts it proved to be both a financial and critical success.  No less than five of the season's 12 productions had to be extended to meet demand for tickets, including Cimolino's exceptional production of Mary Stuart, extended an unprecedented four times.

The Forum, a new initiative introduced last year, attracted nearly 30,000 people to the 150 events held throughout the season and apparently succeeded in making the Festival a more immersive experience, as noted by Executive Director Anita Gaffney.  The Forum events resulted in patrons buying more performance tickets than the previous year as well as increasing overall attendance at the Festival by 13%.

Growth was seen across the board, with lapsed patrons, those who had not attended in five years, up by 76%; new customers up by 46%; school sales up by 20%; Canadian attendance up 13% and the all-important U.S, attendance also up by 8%.  That's the first increase in at least 10 years.

There will be new initiatives in 2014, including the expansion of the Toronto bus service to now service Detroit three times a week as well.  The bus service is clearly bringing new patrons to the Festival, and that is one of those ideas clearly right for the times.  In Toronto, for example, not everyone owns a car and those that do might not wish to make the trip on a weekday evening knowing they have to drive back after the theatre when they'll be tired.  The bus works perfectly for these people.

Also on tap in the new year will be Playcare, a weekend afternoon babysitting service for children 4 to 10 years of age, offered in conjunction with the Stratford Y.

There are already lots of package deals available, so check out the Stratford Festival website at for more details, or call 1-800-567-1600.

Over at the Shaw Festival, the Annual General Meeting was held this past Friday, and the good news is the Festival achieved an operating surplus of $1.2 million for the 2013 season.  That's up significantly from the modest surplus of $19,000 posted the previous year.  But keep in mind, the surplus came at a price:  the restructuring of the Festival's operations at the end of the 2011 season resulted in a smaller acting ensemble among other things.

But of course, tough times demand tough love, and that is what the board and management undertook to right the ship two seasons ago.  It was a tough go for staff the last two seasons, but the payoff now is they are on a much better financial footing as they look to the future.

With revenues up over 2012 by 8% due largely to a $2 million increase in ticket sales, and expenses only increasing by 3% over the previous year, the surplus was achieved as a result of both growth in revenues and tight control of costs.  With Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell and Executive Director Elaine Calder feeling optimistic they have turned the corner, we can hopefully look forward to more good news at the end of the 2014 season.

The Annual General Meeting also reported the company was able to negotiate a new contract with its unionized employees, with modest increases in each of the three years from 2013 to 2015.  In addition, bonuses were paid to the 461 artists and employees who all contributed to the success of the 2013 season.

For more on the packages being offered to tempt theatre-goers at Shaw this season, go to or call 1-800-657-1106.

So overall, both festivals are on a sound financial footing going forward, and both will have to capitalize on those gains in attendance and revenue in order to secure the future of both festivals from this point forward.  Programming has to be carefully considered at both festivals, balancing daring and conservatism again to ensure the financial health of both.

The new seasons for both Stratford and Shaw look promising, with Stratford featuring two versions of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the musical Man of La Mancha among the offerings; Shaw meantime forges ahead with dynamic musicals with Cabaret and other interesting offerings such as The Philadelphia Story and Shaw's Arms and The Man.

When you think about it, like baseball spring training, the new season is not far off.  The previews for both festivals will begin in April, so rehearsals are really not that far off at this point.  So as we continue to trudge through a very cold winter, there are very encouraging signs of a rebirth at both Shaw and Stratford in the spring, on many levels.

Let the theatre seasons begin!

February 2nd, 2014.