Wednesday, 25 April 2007

I Advise You to Rock it Out...

Welcome to the Brick Lane Advice Booth. The most appropriate London conception since one gaslit evening Charles Dicken's parents decided they liked the cut of the other person's jib. Every Sunday, from about 2pm onwards, my partner and I lug a table, four chairs, a lollipop jar and an old typewriter down to the Brick Lane Market, and for the low low price of a pound, we offer to listen to your problems.

We've had a lot of problems. I mean, yes, we personally, like everyone, have had them, but what I'm referring to is solving other people's problems, which is exactly what we're aiming to do. There are a few questions we get asked all the time. The first is, "what exactly is this?" (Which is a question our myspace friend Sebastian recently posted on the comment board.) Some people think it's political art, some people think it's performance art (especially when they hear about my penchant for the theatrical) some people think we're begging (jerks) and some people just get it. It is exactly what it claims to be- two perfect strangers who, for one (refundable) pound are willing to listen to your problems and let you know what we think you should do about them. I guess it is art, and it is political, but only in the sense that in these rotten times just about everything could be called art or political. What it really is is a service that we hope to provide to a lonely city. In a place where friends are about as easy to grow and shed as hairs, sometimes you need someone who is willing to empathize for half an hour or so.

And it's not a counsellor, or a psychiatrist, making it slightly less formal and much less expensive.

Which brings me to the second question we're most often asked: "What qualifications do you have to be doing this?" I should probably point out firstly that this question is ridiculous when there is a poorly drawn sign above our head that says in Pencil Crayons "Advice One Pound." To have someone take your lollipop, sit themselves down, give you one whole pound, and then ask to see your psychiatry degree shows just how far the currency of a university education has plummeted. We used to get defensive and explain that my partner has a postgrad in English and I am working on a postgrad in Theatre. But now we just smile broadly and reply loudly, "We're not qualified. We're just willing to listen." Which seems to satisfy every one from Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z. Why the heck would we need a degree anyway? Do your friends have degrees in psychology? Does your mother? (Don't answer that. It doesn't matter if they do.) What they definitely have is an ability to listen. And what we have that they don't have is the objective distance of a stranger.

I'll expand: A very attractive woman came up to our booth and explained that a guy she liked wasn't calling her. What should she do and how long should she wait? (We get this type of question at least once a week, and it is always asked by exceptionally attractive, funny and interesting women. I had no idea how wide spread evolution's terrible joke of wanting someone because they seem unavailable really was until I started doing this booth.) It was incredibly satisfying to be able to say, "I think he doesn't appreciate you, and to be honest I think he never will. You should just get over it and move on with your life. I think you're his 'just in case' girl, and you deserve to be more than that." Now, if I'd said this to a friend they probably would have slapped me, but she smiled gratefully and said, "I had a feeling that might be it. Thank you." Of course there is always the danger that she was just generally a bit of a pessimist about him for no reason, but if a guy hasn't texted you back in two weeks, generally it does mean you should forget about him.

So sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, which we realize. We often comment that when someone asks you for advice they always hint to you what kind of answer they would like, it's more often their reason for wanting that answer that you should delve into. "My friend is really mad at me, but that doesn't make me a bad person, does it?" for example, usually means that the person asking actually does feel guilty and probably should apologize to their friend. They are looking for reassurance. Whereas some people are just looking for that extra step, that outside push to get them to move on with their lives, or behave a little bit more courageously.

I don't always feel like the advice is perfect. Sometimes I struggle with what to tell someone, I worry that they will take us too seriously. (Loads of people have asked us if we are fortune tellers, which we most certainly are not.) But I suppose I always try to listen, my partner does too, and what we really get out of it at the end of the day is a nice way of remembering that we're all in this together. (whatever it is.)

Although what we do most definitely is not theatre, I will for a moment compare the two. A friend of mine recently commented that people go to see plays to empathize with the characters. Empathy is the most important barometer of success. Upon reflection I realized that empathy in theatre is a two way street- as a playwright or actor or director or theatre-maker, so much of what we do is about asking the audience to empathize. Rainer Werner Fassbinder said in an interview about film making, "I work because somehow when I work I feel less alone." People go to see plays and enjoy them for this same reason- to be broken for a brief moment out of the solitude of existence. Like the advice booth, if you share your experiences, we'll share ours, and even though we're strangers, and things are scary, and this is London, we're all so very alike. So that's what it comes down to, for me- a moment where, with the comfort of a marketable exchange (a pound) we can all remember that we're here. Which is the best we can ever do, to be fair.

Friday, 20 April 2007

The time is now... so get creating!

Forest Fringe: Freedom at the Fringe

Why we’re Different
During the year the Forest is an arts space which is volunteer run, self funding, not-for-profit, and always free access. This August, for the first time ever, Forest Fringe will open in Bristo Hall, a converted performance and workshop space above the cafe, holding free readings, workshops, performances and scratch opportunities throughout the Festival. Use of this space is free. Ticket prices are also free. Forest Fringe aims to provide high quality emerging artists with an opportunity to workshop theatre or performance art risk free. We also aim to expose and engage Fringe-goers with exciting new work at various stages of development from around the world.

How we Work
Forest Fringe will be volunteer based, like the organic Forest café. After they are approved, companies are free to use the space provided that they commit some of their own time to helping the venue run smoothly. This could mean building other companies’ sets, running lighting boards, some publicity, or running a workshop.
Performances will mostly be workshop based, but we are open to suggestions. Here are some of our ideas:

Rehearsed Readings: Emerging Writers are particularly encouraged to submit work for one-off rehearsed readings in the venue. Forest Fringe hopes to stage as many new play readings with writers present as possible.

Company Works-in-Progress: Companies do not need to commit to a full two or three week run. Young companies performing shows elsewhere are encouraged to use the space for publicly scratching new material.

Practical Workshops: One way for companies to volunteer time to running the venue is by volunteering to run a free workshop in the venue. Puppetry, writing, improvisation, directing- whatever your skill, if you can teach, we’d like you to share it.

The Forest is fully flexible regarding the length of a run, though dates will be confirmed by the venue for the 15th of June, 2007.

Although Forest Fringe has chosen not to be part of the Fringe Program, the busy Forest Café located between the Royal Mile and Bristo Square will provide a constant source for audience members. Performances and workshops must be free of charge, though companies can “pass the hat” at their discretion.
What We Are Not
Forest Fringe is for emerging artists to have a free space to expose their work. We will not be in the Fringe diary, we will not have a number above our building, and we expect performers to be kind, flexible, and on the edge of their art.

If you’d like to do something Completely Different
Let us know! Since this is the first year that the Forest is running a free access venue we are open to suggestions. If you have an excellent idea for a performance, a reading, an exhibit, or any other use of the space, then apply anyway.

To Apply
Email with your company name and idea. If you are a writer send in the script or idea for the play you would like to stage as a reading. We will send you details from there. Applications should be received by the 30th of May, 2007.

Friday, 13 April 2007


I'll confess. Two days ago, I searched an online dream dictionary. I'd been having a recurring dream about my house and room being on fire. As I have a particularly strange subconscious that actually delivers messages to conscious me, someone in the dream said, "You should probably look up fire, and find out what it means." And according to ancient symbolism and the internet- it meant a time of transition- a need to be re-inspired.

Well, like any fortune cookie, this fit my life by rote. I nodded at the computer screen and wondered where to go for the missing inspiration. I am visiting my hometown for a week very soon, but that trip is based around comfort and friends, not writing. Fact was, I was in need of something of a creative overhaul.

And then there was Paul Celan.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Yesterday, for those of you with the patience to read it, I sat down and struggled through a piece of prose that I posted on my blog. At the end of the piece I wrote about the curious silence that telling a story had given me. A stillness. Which was the thesis for nearly every paper I wrote at university- the inadequacy of language- poetry's ability to touch at something beyond its words. But to renew this kind of knowledge I need to hear the same thing said over and over again in different and interesting ways. Which is why Paul Celan's speech The Meridian came as something of a revelation for me with regards to theatre. In fact, I think it has temporarily changed my approach.

The essay is beautiful- at times harrowing,but pays off quietly when it challenges you. Celan begins with the obvious inadequacy of language in art. He quotes Georg Buchner, whose characer Lenz says,

As I was walking in the valley yesterday, I saw two girls sitting on a rock. One was putting up her hair, and the other helped. The golden hair hanging down, and a pale, serious face, so very young, and the black dress, and the other girl so careful and attentive. Even the finest, most intimate paintings of the old German masters can hardly give you an idea of the scene. Sometimes one would like to be a Medusa's head to turn such a group to stone and gather the people around it

This reminded me of the Joanna Newsom lyric from Mild Eyed Mender:

"And the signified butthead with the signifiers,

and we all fall down slack jawed to marvel at words,

when across the sky shoot the impossible birds

in a steady illiterate movement homewards."

Okay, I'm getting at something, but maybe I'm trying too hard to explain it. And Celan gets at something too, something impossibly important for a writer. Nature contains these moments of perfect stillness. It effortlessly creates a painting you'll never put to canvas, a drama that would be cheapened on stage, moments so beautiful they break your heart happen every day. If as humans we were able to do it as easily as nature does, well, we'd all be so overwhelmed we'd barely move. This is part of what love is about, isn't it? Looking at someone else and seeing that still perfection. That wordless truth, to borrow from Newsom, a kind of illiterate impossibility. Infinite and contained.

Celan explains it beautifully:

"Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way - the way of art - for the sake of just such a turn? And since the strange, the abyss and Medusa's head, the abyss and automaton, all seem to lie in the same direction - it is perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? It is perhaps here, in this one brief moment, that Medusa's head shrivels and the automatons run down? Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?"

A silence. An impossible explanation. A wordless stillness. The moment between exhaling and inhaling. We've all felt it- it's that quiet kind of resolution, resolution isn't the word, of course it isn't- but the great relief of a pause that is produced by worthy art.

I think my creative block had come formost from writing withtheaim of success, rather than from the aim of achieving this stillness, even for myself, as the writer. This turn of breath. I won't go so far as to say that without it you have created a craft rather than an art... but I will go so far as to say that I suspect this may be the secret. If you want anyone else to feel the turn, the stillness, you must feel it first. It will not come as a result of a formula, it will not happen because your best laid plans in a script begin to intertwine beautifully (though that is a different and equally breathless joy) it will not be forced because you are tired of writing. It will settle upon you like a layer of dust. It will ground you. And you will know to stop. Celan: "Enlarge art? No. On the contrary, take art with you into your innermost narrowness. And set yourself free."

I am interested in beginning to write with this feeling of stillness at heart. A friend of mine often quotes Ezra Pound when he said, "All poetry aspires to the quality of music." Celan, on the contrary says, " It is true, the poem, the poem today shows - and this has only indirectly to do with the difficulties of vocabulary, the faster flow of syntax or a more awakened sense of ellipsis, none of which should underrate - the poem clearly shows a strong tendency towards silence."

If theatre were more like poetry- if theatre were to accept that it is more closely related to poetry than it remembers- and even, in spite of its best efforts, is moving in the same circles- I am not suggesting iambic pentameter or dedicating all theatre to Shakespeare, not in the least! But aiming toward that same quality of stillness that poetry has always unashamedly aspired to. That's a play I'd like to see. Or write. (or write.)

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Just what kind of a gal I am...

Hello all,

I compiled a list of new writing companies in the UK for, so until they edit and post it, I'll post it myself for any other new playwriting Junkies out there. In exchange for using my super helpful list, you must promise to at least try to read the prose I posted earlier today. So I barter for readers, so what?

New Writing Companies- UK


Paines Plough-
Paines Plough is an award-winning nationally and internationally renowned touring theatre company, specialising exclusively in the commissioning and development of contemporary playwrights and the production of their work on stage.

Bush Theatre-
With around 40,000 people enjoying productions each year, The Bush has produced hundreds of ground-breaking premieres since its inception 34 years ago. The theatre produces up to eight productions of new plays a year, many of them Bush commissions, and hosts guest productions by leading companies and artists from all over the world.

Soho Theatre-
Soho discovers and nurtures new writers from the broadest backgrounds. They do this through a wide range of Writers' Centre activities, aimed at developing writers to work in theatre as well as film, TV and radio; and through education work, aimed at encouraging people to write for performance and to connect with theatre as an art form.

Hampstead Theatre-
Hampstead Theatre is a company fast approaching its fiftieth, with a particular mission: to find, develop, and produce new plays to the highest possible standards. Their work remains rooted in London’s community but is both national and international in its scope and ambition. Occasionally, Hampstead will do a revival of an old play but only when there is an artistic and financial imperative to do so.

Red Room-
The Red Room exists to free the imagination against the status quo. They aim to create work that is original, daring, provocative and inspiring, for audiences who question the changing world. The work is meant to impact on wider society, so they actively develop artists and audiences from the widest variety of social and cultural backgrounds. They also involve ourselves in debates and activism around culture and politics. The Red Room believes that theatre should be a genuinely public art form.

Gate Theatre-
The Gate is London's only theatre dedicated to producing international work. The Gate encourages emerging artists to push boundaries- as writers, directors and set designers.

Arcola Theatre-
Located in the centre of Hackney, Arcola has a young writer’s group and a focus on new work, but does not accept unsolicited scripts.

Royal Court Theatre-
The Royal Court Theatre is Britain's leading national company dedicated to new work by innovative writers from the UK and around the world. The theatre's pivotal role in promoting new voices is undisputed - the New York Times recently described it as 'the most important theatre in Europe'.

National Theatre-
In three theatres on the South Bank in London, the National presents an eclectic mix of new plays and classics, with seven or eight productions in repertory at any one time. It aims constantly to re-energise the great traditions of the British stage and to expand the horizons of audiences and artists alike. It aspires to reflect in its repertoire the diversity of British culture. The National also runs an extensive education program for new writers, and a Studio space to explore new work.

Fringe London

White Bear-
The White Bear is one of London's oldest fringe venues. It specialises in new writing and is well-eastbalished breeding ground for new writers - Joe Penhall, Kwami Kwei Armah and Torben Betts all started their careers at The White Bear.

Camden People’s Theatre-
CPT produces, promotes and supports professional theatre from innovative emerging companies. Placing special emphasis on movement, gesture, and visual impact, recognising that these are integral in making theatre accessible on a cross-cultural basis, CPT prioritises work which has been developed through collaboration. CPT is also invested in connecting with its community of South Camden/ West Euston.

Grey Light Productions is a young professional theatre company set up to produce and promote new writing.

Tabard Theatre-
The Tabard Theatre opened in Chiswick in 1985 and built a strong reputation for new writing, something which continues to this day. However, the theatre now hosts all kinds of live entertainment from experimental work to Shakespeare and enjoys the support of a loyal local audience and, thanks to its location, visitors from all over London.

Finborough Theatre-
Founded in 1980, the multi-award-winning Finborough Theatre presents new British writing, UK premieres of overseas drama, particularly from the United States, Ireland, Canada and Australia, music theatre and an idiosyncratic selection of unjustly neglected work from the last 150 years. Finborough Theatre hosts the Pearson Playwriting Residency prize every year, awarded to an emerging playwright.


Warehouse Theatre Croydon-
Through their International Playwriting Festival the theatre has discovered and launched the career of a host of successful writers and it has also had much success in transferring plays to the West End and other London theatres, and touring both nationally and internationally.

Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse-
Liverpool Everyman has a busy Literary Department, working to nurture the next generation of Liverpool playwrights. A wide-ranging Community Department takes the theatre’s work to all corners of the city and surrounding areas, and works in partnership with schools, colleges, youth and community groups to open up the theatres to all. Liverpool Everyman is the city’s major employer of theatre artists, artisans and skilled support staff.

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester-
Once a year The Royal Exchange Theatre hosts the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition, the most prestigious playwriting competition in the UK- awarding 20,000 pounds and a production to an unproduced play. The Royal Exchange has presented over sixty premieres since it opened in 1976, and recently opened a ninety seat studio dedicated to new writing.


Drama Association of Wales (Cymdeithas Ddrama Cymru)-
A registered charity since 1934, the association offers a wide range of services to Community Drama.

Clwyd Theatr Cymru-
Home of a highly acclaimed producing company, which also presents much of its work on tour throughout Wales and the rest of the UK. The company produces mainly in English, but also in Welsh. There is a fully integrated Theatre for Young People department which uses the same performers, technicians and creative staff to achieve the same high production values as the mainstream product. The theatre also hosts a variety of touring drama, dance, music and a community Festival in the Summer. There are around 900 public performances per year.


Traverse Theatre-
The Traverse has an unrivalled reputation for producing contemporary theatre of the highest quality, invention and energy, commissioning and supporting writers from Scotland and around the world and facilitating numerous script development workshops, rehearsed readings and public writing workshops. The Traverse aims to produce several major new theatre productions plus a Scottish touring production each year. It is unique in Scotland in its exclusive dedication to new writing, providing the infrastructure, professional support and expertise to ensure the development of a sustainable and relevant theatre culture for Scotland and the UK.

Arches Glasgow-
The Arches Theatre Company run two annual festivals of new work each year: the Arches Theatre Festival in April features plays by the two winners of our Arches Award for Stage Directors run in conjunction with NTS, the Tron and Traverse Theatre, which offers commissions to the most exceptional young directors and playwrights working in Scotland. Arches LIVE! a September festival, offers a supportive environment allowing young companies a platform for creative experimentation and risk-taking. Nurturing emergent talent is at the core of the Arches philosophy, and they’ve recently developed a programme of Scratch Nights inspired by London’s BAC, which will further encourage artistic collaborations and generate new work.

Tron Theatre-
The Tron focuses on both new writing and dynamic productions of classic texts, making full use of available Scottish talent.

Edinburgh Fringe Venues

Assembly Rooms-

Aurora Nova-



Official Edinburgh Fringe website:

Edinburgh Fringe New Writing Opportunity

New Work at the Forest-
For the first time in 2007, Arts Venue the Forest will host readings, workshops and scratch performances for emerging writers and companies over the Edinburgh International Fringe. Rental of venue for performances is free. Visit the Forest website for more information on how to apply.

About Ilse Dobler

They say the best way is to be working at a desk. And not listening to music. In a room with no distractions. I could wash down the drawers I brought in from outside. Neutral Milk Hotel certainly are wonderful. Jesus Christ or swimming by a lake. Sunlight streaming in through windows. Things you need a melody to uncliche.

David, Carolyn and I stood squinting at each other in the sun. We could hear that sound, the one almost like a cricket you only hear on a very hot day. High pitched, it never suits semi suburban cities like Kingston. The kind of sound that’s reproduced for movies about Vietnam or the desert. Concrete everywhere, outside a shopping mall somewhere near the highway. The dry cleaners where we asked told us we were an hour early for the bus.
Indoor shopping centres are the easiest places to lose interest in when you’re trying to have an adventure. Oh yes, the Adventure. Perhaps that’s where I start.

Or stop. What is this? Of course it's only as I am getting into things that I don’t feel like writing any more. Prose prose prose. Who needs it? Who even reads it any more? I don’t. Kurt Vonnegut died today. One of the last true torch bearers. Without him who publishes all that’s getting written? Who reads all that’s getting published? Maybe I’ll put this on my blog so the five friends I have who are occasionally curious about me will read it. Hi ho. (sure, make a sly reference. As though that’s not both painfully obvious and a little too obscure. Back patting references. Good work, you read. So happy for you. Now write, you pathetic, useless…) Hi ho.

Carolyn and I were officially spending one of the most

Hyperbolize, why not?

Carolyn and I were officially spending one of the most boring summers of my life together. Having stayed in our university town of Kingston slightly too long after semester ended, it was becoming apparent that there was nothing to do.

In retrospect, that “nothing to do” feeling was glorious and simple. Unemployed, but twenty. The comfort of another two years of legitimate study to pat myself on the back with. I actually felt excited to find a job.

We devised a plan to combat the ennui. Ennui? Ennui. Rooted in Adventure… It started when we were so bored we took an inflatable bunny rabbit her mother had given her for Easter and shot pictures of it all over Kingston. After that wore out, we took a ferry to Wolfe Island- a small residential island across the bay. We shot photos of the rabbit everywhere- most notably with an old couple.

You're summarizing. Stop summarizing. It’s boring to you, but at least try and make it exciting to the reader. That’s what this prose thing is supposed to be about.

We’d been walking on the island so long I had blisters. We considered sustenance sustenance? from the family owned pizza parlour a local video store clerk recommended to us. She said everyone ate there. When we got there "everyone" meant an old guy named Joe, who probably spent most of his day both annoying the waitress and keeping her sane. As vegetarians a defrost pizza was the best on offer.

This reads too much like memoirs. Yes it happened, but I don’t want that to be obvious. everyone will know how terrible I am at making up stories. Okay, third-person-present-tense starts now. Ah, the grammatical ruse…

Deborah and Carolyn look over at each other. Even the inflatable bunny rabbit seems disappointed. Silently, they decide to find somewhere more worthy of an adventure, bidding their goodbyes to Joe and the lonely waitress.
Only steps away is a restaurant, off the beaten path, looking down on the harbour. The sign above the wooden door reads “The Sportsman Café”. If variety is the spice of life, Wolfe Island’s restaurant selection tastes of luke warm porridge.

Sitting down with menus, the décor of the restaurant is their main topic of conversation. Canadiana of the least Canadian genre hangs wall to wall. A mounted Moose head over the mantle piece, a rustic fire turned up full blast, and fishing rods with old tackle line the walls. This is a slice of the country the girls are unfamiliar with in their country of birth. The stereotype. They spy a poster hanging among the bric a brac. Santorini. Dotted among the bludgeonly Canadian stuff are beautiful pictures of Greek Islands, reminding them of how they’d rather be somewhere else. They exchange a look, wishing their adventures were slightly more adventurous. A heavily accented old woman asks for their order.

Ack I am so bored of this already. During that last paragraph I thought about why I shouldn’t write prose at least four times. Every sentence is peppered with hatred and doubt. Canada, Canadiana, @:@:~, it’s all so :@:@::@y typical. Who cares? I don’t care about writing about Canada. I’m bored of this story already. Surely writing a story should be automatic, as easy to write as it is to hate trying to write it.

I’m in that restaurant, right, and Carolyn is there, holding the bunny. The lady walks up. She’s Greek. She’s says, “What do you guys want from our ultra Canadian menu?” (Which looked awful) and we say, “Where are you from?”
Then out comes her husband from the back, turns out they’re both Greek as salad, so that’s what we order, salad, and that’s what she brings us, a beautiful big Greek salad like I hadn’t tasted in months. Delicious. We ask her to hold the bunny and pose- but she is laughing so hard as soon as she looks at it that the picture is her, holding the bunny at arms length, laughing. The only really clear image I have of that whole day. This old Greek lady, holding the bunny, laughing.

We’d decided that we liked adventures- wanted more of them. We were so effing bored with nothing to do that we planned to devise crazy things to shake Kingston up a bit. That was when our flatmate Kat told us about the Casino bus that she’d been taking to Ottawa for free.

Apparently, you paid ten dollars, and a bus came to pick you up and drove you to a casino two hours away in Ottawa. (The Boring Nation’s Capital.) On arrival you were given fifteen dollars in chips you could cash in immediately. This meant that by taking the bus you actually stood to profit five dollars. And it went back to Kingston at the end of the day for free.

That’s why we were in the parking lot: Dave, Carolyn and I. We’d showed up early for the bus. When it finally did come loads of older people had already arrived. They were hard steely gamblers. Their slots machine strategies and bus buddies were pre-sorted.

Our manners meant that the elderly got on first. They were very old and we were very young. When the very last of them was finally been helped up the stairs, we bounded through the doors to find that the bus was practically full. We couldn't sit together. We all found a single next to the casino regulars who for some reason or another didn’t have a bus buddy.

Mine was an old woman with a heavy German accent. Small and cute, the way some women get. She dyed her hair a strange copper blonde. Through the window, she waved goodbye at her smiling husband. She told me she’d been married to him for fifty years. My boyfriend at the time was a bit of a douche bag. I couldn’t really picture myself with him for another fifty, let alone two. Which is exactly what happened, when two years down the line he called me and said it wasn’t working. I cried. He said his mum needed help with the dishes at three in the morning. I could hear her in the background bailing him out. He hung up. I didn’t hear from him again for months. Truly a bit of a douche bag. (If you read this, Adam, I don't necessarily mean it. But putting it any other way deteriorates the narrative. Plus, douche bag is a funny word.)

But there’s this old lady, waving goodbye, the bus takes off, and she unwraps some sandwiches. She starts eating and offers me one. I said yes because I never turn down a tasty sandwich. Unwrapped it, peanut butter and jelly, the sandwich of Gods. I’m chew chew chewing it the way one does with a really good sandwich, when I decide in my adventurous mood that I must have a conversation with this woman. Not merely a conversation - but a really effing good conversation, to tell Dave and Carolyn about it when we get off the bus. I look back at them, and they are both already engaged in what look like really good conversations. Carolyn catches my eyes and winks at me. Fucknuts. I must win.

I ask the most obvious questions first:

Where are you from?


How long have you lived here?

Sixty years.

Do you have any children?

A daughter in Scarborough. She has a budgie named Chico. (The old lady laughs, delighted.)

That’s cool. I’m from Toronto. My grandmother and mum are Hungarian.

She’s not really interested.

So I’d already run out of interesting topics of conversation. The only other option was to talk about what everyone had been talking about lately. Spring of 2003, Bush had just declared war on Iraq:
What do you think of this war coming up?

Terrible terrible, she said.

And I thought, of course you think it’s terrible, you’re a cool old lady and you just gave me half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you rock.

Yes, yes, she says, War, why always war? People want peace, not war.

Peace, you’re right, I said. What a cool old lady.

They compare Sadam Hussein to Hitler, you can’t compare him to Hitler, she says.

Right on, I think.

Hitler was a kind man. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

Yeah, because… Wait, what?

Yes, Hitler was a good man. He did good things for Germany.

What about the holocaust?

Pffff. (She makes a strange noise with her mouth.)

All of the Jewish people? You know, who died?

We did not know this went on. It was not so bad as that, my father’s tailor was Jewish. He did business with him years.

Right… I say, wondering if there was Nazi syonide in my peanut butter and Jew-hating sandwich.

They bomb Germany too, at end of war. Canadians bombed us. The streets were covered in yellow powder. Women and children dying in the streets.

Oh. I said. Not knowing what else to say. Maybe that was true, but my grandmother’s father was a Hungarian Jew. My grandmother had to hide all throughout the war in a convent. She lost her father and his entire family! Yellow powder, sounds awful. But War is awful. The losing side is awful- and, well, the Germans started it.

Germany was very poor, she went on.

(The old lady didn’t have anyone to sit next to her on the bus to the casino because she’d talk your ear off about why Hitler was a good man. Hi ho.) yes.

The bus stopped. A too peppy someone handed us a fifteen pound vouchers for chips. And I had a story.
I told Dave and Carolyn. They laughed at the nazi bus buddy all day. We didn't gamble.

In the evening, when the bus arrived to take us back to Kingston, I desperately wanted to avoid her, but she found me in the parking lot. She made it clear that I was her bus buddy and that this was an all day commitment.

I sat down angrily on the bus beside her. She took out another two sandwiches. She offered me one, “No, I’m okay” I started to say, until she shoved it into my hand. The bus took off. I started eating the forced sandwich. She talked away.
Turned out this old German woman was quite a chatter box. She went on and on about her daughter’s budgie chico, how she missed her daughter, the business they set up in Canada. To be honest I was too busy respecting my family to listen. Until she mentioned her stroke.

Stroke? I asked.

Yes, she said, two years ago. She She let me feel where they had inserted the disk. She was so delicate and fragile as she lead my hand up to feel right under her hairline. At once, I was sad and sorry for the whole business of this lonely German woman, her stroke, her daughter she never sees, her lonely opinions on the big lonely bus.

The sun set was shining through the window. Everything was that particular red colour, that beautiful end of day colour. The woman glowed. And I knew that I was having my revelation- the one that any character at the end of a short story is meant to have- and to be honest I don’t remember what the revelation was about any more. I just remember it was dark when we reached Kingston. I’d been buzzing and silent in the last bits of light, looking out the window or slyly at her for most of the journey.

When it finally did stop I knew I wanted to write about her. I wasn’t sure how, or when or if I ever actually would.

What’s your name? I asked.

Ilse Dobler, she said. We shook hands.

Four years later, the sun makes a window pane pattern on my early morning wall and bed. I sit and struggle with myself, again. I wonder if she’s still alive. I wonder where she is now. I still wonder if it’s right to write about her, as plainly as I just did. A story I’ve wanted to tell. A strange and quiet kind of silence I get after telling it. A stopping that comes easy, like words on a page or chewing a sandwich. Humbled by how large life is, by my own shoddy efforts to help a reader remember. Oh, it's useless-

Monday, 9 April 2007

John Guare: A kindred spirit, another odd duck in the pond

Have you ever read a writer and thought, "Get out of my head!" Then realized the scribe in question was writing thirty years before you were even a zygote?

(Vice Magazine's conversational dos and don'ts: DON'T ask a question in conversation simply because you want to be asked the same thing. Sorry about that. Though this is only a conversation with my blog. So I'll continue...)

Well I have! It was one of those books that burns a hole on your shelf. You keep meaning to force yourself to pick it up, but you nearly get to liking the look of it. You stop thinking of it as a book at all, but as more of a prop. The idea that the spine and pages could represent anything past their aesthetic qualities is baffling. I find the best way to deal with a Reader's Block like this one is to take the book somewhere you'll be desperate for reading material: On vacation, to the bathroom, to a particularly slow shift at work, the tube, you get my meaning...

And eventually you might just be compelled to delve deeper into this mysterious pagey object.

Let's take me and a copy of John Guare's "Four Baboons Adoring the Sun and Other Plays", which I had no real reason to not read for the two weeks it spent accumulating late fees from RADA's library. But sure enough, one week ago, while working the interminably long 10 hour shift at my hip video shop, I decided to spend some lonely hours reading the thing aloud. And what do you know, bit by bit the truth emerges- John Guare is a long lost soul mate. We're separated by the tragedy of decades and history, but here is one more Odd Duck for the pond. In fact, in his play, "The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year" a character says as much himself:

She: I like him very much. He's really an odd person - an odd duck. But he does tell me awfully funny stories. (to him, slyly) Hey, tell me a funny story?

He: They're not funny stories! They're true!

She: (To us.) True! Listen to this one, please. We're in the Zoo near the polar bear cage. Now I have never seen a polar bear. (Excited.) Hey, look at the polar bear! (SHE reaches to touch it through the bars.)

He: (Violently pulling her back.) Don't do that!!!

She: I never saw a polar bear, for God's sake. It won't kill me.

He: Won't kill you! Listen, ten years ago, my sister Lucy was a top debutante-

She: (Impressed.) Really?

He: And after her coming-out party at the Hotel Plaza back there, Lucy and her two escorts broke into this part of the Zoo and Lucy stuck her arm into this cage-this very cage- just as you did now before I stopped you. And this polar bear- (HE follows the polar bear with an accusing finger, shakes it three times.) No, I don't think it was this polar bear- this one doesn't look familiar- (SHE comes to him.) But the polar bear- the one ten years ago- bit my sister Lucy's arm right off at the breast! (HE turns away, covering his face.)


He: And we heard her screams clear all over the Plaza and the doctors came and (petulant) we all had to leave the coming-out party. I was very young - well, eighteen -

She: What did they do?

He: My parents shrieked, "Do something do something," and the doctors and all the ambulances which came (pantomimes dramatically) pulled Lucy's arm out of the polar bear's mouth and quickly sewed it back on. Modern surgery can do things like that.

She: (Truly horrified.) What happened? - Omigod!!!!

He: The arm grew back - thank God- but Lucy never went to another coming-out party again.

She: Boy, I can see why not.

He: Because enormous amounts of - she developed all over her body - enormous amounts of white polar bear hair and for her comfort we had to ship her to Alaska in a cage.

She: (Suspicious.) You're putting me on.

He: (Disparaging her disbelief.) You're from Ohio. You come from a nice little family. You don't understand the weirdness, the grief that people can spring from -

She: You're the oddest duck I've ever met.

He: (Horrified.) Ducks! You stay away from ducks. I can tell you a story about my aunt -
Alright, alright, it's not just the fact that he uses the term "odd duck" and that I use the term "odd duck"- though sometimes a similarity in vocabulary is all you need to fall in love with a writer. It's the fact that so many of his fixations seem to mirror my own.
Here's a fact you may not have wanted to know- my partner and I share a joke about two librarians who, after years of checking in books next to each other, have hands that casually brush then end up making out on the overdues stack. I guess it's just that nerdy lust thing- which being nerdy I can't help but relate to. Well John Guare has gone one better- and in another short play, A Day for Surprises, writes a whole monologue where a bookworm describes his love for the resident librarian:
I quickly undressed her and then myself and- while she arranged our things with the neatness that was her trademark and the bane of the overdue fine room, I arranged on the floor of the Neglected Masterpieces Section, a bed - a couch made of photostats of Elizabethan Love Lyrics. She said I've never loved anybody so I want this to be good. I said, oh, I had never loved anybody before either. So I took a copy of Love Without Fear and she took a Modern Manual on How to Do It, and we wrapped - like Christmas packages for people you love - wrapped our bodies, our phosphorescent, glowing, about-to-become-human bodies around each other. And began reading.
Wha-wha-what could be sexier or nerdier or sadder or cuter or both more and less real? Look at his bow tie... who is this man? "Get out of my bedroom!" (Which is what I would say, if a stranger, even in a cute tie, snuck into my bedroom. Because trespassing is creepy.)
So there you have it, John Guare, writer of Six Degrees of Separation just keeps getting better. If you fancy yourself an odd duck, you should check him out. Who knows what freaky stuff he's up to at your local library.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

We were born within an hour of each other...

My mom's response to What's in a Name. This comment was so good I just had to publish it on the blog.

Of course these are questions, I as your Mater had to consider when selecting a name for you. I was deeply affected by the responsibility of the choice- What to name my child?In fact I was unseemingly reluctant to make a definitive choice for several days after you were born.I'd study your infant face and try to discern what name would suit you for a lifetime.

Unlike other mothers who had a choice planned before they went into labour, I felt I needed to meet you before naming you.There were several candidate names at the time such as : Caroline- Your brother's choice because he didn't want his sister to have a name with the same first letter as his D- for David) In fact David went to his kindergarden class the day after you were born to announce that he had a sister called Caroline. It wasn't hard for him to do, as I was still in hospital with you and hadn't yet named you. The pressure to settle on Caroline was enormous.

Then I thought of Sara, a name I liked, that didn't end with "ee"- only problem was that I had a friend whose baby daughter was named Sara (I lost touch with this friend, so it wouldn't have mattered anyway at this point), but at the time I didn't want to seem as if I horning in on her territory. Sara was for her daughter.

Then there was Katherine, but then you could have been called Katie, and then there was Laura. That was too serious for Dad. How do you call a toddler Laura? It just wasn't fashionable in those times.

I did think that Debbie might be too American cheerleaderish...but then consider Debbie Reynolds and her success. Dad and I thought of Deborah, as in Deborah Kerr, classy beautiful and you.So Deb... I hope the choice was right. By the way... I struggle with Mary...

Love Mom