The demise of FFWD, Calgary’s entertainment weekly for the last nineteen years, is both lamentable and predictable – and probably disastrous for arts groups in all areas in terms of promotion through the weekly listings – let alone providing an informed critical response to the work on stage.
Looking back at arts coverage over the last 20 years, it’s been a slow and steady and deadly decline.
I arrived here in 1994, chaperoning my play Some Assembly Required at Alberta Theatre Projects’ now-defunct playRites Festival. At the end of that run (“the hottest six weeks in winter!”) I was given a stack of clippings – previews, reviews, insights, interviews from a variety of papers and magazines including previews and reviews from the Globe & Mail and whole-page spreads from The Calgary Herald. It added up to an impressive pile of paper, a couple of pounds worth, probably.
That was just what had come out in print. Add to that several television interviews and spots on CBC Radio – which continued over the years thanks to the unflagging support of Caroline Smith – and one felt that the work and, assuming it happened more than once, one’s career, were taken very seriously in Calgary.
Thanks to the work of many great journalists, not to mention publicists from all the theatre companies, I was able to become something of a big deal during my ten years at ATP.
In 1997 a publication called The Calgary Straight came into existence. I had always been attracted to the idea of writing some kind of column, and one evening at an artists’ soiree organized by Bart Habermiller, who at the time was the City of Calgary art guy, I met the Straight’s editor, Patricia Robertson.
She invited me to submit an article. I did. It got published. And so I was on my way. Or so I thought.
Very shortly after that, Patricia took exception to the way the paper was being run and quit. (She made what could be call an “ethical decision.” Remember those?)
Michelle Greysen stepped in and took over. Following a chance encounter at Stage West (!), she asked me to write a weekly column. I thought my journalistic ship had finally arrived. I even went so far as to buy a little notebook to keep track of all my fabulous ideas for possible columns.
One day around this time I went into the old Roasterie 2 in Kensington to write down some of these bright ideas in my little notebook, and there was Michelle sitting at one of the back tables with an open bottle of Baileys in front of her. It didn’t seem hopeful, and it wasn’t. The home office (Vancouver’s Georgia Straight) had pulled the plug on the fledgling venture in Cowtown. She invited me to drink to the memory of the Calgary Straight. We had a drink and that was that.
The Calgary Straight folded in 2002 after a 5 year run, sadly just at the point it was starting to turn a profit. As sad and frustrating as it was for the people involved, it wasn’t a great surprise, I suppose, and it didn’t matter that much in terms of the big picture because around this time The Herald was going strong with Martin Morrow, Bob Clarke, Stephen Hunt et al; Lisa Wilton and Louis B were over at The Sun, and FFWD had an extremely strong presence – and some very good writers like Nikki Sheppy and eventually Martin Morrow who went over to FFWD following the acrimonious strike at The Calgary Herald.
It was around this time that my photo graced the cover of FFWD. (I think I was on there a few times, but this one in particular stands out in my memory.) To prepare for my 15 minutes of fame, I went to a hairstylist who spent hours getting my eccentric hair to behave itself. The hair ended up being rather high, I thought. Making matters worse, in the photo I was wearing some kind of velveteen jacket. The effect was that I looked, how can I put this delicately, a tad effeminate.
I asked my friend and advisor in such matters, Bob White, if he thought that photo made me look gay. He looked at it for a moment and said, “No, it doesn’t make you look gay. It makes you look like a woman! Like a dowager from the 1870’s!” Or words to that effect.
I made a situation that arose as a result of that cover the subject of a Spoken Word performance at an event titled “Smart Men, Hot Words.” Or was it “Hot Men, Smart Words?” Either way, I thought the organizers wanted something hot and sexy. Turned out I was probably wrong. (You can find it on You Tube if you’re desperately bored. For the record, I did not really masturbate in the washroom at IKEA, but I digress . . .)
With my matronly visage gracing their cover, I wondered about pitching the idea of a weekly column to FFWD. I ran the idea by Bob White (my advisor on such matters) and he suggested I try The Calgary Herald first. (Bigger audience, more pay, etc.) As it happened, Ashley Menzies, daughter of Peter Menzies, then publisher of The Herald, was in my Saturday morning playwriting class at ATP. So I asked her one day if she thought her dad would be interested in going for a beer with me. She laughed and said that her dad had asked her to ask me if I’d be interested in going for a beer with him.
Don’t it go to show that it ain’t what you know but who you know?
A few days later at Ed’s on 17th, Peter and I met over a couple of beers and some chicken wings and my weekly column with The Herald came into being. I told him I didn’t know anything about journalism. It didn’t phase him. He gave me only one rule: don’t write like anyone else.
I went on to prove that I didn’t know the first thing about journalism almost 300 times over the next 5 years. Some 250,000 published words. In fact, I even outlasted Peter who got the old heave-ho a couple of years into my cyber-residency at the paper.
And then, one fine day, The Herald went into the dumpster. My editor called me one morning and told me it was over for me and many of my fellow free-lance writers and photographers. He actually wept when he told me this. It was a black day.
I was sad that it had come to an end, but on the other hand, closing in on 300 columns, I was finding it increasingly hard not to plagiarise myself. Obviously, The Herald is still being published, but it’s a shadow of its former self.
Martin Morrow moved to Toronto. Nikki Sheppi and the writers I had come to know at FFWD scattered to the winds. Patricia Robertson moved to Saskatchewan where she is continuing her own writing career. Michelle Greysen is in Lethbridge writing up a storm and selling real estate. Recently, Caroline Smith retired from the CBC. There are a few brave souls like Stephen Hunt at The Herald soldiering on, but all in all, with the end of FFWD, you would have to think that arts journalism in Calgary is hooked up to the machines in intensive care, if not in palliative care.
After a few years of not writing for The Herald, I missed it, and started writing this blog, which is much like my column was. I’m not sure how many people used to read my column in the paper. I do know exactly how many read this blog, and where in the world they are reading it. (This morning, for example, I see I have had readers from Canada, The US, Russia, Brazil, Germany, Estonia and Portugal. My daughter Hanna lives in Portugal, so that explains that one. But Estonia? Maybe I’m big there, who knows?)
My thoughts on the death of my friend Michael Green last week were read by several thousand people from around the world, mostly in Canada and probably mostly in Calgary. Not exactly viral, but I hope it was of comfort to those who read it.
Because here’s the thing: I don’t get paid for this. All of us artists in all disciplines are finding it more and more difficult to actually get paid for the work we do. Ironically, digitization which potentially brings our work to vast audiences has made it less likely that we ever get paid properly, if at all, for what we do.
The rules of the game have changed. I don’t trust anyone who says they know where it’s all leading. Really, we have been caught out like the scribes in the days of Gutenberg. We have sacred skills that technology has rendered not meaningless, but virtually worthless.
And so, RIP, FFWD.
Interesting times, indeed.
Thanks for reading! Here’s something I found on You Tube this morning . . .