Archive for the ‘Theatre Passe-Muraille’ Tag

The Marriage of Music and Literature   4 comments

moragandmeThis lovely photo taken by my friend Francis Willey is from the launch of my novel, The Piano Teacher, at Calgary’s Shelf Life Books.

The beautiful woman you see in the photo is Morag Northey, a wonderful cellist and human being who graced us with her presence and made what may have been an ordinary event quite magical.

The universe, or God, or god, or the gods, or maybe a simple act of fate brought Morag and I together about 6 years ago when I was looking for a cellist to create a score and perform it on stage for my play Queen Lear.

That’s not an easy thing to do, let alone do it well, but she did it and anyone who saw that Urban Curvz production of the play certainly came away from it enriched and even transformed by her infectiously generous spirit that she somehow manages to impart with each and every note she produces.

How perfect, then, that Morag offered to play at the launch of The Piano Teacher.

If Queen Lear was an exploration of the process of the theatre, then The Piano Teacher is an exploration of the process of music. Among other things, obviously.

I began my artistic career as a piano player. When I was young and developing my aesthetic sensibilities, it was all about music, and the act of playing. It really quite amazed me that when I set out to write this novel, which is told from the point of view of a concert pianist, so many of the lessons and ideas learned from my teachers decades ago were still so fresh in my mind, like it all had just happened yesterday.

Interesting, isn’t it, what sticks and what doesn’t.

When I began writing plays — my first one, The Family, was performed in 1984 in the back space of Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto — 31 years ago, dear God, where does it go? — I guess I must have felt that words alone were inadequate somehow, never as powerful or as evocative as music. I tried to find a balance between language and music in the medium of the theatre. The odd time I think I may have actually gotten it right.

There’s a bit of business in The Family where the dead son returns from war with his coffin on his back. (Don’t ask.) (Designers either love or hate me.) The coffin transforms into a piano, and the dead son sits down and plays some lounge music while his father seduces the son’s fiancée. (Or was it the other way around?)

The point being, we had live music on stage. Other plays I’ve written – Quartet, Cocktails (which I edited and contributed a piece to), Excavations, Writer’s Bock and Queen Lear, all featured live music on stage in one way or another. Even my old chestnut, Some Assembly Required, had one of the characters creating the soundtrack on stage by playing a tightly controlled rotation of LPs.

It’s an exploration I got away from during my years at Alberta Theatre Projects. Looking back now, I’m not sure why that happened. I certainly came back to it with Queen Lear, and now with The Piano Teacher, it feels like I have come full circle in my adult life. (Or whatever this is.)

Ongoing, I’ve muddled my way through most of a second novel that so far has nothing to do with music. I do have an idea for a play that is about an aging rock musician (see photo below!) but so far that’s just an idea, I haven’t taken pen to paper yet.

I do think it interesting to endeavour to probe this antinomy of music and literature.I look forward to renewing the journey again some day. Meanwhile, though I have a novel to flog and it seems to take up a lot of time and energy. I have to say that the early feedback on The Piano Teacher has been so warm and enthusiastic that it’s really been encouraging.

Oh, and this. As you are probably aware, artists of all stripes are trying to figure out how we can make a living from our travails in this digital age. Well, a friend of mine put a “Donations” button on his blog a while back and he has made the astronomical amount of $37.00 as a result. So I thought what’s the worst that can happen, and put one on this blog, up on the left hand side. It’s a long summer and any support I receive in this manner will be greatly appreciated.

If you can afford to, I would appreciate the support. But really, just knowing there are people reading these ramblings is gratifying in itself. Still, you know what they say — you can’t live on air.

I mean to put a permanent link on for buying The Piano Teacher and Queen Lear from, but I haven’t figured out how to do it yet.  If you’re in Calgary, you can buy both books at Shelf Life Books, but if you’re further away, The Piano Teacher can be purchased online at and Queen Lear at

Thanks for reading!

Here’s a photo of me shilling my book at the Shelf Life sale at The Lilac Festival earlier today.

Lilac Festival

More Thoughts on Mentoring: Paul Thompson   2 comments

Sorry it's not the greatest photo. The funny thing, in my mind he has always looked like this. Ageless!

Sorry it’s not the greatest photo. The funny thing, in my mind he has always looked like this. Ageless!

I’ve written a few pieces on here about mentors of mine. Here’s the story of an unlikely mentor who came to mind after a serendipitous meeting in Calgary the other evening. It harkens back to events of my life almost thirty years ago.

I was (as usual) minding my own business the other evening, having a beer at Ric’s Grill on 15th Avenue, when I looked up I couldn’t believe my eyes. There as large as life was Canadian theatre icon Paul Thompson walking in. It had been a long time since we’d seen each other and so we did some catching up.

Paul mentored me almost in accidental fashion in Toronto almost 30 years ago. Damn, that’s how long I’m been doing the theatre thing. More than 30 years ago! Where the hell did the time go?!

He mentored me in such a fashion to make me examine the word itself and the nature of the activity. We usually think of it as something sustained, the master passing down the wisdom of the ages and the secrets of the craft to the apprentice over time. Often enough this is the case.

But in other circumstances, it may be that the more experienced person comes along and through some act, or something he or she says, maybe even accidentally,  confers some honour on the neophyte, providing a boost of confidence that allows the recipient of this largess to carry on.

You know, the art thing is lonely and we artists are often beset with insecurities and self-doubt. Sometimes a very simple, even random, act of kindness can lift us up and keep us going.  That’s what Paul did for me. I have never forgotten. Here’s how it went down . . .

After graduating from the MFA Program in Theatre at York University way back when in 1984, some of my fellow grads and I put together a small, alternative, experimental, avant garde, like-nothing-you’ve-ever-seen-before-anywhere-ever theatre company called ACT IV. (We said is like the letters, not the number.) My partners in crime were actors Anthony Dunn and Sally Singal and the late and beautiful Larry Lewis, our director.

We formed the company around a  small, alternative, experimental, avant garde, like-nothing-you’ve-ever-seen-before-anywhere-ever script of mine called The Family, which we produced at the back space at Theatre Passe Muraille.

One could argue about the merits of that script or the real artistic value of that production, but what fun we had putting it on! It was the magical time one can only dream of. Of course the first night all of our friends and classmates and family came and the place was full and everyone loved it and we thought to ourselves, “This isn’t so hard after all.”

The second night, 4 people. And we plumbed the depths of despair. And on through the run. What the hell? It’s the show we cut our teeth on. All good.

After the show had closed, months after, I received a phone call from Paul Thompson, which in Toronto at the time, if you were an aspiring theatre artist like myself, was rather like receiving a phone call from God.  He had seen the play at Passe Muraille (a theatre which he helped to found, in the same way I suppose that I was helping to found ACT IV) and we had chatted after one of the performances  and talked about getting together . . .  but I never in my wildest dreams thought he would actually call me.

But he did. He invited me to go to a movie with him. “Sure, Paul,” I replied, nonchalantly, “I think I can make that.”

Of course, I had no money, but I did have a fat little leather wallet full of change, mostly quarters and dimes, for the laundry. I figured it would be enough to get me into the movie and so on the big day I shoved it into my pocket and went off to meet Paul at the University Theatre.

I did not decline his offer to buy the tickets. I don’t remember much about the movie other than constantly thinking to myself, “Why would a famous guy like Paul Thompson want to take me to a movie? Maybe he has me confused with someone else?!?!”

When the movie ended Paul suggested we go for a beer. I explained the situation with the little change purse and he said “Don’t worry it’s on me,” and so we were on our way for a beer together when he saw a man and woman he knew and said to me, “I just have to say hi to these people. Give me a minute.”

So I stood there while he talked to them, and then after a bit they looked over at me and Paul said, “Let me introduce you to Eugene Stickland. He’s a great young writer. Did you see his play at Passe Muraille? No?  You missed it? Too bad. It was great. You’re going to be hearing a lot about this guy.”

And so these two people were lucky enough to be introduced to the great young writer.

And who were they? They were a couple of writers, too, as it turned out: Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood. And they were both so gracious.

I believe that my sense of my own identity, of seeing myself as a writer, and in believing that I could actually do it, came from that precise moment.

And so you can see why I have rather fond feelings for Paul Thompson. And you see what I mean about mentorship. There’s no finer example that I can think of.

The challenge, my friends, is to find such opportunities to make a difference in the lives and careers of the next generation.

As Paul did for me.

Thanks for reading.

By the way. I’ve been back on the ginkgo biloba the last month or so – not the drug store shit, you have to go to Chinatown and get the vials! – and I magically remembered that the movie we saw back in early 1985 was Ornette: Made in America. Here’s the trailer . . .

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