Michael Harris searches for Vancouver’s stage soul
Look at Stanley Park. Just look at it. From a teak recliner, say, perched on a deck cantilevered over the steep hillside of West Vancouver’s British Properties. Wait; let me get you a Stella. Looks nice, right? The manicured curvature of the trees. That issuing of silent cars across Lions Gate Bridge (muted bullets in space). You’d almost forget the trees once jabbed 300 feet up in a ragged tangle before we razed the virgin forest to the ground.
After the logging of Stanley Park, we made amends: seawall, benches, concessions. But lost wilderness in irretrievable. Simon Schama, in his book Landscape and Memory, tells us “only second growth and plantation woodland is monotonous.” The “relentless dense stands” of replaced nature—like a chastised child—will never talk back. And yet, our artists ask this subdued landscape to name itself. And we, in turn, demand that artists explain our identity through green and blue lenses. Vancouver wonders at its portrait so nervously these days. (Wouldn’t you, if the world were coming to dinner in 2010?)
For a city with so many reflective surfaces, we’re still pretty stumped about what we stand for. Water and mountains, sure. But how to name the urban reality?
This is an Asian satellite city. This is Lotusland. This is a colony. This is a First Nations settlement. This is nowhere.
Some try to name it, all the same. Most recently, Michael Lewis MacLennan—a handsome, intelligent playwright making his real money in television (like all handsome, intelligent playwrights)—offered up the drama Life After God , which played a double run at UBC’s Telus Theatre and the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. Based on Douglas Coupland’s 1994 novella, LAG features six 30-something Vancouverites trying to fill the space that’s left when God, or any cogent life structure, goes AWOL. As their 15-year high-school reunion approaches, a reckoning descends too: What do we children of Vancouver stand for?
It’s a hugely ambitious play with the aim of delivering our zeitgeist, but critics were nonplussed. On opening night, a phalanx of those scribes (including myself) descended on the Telus Theatre and pitched camp around the first balcony. Below, Coupland sat in the back row and murmured to his neighbours.
It was the earnestness of the play that confused us all, I think. What felt spare and poetic in Coupland’s book became dangerously melodramatic onstage. This city huddles beneath ironic quotation marks like our ancestors must have huddled beneath the canopy of cedars, so we’re unlikely to accept ardent expression. It offends our detachment.
The book, though, was a thorough success. Difference being: warm bodies risk more than cool pages. So when Bob Frazer—playing the central character Scout—finally stripped down and tremulously baptized himself in a simulacrum of water, there was a shifting of eyes in the audience. He’s joking, right?
While Coupland’s text ends with Scout submerged, the theatrical version shows us his reemergence, his first baby-violent gasp of air. (He’s now what? A nature lover? A Real Man?) The play’s director, Touchstone’s Katrina Dunn told me she felt the addition was necessary to keep audiences from speculating that Scout had committed suicide. The final effect, though—Frazer’s rolling eyes and fish-wide mouth—robbed the Coupland story of its ambivalent (and, therefore, resolutely West Coast) ending.
After the premier performance, Coupland exited silently, eschewing the offered fruit platters. MacLennan greeted guests, all smiles. Beneath his left jaw, a line of dried blood where he had cut himself shaving. Nerves.
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Now step inside, will you? Yes, that’s a Jeff Wall by the piano. One of those cibachrome transparency deals, you know. Pine on the Corner . Like the title says, it’s a pine on a street corner. A ticky-tack apartment block, a dwarfed cube of residence. And rudely, rupture-heavy, the pine stabs out of the front yard and towers above. Sublime mountains, glowering over the distant North Shore , are snow-capped like a dowager princess in her lace headdress. Older and bigger than anything.
This is no docile Stanley Park . This is a butting up of home against environment . If today’s project is to discover our city’s name, Pine on the Corner ups the ante. The question moves from “Who do you think you are?” to the wiser (and more aggressive) “What do you think you’re doing here?”
The critical response to Life After God , as I say, was not ecstatic. (Our city’s theatre critics are all white, nearly all male, and largely gay. There was little brotherly love, however, for the demographically in-sync playwright.) Colin Thomas, feared apostle of the Georgia Straight , bluntly began his review: “Boring is not how I expected this to turn out.” The Westender ’s Steven Shelling, who can wax petulant with the best of them, opined that the play is “an unwelcome re-imagining of St. Elmo’s Fire . Everyone suffers from malaise, pops Prozac, and is so raw, damaged and unhinged it’s a wonder they can summon up the motivation to mope about.” Ouch.
Critics were, however, quick to point out the general strength of MacLennan’s writing as well as the first-rate acting. What, then, is the stump? Could it be that LAG ’s unremitting search for an authentic experience is the ingredient that curdles? Any play that culminates in the self-administered baptism of its lead is walking a fine line, for starters. The high-school reunion is also freighted with an overwhelming (even histrionic) significance: Am I worthy? Do I count? Will I impress? And that’s the pressure that pushes the narrative forward.
Ultimately, Scout abandons his friends to their reunion. He runs away to the woods, finds a frigid river, and enters the testicle-shriveling waters. But is that Vancouver ? Do we really commune with nature? Or is wilderness just the scrim for our urbanity?
In November 2005, local playwright Aaron Bushkowsky gave us a very urban vision of this city with his twelfth produced play, Soulless. According to local playwright/critic Tim Carlson, it “captures the Vancouver zeitgeist more than any other recent theatre piece.” Sounds like kudos MacLennan would have enjoyed. And, indeed, Bushkowsky did tap into this town’s two great obsessions: Being Aloof and Real Estate.
The difference between Bushkowsky’s and MacLennan’s stabs at zeitgeist-making is that the former vision marinates in irony—the lead character applies “situational ethics” to work and life—while the latter vision wants to pierce irony, dive in the ice water and be reborn. But can our irony be pierced? It’s arguable that, for us, irony is not a pose at all. Arguably, irony is the very air of Vancouver’s contemporary life. Not our survival tactic, but our battleground.
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Still, beneath our posture of disaffection, there has always been a glimmer of real spiritual ambition. There’s a reason the West Coast attracted so many utopian visionaries.
Look at the back pages of Coupland’s Generation X . Andy is desperate to create an authentic moment for his family and makes a Notre Dame of the living room, lighting thousands of candles on Christmas morning. The effect brings everyone out of his or her plastic existence, but is quickly snuffed out.
You see, when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you... It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied. <
And any small moments of intense, flaring beauty such as this morning’s will be utterly forgotten, dissolved by time like a super-8 film left out in the rain, without sound, and quickly replaced by thousands of silently growing trees.
Yet there, in the smallest reach for authenticity, there is a god awakening, snoozing, awakening. In Life After God (the play), there are such tiny moments—like timid knocks on the threshold of revelation—that signal an exit from what Shelling termed our “raw, damaged, unhinged” existence. Scout and his friends, as children, float together in swimming pools “the temperature of blood,” like conjoined fetuses. As an adult, Scout sighs, “sometimes I wonder if it is too late to feel the same things that other people seem to be feeling. Sometimes I want to go up to people and say to them, ‘What is it you are feeling that I am not? Please—’.”
These moments do resonate, perhaps because MacLennan has knocked on his own threshold of revelation. He was 24 when he filled his pack with food, left his Tsawwassen home, and went as far West as you can go. For two weeks in the summer of 1992 he lived alone on the crust of the continent—Mystic Beach, on Vancouver Island . Confronted by an infinite horizon, he found himself writing the first part of what became his debut piece of theatre, Beat the Sunset . It’s a play about AIDS, a mother’s love, and the transformative power of intimacy. It racked up awards over the next three years and launched a now-enviable career.
But there remains an awkward meeting of gazes when an artist proposes to tell a city what it is. Especially a no-name city like this. Especially an artist so keenly concerned with the notion of intimacy—that presumed knowledge of others.
For MacLennan, the audience has always been a shifty lover. When his freshman effort was in dress rehearsals, he overheard a tech grumbling, “this is fucking weird, man.” “I didn’t sleep that night, trying to figure a way out of it,” he recalled for me over beers on Granville Island . A tender relationship with his public has sprouted since; what’s at stake, he said, is “my ability to communicate my heart.” Then he leaned back, reached for his pint, and looked surprised by his own (un-ironic) words.
City of Glass
During one of our talks, I asked MacLennan why he writes plays about such heady topics and he gave me a good answer: “I’m interested in questions of intimacy and love, perhaps because that’s what I sacrificed.” In that line, there, I’d say he does speak for the majority.
Aloneness is a reality of urban life; never are we so alone as when strangers surround us. But the solitude of downtown Vancouver is the particular solitude of what Coupland called a City of Glass . (He’s riffing on Mike Davis’s City of Quartz , an appraisal of Los Angeles ). Life After God , the play, drew heavily from City of Glass , embroidering its idea of the city with Coupland’s particular vision. (This is how a city paints its portrait. By consensus.)
Our glass see-through towers are a classic Coupland focal point. Everywhere, empty homes built just-in-case by wealthy Hong Kong residents who worried over the 1997 changeover of rule from Britain to China . We may have always been a city of drifters, but now we’ve got abstractions of drifters, too. Call it future-drift.
And just as we peer up into empty potentials, we also peer into the lives that are lived across the way. We look into one another’s lives. Any city cramped by water on one side and mountains on the other must become a breeding ground for voyeurs. Colin Thomas, the feared yet kindly critic, remembers feeling “unbelievably alienated” in his 20s, when he first moved into a downtown Vancouver apartment. He would watch a man living across the street and one floor down. “I could see his whole life, but only from the chest down.”
Coupland, who lives in the semi-cloister of West Vancouver , projects the persona of one uneasy with company. He has a “refined, alienated vision in the middle of this primal wilderness,” Thomas said. Many people think of Coupland as alienated. So how is it that an alienated person can touch the zeitgeist of our city? Unless our fundamental connection is disconnection.
But whose Vancouver is this? Whatever our demographics, the major culture-makers in this city tend to be white men. Why would Douglas Coupland’s Vancouver be an accurate representation of anything total? Why would MacLennan’s? Both men were raised on the pleasant outskirts of the city, like camera-equipped satellites shooting shots of Earth from a distance.
Both authors state that the city is populated by “the children of the children of the pioneers.” There are many kinds of pioneers implied, naturally. But still the “pioneer” phrase tries to make a “we” out of a motley crew. Why? Why can’t we be agreeable strangers—benign residents of adjoining apartments who know each other by the dampened plink of the piano or the whirr of a coffee grinder at 7 am?
Several playwrights have highlighted the strangeness we feel toward one another, the way we knock around in the melting pot like so many insoluble rocks. “Mosaic” is too generous a word.
Simon Johnston’s Rice Rockets and Yacht People reminded us that for some Vancouver is a depository of wealthy Asian children, playing house without parents. Ethel Whitty of the Carnegie Community Centre organized Condemned: A Work in Progress , an opera about the housing crisis in the Downtown Eastside, which reminded us that some people in Vancouver don’t give a shit about mountains and waterfront, they’re just trying not to get beaten between now and tomorrow. And, in an uncanny foreshadowing of the recent missing-women cases, Marie Clements’ Unnatural and Accidental Women dramatized the 30-year murder case surrounding the deaths of several native women in the city.
We are forever plural; our stories are more than the landscape postcard. And yet, in the end, our natural landscape may be the only connector. We can, tentatively, say this: Everyone who lives here lives here. (And even that won’t hold up if a really clever person takes hold of it.) Life After God , at least, is married to the landscape. Scout spends a chunk of the play wrapped in an old blanket under a ratty tarp somewhere in the forest, getting rained on. He has run into the woods in order to hunt himself down outside city limits.
That’s how Life After God begins and ends. Coupland and MacLennan, born into comfortable homes at opposite fringes of Vancouver , frame their stories with wet branches. With a man, alone, in the waterlogged wilderness. So if nomadicism, youthfulness and a frontier legacy conspire to keep Vancouverites apart, how do we touch? Does our landscape demand human disconnection?
Aristotle assured us that we are urban animals—that city life occurs within the realm of nature and not in opposition to it. And Vancouver does sometimes appear to grow around the trees instead of vice versa. Yet UBC professor William Rees, inventor of the “ecological footprint” concept, has argued we are living a lie, that our city wreaks more havoc on nature than we can ever know. The green-and-blue self-portrait may be paper-thin.
Yet our Arcadian vision of city life is the draw, the selling point, the big print on the pamphlet. I recently met a big-time surgeon from Toronto , who gave it all up to move to Vancouver . “I’m here to start fresh,” he told me. “I love that no one here knows me.” His back-to-the-garden ambition, a Vancouver cliché, reminds me that all our incoming population has arrived under a certain delusion.
As Life After God shows, our “paradise” does seem to have a crippling effect on human relations. We’re the last stop for nomads, vagrants and dreamers. We’re the frontier of the frontier and, therefore, we’re the place where all those people pull up short, glance uneasily at the strangers closing in and whisper, “you too, huh?”
These survivor trees, these marauding geese, these smoke-blue mountains, are the only shared things. In Coupland’s new Vancouver-set film, Everything’s Gone Green , a pack of downtown denizens convenes on the shoreline after a radio announcement that a whale has beached itself. It’s a lovely scene, strangers shyly closing in, touching the whale’s body for the sake of touching something great.
How like us! Strangers together embracing the monstrosity of nature, begging it to be bigger than ourselves—isn’t that an idea of God? Isn’t that an idea of a shared experience, a culture?
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When I broke up with my partner of four years, he and I moved into our own apartments, three blocks apart. He lives in a 100-year-old brick thing, mortared by ivy. I’m in a tower with walls made of glass. I took down the ugly curtains, creating a clean wall of window at the far end of my living room. Within an hour, two birds had soared out of a magnificent ash tree and died on the transparency of that wall. I remember looking down at their shaking bodies in awe. What had I done?
Copyright © Michael Harris, 2006