Thursday, January 18, 2018

Minor Achievements for the Week

I have gotten slightly better about not only writing about my frustrations, even though they are often top of my mind.  Anyway, I have been doing reasonably well at sticking to a new routine of crunches and push-ups every day.  The number of push ups is pretty laughable, but I am sure it will get better.  Crunches are generally not a problem.  I really didn't want to, as the weather was much colder than forecast, but I did go to the gym last night.  There is a small chance I will go tonight, after a parents' night at the middle school, but most likely it will be Sat. afternoon.  I'm eating a bit better and exercising a bit more, but there is such a long way to go.  That is frankly depressing.

I also got the sewing machine ready and sewed another strip of the quilt.  There was a fairly long layoff over the winter break.  I'm closing in on the 2nd panel.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned, there will be more ripping and resewing of the 3rd and 4th panels, but this will still come together.

I finished a memo for work, though there are some other work-related things I have been putting off until essentially the last minute.

The main goal for the weekend will be to make another pass through Final Exam and try to tighten and improve the script.  I'll check back next week to update on my progress on that.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Missing in Action

I have been somewhat absent from the blog lately.  I am saving up a number of posts, including a review of Evelyn Lau's Fresh Girls and some thoughts on Trollope's The Way We Live Now.  I've basically either been reading (making the final push on the Trollope) or working on a special project at work, which has been particularly interesting to me.  I have not gone to the gym often enough (it didn't help that it got very cold again) nor have I been keeping up with the sewing.  I suppose I will get back track relatively soon.  At least I hope so.

The other thing I have been doing is exploring the music on Apple Music, but also on Naxos Jazz.  It turns out the Fantasy/Prestige titles, which used to be on eMusic, have ended up on Naxos Jazz.  (Though the titles that are in the public domain in Europe usually end up on some of the other streaming sites.)  Anyway, it truly is like being a kid in a candy store, and I have been listening to quite a lot of music while doing these other things.  (I'm trying not to drive myself crazy trying to listen to everything, as it is impossible.)  I think in the end, I will end up subscribing to Apple Music, though at that point I will have to cancel eMusic.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

My Prime Adventure

I think I mentioned how I inadvertently clicked on the wrong button and joined Amazon Prime or rather the free trial of Prime.  I was kind of pissed, but in the end, I decided to try to stream some of the shows that are exclusive to Amazon before cancelling the trial.

It was really very different (and even a bit difficult) for me to be binging on watching television when I truly don't watch it at all.  But there I was watching 2 (and even once 2.5) episodes per night.  In the end, I watched all of season 1 and the first episode of season 2.  I cancelled Prime with about 20 minutes to go before I was going to be charged.  There were definitely some intriguing things about season 2, but I have to say some of the tricks that the writers were relying on were getting on my nerves.  Maybe it is just as well that I stop here and don't go out of my way to try to watch the rest of season 2 or season 3.

Relatively minor SPOILERS follow

I was really getting tired of the Perils of Pauline nature of the show where now 4 different characters (Juliana, Joe, Frank and now Ed) are put incredible danger over and over, and get out of it through the most unlikely of coincidences.  In particular, I thought Frank's methods of getting out of a jam were particularly impossible, and I was frankly getting tired of seeing him on screen.  I also was really tired of the "Is He/Isn't He?" narrative of trying to figure out Joe's real intentions and loyalties.

What I really wanted to see more of was the machinations within the Nippon Building and to a lesser extent in Berlin.  These plots seemed more promising to me, but instead we are going to spend most of our time focusing on the 3 (or 4 if you count Joe) exceptional characters who are drawn into the Resistance.  Finally, there are a couple of smaller points that just rub me the wrong way, such as the Reich outlawing Bibles.  I certainly can't recall that from PDK's novel, and it makes no sense.  Trying to eliminate religion was definitely a line that Hitler wouldn't have crossed.  I also think it a bit unlikely that Hitler would have ultimately honored any pact with the Japanese, though that at least was true to the original novel.  But the idea that Hitler would have given a rat's ass over the bombing of San Francisco just rings so false.  I was practically shouting at my screen when that happened.  I also think that, given the Japanese were "honoring" the Reich's race laws and eliminating Jews (though not as enthusiastically), it seems all but impossible that African Americans wouldn't have been all gassed as well.  Finally, Canada seems to have been a complete anomaly in that, even in the novel, Canada was apparently not conquered by Germany, which makes absolutely no sense.  But in any event, if it were free, then why wouldn't all Jews and Blacks have fled there immediately?

The reality slips that Tagomi experiences seem taken directly from Flow My Tears (rather than The Man in the High Castle).  I suspect the writers would start using this as a crutch, so again, maybe I am leaving at a good time while I still have pretty good feelings about season 1.

One other thing that I did while I had Prime was to order Susan Sontag Essays of the 1960s and 1970s (Library of America).  I've wanted this book for quite a while, though it is a bit annoying that the price never really came down.  Even her collection of later essays sells at a deeper discount.  The first printing of the book had many errors, which were pointed out (by the public no less).  LOA ultimately corrected them, but the ISBN stayed exactly the same, so the only way to know which copy was correct was to look at the copyright page.  I simply couldn't find a seller with a used copy that could guarantee they had the correct version.  A short while back I visited Indigo, and they had the correct version on the shelves, so I assumed the bad copies had finally been purged out of the system, for new copies at any rate.  I also thought (or maybe just hoped) that if I ordered a copy with my Prime membership, Amazon would be slightly more likely to fix the problem if I got a bad copy.  Using some Christmas money, I ordered a copy, which showed up on my last day of Prime membership.  Fortunately, it was the second printing, so I could rest easy and add it to my bookcase.  Maybe this spring, I will start reading through the Sontag essays and some of Joan Didion's as well (though in that case there were no major reported problems with the compilation We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live).

So that's it then.  My Prime membership is over.  Would I do it again?  Probably, but only if I weren't charged for it...

Sunday, January 7, 2018

TorQ at York and Other Upcoming Events

I mentioned briefly at the end of the 2017 concert wrap-up post that I missed a few concerts by TorQ, and I'll try to do a better job of tracking upcoming events.  (I also am kicking myself for not booking tickets to Abdullah Ibrahim at Koerner Hall, as the event is now sold out, but maybe one will become available closer to the date.)  In actuality, most of the events that interest me are theatre-related, but there will be a few concerts.  I was reasonably pleased that I had put most of these plays listed in this article on my to-see list, with the notable exception of Fun Home, which is a musical that Mirvish is presenting.  I don't really go to a lot of musicals, though I will be catching Come From Away in March, so I will read more reviews and think more seriously about going to Fun Home in the spring.

I did see the remount of The Wedding Party at Crows' Nest last Thurs.  It was a lot of fun, though it is largely a study of inter-household dynamics and not really a play per se.  All the actors play multiple parts and virtually all gender swap as well, though perhaps the actor playing mother of the bride plays a dog rather than a male character (I can't quite recall).  It runs through Jan. 20.

There is a gender-flipped Lear at Harbourfront in January.  It is also notable as the Fool is played by Colin Mochrie.

Hart House is doing Arthur Miller's The Crucible from Jan 19-Feb. 3.  The only matinee is Feb. 3, so that's when I will be going.

Shakespeare Bash'd has a short run of Richard III at the Monarch Tavern in early Feb.  I expect to go to this, but haven't landed on a specific date.

Jordan Tannahill is back with a new project at Canadian Stage.  Declarations is apparently an "ode to mortality."  This runs Jan. 23-Feb. 11.

Almost immediately afterwards Canadian Stage has the Canadian premiere of Karam's The Humans.  This is one of my most anticipated shows of the season, and I only hope my expectations are not too high.

I'm not sure whether I will like it quite as much as some of these other plays, but I will be checking out Kat Sandler's newest play Bang Bang at Factory in February.

Feb. is starting to get a bit tight, but I'll try to squeeze in a new version of Candide in during Feb., mostly so I can get a 3-show subscription for George Brown's season.  (Apparently, the faculty strike has not derailed the spring season.)  In April, I will check out Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife and Brecht's Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, neither of which I've seen before.

For any theatre goer in Toronto, the news coming out of Soulpepper is very sad, though not really that surprising.  Quite a few directors and artistic directors seem prone to abusing their authority.  It really isn't clear what the impact on the rest of the season will be.  The production of Amadeus, which was due to start next week, is completely cancelled.  As far as the other shows, some of the actors who resigned may return to their respective productions, but there is probably still time to recast if they won't.  I don't think A Delicate Balance by Albee or Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson will be affected at all.  Idomenus and A Chorus of Disapproval may be.  Those are the 4 show that I had considered watching.  I may try to book tickets today actually.  I certainly don't want to minimize what the actors who are accusing Albert Schultz suffered, but I also don't think it is fair for the entire company to go down the tubes, at least not until everything has had a chance to settle.

On a more positive note, one of the bigger events of the year is that Mirvish is bringing back Come From Away for a longer engagement after its very limited pre-Broadway try out.  It will be running from mid Feb through early September, and I managed to get a ticket in March.

Speaking of limited engagements, there is such a buzz around Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the AGO, since the mirror rooms are set up so only four people can be in each for 20-30 seconds maximum.  This means a very limited number of people can be funnelled through the exhibit.  I managed to get my tickets (without waiting for hours like some members apparently), but I hope there are some other things to see (than the mirrored rooms), or this will definitely be a huge let down.

Not quite as buzz-worthy at the moment, but Crows' Nest has the Canadian premiere of Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem in Feb-March.  This is a 3 hour play that sort of investigates the idea of England and what happens when a modern-day (or at least self-described) Robin Hood-type character runs up against modern-day nanny-state agents of the Council.  I've read the play and don't actually care for the main character at all (as I am simply not an anarchist at heart), but it is worth seeing how they pull this off.  I would kick myself had I missed it.

In early March, the TSO is doing John Adam's Doctor Atomic.  That should be fun.

I'm not quite sure this will be my cup of tea, but in March or April, I will be checking out Bloom at Buddies in Bad Times.  This piece is somewhat inspired by T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.  It is also the only thing I expect to see at Buddies this season.  Two or three of their productions are actually remounts, which I find a little disappointing.  It always strike me that a company that leans on remounts is floundering a bit or at least retrenching.

I'm going to completely give Alumnae a pass this season.  And even The Irish Players, who do one or two plays a season there.  In the fall, I may check out Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, though I've already seen it once in Chicago.

I'm leaning towards seeing Simon Stephens's Punk Rock at Crows Nest.  It is pretty much the same starting point as my play, Final Exam, but there is far more conflict on display, whereas conflict is muted and repressed in my play.  I suspect mine is more realistic (well, except for the aliens), but the more externalized conflict between characters may make for a more engaged audience.  Hard to tell.

Out of town, I'll try to get to Hamilton in March to see Akhtar's The Invisible Hand.  Late April-mid May, Annie Baker's The Aliens is playing Buffalo.  Part of me is tempted to go, but part of me thinks I won't ever see another production as good as the one I saw at Coal Mine, and I shouldn't let two productions blur in my head.  I don't think there is anything I really want to see at the Albright-Knox right now, which would probably be the determining factor.  Interestingly, this summer there was supposed to be a production of Frances Cowhig's Lidless in Chicago, but that seems to have vanished for the moment.

A possible phantom production of Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) may run for a few shows in early April, so I'll keep an eye on that.  This is the opposite problem with Stoppard's Arcadia.  UC Follies has announced they'll do it in the spring, but there are no details at all, and, in fact, they haven't even applied for the rights at Samuel French.  That doesn't mean it won't happen, but it does suggest they are not completely on top of their game.  Still, I hope they go ahead and put it on, since it is one of my favourite plays of all time.

Finally, to TorQ, as promised.  They have a couple of concerts in Toronto (at 918 Bathurst St) on Jan 21 and May 18, and I'll try to get to those.  They are doing something with the TSO on Feb 5-8, though I saw this program a couple of years ago.  There is some concert called "Notes from Home" on Feb 20, and I may go to this.  On April 8, they are performing up at York University with the York University Wind Ensemble.  I probably will go with my son, and try to leave for the show early, so that we can test out the Spadina Subway extension and maybe even get in and out at the various new stations (so we would clearly need a day pass).  TorQ will be out in Kitchener(!) with the Penderecki String Quartet to present the world premiere of a new octet by Nicole LizĂ©e.  As fascinating as this would be, I looked into the schedule, and it is just not feasible for me to get to Kitchener.  One of the TorQ members said they would almost certainly perform the octet again in Toronto, presumably in the summer or fall, so that is something else to look forward to.

I'm still sorting through what I will do for Stratford and Shaw (and this post is quite long enough as it is), so that will be covered in a separate post.  Clearly this winter and early spring has quite a bit to try to convince us art-lovers to get out of the house.  And on that note, I have delayed long enough.  I have to go out and get the groceries.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Early Jan. blahs

I wasn't really expecting much of a post-holiday let down, since I barely had a holiday.  I did have a few three- and even one four-day weekend, and those were nice, but otherwise I worked straight through.  Obviously we didn't go anywhere.  The holidays were relatively low key.  We didn't spend all that much, and generally the kids liked their presents (particularly a large stuffed lion that I finally caved on and bought for my daughter...). 

So you would think I would be sitting pretty, but it has just been so cold.  This morning it was -22 C.  It's gotten up to -16 C, and I can actually feel a bit of a difference in the back office (which is actually the coldest room in the house).  The furnace has been running pretty much constantly, and I can't really bear to think about: #1) what the heating bill will be next month and #2) what we would have done had the furnace gone out this week.

I had actually wanted to work from home Friday, but, in the end, I had too many meetings, and I just couldn't swing it, so I ended up going in.  Surprisingly, I didn't actually end up waiting too long for the bus, which was a small mercy.  I was really quite surprised when I got home that all the ornaments had been taken down, though I still need to take the tree down and stash it away for another year.  There is just this lonely Santa on the mantle, and he'll get put away today as well.  The outdoor lights will come down tomorrow, however.

Indeed, I vowed I am not going out today, and I have stuck to it.  I did bring home enough groceries we can make it to Sunday before I have to go to the store.  I should probably start cooking fairly soon, so that we have something to eat (and I don't make some poor schmoe have to deliver something to us...).  I am not even about to start feeling guilty about not going to the gym.  I should be able to go on Sunday at some point.  At least according to the Weather Network, we come out of this deep freeze tomorrow.  I can hardly wait.

In the meantime, I have been going through a stack of old newspapers.  I have an idea (though not a full-fledged resolution) that I would like to really get the office straightened up, which means not just getting rid of newspapers, but purging an old printer (I'll try one more time on Kajiji and then it is off to be recycled at Staples) and selling off or donating a box of CDs and DVDs.  This would theoretically allow me to have the space for a litter box, but I haven't committed 100% to the idea, even though I am leaning towards getting a cat.

I somewhat inadvertently ended up in a free trial for Amazon Prime, and I decided to see what all the fuss was about with The Man in the High Castle.  It is certainly well done, though many things were switched around in the tv series, not least of which the book-within-a-book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is actually a film rather than a book.  Perhaps the producers simply couldn't expect today's audiences to think that a mere book would have the ability to change the world.  I really don't like binge watching tv (and indeed barely watch tv at all), but I'll see if I can get through Season 1.  I don't plan on keeping Prime, however, so I don't know how I'll ever view Season 2 (or the rumoured Season 3).  Along similar lines, I decided I would break down and try Apple Music.  I have to admit, it is like being a kid in a candy store.  There is more music than I'd ever be able to listen to.  That said, Canadian customers still only get 80-90% of the offerings that Americans get.  There are a few albums that I was looking for (on the US site) that simply aren't there, which I find deeply unfair.  That said, it still may be worth signing up, though I would definitely cancel eMusic if I shift over to Apple Music (and finally join the rest of the world in streaming).

It wasn't a super productive day, and I still should get a bit of work started for an academic paper I am writing.  But I am pleased that I managed to complete the script for Final Exam (the project that is going to be part of next summer's Toronto Fringe!).  In the end it is Bennett's The History Boys mixed with a bit of Miller's Incident at Vichy, plus the Borg from Star Trek.  It has gotten a reasonably good reception so far, though clearly it will need to be workshopped.  I have two actors essentially signed up and leads on two more.  I figure I have the rest of the month to get the basic legwork finished (apply for the permits and land the actors and ideally a director), and then we'll see what is needed after that.  Anyway, when I think about this project it does largely blow the blahs away, so probably I should just focus on that for a while while waiting for (slightly) warmer weather next week.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Concerts in 2017

I won't attempt to list all the concerts I went to, particularly the classical ones.  I'm sure I could probably reconstruct it, but it seems too much of a bother.  (I also don't think I wrote a year-end round-up of concerts for 2016, which would have included one of the final Hip shows and Sarah McLachlan at the Toronto Jazz Fest. Also, Steve Reich at 80 was a once-in-a-lifetime event.)

Relatively early in the year, I saw the Kronos Quartet in March, though they were only on for part of the show, as I mentioned here.

April I saw Dengue Fever opening for Tinariwen!  This was a great show, despite the somewhat uncomfortable seating at Massey Hall.  This is quite likely the last time I will be there before it is shut down for reconstruction, though I suppose I might be tempted to come out if an amazing act turns up.

At the end of April, I saw Amici doing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.  I actually saw them play the same piece (one of my favourites) back in 1994!  How time flies...

I actually saw two performances of Carmina Burana.  I somewhat preferred the local version (in a church right on Danforth) that used a reduced score for percussion quartet, two pianos and a few string instruments, at least in part because I sat closer and also because I took my son, who was totally blown away.  It didn't hurt that the percussion quartet was TorQ, who did some of their own pieces in the first half of the show.  The full orchestral version, by the TSO, in June was also good, but not as much of a special event.

In September, we saw Depeche Mode at the ACC, which was a good show, though I do wish they had played a bit more off of Playing the Angel.

I also saw Lowest of the Low at the Danforth Music Hall.  This was the CD release party for Do the Right Now, so they played a lot of songs off that album, including my favourite track: "Powerlines."

In October, we went back to the Danforth Music Hall and saw the Psychedelic Furs.  This was a fun show, where they definitely played all the hits.  We had a good time and felt almost twenty (well late twenties) again.

In Nov. I saw Arcade Fire at the ACC.  This was a great show, and it really made me appreciate the last album, Everything Now, much more.*  I was fairly disturbed by the too-friendly woman standing next to me (and yes we had to stand the entire concert because everyone in our section was standing) who kept talking to me and occasionally trying to get me to dance and was generally not very respectful of my personal space (such as it was).

The day before U.S. Thanksgiving, I went and saw 54-40 (for the first time ever) at the Horseshoe Tavern (also my first time there).  It was a great show, though it did take the lead singer a bit of time to really get going.  My biggest regret was that my neighbours and I had tried to coordinate but ultimately went on different nights...

Then just a few nights ago I went and saw The Lowest of the Low again, but at the Horseshoe this time.  It almost didn't happen.  I kind of dithered around for a while, then when I went to buy tickets, the show was sold out!  On the day of the concert, I was looking up something about the band and I saw that someone on Twitter was trying to sell a ticket.  It took a bit of back and forth, and I didn't pick up the ticket until the very last minute, but I managed to get in -- and get a seat at one of the tables towards the back.

It was another excellent show.  No one has posted the set list yet, but hopefully they will.  They didn't play as many songs off Do the Right Now.  Of course, they did play "Powerlines." There's a small chance that they played "Gerona Train" again.  But then the other songs were not the ones they played at Danforth Music Hall.  I know they played "The Hard Way" and I'm pretty sure "Minuteman" and just possibly "Sister Jude."  I don't think they played "Something to Believe In" or "California Gothic," which is too bad, as those are good songs, but perhaps just a bit too "soft" for a rocking show.  Off of Hallucigenia they played "City Full of Cowards," "Black Monday" and probably "Eating the Rich" and "Beer, Graffiti Walls."  They didn't play "Gamble," which they played back in September.  From Sordid Fiction, they played "The Last Recidivist" and possibly "Giulietta The Just."  Somewhat surprisingly, they didn't play "The Kids Are All Wrong."  I guess they just haven't integrated this into their live shows.  Of course, most people were there to hear songs off of Shakespeare My Butt, and the band didn't disappoint: "Salesmen, Cheats and Liars," "Bleed a Little While Tonight," "Under the Carlaw Bridge," "Henry Needs a New Pair of Shoes" (first time I heard Carlaw Bridge or this one live -- and it was certainly cold enough to justify it) and then the final song of the encore was "Rosy and Grey."  There are a few that they probably played, but I am just not enough of a fan to know the songs instantly while they were playing them.  So they probably played "For the Hand of Magdelena" or "The Taming of Carolyn," but I don't think they played both.  They probably played "Just About 'The Only' Blues" and maybe another song or two.  I do hope someone puts up a solid set-list before too long.**  Anyway, I've heard two quite good shows, with one basically ringing out 2017, and that may be sufficient for me, though never say never.

Sadly, one can't do or see everything.  I generally had been following TorQ but there was a long stretch where they hadn't updated their concert schedule, so I missed a CD release concert back in Nov. (the day before the 54-40 concert, so I might not have gone anyway) and apparently, they are doing a New Year's Eve concert, probably starting right about now!  While that would have been incredibly cool, it is up in Richmond Hill and the odds of me going to that are 0%.  I do see they have a few shows that I might be able to make in 2018, so I'll try to pencil those in, along with the other interesting concerts that should make 2018 a worthy successor to 2017.

Happy New Year!!!

* Edit (1/1/2018) I keep forgetting to post this photo.  We ran across this logo painted in a lot on Danforth, not far from Greenwood.  It certainly looks like part of a guerilla marketing campaign for Arcade Fire's Everything Now, but there wasn't any indication of how to follow up to buy the band's merchandise.  Also, this was pretty far from the ACC, so again I don't really get it.

** Setlist posted here.  I do have a few quibbles.  I simply do not remember California Gothic, but maybe they played a different arrangement that didn't start with three-part harmony.  Doesn't really matter.  A fine show, and I'm glad I made it.

11th Canadian Challenge - 13th review - After Class

Since I read the two plays in this volume (After Class by George F. Walker) a while back (while waiting for the furnace repair guy in fact), I probably should write up the review before the year ends.  This probably isn't the fastest I've gotten to 13 (for the Canadian Challenge), but it is right up there.  I was fortunate enough to see both of the plays in this book (Parents Night and The Bigger Issue) back in 2015 at Theatre Passe Muraille, but the scripts weren't published until 2017.  Reading the scripts brought back much of the craziness that went on on stage.  Not all George F. Walker plays involve outsized events and crazed interactions between characters (notably the Bobby and Tina plays, particularly the third one, are more restrained), but most of them do.  It is somewhat difficult to capture this on the page; also the charisma of the actors can sometimes make the horrible things they do or say (or say they will do) marginally more palatable. That said, it isn't often that new George Walker plays are staged outside of Toronto* and Vancouver, so reading them is probably the more realistic option for many.

Walker seems to tackle certain issues in cycles, and he seems to be working through two different sets of issues right now: the state of urban education and the plight of the mentally ill now that the State has deeply cut resources for mental health (not that he ever had great things to say about the previous system).  Parents Night and The Bigger Issue are both about urban education, essentially focusing on how teachers are being forced to deal with many issues affecting their students that are beyond their individual capability of dealing with (let alone "solving") and, truly, beyond the institutional capability of the school system as a whole.  Walker has promised that these two plays are the start of a larger cycle about urban education, but it isn't clear just how many plays this will ultimately entail (and indeed he probably doesn't know at the moment).

There are a few pressing issues that are not addressed at all: increasing violence against teachers (fortunately still extremely rare but not as unthinkable as it once was), students on drugs, students with language barriers and the increase of distractions in the classroom (cell phones but also laptops where they are allowed).  What Walker does tackle at some level is a general erosion of respect towards teachers (perhaps this should always be earned rather than granted as a matter of course, but it is very difficult to teach if the teacher is not considered an authority figure), the sometimes malign influence of parents on children's well-being and their interest/ability to learn, students with behavioural issues that cause major disruptions in the classroom, and the frustrating edicts** that come down from higher up that interfere with teachers' preferred modes of instruction and interaction with children.  Interestingly, Walker notes in the introduction that his wife is a teacher, so presumably he has synthesized and distilled years of her stories from the front, but then put the Walker spin on things.  In a sense, it is a bit surprising he hasn't tackle urban education sooner, perhaps largely because many of the lower-class characters he was writing about dropped out of school early on, with only Tina finding the strength to continue her education (as a teenager with a baby no less!).  It is also possible that Walker is somewhat expanding the range of characters he writes about, so he writes more scenes of middle and upper middle class characters interacting with lower class characters.  In turn, this may have made the school system more interesting as at some (but by no means all) urban schools there is more class mixing than one would see in other venues.  Indeed, in Parents Night one father asks the elementary teacher whether the other parent (marked in his mind as poor) lives in the school catchment area, since he doesn't feel she and her child belong at this school.

One interesting decision is that Walker decided to focus on the interactions between teachers and parents (and one principal) rather than showing a classroom scene or even putting any children on stage.  That's probably just as well, as we don't need too many more "To Sir with Love"-type scripts, and it also allows him much more range in the children that he is discussing (actual third graders and seventh graders in particular would be difficult to incorporate into these works).  At the same time, most of the issues he wants to dig into will be one step removed.  In other words, the teachers can talk about the problems they are seeing in the classroom, but the audience doesn't get to see them enacted (and thus can't really make their own assessment of what is really wrong and must rely on the teachers' accounts).  That said, Walker really goes to town and shows that these parents (and the home environment more broadly) are really messing with the students.  I'm not sure one really goes to a Walker play for the plot per se, as it is more about the reactions of slightly or very unhinged characters all bouncing off each other as things escalate.  Sometimes it feels like he is trying to keep as many plates spinning in the air as he can, and the question is how will it end: in a mad crash or in a softer landing.  In some ways, The Chance felt like an undeserved happy ending.  I kind of feel the same way about The Bigger Issue, but I didn't have as many problems with Parents Night.  I often wonder if, despite himself, Walker doesn't sometimes engage in magical thinking that someone in charge can just put things right if they want to, whereas people in positions of modest authority actually operate under significant constraints and it is much harder to make exceptions and bend the rules than outsiders expect.  Or perhaps he does realize this (even if his characters don't), but he just thinks it is a more satisfying (or personally amusing) way to end a play.  All that is to say if you read on, there will be SPOILERS related to the plots of these two plays.


Parents Night (and I think it really ought to be Parents' Night) opens with a young teacher dealing with a father who is quite demanding in terms of asking why his son isn't doing better and then quickly devolves into him spilling his guts to the teacher about his wife having left him.  As she loses sympathy over the course of the encounter, the teacher is more and more honest about his son needing extra attention, as well as needing to tone down the arrogant, hectoring tone he seems to have picked up from the father.  Then we meet a young woman who believes that the teacher is treating her daughter as if she is stupid.  The teacher tries to defend herself and points out that the girl is coming to school with a ton of make-up and is actually scaring the other students.  Her background story is definitely sadder (it is an aunt who is doing most of the make-up and she still has a drug-addicted partner in the picture).  The dynamics are fairly interesting: for a while the parents gang up on the teacher, she sometimes turns the tables on them (as they are both clearly inadequate parents and she is at the end of her rope due to a death in the family and is willing to say things that would/should get her fired), then the two parents have their own interactions.  For me this was marginally more believable of the two plays.  Also, there may be some hope for the children, who are still young enough to turn things around, that is if their parents ever wise up...

The Bigger Issue is interesting in the way it subverts expectations, but is ultimately an implausible play.  There is a young teacher (in fact even younger than the first teacher) who has injured a boy while trying to prevent him from attacking another student.  This is one of those nightmare scenarios that teachers dread, as it is in fact quite plausible.  Still, one of the number one rules is don't touch students, as so many bad things can come from breaking this rule.  Shortly, the mother turns up and starts demanding various things, including why the teacher hasn't been fired or suspended.  As the teacher struggles to regain her composure in the face of a very angry parent, she hands over a folder of threatening messages that the student has sent, and the tables suddenly turn, as it becomes quite clear that the student is pretty disturbed (and the parents have in fact refused to let him be diagnosed).  This would itself be a pretty interesting, if disturbing play, maybe something akin to Shanley's Doubt.  Walker goes in a completely different direction, however.  The husband shows up and before long the entire story unravels.  It turns out that the wife's professional demeanor is just a front to try to get respect from the authorities.  The couple is living with this boy (who isn't actually their child) in a squat without electricity, while the husband (who basically has no skills at all but wants to be an author!) is a security guard at a warehouse full of "hot" goods.  This is sort of ridiculous, but it gets even odder when the teacher and the principal agree to try to find a way to salvage the situation, which includes forging education records for the boy and bringing the couple to live and work in the school complex.  Talk about magical thinking!  It is interesting to see Walker try to write his way out of the corner he painted himself into, but this is definitely not one of his better plays.

It was still worth watching the plays, though I did think Parents Night was the better of the two (several but not all critics agreed with me).  It is true, however, that I have quite a bit of residual sympathy for urban teachers, having been one myself for two years, and that may predispose me to be more receptive to plays about how hard it is working in urban schools, though in fact I had very little interaction with my students' parents (which is a problem of a different sort).  In any event, I'll certainly try to see the rest of the plays in the cycle whenever they turn up.

* Even here in Toronto we're still waiting on The Crowd to turn up here after its premiere in Vancouver, along with quite a number of new plays Walker has written but not had staged.  It was definitely easier back in the day where everything he wrote was produced at Factory Theatre.

** One thing that seems ridiculous in Parents Night but is true in many school districts (and broadly true in Toronto, though I found my children's teachers willing to write comments) is that teachers are not allowed to write their own comments on report cards, but must choose from pre-approved messages from the Board, apparently mixing and matching to come up with something that is broadly appropriate for the child in question (so long as it is positive, of course!).

I have to admit this is an interesting fact of life at Earl Grey middle school where most of the elementary feeder schools are middle class (with mostly white or Asian children) and one feeder school sends mostly disadvantaged children of colour (and a large percentage are Muslim as well).  As one might imagine, there are tensions over any number of issues, including my serious annoyance that the principal decided to set up gender-segregated gym and swimming classes, which feels very un-Canadian to me.