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.

Scratch and Sniffle

About three-quarters of the way through Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman’s play Scratch, one of the characters remarks that words don’t necessarily offer truth. This not entirely-offhand comment about language’s honesty becomes illuminating in light of the fact that Scratch, while not entirely autobiographical, is based on real events in Corbeil-Coleman’s life. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely intentional.

Scratch is about the loss of a mother, or rather, everything surrounding the loss of a parent. Composed of a mix of dialogue and monologue, the writing is fascinating and, at times, very moving in its candor. Heavily self-reflexive, the action vacillates between naturalism and (eventually tiresome) fourth wall-busting. Anna, the focalizing character played by the author, owns the story but refuses to take responsibility for its telling. By focusing on the lice she can’t get rid of, Anna allows the other figures in her life to step in and reveal facets of the tale while she sinks into her own itchy world.

Corbeil-Coleman’s well-written script delves bravely into material that feels almost too personal. The audience is thrust into a voyeuristic position, often with positive results. ahdri zhina mandiela’s direction lays emphasis on the theme of circularity within what can be known and trusted, keeping the performers observing the action from the fringes. Whether “on” or “off,” every character appears to be right on the brink of revelation.

As a performer, Corbeil-Coleman is faced with the task of playing the teenaged Anna—who’s not exactly the most likeable little lady. A selfish but dryly funny girl, Anna appears as someone who has already been through everything she’s going through. From the opening, she scratches her scalp and runs her mouth. Acting impervious to everything around her, this appearance doesn’t differ much from the woman she becomes by the play’s conclusion. Despite the lack of progression, Corbeil-Coleman is brilliant in her emotional sincerity. Her vulnerability as both a writer and actor is impressive. There was not a dry eye in the audience as the house lights rose.

All the nit picking within Scratch is aptly reflected in Kelly Wolf’s minimal design—a set of walls that grow progressively closer together, painted a dull grey with burnished silver shining under the lights.

There is much to praise in Scratch, especially the performances of Catherine Fitch as Anna’s pragmatic aunt, and Monica Dottor as Anna’s wonderfully wrought best friend Madelyn. The boundless pain that Madelyn expresses over the mother’s illness is so palpable that it creates some of the show’s strongest moments. Corbeil-Coleman’s portrayal of Anna shows an emotionally stunted teenager, whereas Dottor reflects the more vulnerable and childlike experience of losing a loved one. The least developed characters are Anna’s parents. We learn that they are artists, but they aren’t even given names—they serve only to accelerate the plot and give Anna something to butt up against.

Scratch constantly reminds us that we are watching a series of interconnecting stories that, despite their cohesion, fail to reproduce the truth. But in attempting to articulate these emotions, there’s hope that the itchy sting of grief will subside.

‘Homes, not Games’

Chanting “No Olympics on Stolen Land!” and carrying placards, nearly 30 protesters jeered the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Spirit Train at the Cooksville Go station in Mississauga on Monday. The group, which included eight U of T students, was led by lobby group No One is Illegal.

NOII activists were seeking to bring attention to Aboriginal land rights, poverty, and environment concerns. They maintain that the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics will further exacerbate these issues.

“The Olympic games in Vancouver and Whistler are being held on indigenous territory,” said NOII activist Tom Malleson. “The Canadian and BC governments have no legitimate claim to this land, yet they continue to chop down the trees and expand the highways with almost no engagement with the affected indigenous communities—save a few token buy-offs to select Band Council Chiefs.”

The demonstrators were kept out of sight of the train station and Olympic supporters in a prescribed demonstration area outside. Attempts to cross the barricades sparked physical confrontations with the police.

Two protesters were arrested when the Canadian Pacific Railway-sponsored Spirit Train left Port Moody, BC, on Sept. 21 to spread pre-Olympic mirth across 10 communities in six provinces. The train has met with protesters at each stop since its departure. The day before the Cooksville protest, anti-Olympic demonstrators blocked the train for three hours until police broke up the altercation. One woman chained herself to the tracks.

“The train, which ironically was the one of the first means of Canadian colonization, is now being used to drum up support for games that continue a neocolonial legacy,” said Malleson. “It is depriving indigenous people of their land and poor people of their homes for the benefit of a few construction companies and the ultra rich yuppies of the world who will descend on Vancouver for a week or two and then leave as fast they came.”

Hussan, another NOII activist, voiced his concern over the many non-status migrant workers flocking to urban areas for jobs. “When there is an uptrend in the economy (boosted by preparations for the Olympics) there are usually temporary work programs to accommodate these non-status people. But when this bubble bursts, companies often severe immigration ties and these people are faced with the choice of either leaving the country or sticking around and living in precarious conditions.”

An Idle Handbook

Procrastinators, journalists, and leisure fans have a new tool at their disposal with the release of The Idler’s Glossary. The slim, blue volume by popular U of T professor Mark Kingwell, Boston journalist Joshua Glenn, and illustrator Seth premiered as part of Pages’ This is Not a Reading Series at the Gladstone Hotel on October 8.

Based on an article written by Glenn in the UK magazine The Idler, the 132-page book is described as the “devil’s dictionary for idling classes”, sized perfectly for putting in your back pocket.

In the book’s introduction, “Idling Towards Heaven: The Last Defense You Will Ever Need,” Kingwell ties idling to the philosophies of Kierkegaard, Bertrand Russell, Aristotle, and Lao Tsu. He defines our current pursuit of leisure in such a way that makes simple idling seem more time-consuming.

The glossary, written by Glenn, holds various alternative definitions, slang terms, and commentary not found in your typical dictionary. The entry for “Working Girl” reads, “US slang for ‘prostitute.’ Very telling, wouldn’t you agree?” One of Seth’s personal favourites is “flazy,” a slang term meaning both fat and lazy.

At the meeting of the self-proclaimed members of the Royal Society of the Indolent, Kingwell began the proceedings by having audience members read the “Idler’s 11-Step Recovery Program” (they were too lazy for 12). Among the best points was Number 8: “Considered a list of all persons we had worked for, and became willing to tell them all to get stuffed.”

Kingwell detailed how idling differs from simple leisure. “It’s not production of the kind that is sanctioned by the capital economy,” he said. “It’s not the production of consumption. It’s activity for its own sake and its own beauty.”

While some may argue current economic conditions necessitate a day job, Kingwell argued that a book on idling is relevant now more than ever. “It was greed and growth that drove us to that boom and bust cycle that we’re now witnessing the latest pathology of,” he said. “This is the counter argument; this is the other way of thinking about what life is about.”

It does seem ironic that these three extremely productive and successful men produced a book about being lazy. Kingwell has published 12 books, is a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, and lectures weekly to packed classes at the St. George campus. Glenn contributes a weekly column to the Boston Globe, published the journal Hermanaut, and edited the book Taking Things Seriously. An accomplished graphic novelist, Seth has also worked on everything from album covers to designing The Complete Peanuts collection.

Kingwell points out, “If you read on leisure, the person who can genuinely make contemplation their life’s work is either a god or someone who lives outside of society.” They have all figured out how to regularly idle and successfully earn a living.

Those seeking to learn the way of the idler without sliding into slacker territory should follow Kingwell’s oft-quoted line about the “great Daoist Yoda.” “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try. That’s idling.”

Naylor’s 2030 plan goes for final rubber stamp

The year 2030 may seem like a lifetime away. Not so to U of T president David Naylor, whose Towards 2030 plan promises gradual but far-reaching change. The plan, which was passed by the Academic Board on Oct. 2, proposes the deregulation of tuition and ancillary fees while cutting undergraduate enrolment in favour of graduate students.

Towards 2030 anticipates increasing post-secondary enrolment across Ontario and widening doors at other universities. Naylor promotes the “self-regulation” of tuition and ancillary fees, which cover non-academic costs like athletic services. That would mean the university can set its own fees. The document also advises a decrease in the undergrad population at St. George campus, to improve student-to-professor ratios, and growth at UTM and UTSC.

“I’m very concerned,” said Jeff Peters, VP External of APUS and a student governor on Governing Council. “We all know there’s a correlation between the rising of tuition fees and declining numbers of marginalized students [who are unable to attend university].”

U of T spokesperson Rob Steiner said any increases will be gradual and benefit students in the end. “No one’s going to be making any kind of radical decision anytime soon about anything,” he said, suggesting higher tuition could go towards scholarships and bursaries. “We also need some flexibility on tuition to cover a bigger proportion of the cost here with the condition that it comes with at least the same, if not improved, access. And that’s possible.”

APUS staff member Oriel Varga is skeptical. “There’s a full constituency of the most marginalized students on campus that don’t access that financial aid, there’s a big hole in this area,” she said.

Also of concern to some is the “expansion of industry research partnerships,” which would see corporations working with faculty. U of T will be careful in these collaborations, reads Towards 2030, but Peters thinks otherwise. “I believe very strongly that research should be funded out of the public purse […] without corporate control. This limits academic freedom,” he said.

Towards 2030 goes to vote at Governing Council on Oct. 23 where it is sure to pass. After that, it awaits only approval from Ontario legislature.

Making sense of scents

Over the course of history, people have tried to harness the power of smell. Avicenna sniffed human excrement to diagnose illnesses and Hippocrates is thought to have used fragrant plant fumigations to rid the plague.

It wasn’t until recently that the therapeutic use of scents started to gain momentum. Aromatology, or aromatic science, hypothesizes that smells can produce a significant effect on human mood and health. Its popularity has prompted research into the prospect of using scents to treat diseases. Countries such as France have even integrated aromatherapy into conventional medicine. But how much truth is there to aromatic science?

Rachel Hertz, a visiting professor at Brown University, believes that “peppermint may help you feel more alert and think more clearly.” A study speculates that it may even boost physical performance, allowing people to endure a more rigorous workout. Recent studies have found that the volatile substances found in grapefruit suppress food consumption and increase plasma glycerol concentration, an indicator of fat breakdown. For enhanced cognitive performance, cinnamon is speculated to improve mental processes and mood. Current research dictates that smelling cinnamon increases attention, memory, and visual-motor speed. This finding has generated further research into its healing potential for cognitive deterioration.

The scent of coffee has been found to activate genes that counteract the physical and emotional consequences of sleep deprivation. In a study carried out at Seoul National University, researchers took caged rats and immersed them in an inch of water to keep them awake. The rats were divided into two groups: one was exposed to the aroma of coffee, and the other placed in a fragrance-free setting. Subsequent brain analysis found the caffeinated group exhibited higher gene expression for antioxidant function, resistance to cell damage, anxiety control, cellular communication, and metabolism.

Lavender may be an effective way to combat stress and promote relaxation. The chemical linalool found in the lavender plant is what scientists believe may be responsible for this calming effect. Through psychopharmacological in vivo analysis, it is shown to have a sedative effect on the central nervous system. Research published in the journal Neurochemical Research reports an “inhibitory effect on [the main excitatory neurotransmitter in mammals] in rat[s].”

Scientists aren’t completely convinced. The olfactory system is highly complex and much research is still needed to comprehend the underlying architecture and mechanism by which it works. So far, we know that chemical molecules dissolve through receptor cells in the epithelial membrane. This creates an electrical signal, which is transmitted to the brain, stimulating the release of neurochemicals.

According to William MacKay, a physiology professor at the University of Toronto, “virtually all of the aromatherapy claims [remain] scientifically untested.” However, he also notes that “the olfactory system has far more receptor proteins available than any other sensory system. Furthermore, [olfaction alone is the only sense] with direct access to the limbic network of the brain, the part that mediates emotional experience and mood.”

Perhaps there’s more to smell than meets the nose after all.

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.