Thoughts on Mental Health Care in Alberta Arising From a Conversation in an Edmonton Bowling Alley

Alberta Hospital Edmonton came up in conversation this evening at the bowling alley.

I might have said “depressing”. I’m not sure.

I want to make this clear:

The work and the staff and the patients of Alberta Hospital are NOT depressing. However flawed, the work is noble, the staff are heroes, and the patients are inspiring survivors.

Depressing beyond measure, however, are the decrepit, abandoned, flooded, ruined buildings, the burning-out (but still dedicated – and that’s uplifting, not depressing) staff, the invisibility to the wider Edmonton community of the patients at the Hospital, and, at the hellishly depressing root of it all, the despicable under-funding of mental health care in Alberta.

To Joanna, the young Nursing student to whom I spoke this evening, who works out in the community with a pretty cool dude who has a wicked spin on a bowling ball and a developmental disability . . .

You totally rock!

Maybe you find poetry hard. Maybe you wish you could read something other than text books. Maybe you don’t know how long you’ll last as a nurse.

But you sit there calmly and patiently waiting for DATS. Hoping your ride hasn’t left because you’re late by thirty seconds in a one hour windo. Keeping things cool when transportation is a near-total unknown.You are 22 years old with absolute responsibilities for another human being the same age as you, responsibilities the vast majority of adults couldn’t imagine even if they had an awareness of AISH, PDD, FSCD, DS, and so many other acronyms.

You rock, Joanna.

You’re not depressing.

People aren’t depressing.

The mental healthcare system is depressing.

A F#%king Fine “Glengarry Glen Ross” at the Walterdale Playhouse

In his notes in the playbill for Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Director Curtis Knecht writes

These seven fine actors took to the script with a ferocious passion and their willingness to live in this world of bad men doing bad things to unsuspecting people was remarkable and thrilling to watch.

And it was a thrilling and remarkable experience to sit in the audience and watch these seven actors plunge into Mamet’s brutal, harsh text and bring these bad men and their bad world to tragic, destructive and self-destructive life.  I find it hard to imagine a group of actors making a better job of the thing. As I’ve consistently seen at the Walterdale, this is pure theatre: no elaborate sets, costumes or props. No distracting with or hiding behind flash.  Actors, gestures and words are the fundamentals, and the Walterdale Theatre delivers the fundamentals

dale Wilson’s performance as the foul-mouthed (they’re all foul-mouthed) Willie Loman-esque aging salesman Levene is wonderfully natural and stirs warm sympathy despite the fact that the character is not actually what could be called a good man. He is the tragic heart of the piece, and from the opening scene Wilson makes us cling to Levene as a bit of hopeful light in the dismal world of Glengary Glen Ross. This attachment makes Levene’s downfall all the more shocking for us.

A second object of sympathy is J. Nelson Newa’s nervous and hesitant George, the junior salesman, a contrast to the aged senior Levene. The two are at opposite ends of their careers and yet face the same challenges and temptations.  Newa is absolutely natural in his performance.

Another standout performance in an evening of standouts was Cory Christensen’s spittingly enraged and frustrated Moss. It’s a smaller part than some of the others, but Moss is pivotal to the action and Christensen fills the stage and half of the house when he gets wound up. Intense, like everything about the play.

The play falls into two acts, the first in a restaurant, the second in a real estate office. The sets are basic and suitably evocative of place.  During the 20 minute intermission, the crew makes a choreographed change of set which is a fascinating bit of theatre itself, able to elicit a gasp or a startled jump in the audience. If you can manage to skip the bathroom break, you’ll have a small bonus entertainment.

The entire cast and crew is to be commended for their intense and professional performances, perhaps more remarkable in that they do the work not for money, but for love of theatre.  The fact that the volunteers of the Walterdale Company have taken on such a harsh, cut-throat, commission driven, capitalist world is a contrast not to be ignored. Yes, the human world can be selfish and brutal and Mametish, but, in the Walterdale Playhouse we are reminded that good and generous people also come together to make art purely to entertain and for the love of the thing.

The Walterdale’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross runs until April 16th, 2016. If you can handle coarse language and intense theatre, don’t miss it.

3 x 7: Springtime in Edmonton is for Canadian Art Lovers

It truly is an embarrassment of riches this spring in Edmonton.  Yes, the economy is in the tank. Yes, the Oilers are out of the playoffs.  Sure Edmonton continues to chug along in a better economic state than Calgary and the rest of the province, and the Oilers will get to make a new start in the fall at the new Rogers Place, or, as I prefer to call it, Iron Foot Place.  Bright and hopeful civic joys are these, but the most stunning wealth Edmonton enjoys this spring is best enjoyed by lovers of Canadian Art and Art History.  Right now, within a stretch of five downtown LRT stations, Edmontonians and visitors can immerse themselves in three magnificent exhibitions of works by and influenced by two Canadian Groups of Seven.  In a single relaxed afternoon, travelling by LRT or, better, a pleasant stroll through Edmonton’s Downtown Spring, one can lose oneself in the works of fifteen of the most influential artists in Canadian history.

Maybe start at the Borealis Gallery in the Old Federal Building on the Alberta Legislature Grounds, where Alberta and the Group of Seven is showing until May 23.  Alberta and the Group of Seven is actually dominated by Alberta, in my opinion.  Only a few of the Group are represented, and they by small works.  The show is really about the Alberta artists who were (perhaps) influenced by the Group of Seven.  Personally, I find that my favourites in the show, Annora Brown and H. G. Glyde, had roots removed from the Algoma Seven, Glyde’s in the Mexican Muralists and Brown’s in the Italian Futurists. Mais n’enculons pas des mouches.

In any case, Alberta and the Group of Seven is a gorgeous and thought provoking gem which I fear is being overlooked.

After savouring “Alberta and the Group of Seven”, head over to Grandin Station and take the next northbound train a few stations to Churchill.  Or, better, walk north to 100th Avenue and then east to where it curves north to become 102 Street. Here you’ll see the view captured by H. G. Glyde in one of my favourite paintings.

Turn right (east) on to Macdonald Drive and enjoy the river view until you turn north on 100 Street. Continue to the southwest corner of Churchill Square.  Diagonally across the Square is the Art Gallery of Alberta (that thing with the silver ribbon).
  In the AGA you’ll have your socks blown off by the other two exhibits on this little itinerary.

On the ground floor (a little past a tiny work by yours truly)  we have Out of the Woods: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, an eye-opening  show curated from the AGA’s own collection.  Some of these works are the reason I was excited about the AGA’s rebuild, hoping there would be a room dedicated to rotating the Gallery’s collection out of its warehouse and onto display.  Look at Thomson’s “Fisherman”! The ripples in the pool! And Carmichael’s “The Valley”! And Lawren Harris’ Futurist drawing and print of a Toronto Street!

The works in Out of the Woods, because the Edmonton Art Gallery (predecessor to the AGA) was a little late to the Group of Seven collecting game, are not the popular works which sold well from the beginning.  These are works passed over as less approachable, more difficult, transitional, and exploratory.  In short, these are works most important for an understanding of what Thomson and the Group were trying to do.  On its own, Out of the Woods is a show to make springtime in Edmonton a Heaven.

But, go upstairs to the second floor.  Go into the little RBC New Works Gallery and savour Britney and Richelle Bear Hat’s Little Cree Women and know that if not for the giant, heroic, woman-of-myth Daphne Odjig, whose works you will soon witness, the Bear Hat sisters would never have been allowed to show their art outside a handicraft shop.  Pause for a moment and consider what might have been — what has been — lost.

Now. Take a deep breath. It’s time for 7. The most important Seven. The seven members of Professional Native Indian Artists, Incorporated. Daphne Odjig and these six men changed the world of Art, in Canada, and around the world. In a single decade the shattered the colonial and academic chains that had bound professional art for generations.  Odjig and her colleagues completed the work that other Group of Seven had tentatively started.  These seven people in the heart of Turtle Island tore apart the European vision, they huffed and puffed and blew away the European academic straitjacket.  More than any one person, I would argue, Daphne Odjig, “Picasso’s Mother” in Norval Morrisseau’s words, more than any one group, Professional Native Indian Artists, Inc. broke the European Academic cycle of dominance.  They made Art, with a capital “A”, something not just European, but something universally human.

You’re pretty lucky to be standing here, in Amiskwaciwâskahikan, before Daphne Odjig’s Mother Earth, a little way from Alex Janvier’s Cold Lake Sunset, Norval Morrisseau’s Christ,and so on. You stand surrounded by pivotal works in the history of Art.


Alberta and the Group of Seven is at the Borealis Gallery until May 23, 2016.

Out of the Woods: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until April 17, 2016

Little Cree Women is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until July 3, 2016.

7: Professional Native Indian Artists, Inc. is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until July 3, 2016.

The Briefest of Thoughts on Canada Reads 2016 after the first day

Some exceptionally paraphrastic and subjective reactions to the Canada Reads 2016 shortlisted books after the first day of debate (maybe I’ll share more expansive thoughts in days to come):

Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter – I haven’t finished reading it yet, but my initial impression is very positive in a sort of David-Adams-Richards-depressive way.

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg – This was the first of the five titles I read and I found myself underwhelmed. I found it to be fairly unenthralling, not terribly engaging, and disappointing considering the positive things I’d heard.

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz – The second book I read and I was enthralled. I totally felt it couldn’t be beaten, until

The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami – This is an engaging, enthralling, poetic, beautiful, bitter-sweet, realistic, lovely novel.  The Hero’s Walk is a novel of Classic quality that will be read for generations, whatever happens on Canada Reads.

The Illegal by Laurence Hill – For most of the time I was reading The Illegal I felt like I was reading a somewhat sophisticated version of one of Heinlein’s “Juvenile” science fiction novels.   I felt like Laurence Hill was wielding a sledge hammer of didactic message and a clumsy tissue of coincidence. Seriously: everyone is startlingly in the right place at the right time. Are there only ten people in this imaginary land?

In the end, leaving Minister Without Portfolio out of the discussion as it has been left out of the discussion, The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami is the finest novel on the Canada Reads 2016 short list, whatever its relation to the theme of “Starting Over” is seen to be.

Veiled Thoughts on “Alice Through the Looking Glass” at the Citadel Theatre

That was an hilarious, over-the-top romp! The all-Edmonton cast at The Citadel Theatre in this version of the Stratford Festival-National Arts Centre production of Alice Through the Looking Glass is by turns mystifying, magical, joyful, creepy, playful, and tender, but always thoroughly charming and endearing. This Looking Glass House and Garden are populated by all the characters to be expected from Lewis Carroll’s book with the addition of an at times disturbing chorus of dark-haired, dark-cross-dressed Alice Doppelgangers.

The cast is consistently outstanding – a demonstration of the depth and breadth of the talent pool in Edmonton’s theatre community. It would be pointless to single out individuals as all are a joy to watch in their multiple rolls.

I don’t want to post any spoilers, so, my brief thoughts are veiled:

The Fourth Wall is the Looking Glass, and the characters break the Fourth Wall in a very sweet way.

Everthing is reversed/inverted/turned about in Alice: upstage/downstage, onstage/backstage, House/stage, audience/cast. While the cross-dressing of the Alice Doppelgangers is an obvious inversion, what I found to be  a witty, smart, easy-to-miss, and powerful-in-post-TRC-Edmonton-and-Canada casting decision was to have a White guy play the Red Knight and a Native guy – the brilliant Sheldon Elert (oops! I singled him out!) – play the White Knight.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is, of course, a celebration of childhood, a gentle reminder to adults who may have lost touch with their happy, frightened, puzzled, fascinated inner child, and an homage to magnificently successful and sensible nonsense of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. But here, in this production at the Citadel Theatre in its Fiftieth Anniversary Season, I think Alice is also a bit of a love letter, a bit of a note home from a still-young but oh so precocious city to and from itself. That guy up on the wall in the egg costume lives down the road and dresses up like a fountain. That guy in the Victorian little girl’s dress is the guy you see playing in the local ukelele band or walking through Old Strathcona with the bright pink shirt on, a guitar over his shoulder. Alice is the nervous kid starting out at Grant MacEwan. And all of those people on stage you’ve seen so many times before pacing the boards of the theatres – or raising a glass in the pubs or a cup in the coffee shops – of Whyte, Jasper, 124th, 118th, or the French Quarter.

Happy Birthday, Citadel Theatre! And, Thank You! to the larger Edmonton theatre and arts community. You’ve helped make Edmonton both a Looking Glass House and a Wonderland!

Oh, and:

Alice Through the Looking Glass is the most fun you’re going to have at the theatre in a long time. Maybe ever. Go see it. At the Citadel. Until March 20th, 2016.

A Very Brief Visit to “Alberta (and the Group of Seven)”

This afternoon I dropped in on Alberta and the Group of Seven at the Borealis Gallery at the Federal Building on the Alberta Legislature grounds.  For some reason I had it in my head that this was principally an exhibition of works by the Group of Seven with Alberta subjects. What a pleasant surprise when the first work my eye fell on was “Clinging Clouds, Mount Assiniboine” by Annora Brown, one of my favourite Alberta painters! And next works by the Whytes of Banff, and H. G. Glyde, Euphemia McNaught, Evelyn McBryan . . . !  Yes there were a few small Lawren Harris pieces and some by Jackson, Lismer and Macdonald. But really, this is an exhibition of Alberta artists to which the works of Group of Seven members are a footnote.

My visit today was brief, a quick taste which left me desperately hungry for more. Another must-see in Edmonton’s Art Scene.

After the gallery, the Legislative Assembly Interpretive Centre staff encouraged me to take in the show at the Pehonan Theatre next door.  It was a pleasantly immersive tour through Alberta History guided by Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, the Province’s namesake.  The venue is impressive, reminiscent of a planetarium, but the script given Princess Alberta forced me to ask “does no one know anymore the meaning of ‘begs the question‘?”


Alberta and the Group of Seven continues at the Borealis Gallery until May 23, 2016.

“The Other” at The Roxy on Gateway


That was a pleasantly intense evening of theatre!

Tonight (March 8, 2016) the stars aligned and I was able to get to a play with a companion other than my usual, sometimes distracting sidekick. The play was Matthew MacKenzie’s The Other on its world premier run at The Roxy on Gateway.  Run, don’t walk to this play — you’ve only five more chances to see it before it goes off to Toronto or some other hole on its tour of the provinces.

As we sipped our wine before the show we chatted with the lady selling the 50 50 tickets (gotta rebuild the Roxy!) about the state of theatre – and other arts and things – in Edmonton. “My daughter went off to Toronto and Portland and so on and called me saying ‘Mom I wanna come home to Edmonton – I miss the theatre!’.”

It’s true, friends: Edmonton is the place to be for live theatre (and so much else), whether you’re making theatre in the remarkably collaborative and mutually supportive bunch of companies that tread our boards, or out in the audience being blown away by what our neighbours are offering us from beneath the proscenium arch.

Before going into the play, about all I knew about The Other was: the “perpetual other woman” nature of  the main character; that the star was Amber Borotsik, who I knew as Grendel’s Mother and Prospero’s Ariel; that it was from the bunch who brought us Bear, which I regrettably missed; that Dance would be involved; and that it was said to be darn good.

What I found out is that The Other has its roots firmly in the ever rich soil of Classic Greek Drama; that Matthew MacKenzie writes dramatic poetry, that Amber Borotsik and the Good Women Dance Collective are wicked-good performers; that Pyretic Productions and Good Women Dance Collective weave dramaturgic magic; and that I’m inconceivably fortunate to live in this city.

The Other is in a sense a one-woman-show: Amber Borostik has the only speaking role and she speaks constantly, while constantly dancing, for the whole eighty minutes or so of the show.  The intensity of Borotsik’s performance stands for me beside that of Cliff Cardinal in Huff at this year’s Rubaboo Festival and Annette Loiselle in The Mothers at last year’s SkirtsAFire Festival. There is something awe-inspiring to me about one individual carrying the entire verbal burden of a piece of theatre. When I was much younger I had the privilege of seeing Roy Dotrice in his magically stinky Brief Lives at The Citadel.  A wonderful piece of Theatre, but not the Drama of The Mothers, Huff, or The Other.

But wait! Look at the gestures, the facial expressions of the Chorus (Alison Kause, Alida Nyquist-Schultz, Krista Posniak, Aimee Rushton, and Kate Stashko)!  They are a Chorus pulled straight from Euripides but their language is Gesture rather than Greek!  As much as Borotsik’s performance is a tour de force, this is an ensemble achievement. The contribution of the Collective must not be minimized.

As for this “perpetual other woman” thing: that is decidedly not what The Other is about. The Other is about love, lust, hurt, Alberta, food(ie) culture, history, dreams, refugees, Fascism, horticulture, magic, multiculturalism, Edmonton, mythology, NIMBYism, Peace River, loneliness, and how we deal with it. All.

No spoilers there!

The Other, although I had to choke back one or two cosmological quibbles, is everything I could want in Theatre –in Drama.  In fact, I think The Other managed to give me a few things I never imagined I wanted from Live Theatre. And that is a very good thing.

The Other, presented as a part of Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series by Pyretic Productions and Good Women Dance Collective is at The Roxy on Gateway until March 13th.

Don’t miss it.