Q & A: Playwright and Actor Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman

The Varsity: Can you tell me a little about your latest Factory Theatre production, Scratch?

Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman: Scratch is about storytelling. It’s about the struggle to try and capture an experience, and the impossibility of that act, because truth is always moving. Scratch follows the epic battle of fifteen-year-old Anna and her unstoppable case of head lice as she re-tells the story of her mother dying of cancer. They begin to overlap completely, forcing her to accept the inevitable.

V: You’ve been developing Scratch since you were 16. Looking back at those initial drafts, what significant changes have occurred in your writing between then and now?

CCC: Well, in terms of my voice as a writer, a lot has changed. I’ve grown up, so naturally there is wisdom in reflection and I have better comic timing as I have suffered through more personal humiliations. I went to the National Theatre School for playwriting and wrote non-stop for three years. I learned a lot about my voice in those three years. Scratch has been through a lot of changes, but I have tried very hard to stay true to the urgency of the teenager who wrote it. I have come to understand that the power of the play lives in the immediacy of the teenage experience, as well as the electricity of my grief at the time.

V: The play is based on your own experiences—not purely autobiographical, but certainly motivated by personal events. Did you find that there were particular challenges in mining from your own life?

CCC: Not when I wrote it—it just came out of me like a storm. I didn‘t look at it until years later. When I finally did revisit it, it felt very imaginary, a sixteen-year-old’s projection of what she thought her truth was. What I have found the hardest about telling a personal story is the press and their questions and assumptions. People naturally want to know how much is true, and no matter what you tell them, they think it all is anyway. Truth is belief. I struggle to let go and know that people will think what they want to think, and that the ones who are close to me know this is a play, and that Anna is not me.

V: Scratch won the Herman Voaden (National Playwrighting) award in 2007—in your experience, how have people responded to the play? How do you hope audiences will respond to the play?

CCC: People have responded to the honesty of the piece. In my experience, when you put something out into the world that comes from a true place, it opens others up, allowing them to engage with their pain, giving us an opportunity to feel something all together for a little while. This is the power of theatre to me, a shared experience.

V: You are playing Anna in this production at Factory—how do you feel performing your own writing? Has it been more or less of a challenge?

CCC: Because I have seen three workshops of this play and not been in it, I felt I could enter it as just an actor. I do understand Anna and am not afraid of the contradictions of her character, but I have still had to work hard as an actor interpreting a text because the way you hear something in your head as you’re writing it is not necessarily how it should be said. The magical thing about theatre is that it is a “coming together,” so you must leave room in your writing for lights and direction and the voices of others. I’ll tell you one thing though—it has been extremely hard to memorize my lines and there is a blow job scene in my play (so embarrassing) so I certainly have done my fair share of cursing the writer.

V: As a writer and performer, how important do you think it is to produce material that comes from a more vulnerable place?

CCC: I think it is extremely important to risk something in your work. And whenever we take risks as an artist, we are extremely vulnerable. So, yes, I think it is essential.

V: Can you tell me a little about working with the Factory Theatre and the whole cast of creative people who’ve come together to produce Scratch?

CCC: It has been a wonderful experience, I love the Factory. I could not hope for a better cast, I love them as people and as performers so deeply, and I feel so safe with them on stage. Their sheer talent protects me and their love and compassion keeps me grounded. Plus, they are all deadly funny. I trust [director] ahdri [zhina mandiela] completely, which is another reason why I felt I was able to enter this play as an actor. Ken Gass has been extremely generous, insightful, and supportive, and dramaturge Iris Turcott has been my guardian angel from the get-go.

V: I imagine you’re pretty busy right now, but are you writing anything at the moment?

CCC: Yeah, I can barely remember to take out the recycling. But before I started rehearsal I was working on a collection of short stories entitled “I’ve Slept in Every Room But the Kitchen…”

Scratch runs until November 2nd in the Factory Theatre Mainspace. Tickets are $20-$37. Sundays are PWYC. For more information, visit www.factorytheatre.ca.

Queens kids shot pellets at faculty and window

Queen’s University issued a reminder to its students that weapons are prohibited at school after three separate incidents involving pellet guns occurred on campus in the second week of October. Two students have been banned from the school and may be facing a year’s suspension depending on the appeal board’s decision.

One first-year student was charged with shooting a faculty member in the leg from a residence window. A student was arrested based on “suspicious behaviour,” but released because the faculty member could not identify the suspect. There were no injuries. The second student fired at a university residence, intending to break windows. Kingston police were present for both occurrences.

Vice-principal Patrick Deane said, “The students were served with a notice of prohibition, which means they may not come onto the university campus unless accompanied by a security officer or with permission.” The two students can continue their studies at home for now, but if suspended, they will be removed from their courses. A third student also had a pellet gun, but there was no evidence found that it was fired. He will only meet with a residence disciplinary council.

Real world cyborgs

A lethal fusion of metal and man is the image most often evoked by the term “cyborg.” In reality, however, cyborgs do not exist in quite the same fashion.

The definition of a cyborg is elusive. Tracey Bowen, an expert on the subject of art and cyborgs at UTM, roughly defines them as “anyone involved with a digital contraption in a particular practice.” According to other definitions, the metaphysical attachments people share, however basic, have already made them cyborgs. Anyone fitted with an insulin pump or pacemaker might be considered a cyborg, since these mechanical parts enhance the body’s “natural” mechanisms through synthetic feedback. Some theorists go so far as to say that modifications such as contact lenses or hearing aids define a person as a cyborg, examples of fitting humans with technology to enhance their biological capabilities.

Technology redefines how artists structure and express their thoughts. The art world is a vast domain for research on cyborgs, as they involve cognitive restructuring and are indicative of a changing world. Bowen focuses on cyborgs in the artistic realm, drawing inspiration from manipulating technology as a painter and printmaker. “My experiences with printmaking were collaborations between myself and the machine,” she explains. “It led me to think of my art in a different way.”

According to Bowen, there are three types of cyborg: “the organic cyborg [that] can be defined as a monster of multiple species,” “a mechanical cyborg [that] can be considered a techno-human amalgamation,” and a “cyborg consciousness.” This new awareness is a combination of human and technological perspectives. It is manifested in the artistic process in many ways, such as computerized drawing pads replacing pen and paper, or drum machines becoming nearly as popular as human drummers. Composers like Brian Eno develop and utilize software that builds entire musical scores from a few basic mathematical parameters.

These innovations have fostered new opinions about art. “My students [begin] to think in a ‘computer way,’ which gives them a different way to work out their expression,” Bowen explains.

In addition, available technology has allowed for a new kind of collaboration. “This fusion has the effect of strongly affecting the tactility, perception, and sense of being of artists,” says Bowen. She explains that someone could design software that another person could use and a third party could edit. This phenomenon is novel to our time, but is becoming increasingly common.

Cyborgs are technological innovations that have far reaching implications in society. Being involved in the Communication/Culture program at UTM helps Bowen to understand and stress the importance of new modes of effective communication in society.

Niagara student released after false gun scare

Daniel Mook, a student at Niagara College, was given a conditional discharge at his trial on Oct. 8 after being accused of bringing a handgun to school last fall. A lockdown ensued when Mook was spotted with a gun sticking out of his pants, but it turned out to be a false alarm when Niagara Regional Police discovered that the weapon was in fact an unloaded pellet-gun that Mook intended to sell in order to fix his car.

Mook was drunk during the event and unaware of the ruckus he had caused. Crown attorney Pat Vaddachinohe said, “He was also unaware as to what had happened to land him in jail.” While Mook did not intend to harm anyone, he did admit to a drinking problem. Judge Terry Vyse discharged Mook under the condition that he report to a probation officer and not consume alcohol for six months. The Judge has also restricted Mook from owning a weapon for five years.

Meanwhile, Mook has lost a year of school because he was under house arrest, putting his dream of becoming a police officer on hold. Mook had no criminal record prior to this incident.

Did you know we have almost reached the outer Solar System?

The Voyager-1 spacecraft was successfully launched in 1977, designed to travel through space while studying the planets and moons it encounters. Today the space probe has almost reached the outer Solar System, and is still perfectly functional.

Considered the farthest man-made object from Earth, the Voyager-1 has also travelled at a velocity higher than any other space probe. To boost its acceleration, the spacecraft utilizes the gravity force of the planets it encounters. It reached its highest acceleration after escaping from the high-energy gravitational field of Jupiter and Saturn, the largest bodies of our solar system. To stay powered, Voyager-1 has three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These will continue generating electric power, enabling the probe to communicate with Earth until the year 2025.

The spacecraft’s primary mission is to help scientists better understand the Solar System. However, Voyager-1 also carries a golden record, which holds sounds and images of life on Earth. If this travelling probe is someday encountered by extraterrestrial life forms, this record will serve as a way of communicating that another intelligent community exists in the cosmos.

Voyager-1 has already accomplished an unplanned mission that many consider more significant than its original mission. On February 14, 1990, the spacecraft received a command to capture an image of Earth from more than 6.4 billion kilometres away. Carl Sagan, one of the project’s executive directors, called this monumental picture the “Pale Blue Dot.” In his book of the same name he writes, “We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space] and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.”

When the president does it, that means it is not illegal’

That line, spoken by Richard Nixon in an interview with journalist David Frost, ended Nixon’s hopes of escaping blame for Watergate. For years, the disgraced president had plausible deniability on the scandal. Frost nailed Tricky Dick with the help of James Reston, an author and journalist who uncovered the long sought-after proof that Nixon knew beforehand about the illegal activities of his re-election committee, including sabotage, spying, campaign fraud, and wiretapping.

That was in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned over the Watergate conspiracy. Now, America’s president does all sorts of things without worrying about their legality. Maybe that’s why Reston’s account of the Frost/Nixon interviews resonated strongly enough to inspire an award-winning play and a movie adaptation.
In Toronto for Canstage’s premiere of Frost/Nixon, The Varsity grilled the journalist on the parallels between Nixon and Bush, and how to score the goods in a tough interview.

The Varsity: Why did David Frost’s interviews appear so dramatically different than other attempts over three years to push Nixon to admit his guilt?

James Reston: Going into [the interview], there were some real weapons—the surprises that I was able to find for Frost to really lay a trap for Nixon. And he fell into them and it made him look bad, allowing Frost to take charge of the interview. He also used his wit and humour as weapons against the humourless character that Nixon was.

You had two characters squaring off against one another. Nixon would know everything that was in the public domain… I think it was the surprises that really allowed us to break down his defences.

TV: You dug up a crucial piece of evidence near the end of the interview series.

JR: The way it happened, there was a contract with Nixon for about 28 hours of taped broadcast, which [was] boiled down to four 90-minute programs. The important one was the Watergate program. But it was planned to give Nixon the opportunity to talk about his great achievements in foreign policy and domestic policy first.

I had dug up that material, not at the end of the broadcast, but beforehand; moved in total terror that it would be revealed before it surprised Nixon on camera.

TV: What was the evidence?

JR: The new material was conversations between Nixon and his henchman Charles Colton. They had Nixon involved in the cover-up well before the public could ever have known.

TV: What was the atmosphere like working on Frost’s team?

JR: I felt a great sense of obligation because Nixon had resigned from office before ever being brought to trial. After he left office, he wouldn’t be forced to address his demeanour. I felt that it was extremely important that 50 million viewers would leave, saying yes, we did the right thing to drive him out of office. It could have very well been different. Nixon could have collected a big paycheck and rehabilitated his reputation. That would have been a disaster.

There was the little bit of press that came out as the team was working, that Frost had hired a crack investigator.

TV: That must have made you nervous, given your reservations about the information reaching the public too early.

JR: It was a kind of mixed bag. On the one hand, we could worry about that. On the other hand, with that kind of publicity—there were going to be some serious attempts to go after Nixon—people started to talk to me.

TV: There is a movement to impeach Bush after he is out of office. How do you think this relates to Nixon’s legacy?

JR: I don’t think that’s legally possible. An impeachment is a removal from office. It’s really a question of how Bush would ever be brought to account for the disaster that he forced on this nation.

When Nixon did those interviews, he was going to make a hell of a lot of money. Probably the most important thing (to consider) was the fact that he thought that he could walk all over Frost and rehabilitate his reputation. That’s what he was really hoping for.

None of those preconditions actually apply to Bush. I don’t think money will motivate him. Rehabilitating his reputation, maybe, but Bush doesn’t like to be put in a tough spot. He likes to be interviewed by people he’s comfortable with. I doubt that he would allow (an interviewer) who would be really tough on him.

TV: If we were able to look at the Nixon-Frost interviews as a leader made to atone for his crimes, do you think there’s hope that this could be translated to Bush?

JR: I can’t imagine it. He’s certainly going to go back to his Texas farm, and I doubt that any world leader will want his advice on how to handle world affairs. He has close to the lowest approval rating of any president in American history. He is held in very low esteem by the American people.

TV: You argue that the Third Crusade is still relevant to interpreting the modern world. Bush has labelled the Iraq war “a new crusade.” Is there a connection to Bush’s use of political rhetoric and divisive conflict? Does this relate to Nixon?

JR: The word “crusade” has a very specific meaning for the American people. If you’re only talking about the way the word “crusade” has come into the American political program, you can go back to the first president, who used it as a passionate enterprise. General Eisenhower used the term in relation to WW2.

In response to 9/11, when Bush used the word “crusade” four to five days after an attack by Arabs, it had a very different meaning to the Arab world. The resulting dynamic has been much to the disadvantage of America, because it raised Bin Laden’s kind to a grand level that was a struggle between a Western crusade and an Eastern Jihad. What Bin Laden had done was a massive crime against humanity and America. But when Bush used the word “crusade,” it gave him the argument of the Jihad against the Western crusader.

TV: Frost/Nixon has been made into a play and a movie. How do you feel about the transition from your personal research, to a personal memoir to an eventual fictionalized account?

JR: This was a historical event. There was a factual scandal, and three years of that scandal was a very difficult and depressing time for the United States. A skilled playwright comes along and makes entertainment out of these interviews, and out of Watergate. That changes the dynamic immediately from history to literature. The question arises, what do you gain and what do you lose? I think Watergate: The Scandal is very much in the American mind; the Frost/Nixon interviews are forgotten. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of how the history is changed by this playwright, and how it’s diffused, it gets a little more testy and murky. What you have in that play is the breaking down of Richard Nixon and his apologies, and it takes place in a seven-minute period, whereas the actual interview was four hours, and it was a long grind to the end to make an authentic apology possible. When you look at the entertainment for seven minutes of the play, it’s an interaction between the actors and the audience. It depends on how good the actors are.

TV: Would you have liked to see the movie come out before the election?

JR: No, because I’m a consultant to the movie and play. What you find out is that Hollywood doesn’t care about the election. They care about the Academy Award. They think they’re going to get a lot of nominations for Frost/Nixon, so they want to release it as late as possible in the year so it’s as fresh as possible in the minds of the Academy Awards nomination committee.

*Frost/Nixon premiered Wednesday at the London Film Festival and comes to North American cinemas this December. Reston is in Toronto this week for the Canstage premiere of the play of the same name.

Reston will give a talk at the Munk Centre on Friday, Oct. 17, at 10 a.m.*

Battling climate change with culture

In 2001, David Buckland, creator and director of the Cape Farewell Project, read an article that claimed the opportunity for eradicating climate change was fleeting, give or take ten years. He started the project soon after, which he describes as “committed to the notion that artists can engage the public in [the issue of climate change].”

The Cape Farewell project seeks to disseminate current oceanography information to the public through the voices of artists and scientists. By collaborating with the scientific community and inspiring artists to generate climate change-related works, the public will become educated about the direct relationship of ocean currents on global warming. The participants aboard these annual expeditions to Northern regions of the world conduct experiments, create short films, feed live web broadcasts, and write blogs to share their experiences.

There are two kinds of expeditions: an Arts/Science voyage for artists and scientists, and a youth excursion that exposes young people to the ground zero of climate change. During the one to three-week trip, team members are completely exposed to the Northern environment aboard a Noorderlicht cruise ship. Teams experience the icebergs, oceans, and landscapes that climate change will impact.

Since 2003, Cape Farewell has led five expeditions, including two youth voyages. The Art/Science trips have travelled from Tromsø to Spitsbergen, the main island of the Svalbard archipelago, and been locked in ice at Tempelfjorden. In 2007, the Arts/Science expedition faced extreme weather while sailing over 1,800 nautical miles towards the east coast of Greenland. Due to unusual levels of pack ice, the ship travelled south-westerly towards Scoresby Sund—the world’s largest fjord, characterized by a narrow inlet formed from glacial activity. However, increasing levels of ice near Scoresby Sund forced them to sail south to smaller Turner Sund and Knighton fjords. The Noorderlicht then crossed the Denmark straights and arrived in the port of Akureyri, North Iceland.

The first Youth Expedition travelled to the High Arctic in 2007 and was comprised of 12 students from the UK, Germany, and Canada. A second youth excursion was launched in early September 2008 to West Greenland and finished on Baffin Island. It consisted of an international crew of 28 scientists and students, including Luisa L., a Grade 11 student from the University of Toronto Schools. “I think that going to the North was really important because it is impossible to imagine the scale of the landscapes,” Luisa wrote in her Cape Farewell blog. “I’m in [the] geomorphology [group], so we look at the different features of the landscape and probe the soil to take readings of the depth of the permafrost.” Students get the chance to see polar bears, dive into the freezing arctic water, and endure raging storms. “The whole of the Youth Expedition embodies everything Cape Farewell is about. Each participant had to engage with both science and art,” says Suba Subramaniam of Cape Farewell Education. “The art they have been producing has been inspired by the science they learnt.”

The Cape Farewell expeditions have created an immense body of artwork, exhibitions, publications, and educational resources regarding climate change. The project has an art program, which holds international exhibitions, showcasing sculptures, photography, and paintings inspired by the trip. Its major exhibition, The Art of Climate Change, has toured Madrid and Tokyo. “The great thing about Cape Farewell is that it brings together a group of intellectuals working in science and the arts to discuss a common theme,” says Simon Boxall, an oceanography lecturer at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

Crew members on the recent expedition to Disko Bay, Greenland, included Feist, science journalist Quentin Cooper, composer Jonathan Dove as well as comedians, photographers, oceanographers, and poets. The boat voyaged across the front of the Jakobshavn Glacier, which is one of Greenland’s largest glaciers. The iceberg is moving faster than ever and losing 20 million tons of ice every day. The crew worked with the British Geological Survey to investigate below the seabed. As the ship sailed west towards Canada, oceanographers measured an ocean tract across the Labrador Current.

The students and artists that have journeyed with Cape Farewell have already made a considerable cultural impact. Each of them has the potential to communicate, educate, and inspire broader audiences and contribute to the new wave of collaboration between arts and sciences to resolve climate change.

The right stuff

On September 29, the United States Congress rejected a $700 billion financial bailout bill with a vote of 228 to 205. Two-thirds of the Republican Party—a party supposedly in the pocket of Wall Street—made up the majority of the “No” vote, with 95 Democrats by their sides. In light of the string of American bank failures and global shockwaves in Europe and Asia, one wonders why the GOP did so little to ameliorate the financial destruction.

There are surface-level answers to this question, from worries about “moral hazard” to claims that Democratic Speaker Pelosi had injected too much partisanship into the debate. But the real reason behind the ambivalence is that conservative ideology is comprised of several competing political visions that create a constant tension, one that has manifested itself in Republican policies over the past eight years.

The basic tension in American conservatism is described by fusionism, a political term coined by former National Review editor Frank Meyer. Fusionism describes the difficulty of reconciling libertarians with social reactionaries within the conservative movement—balancing the desire to maximize freedom with the need to provide order and stable institutions for society. For years, especially during the Cold War, fusionism held together conservatism by serving as the tacit agreement between the two dominant visions of the movement. Libertarians learned from social conservatives that strong institutions (such as the family) helped promote freedom. Social conservatives learned that freedom fostered the virtues of individual responsibility. Of course, these two visions didn’t always jibe with each other.

At the same time, other strands of conservatism served to destabilize this already volatile situation. Arguably the most divisive component of conservatism was neoconservatism. This “persuasion,” as so-called founder Irving Kristol calls it, is comprised of former 70s-era Trotskyites and liberals who were uneasy with the left’s nonchalance towards Soviet totalitarianism, cultural decay, and American economic decline. While neoconservatives disliked the moral relativism of the period, they did not share a consensus on social issues. Neoconservatives were more comfortable with a modern welfare state of subsidies and services than libertarians. At the end of the day, neoconservatives were boosters of an American-led world system. They supported the system of international liberalism, democracy, and capitalism that America had inherited and shaped since 1945. To that end, they advocated for tax cuts to spur economic growth and free trade to bolster the global economic system, understanding that these policies would keep America powerful and in charge of its world order.

In recent years, the phenomenon of globalization has strained relations between these three political visions. This was evident when the Bush-McCain-Kennedy immigration reforms were defeated in 2007. While neoconservatives and libertarians felt that the party of economic freedom needed to support the growth-inducing benefits that immigration brings, it was the social conservatives and their reactionary allies who won the fight. Animated by a populist fear of social chaos and unnecessary stress on American institutions (and perhaps a tinge of xenophobia), they were able to kill the proposed guest-worker program and put the construction of a physical barrier between the U.S. and Mexico on the agenda. This intra-party, intra-ideology tension was also apparent in the recent defeats of free trade bills with U.S. allies South Korea and Central America. Social conservatives have had their share of disappointments. Despite Bush’s professed piety, the past eight years have not been satisfying to proponents of “family values.” Even though they have held a congressional majority for six years, both Republican bills to define marriage as being a strictly heterosexual, monogamous union were defeated. Nearly nothing has been done on a federal level about abortion, save a ban on partial-birth abortion.

We can contextualize the defeat of the bailout plan by Republicans with this in mind. It is highly probable that libertarian-leaning legislators argued against the bill on grounds that laissez-faire ideology precludes saving people from their own failures. Social conservatives probably voted down the bill out of an already latent discomfort with globalization, of which a highly liquid and destabilizing global financial system is a key component. The one-third minority that did support the bailout was arguably comprised of neoconservatives who believed the health of international capitalism rested on the foundations of global confidence in financial institutions. Without investor confidence, the system that provided the developed world with so much economic prosperity, and the developing world with rising living standards, was in jeopardy—it would no longer possess the financial capital to create economic opportunities.