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.

Vote-rigging the legal way

Since moving to Toronto from Michigan four years ago, I have tried to put the state out of my mind. Every once in a while, though, a morsel so juicy comes along that I have to go back and revisit my old home.

This is one such morsel.

Macomb County, one of the predominantly white counties that make up the suburbs of Detroit (and not too far from where I grew up) is one of the top three counties in the United States for home foreclosures from the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. Of these foreclosures, a disproportionate amount affect its black residents. Macomb County is also, if the pundits are to be believed, one of the “swing” counties in Michigan, itself a “swing” state in this election. Though I always knew Macomb County as the home of the City of Sterling Heights (or as I used to call it, Sterile White), and a largely conservative area, the black residents of Macomb tend to vote solidly Democratic, as do most black residents in the Metro Detroit area. These could be the voters who send Barack Obama to victory.

When I heard that the Grand Old Party had plans to put election challengers at polling places in Macomb to contest the residency of all people on the “foreclosed list,” the only thought I could think was: Jim Crow ain’t dead. He was only sleeping.

In a campaign dominated by thinly veiled racism and Islamophobia, the GOP’s decision to challenge these voters shows that the modern party of Lincoln is concerned only with perpetuating its own power. It has forsaken the country and what little remains of its democratic spirit.

In Michigan, each party has the legal right to place representatives at polling places to challenge individual voters’ rights to cast a ballot at that station. If someone is found ineligible, they are effectively barred from voting, since there is no same-day registration. In this case, it is quite clear that GOP is targeting those on the “foreclosed list”: the predominantly black Democratic voters of Macomb County. Never mind that these voters might still be living in their houses, in the process of refinancing, or living in the same district. This about victory at any cost.

The day after this story broke, the Michigan GOP announced that they had reconsidered, and will not make challenges based on the “foreclosure list.” They will engage in a practise known as “vote caging” instead, where the party sends a piece of mail marked “Do Not Forward” to an address. If the mail is bounced back, they make the challenge, and likely cost someone their vote.

This tells us a great deal about the state of electoral politics in the U.S. In a country where less than half the population votes, and where the last two presidential elections have been stolen in plain sight, politics have become synonymous with the pursuit of power for its own sake. Americans have been lulled into a stupor, made into consumers instead of citizens—and that the future of the country lies in the hands of amoral men.

Forget the wall along the Mexican border. As far as I’m concerned, build a wall along the U.S. and Canadian border, and hope the fallout isn’t too bad when the shit hits the fan.

UTSC student union finally gets prez

Where there’s politics, there’s controversy. The idiom holds true for U of T’s Scarborough Campus Student Union, where Zuhair Syed won the Fall election for presidency after being controversially disqualified from the race in Spring. After an intense campaign, Syed won with 212 votes to opponent Massey Ahmar’s 113.

Syed was disqualified in the Spring election for emailing the Elections Committee using his official SCSU account, and for sending a text message after campaigning period was over. The Board of Directors subsequently rejected this disqualification and hired Syed as the interim president until the Fall election.

The elections this October gave students an opportunity to formally elect a president.

For several years, UTSC has been notoriously apathetic when it comes to elections. This year’s voter turnout speaks for itself. On a campus with over 10, 000 students, a mere 325 students cast votes for their president.

However, Syed believes that the reason for his win has been a recent rejuvenation of student enthusiasm.

“I think students have shown that they like that what they’ve seen over the last two months. They appreciate the changes within the student union and they voted to have that continued,” Syed said.

In addition to improving student life, Syed’s platform was based on expanding the UTSC Student Centre in order to provide more student space for the increasing campus population. He hopes to work towards the addition of more food vendors with longer hours, an extra computer lab, a lounge area,and additional club offices.

“The students have put trust in our leadership and I’m ready for the opportunities ahead,” said Syed.

Freshly Pressed

TV on the Radio – Dear Science (Interscope)

TV on the Radio have always been enigmatic. Yet their startling vocal rhythms, jarring guitars, and inexplicable titles (Return to Cookie Mountain) are part of the fun of figuring them out. And damned if they can’t throw together a deadly single—anyone who could resist grooving to 2006’s “Wolf Like Me” is hardly human.

On their third album, the quintet manages to keep the funk while eschewing the prog sidelines that were Cookie Mountain’s only misstep. The biggest surprise, however, is “Family Tree,” the band’s best ballad since 2004’s achingly wanton “Dreams.” Over a hushed beat, vocalist Tunde Adebimpe murmurs the history of love, loss, and lynchings. Suffice to say this isn’t your typical Coldplay single.

Dear Science is strong all the way through to the insanely sexy closer “Lover’s Day,” in which each instrument rises to meet climactic lyrics like “there are miracles/under your sighs and moans.” You can practically hear the panties sliding to the floor.

Beneath all the desireis a band so adventurous that they deserve all the accolades that have been pressed on them for years. It’s only fitting that the boys dedicate this album to science—the most mysterious and engrossing study of all. Album of the year? Quite possibly.

—Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy


Oasis -Dig Out Your Soul (Sony BMG)

By now, most of us are sick of hearing the same deluded refrain that comes with every new Oasis album—“Their best since Morning Glory!” So let’s dispel that moronic notion right away: Dig Out Your Soul cannot be considered among the best of Oasis’ seven records. It seems chief songwriter Noel Gallagher has been searching for inspiration and grasping for straws since the coke-fuelled mess that was 1997’s Be Here Now. While it may have been decadent, unlike recent efforts, it produced noteworthy results.

With each new Oasis release, Britpop fans (myself included) pine for a return to form. Hope is offered by arguably their best single in a decade, the propulsive “The Shock of the Lightning,” but the album is undone by plodding psychedelic touchstones on “The Nature of Reality,” and “Waiting For the Rapture.”

Mercifully, there are a few highlights buried in the mire. Noel’s “Falling Down” starts as a whispery ballad and ascends to the kind of anthem that was abandoned in favour of pub ditties on 2005’s Don’t Believe the Truth. Liam’s mildly pleasant ballad “I’m Outta Time” pilfers shamelessly from John Lennon, but it’s got a hummable melody, and on a record like this one, that’s saying a lot.

Don’t let the brainwashed Britpop boosters fool you—Oasis haven’t got their mojo back, and its return is looking less likely all the time.

—Rob Duffy

Rise Against – Appeal To Reason (Geffen)

For a time in the mid ‘90s, political punk took a hit due the well being of the economy. It was hard to sell a bleak outlook on civilization when things seemed so rosy. Fast-forward to the current economic landscape, and Rise Against may finally be taken seriously.

As far as the music is concerned, Appeal To Reason is familiar territory for the Chicago quartet. The album starts off with the blistering rocker “Collapse (Post-Amerika),” designed to incite thinking man’s mosh pits all over the Warped Tour. The melodic choruses keep coming in the form of repetitive radio-friendly punk rock like “From Heads Unworthy,” which takes an up tempo verse and careens out of nowhere into a dramatic, slowed down refrain complete with gang vocals. But it wouldn’t be a proper Rise Against album without a randomly out-of-place ballad like “Hero of War,” a stripped-down acoustic number with lyrics taken from letters by soldiers serving in Iraq. Unfortunately this half hearted effort only secures Geffen’s ballad clause in the band’s contract after the success of “Swing Life Away.”

Rise Against deliver their treatises on the environment, the military, and animal rights capably and with ample conviction. They haven’t progressed much musically, but they’ve outdone their peers simply by avoiding the tired George W. Bush observations they were making five years ago.

—JP Kaczur


Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue (Warner)

Jenny Lewis combines introspective country-twinged songs that recall her first solo effort, Rabbit Fur Coat, with instrument-heavy, melodic gems to create a perfect combination on Acid Tongue.

The album is strengthened by a variety of contributors including Elvis Costello, Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes), Lewis’ boyfriend Jonathan Rice (pardon the gossip) and Jason Boesel (drummer for Lewis’ day job Rilo Kiley). Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward (of She and Him) make an appearance on “Pretty Bird”, with Deschanel providing backing vocals on a number of tracks. This indie-darling team up of Deschanel and Lewis seems almost inevitable—both grew up as Southern Californian actresses who eventually explored their passion for music.

Where her last solo album focused on Lewis’ mother, Acid Tongue gives us a glimpse of her father, particularly on highlight “The Next Messiah.” “See Fernando” has been around for years as a performance favorite, but only now sees the light of day on record. The album’s unquestionable standout is “Pretty Bird,” which showcases Lewis’ songwriting talent, fully formed.

Though the songs sound similar to Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis proves she has a style all her own.

—Shauna C. Keddy


Senses Fail – Life Is Not A Waiting Room (Vagrant Records)

Longtime screamo whipping boys Senses Fail can officially be considered rock veterans with the release of Life Is Not A Waiting Room on indie powerhouse Vagrant Records. The band members hadn’t finished high school when their first EP From the Depths of Dreams was released in 2003, yet they’ve admirably managed to stay afloat, improving their musicianship and songwriting with each release.

While their third full-length gets off to a slow start with the meandering opener “Fireworks At Dawn”, it kicks into overdrive with single, “Family Tradition.” The song functions as an entry into the annals of arena emo, complete with a massive chorus and deeply personal lyrics that read like a candid AA meeting transcript The album’s standout is the ballad “Yellow Angels,” showcasing guitarists Garret Zablocky and Heath Saraceno’s penchant for atmospherics and lead singer Buddy Nielsen’s vocals. While Neilsen’s voice has long been a point of contention (he’ll never be confused for Mariah Carey), it’s come a long way.

Senses Fail has not produced a transcendent album by any means, but it’s hard to fault a band for developing a simple, winning formula and sticking to it. They have developed from a laughing stock into a respectable band with an improving catalogue and likely, a lengthy career ahead.

—JP Kaczur


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.