Archive for the ‘Calgary Herald’ Tag

A Brief and Personal History of Arts Journalism in Calgary   4 comments

When I began writing for the Calgary Herald, my publisher Peter Menzies told me there are over 300,000 people from Saskatchewan in Calgary, and so just treat it like it's Saskatchewan's largest city, which I did. Shamelessly.

When I began writing for the Calgary Herald, my publisher Peter Menzies told me there are over 300,000 people from Saskatchewan in Calgary, and so just treat it like it’s Saskatchewan’s largest city, which I did. Shamelessly.

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 . . .

 

A Sense of Home in the Heartland   1 comment

I took this in Moose Jaw on a trip back a few years ago.

I took this in Moose Jaw on a trip back a few years ago.

Last weekend I gave a reading and conducted a workshop at the Rascals, Rogues and Outlaws Writers’ Conference presented by the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild and the University of Saskatchewan at the U of S in Saskatoon. My fellow readers were novelists Catherine Bush from Toronto and Rosemary Nixon from Calgary (currently living in Saskatoon) and poet Alex Porco who now hangs his hat in North Carolina. I believe we all acquitted ourselves admirably and those in attendance seemed to come away with something to think about. Maybe even some of them were inspired by what they saw on stage to go home and take another shot at writing the Great Canadian Novel.

Beyond the conference itself, the weekend hit at me at a deeper level, at more or less a patriotic or nationalistic level, as for me in going back to Saskatchewan, I was going back home. Of course I’m from Regina, the Capitol, the Athens of Saskatchewan, and as such am normally bound by the traditions of the province to sneer at Saskatoon, but in this instance I was only too happy to dispense with that rather empty ritual. (Just this once, mind you.)

I am of the finest Saskatchewan pedigree. My father’s people came over from England in the very early days of the 20th Century. Grandpa, whom I never met, set up a forge in the bucolically-named town of Maryfield in the south-eastern part of the province. My mother’s people had homesteaded around the same time in the Alsask region. My grandma and grandpa eventually bought a farm in the Broadview area and that’s where my mother was raised.

My mom’s dad, William Hunter, was said to have been a mover and a shaker in the formation of the CCF Party, precursor to the NDP. I once heard a rumour that the Regina Manifesto was actually typed on his typewriter, but I have no way of proving that.  You can see I came by my politics honestly.

By the time my sister and brothers and I came along, our mom and dad were living in the old north end of Regina, in the shadow of Taylor Field. Well, two blocks away. When they moved in, it was a prosperous working class (with pretensions to middle class) neighbourhood. By the time they moved out, down to the south end, it was called by Maclean’s Magazine the worst neighbourhood in Canada. Well, things change.

When I was in university, at the University of Regina, I was a pretentious, mustachioed, tweed-clad, pipe-smoking twit with no greater dream than to get the hell out of Regina and move to Toronto. And I did that. I went to York University and got myself an MFA in playwriting and dramaturgy at York University.

It grieves me, as a westerner at heart, to say that I had a great time in Toronto and that I believe it’s one of the best cities anywhere, in any country. But it really is a wonderful place, at least it was back in the ‘80’s. And yet, I looked around me one day, actually I looked above me, and I couldn’t see the sky, and I realized I hadn’t seen it for some time. So I moved back home in the late 1980’s.  Really, on account of the sky.

I tried to make a go of it, but those were disasterous times for Saskatchewan economically.  I tried to make it but I just couldn’t. So when I had an offer to have a play of mine produced in Calgary, I did like hundreds of thousands (yes, literally) of my fellow Saskatchewanians have done over the decades and took the Trans Canada west to Calgary. And here I have been now for 20 years.

Where does the time go?

Coming to Calgary led to two of the best writing gigs in the country, at the time. First, as playwright in residence at Alberta Theatre Projects and then as a feature columnist for the Calgary Herald. (Sadly, neither really exists anymore, in quite the same way. This blog is in many ways a continuation of that column. I haven’t figured out how to get them to pay me for it, though.)

When I began at the Herald, my publisher told me there are over 300,000 people in Calgary originally from Saskatchewan. It’s often referred to as Saskatchewan’s biggest city. “So govern yourself accordingly,” he said. And I did. I wrote primarily to a Saskatchewan audience. Well, pan-prairie on any account. But don’t get me wrong. I never would have had the type of career I’ve had if I hadn’t come to Calgary when I did. I was in the right place at the right time.

I have many good friends in Calgary and I love the city. It drives me nuts sometimes, but any city will do that. It’s a great city, a great place to live.  After all, 300,000 of us Saskatchewan immigrants can’t be wrong.

Still, in going back to the homeland, something tugs at the heartstrings, some kind of inherent sense of kinship, of belonging, that exists quite beneath the realm of thought or awareness. I suppose no matter where you grew up, you feel it when you get back to your original home.

It’s healthy, I think, to celebrate that feeling. I always say, if you want to know where your home is, look at your health card. That will tell you all you need to know. But when I look to my heart, I know that my true home will always lie a few hundred miles east of here.

There’s a poem that I made from a monologue from a play of mine that I meant to read on the weekend, but that I never got around to. Don’t worry, I’m not about to keel over and die, at least I hope not, but the poem sums up the elegiac feeling I’m referring to. So here it is again. (Looking over at my poetry page, I am reminded I read this as part of my eulogy for my mother at her funeral a few years back.)

Home

It’s an issue of space.

You start out on the farm,

That great, vast prairie

To run and tumble in

The endless horizon

And the great dome of the sky

Boundless, unfettered.

But your mother calls you back

Back into the house

And it’s a big fine house

With many rooms

Sheltering a family, a home.

And then you muddle around and

The space around you expands and

Contracts to the seasons of your life

Your enterprise.

Yet at a certain point

You feel the walls begin

To close in around you

From a house

To an apartment

To a room in a home

Until finally

You are left

In just the smallest of spaces

A wooden box

And the prairie opens up

And you are lowered down into it

Home again

The circle complete.

______________________

Thanks for reading.

Here’s my old buddy Jack Semple, one of Saskatchewan and Canada’s finest musicians. This is from the Ironwood here in Calgary, but he still lives back home. We went to Scott Collegiate together, back in the day.

Facebook Fatigue   7 comments

This photo has nothing to do with anything, but in it, I am wearing a Hugo Boss jacket which I bought for $6.00 ay a thrift store recently. Yep. 6 bucks. And don't I look good in it?

This photo has nothing to do with anything, but in it, I am wearing a Hugo Boss jacket which I bought for $6.00 ay a thrift store recently. Yep. 6 bucks. And don’t I look good in it?

I was one who was early onto Facebook which I believe was about 8 years ago or so. (Modest research on my Facebook page tells me that I in fact joined in 2007. That’s a lot of wasted time!) (No excuse for shoddy research when we have the internet at our fingertips, eh what?)

At the time of its inception, or maybe more to the point, of my joining of it, Facebook really seemed liked the greatest thing since, as they who have no gluten issues would say, which I do but I’ll say it anyway – since sliced bread.

When I signed up, I was a columnist for the Calgary Herald which used to be a decent newspaper but is now hardly more voluminous than the various flyers it lovingly enfolds (Revenue! Revenue!), as it trickles down from the Herald building to an ever diminishing readership. Well, that’s another story. The point I am trying to make here and would make if I’d just get on with it (and so here I go, getting on with it – cut to the chase they will tell you at the journalism schools that mysteriously continue to pump out graduates year after year, even though there are no jobs for any of them, a situation where you have essentially entire faculties of failed journalists teaching eager and bright young people the tricks of the trade for a trade that exists less and less each and every day. “Get on with it!” they will say, reading from notes drunkenly scrawled on yellow foolscap thirty years ago in a fit of gin-inspired inspiration, “Get on with it, and tell your story! Cut to the chase!” they will say, as if they know anything. OK, so, fuck them, I’m not going to get on with it, I’m going to tell my little story about NOT writing for the Calgary Herald anymore and it goes like this . . .

I was wandering aimlessly (Like a cloud! Like a Calgary Flame back checker!) through the aisles and channels of my local Co-op grocery store when I was accosted by a sweet little old lady, she pushing her cart full of grim healthy things and me pushing my own cart piled high with the usual rubbish, red meat and chocolate and pretzels and the usual bachelor fare) when she stopped me, short of ramming my cart with hers, and pulled up her 5’2 inches to my 6’6 inches, saying, “You’re that fellow who writes in the Herald.”

This kind of shit happens all the time. I hadn’t written for the Herald for two years when this incident went down, but what can you do, she’s like a grandmother, who’s going to be rude (not me) and so I looked her in the eye and said, “Yeah.”

She looked me in the eye, and lying through her dentures said, “I read you every week.”

“Oh yeah?” I rejoined.

“Absolutely,” she re-rejoined.

“Welllllllll,” I countered, “Did you read me last week?!”

“Sure,” she said. Lying. “I read you every week.”

“Well, isn’t that a miracle, because I wasn’t in the Herald last week!” I said, triumphantly.

And then she grasped my arm with her bony little hand and laughed gaily (as they once said) and said, “Oh, my, you say the funniest things! Keep it up, boy! Don’t stop!” And then she walked away.

And really, who was I to argue? In a very bizarre way, she made my day.

OK, and now I am ready to get on with it, so I will now close this endless parenthesis and do just that.)

Feel better?

(She actually called me “boy.”)

So, when I joined Facebook, I did in fact still write for the Herald, in the Entertainment Section, on Saturdays, yet, and so I immediately got (attracted?) a thousand friends. Some I knew, some I didn’t know. Good friends friended me. (My hobby is making verbs of nouns!) Casual acquaintances friended me. Total strangers friended me. Hot babes friended me! It was all good. I was like a junkie! Bring ‘em on! Bring on more friends! I couldn’t get enough. (Now I have almost 2,000! I need more! I need more friends! The beast must be fed!!!!)

(In fact, in that very same Co-op store, on another occasion, I was fondling the juicy plump olives one day when a man hoved in beside me and said, conspiringly, “We’ve never met . . . but we’re friends on Facebook.” Brave new world, indeed.)

And, as God would have said, when God was still speaking, “It was good.” That kitty cat picture that someone I don’t know posted was so cute, and so I hit “like.” That scholarly article from Oxford or Germany about the obscure playwright Brghwraighght, I read, and then hit “like.” The photos of dilapidated cinemas? Like, with a pithy comment such as “Wow!” or even pithier, “OMG!”. The pithy Oscar Wilde quotes? Like, and even share. I was only too happy to engage.

Honestly, other than masturbation, I can’t think of anything that has held my interest for so long.

But lately, I don’t know. I think I’m feeling a bit of Facebook fatigue. It was bound to happen. I mean, I used to like so many things that I don’t like anymore, why would this surprise me?  Initially, I was happy to be able to stay in touch with friends, and I still am, although I am growing a tad impatient with “friends” (for there are friends, and there are “friends”) who only use the thing to advance their own greatness and never ever ever ever hit like on something you’ve posted, let alone share it.

But beyond that, I’m wondering if it’s possible that there is a finite number of Oscar Wilde quotations (there has to be) and if there is a finite number of cute videos showing insane blood thirty carnivores (ie, dogs) playing with other sweet innocent mammals (cats and humans, say), and not ripping them limb from limb and then devouring them. (There’s probably no limit to these.)

For my part, I am reduced to sharing photos of owls (50 likes) as opposed to sharing scholarly articles (1 like, from an insane friend whom I have never met from rural Kansas, who likes everything I post) because no one will read anything longer than ten words anymore. These, and the photos of myself trying to convince my 2,000 friends that I am if not still “dramatic,” at least interesting.

I am old enough to have lived through a few trends. No one thought vinyl would end. (As it turns out, it hasn’t, it can’t be killed, it’s back.) Or cassettes. Or VCR’s. (Go to any garage sale. VCR’s! Toy Story! Does anyone even have a player anymore? How many billions of VCR’s are out there polluting our planet now??) (Sorry)

As much as we can’t see it, or won’t see it, it’s obviously inevitable that Facebook will prove to be another passing fad, and I am confident enough with my take on the zeitgeist that if I am feeling fatigue, others are as well.

So what?

Wait for the next great thing?

In the meanwhile, on Facebook or off, how about this: How about rediscovering what “friends” really are. What it means to be a friend. Or how about going to an event instead of just hitting “like” or “join” because you think that would be a good thing to do, if only you weren’t at home experiencing life through Facebook. I’m as guilty in this as anyone. Hell, you’re probably reading this because I shared it on Facebook. But I am going to make this little credo my mantra this winter so I don’t get stuck inside alone all the time: Set it aside. Shut it off. Go out. Make human contact. See live performances. Start living again.

And don’t mourn Facebook. It’s not dead by far, but I sense that it’s purpose is shifting. When all is said and done a hundred years from now, if there is still a planet called earth, in my mind it will be shown to have done more harm than good.

But for now, it is what it is.

If you’re old enough, this video might make sense. If nothing else, it’s a good song.

Thanks for reading!

A Sense of Audience   6 comments

Any writer worth his or her salt is aware of audience. You can write in your journal or on your shiny new MacBookPro but until you share what you’re writing with someone else, you haven’t completed the cycle and you’re not really writing. You need to share it.  Even if it’s only an audience of one, like your husband or wife or creative writing instructor – until you’re prepared to share it, you’re not really a writer.

I was thinking of the nature of my own audience when I was looking through the origin of hits on this blog of mine this weekend. Now that I have learned how to figure this out on WordPress, I realize I have been miscalculating just who exactly has been reading these words.  I assumed it would be people from Calgary, perhaps those who used to read my column in the Calgary Herald, or have seen my plays downtown, or my students, or my many Facebook friends.

Generally, that’s probably the case. And yet reviewing the origins of my hits today, I see I have had six hits so far: three from Turkey, one from Portugal (my daughter, Hanna) one from Canada and one from Taiwan. So clearly, I know nothing about my audience, about who is reading this, or why, and I am once again made to realize just how different the world is now from when I started out in my writing career.

My first encounter with an audience was with a small brave collection of souls who showed up at the old Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery at my Alma Mater, the University of Regina, to hear me read some of my poems on a cold and snowy night over 30 years ago. I don’t remember the circumstances of why I was even asked, I certainly hadn’t published anything, but there I was in with my mullet and my skinny tie reading some poems that have since been lost to the ages.

Terrifying, is all I remember about it.  But at least I could see who was there. (And who wasn’t.)

(Making it all the worse, the old Norman MacKenzie Gallery was tucked in beside the Conservatory of Music at the U of R. I had just defected from the music faculty to become an English major. Of course, no one cared. But I hardly knew it that night!)

Around this time, a short story of mine was produced by the CBC and broadcast nationally. I remember being in Toronto and out for supper with some friends (the Campbell clan).  We gathered around the radio and listened to my story being broadcast across the country. Who knows who even heard it? Maybe everybody! Maybe nobody. But I was certainly filled with a great sense of my own self-importance that night like I’ve probably never felt since. That night on the subway home, I felt like Pierre Burton or something. It’s hard to impress on readers of this blog at this point in time the importance of the CBC in the development of a writer’s career. The CBC! The production values! Sea to sea to sea! And the money was nothing to sneeze at, either!

That night on my way home, with the sonorous tones of the PROFESSIONAL ACTOR who had read my little story reverberating in my young brain, I clearly thought I was destined to greatness.

Suddenly the entire country was my audience. What could possibly stop me??

There followed a career in the theatre (which as far as I know is still ongoing). The blessing and the curse of the playwright is that you have no choice but to be very aware of your audience. You’re sitting right there with them as they experience your work of art. (Or in my case, pacing up and down at the back of the theatre, sweating it out.) You know if you’ve succeeded, that’s for sure. But even more acutely, you know if you’ve failed.

Public humiliation is never pleasant, and there’s no worse a feeling than to be sitting in the theatre when your play is going down like the Titanic despite the brave efforts of your cast.

Writing for a newspaper is interesting. My column in the Herald came out in the Saturday paper. I remember one of the early weeks, I found myself in a coffee shop watching a gentleman as he read the paper while drinking his morning coffee. I watched and waited. Finally he got to the Entertainment section. My heart raced. He got to the page my column appeared on, frowned, maybe even grimaced, then put the section aside and moved on to Sports. So much for that!

But I guess a few people read it over the years. Recently, I was stopped in the Co-op store by a little old lady who told me how much she loves the column and how she reads it every week. Well, I haven’t written in the Herald for a few years now, so I asked her if she was still reading it and she said, “Yes, every week. Wouldn’t miss it.” You can’t very well call a little old lady a dirty stinking liar so I didn’t press the issue. But you can see it makes it hard to know with any certainty just who is reading what.

And now this. This internet thing. I just checked my hits again and I have a new one, this one from Mexico. What gives with that? Am I on the verge of becoming an international sensation? Or are there simply people everywhere and anywhere who magically or accidentally hit the right buttons so that my blog suddenly appears on their computer screen? Don’t they have anything better to do? For that matter, don’t I? Maybe not . . . .

I really don’t know. I have to admit that I really don’t know who my audience is.  If I ever did. So what can I say, but – whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your reasons for reading this – thanks for reading?! As long as someone is reading it, I’ll keep writing it.

See you again soon.

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