Trailer Trash hits Toronto

This Friday, Hart House Theatre will host the Canadian premiere of The Great American Trailer Park Musical, directed by Will O’Hare. With a lengthy and impressive resume — including a 2008 appearance as the Fool Hart House’s production of King Lear — O’Hare has traveled all over the world, directing, acting, and instructing in the theatre arts. We sat down with him to talk about his latest endeavour and what it’s like to be the Hart House ambassador of trailer trash.

The Varsity: How did this production come to Hart House? How did you become involved as a director?

Will O’Hare: Yeah, right, okay, so: Great American Trailer Park Musical. Jeremy [Hutton], the artistic director, contacted me last spring about directing the opening show for the season. So we started reading through a whole bunch of comedies because we thought we would kick off the season with something really funny — just get people to have a good time. We were looking for something high energy. And the music director, Kieren [MacMillan] , and Jeremy, came up with doing The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Kieren had seen it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival [in 2008]. It had also played off-Broadway in New York and a few other places in the states, but it had never been done here. And my sense of it is that Hart House, over the past couple of seasons, has been doing these edgy, high energy, almost irreverent musicals like Jerry Springer: The Opera and High Fidelity. This seemed to fall into this area that Hart House has been exploring.
I was assistant director to Woody Harrelson on Bullet for Adolf when we started talking about this, then I read it and thought, “this is pretty funny!”; then I listened to the music and there was this great rock and roll score. It was all about creating a world that was vibrant, edgy, kitschy, and fun. And that’s how that came about as far as selecting it. I also think that because I’m an American — I’m actually from the South — [Jeremy] thought, “well, if someone is going to direct The Great American Trailer Park Musical, then it has to be an American.”

TV: This performance marks the first run of The Great American Trailer Park Musical in Canada; what’s the pressure like in directing the “national premiere” of something?

WO: Oh yeah, that’s an interesting one. Well, I think that there’s this thing where you’re expected to be an American or southern expert. You feel like you’re representing the country or, especially coming from the South, a region. Being from the South, I’m often turned to as the authority on trailer parks. But this play takes place in northern Florida and one of the things I’ve tried to impart on the cast is that I come from Tennessee, and the way that Tennesseans look at the world projected in this play is like the way Canadians see the South in general. It is a bit foreign, a bit like, “oh wow people really live like that.” I also think that Canadians really enjoy finding moments where they can laugh at their southern neighbors, and I think that this play does that in the best spirit. It’s actually a celebration of everything that’s “trailer trashy.” This musical is about finding that kitsch element and highlighting it, as opposed to the darker elements of [this world].

TV: Would you say that the play perpetuates or breaks American trailer trash stereotypes?

WO: It definitely does do that, but it also points out how these are real people who go through their own [real] problems. There is a number in the play called “The Great American TV Show,” which is this nightmare dream sequence that parodies all those talk shows like Sally Jessy Raphael and Jerry Springer. By seeing those characters on TV, people tend to go, “oh well, I’m not going to feel so bad about myself and how messed up my life is, because these people [are so much worse].” The play does function in that way of “oh let’s look at this world,” but it also has this heart to it; which is what I think is really the key. There is all this kitsch, and it’s so over-the-top, but at it’s heart is a family that is getting reunited and a couple that is rekindling the love in their marriage that over 20 years has faded away. I feel like we’re all set up to laugh but at the same time there’s that moment that makes us go “ah that’s us.”

TV: The synopsis describes “hysterical pregnancies,” “death row hi-jinks,” and “chain smoking Camels.” How do you approach those stereotypes to make them more real and relatable?

WO: I think that part of it is acknowledging that each of those stereotypes or the things you read in the description are put in there for laughs. We are setting it all up as funny. But when that joke that is so ridiculous and over-the-top is over, that’s when the central characters stop and actually look at each other. That’s the part that is real. Everything doesn’t have to be big and broad and funny, “boom!” Take this couple Jeannie and Norbert, they’ve lived in the same trailer [for twenty years], but she’s agoraphobic and can’t come out of her trailer. That’s the big problem with their relationship. She has never left this tiny space and even though they’ve been in that cramped space forever, they don’t really look at each other. In this play, they’re forced to examine their relationship.

alt text

TV: Do you have a favorite character or one you enjoy working with the most?

WO: [laughs] It actually rotates every rehearsal. The chorus are these three women, “the wives of the trailer park,” who act as guides. They set everything up and then become characters that interact with [the other main characters]. They change in and out of that, but they have their own personalities as well. One, Lin, she’s great, her husband is on death row in prison and she’s seen just about everything in life, so she doesn’t put up with any BS. She cuts down anything that’s too happy. You know, she’s kinda sardonic. She just cuts through everything. Then we have Betty, who’s the “momma.” She runs the place and takes care of everybody. Then there’s young Pickles who’s only seventeen-years-old, and always thinks that she’s pregnant. She’s eager about everything but isn’t quite as sophisticated or as knowledgeable of the world. I find that they are just a lot of fun.

TV: Is there one character you would want to play yourself?

WO: Well there are only two men in the play. One’s Norbert , the husband, who is a toll collector. He’s been in this marriage for 20 years, and his wife won’t leave the trailer, so he’s a bit at the end of his rope. Then he happens to meet this girl at a strip club, and it makes him feel more alive than he’s felt in a long time. And I can certainly identify with somebody who feels like they’ve fallen into a rut and needs a spark or something like that, but in terms of pure fun, I’d want to play the character of Duke. So the stripper, Pippy, is on the run from her ex-boyfriend [Duke] and here’s this guy who rolls into town looking for her. He has a particular addiction to sniffing markers and is a little bit psychotic, but because he’s the kind of character that is just always on the edge, on the fringe — the actor, Justin [Bott] who is playing him is just fantastic — there is this freedom to make really interesting choices. [Duke’s] not a character you run into everyday. He’s a little dangerous, and is just strange. You never know what he’s going to do. I think that would be a lot of fun to play for sure.

TV: What do you think it is about this material that makes it perfect for musical theatre?

WO: I think there is this great send up with musical theatre. We imagine that with musical theatre we’re in a world that is beautiful, almost perfect. It’s “boy meets girl” and “boy loses girl.” They’re singing songs and there are some beautiful dances. Then you have [The Great American Trailer Park Musical], and you’re in this place that is so stark, it could be the most depressing environment being in a trailer park, but [the musical] flips that on its head and says, “how can this be spectacular and beautiful and brilliant?” It’s that celebration of everything that is trailer-trashy. It’s the same feeling if you go to a theme park that was built almost 50 years ago. I know that Scott Penner, the stage designer, did a lot of research looking at trailer parks. What I found particularly fascinating is that you see these signs for them, and they all have this aspiration of the American dream. It’s kinda cool. You imagine that gloss, that sheen, and although the sign might be rusty now, these people are still chasing their dreams, they’re trying to improve themselves and trying to better their lives. I think that idea is very attached to what the American dream can be, which is something particular to [musicals].

TV: You’ve worked on Shakespeare productions quite a bit in the past. Is directing something like Shakespeare’s Macbeth different from directing something like this? How do you address the differences in focus and audience?

WO: It’s true! It is absolutely different, but there is a function that is also really similar. In Shakespeare and classical work the text is very heightened, but so is it in the musical world. Sometimes there is something that a character in Shakespeare can’t express unless they go into verse, usually when they’re incredibly emotional that they switch from prose into verse, and it’s the same thing with musicals. You’ll have a scene between two characters and one character needs to express something to the other character, or share with the audience what they’re going through, and at that moment, at the height of that emotional moment, [in Shakespeare] they go into verse, but in musicals they go into song. Usually, the structure of a musical song has a lot of similarities to the structure of a Shakespearean monologue. The first verse or the very beginning deals with a problem in the moment: “this is what I’m facing.” Then through the song finds a solution or makes some kind of decision like, “this is what I need to do,” or “this is how my story can move forward,” which is VERY similar to how a Shakespearean monologue works. I find [the similarities] remarkable in that regard. The sensibility and tone in a play like Macbeth is very, very different [from The Great American Trailer Park Musical], but there is still this need to share with the audience, and this play knocks down the fourth wall a lot. Like I said, you have these chorus figures that directly bring the audience along with the story. Shakespeare does that too, the fourth wall rarely ever exists [in Shakespeare]. Those for me, have been my hooks as a director as how to approach it.

TV: You’ve worked in both New York and London — how does Toronto compare? Are there particular things you like or dislike about the city? How is the theatre scene different between the three?

WO: [Laughs] How many words do I have to answer that one? I love Toronto, as a city and as a theatrical city. I think what I really love about the theatre scene in Toronto is that it’s very accessible. We have an incredibly talented group of people working on this play, from designers who work at Stratford, to performers who work in New York, Japan, and all over the place doing incredible work. Here you have people who are just beginning and are in the early part of their career, maybe right out of school, who are working side by side with veterans and professionals, putting stuff like this together. I find that a place like Hart House is not something that would necessarily be able to exist in New York. I feel like wherever I go in this city and work there is this feeling.
I spent a lot of time this summer checking out the Fringe [Festival]. The entire theatrical community seems to come together for the Fringe. Whereas in New York, the theatre scene is incredible, but there is kind of a Fringe festival going on off-Broadway 365 days a year. So when they have their [official] Fringe, I don’t know if the city even notices because there is so much going on [all the time]. Here, I like the fact that people are aware of what shows are going on and what people are doing. It makes me feel a real sense of a close knit community, which is fantastic. In New York and London, the energy is great, but you feel like a lot of things can also get buried.

TV: The subject matter you deal with in this show is definitely unconventional. Do you have anything you’d like to say to people who are maybe hesitant or skeptical about The Great American Trailer Park Musical?

WO: The goal is to have a good time and have a great night out. The show is irreverent, the humour is irreverent, so it’s the kind of thing that is not done all the time. It’s not polite. It’s all about a willingness to come and just have fun. There are these great cultural references from the eighties from Lifetime television, to Meredith Baxter-Birney and Sally Jessy Raphael, as well as other talk shows or ads that I remember from TV when I was a kid. I think the older generation will get a kick out of those. The composers really riff off of the past 30 years of pop culture entertainment.

TV: So you want people to be brave?

WH: Yes! Come come! I encourage you to dress up in your best trailer trash outfit, have a good time, join us at the bar. It should just be a lot of fun.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical opens at Hart House Theatre Friday, September 23 and runs through Saturday, October 8.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants to film you

Few film festivals bring out a star-studded cast for their interactive programming. Luckily, TIFF decided to keep things high profile when they showcased hitRECord last Monday.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt hosted the event, which was devoted to original shorts and on-the-spot collaboration. The hitRecord website, which Levitt formed roughly five years ago, is a collaborative production company focused on the areas of video, writing, photography, and music. Artists from all over the world can share ideas and inspirations with this online community and work on projects as a collective.
Gordon-Levitt presented recent collaborations at TIFF’s Bell Lightbox and used the live setting to refine existing pieces. As host, the actor was incredibly engaging and enthusiastic, inviting audience members on stage to share personal stories, recite anecdotes, and even provide sound-effects for videos. Fresh from the premiere of his latest film, 50/50, he was even able to convince co-star Anna Kendrick to join him on stage and narrate a short story about first love.
Most surprising was Levitt’s insistence that audience members turn on all phones and recording devices, a direct rejection of every copyright infringement ad plastered across festival screens. Each smart phone and digital camera was aglow, granting everyone an opportunity to tape his or her own unique perspective of the night. An inspiring get-together, especially for Toronto’s young artistic community, the show deviated from TIFF’s usual style of programming that fixates on artists who have already secured success. HitRECord’s backing of digital remix culture at a time when Tumblr and Twitter are social network kings is commendable and very much appreciated. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has posted his own personal footage of the show on the hitRECord website – and after viewing it, you may well be inspired to start carrying around your own recording device on a daily basis.

alt text

Tippin’ our hat to TIFF

Union Square

Dir. Nancy Savoca

Mia Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard star as two estranged sisters in this indie drama. The product of three women compelled to just shoot something, this hidden festival gem was predominantly shot in producer Neda Armian’s apartment in Union Square. Lucy (Sorvino) is a questionably-attired woman from the Bronx who is on the verge of a mental breakdown. She decides to visit her sister, Jenny (Blanchard), who can barely feign enthusiasm when Lucy appears at her doorstep. It has been three years since their last get-together, and the two women realize that they know little about one another.
Although spatially restricted, the budget had no bearing on the quality of the narrative. The apartment changes with the tone of the script, which jumps from elation to suspicion in an instant. Nancy Savoca skillfully shatters female stereotypes with these unexpectedly expressive female leads. Just over an hour, this film triumphs in its portrayal of the bond between two wounded sisters.

alt text

A Dangerous Method

Dir. David Cronenberg

Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is subtle and patiently executed, though hopefully only a temporary departure from his usual gritty settings and overwrought characters. The film revolves around the hostile relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), or two psychoanalysts working on the eve of the First World War. Both actors deliver well-paced, composed performances. Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient of Jung’s, forces him to reconsider the sexual bent of Freud’s work and introduces the main chaotic force of the film. Mentally burdened with memories of abuse, Knightley brilliantly demonstrates the physical pain of disturbance, becoming a contortionist with her body and face. However, she slips in and out of Sabina’s thick Russian accent, resulting in a comically self-aware performance.
Ultimately, A Dangerous Method lacks any real danger. There is much discussion by theorists hoping to discredit psychoanalysis, but we never see any heated debates or confrontations. The crucial moment when Jung and Freud sever their connection is demonstrated through streams of letters sent back and forth, draining the moment of any substantial drama. The script is intelligently written, and the sexual indulgence is a definite draw, but the real significance that this time period held for psychoanalysis is left unaddressed.

Take Shelter

Dir. Jeff Nichols

A desolate, rural Ohio town is the setting for a reserved man’s battle with mental illness ­­— at least that’s how Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) and his doctors understand Laforche’s series of nightmares. A construction worker with a wife and disabled daughter, Curtis is the main source of income for his small family. The household’s emotional and economic stability comes under pressure when Curtis’ visions begin to affect his conscious behaviour.
When birds begin falling from the sky in large numbers, and rain as thick as motor oil gushes down from above, it becomes clear that Curtis is dreaming. The visions leech off his energy and mental health, leaving him exhausted and physically injured.
Director Jeff Nichols plays on the terror of not being able to trust your own state of mind. Shannon’s versatile performance grabs hold of our sympathy while refusing to free us from the fear of Curtis’ increasingly volatile behaviour. Whatever you take from this film’s ambiguous conclusion, Take Shelter will prompt a reconsideration of the boundaries defining mental health.

Doppelgänger Paul

Dir. Kris Elgstrand, Dylan Akio Smith

Doppelgänger Paul (Or A Film About How Much I Hate Myself), revolves around Karl, a self-loathing part-time writer. After a near-death experience caused by a simple bee allergy, Karl becomes fixated on the last person he sees before blacking out — a scrawny copy editor named Paul. After recovering from the blackout, Karl can’t seem to get Paul off of his mind and soon begins following him, leaving letters in which he claims to be Paul’s double. When Paul agrees to meet this supposed doppelganger in person, he is instantly aware of the fact that Karl looks nothing like him. However, Karl is relentless, as he clings to their mutual love of travel agents and cheap-smelling dollar stores as evidence of a deeper connection.
This straight-faced comedy rightly points to every individual’s innate desire for recognition, even if it is completely fabricated. While Paul initially resents the idea that Karl is his binary, he unintentionally begins borrowing details from Karl’s life to recreate his own bloated self-image. This dark Canadian indie film proffers a witty look at the understandably strange methods some use to find meaning in life, and the degree to which arbitrary run-ins can significantly alter one’s sense of self-worth.

alt text

The Oranges

Dir. Julian Farino

David and Paige Walling (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener) and Terry and Carol Ostroff (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) are two middle-class couples from Jersey who do everything together, from jogging to Sunday dinners. Their ties are shaken, however, when Terry and Carol’s daughter, Nina (Leighton Meester), returns home after a few years of jetting around the world. Nina instantly sparks drama when she hooks up with David one night as he shares details about his unhappy marriage. Alia Shawkat, who plays David and Paige’s daughter, Vanessa, sinks her head into architectural designs and recreational drug use to drown out the image of her dad in bed with her childhood best friend. Adam Brody plays the Ostroff’s son, Chris, delivering a repeat performance of his role as Seth Cohen from The O.C., as he unenthusiastically deals with two clashing suburban families. It is ultimately hard to buy the “connection” between Nina and David. Hugh Laurie comes off as an incredibly awkward sex object, and Nina seems driven more by boredom than true passion. You can predict the outcome long before the news of this unusual relationship becomes neighbourhood gossip. You just have to wait a good hour-and-a-half before the one-dimensional cast finally gives in to the stretched-out formula we all know and dread.

The Patron Saints

Dir. Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky

Canadian documentary, The Patron Saints, offers a dark and voyeuristic glimpse into a nameless nursing home for the disabled and the elderly. Shot over four years, directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky employ an atmospheric lens that floats through the pastel walls of the institution, dropping in on various residents along the way. By structuring the narrative around the candid stories of Jim, a frank and upbeat man who is the youngest resident of the institution, The Patron Saints effectively avoids the common problem of condescension. Instead, the film’s lyrical approach to documentation distinguishes it as a haunting reflection on human frailty. The film taps into our fears of seclusion, making us dread the day that we no longer self-reliant. Jim’s anecdotes introduce us to a vast array of cases — some sweet, some a bit disturbing. For instance, there is Roro, a disabled woman who was molested by her brother, her only regular visitor. However, even that one visit seems preferable when juxtaposed with scenes of distraught mothers crying over their children’s lack of concern for them. A trying emotional experience for all, The Patron Saints lets viewers wrestle with the significance of the fading minds and static bodies presented throughout the film.

Kill List

Dir. Ben Wheatley

Jay and Gal are suburban ex-soldiers who decide to revive their posts as hitmen in order to save their cash-strapped families. Shel, Jay’s wife, constantly pushes him to find work so that they can pay off escalating debts. Jay’s former partner, Gal, convinces him to re-enter the realm of assassins. The reason for the pair’s extended leave from a life of crime is only ever implied — references to a former botched job in Kiev continuously threaten the completion of their latest assignment. Everyday settings and Blair Witch-style camera work define the look of Kill List, bestowing the small London town with a tense atmosphere. Unanswered questions and mysterious symbols are thrown into the plot alongside Jay’s increasingly erratic behaviour; initially eliminating targets with a gun, he begins to prefer the unhurried satisfaction of hacking limbs and burning faces.
The reason Kill List has garnered so much critical attention is its unorthodox approach to the horror genre. Director Ben Wheatley transitions between story modes at a cleverly calculated pace. What initially starts off as a character study unexpectedly transforms into a gruesome thriller/horror amalgam. At the film’s conclusion, the bloodbath reaches such a level of excess that you’ll surely forget when the spats about buying groceries ended and the cult-like death matches took over.


Dir. Tanya Wexler

Hysteria is the best kind of big budget, high-gloss gala presentation, featuring a star cast and a beautifully captured period in history. Director Tanya Wexler’s first feature film in 10 years, the premise — the very true story of the invention of the electronic vibrator in the 1880s — provides a light-hearted and surprisingly comical take on the Victorian era medical scene. Wexler explains that “If there’s any critique of the film, it’s that Hysteria isn’t salacious enough. But I think it’s more subversive to make a film about the vibrator that you can bring your mom to.”
With little velvet curtain sliders dividing the doctors from their patients, the nether-regions explored are alluded to in the most amusing way. Historical figure Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is the protagonist of the film. Frustrated with the application of dated practices such as bloodletting and leeching among London’s medical establishments Granville moves from one hospital job to the next, in constant despair over the high rate of patient mortality. Granville soon stumbles upon the private practice of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who has a booming business dealing with bourgeoisie housewives afflicted with “hysteria” — a catch-all diagnosis for everything from insomnia to depression, or anything else a man doesn’t understand about the female sex. Unable to properly attend to his growing clientele, Dalrymple takes on Granville as his assistant in the treatment of manual massage, a therapeutic procedure applied to a woman’s vaginal area. Though the women clearly enjoy the procedure, reacting with operatic singing and shouts of “Jolly ho!”, Dalrymple stresses that the treatment is not sexual in the least (orgasms still being an unfamiliar concept at the time).
Dalrymple’s daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who goes against her father’s wishes by running an East-End settlement for the poor, is a spirited woman who pokes fun at Granville for wasting his medical talents pleasuring bored housewives. When persistent hand cramps prevent Granville from getting the job done, he is discharged. Shortly thereafter, he joins forces with his wealthy mate Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), whose love of power tools is transferred to the invention of a hand-device capable of inducing paroxysms in women — in half the time a manual job ever could!

alt text

Maggie Gyllenhaal, no stranger to sexuality in her acting repertoire, stated that Hysteria presented an opportunity for her to address the taboo behind female sexuality. “It’s about vibrators and women’s orgasms, and I don’t think people really do talk about it very much, and I think it does still make us flushed and uncomfortable.”
Wexler stated that she was well aware of the taboo-status surrounding depictions of women reaching climax; she got around the stern American rating system that would have limited the scope of her film by situating the unmentionable topic within a comedy. Dancy’s interest in the topic led to parallels between Hysteria and Cronenberg’s latest, A Dangerous Method: “In reference to the Cronenberg movie, it’s interesting that they’re dealing with hysteria but even with the time shift between the two movies, it’s completely different. In this case, it goes from a completely fabricated physical diagnosis, to an arguably fabricated psychological diagnosis.” What Dancy found most outrageous about the film was that men in the field of medicine were “without any irony, without any deception, diagnosing this nonexistent condition and doing what they were doing manually…failing to see there might be anything sexual about it.” With Gyllenhaal’s character serving as an advocate for women’s independence, the hilarity and strong social discourse of the film stems from everyone else’s obliviousness.

Sex in the City

This semester, first-year students can get excited at the prospect of a new Sexual Diversity Studies course that will give them real hands-on contact with the city’s rich and boisterous sexual history.

Sex in the City, a full-credit seminar-style course beginning in September, will explore sexual politics and sexualized spaces. The University College initiative is a part of ‘UC One: Engaging Toronto,’ which follows on the heels of similar first-year programs at Victoria and Trinity College. The programs aim to couple the experience of large lectures with the benefits of small, interactive seminars.

Dr. Scott Rayter, who teaches the course, was enthusiastic after his first session with the students. “It was great. It’s a different kind of experience that most first-year students don’t get to have,” he said. “It also allows students to have exposure to some really great academics who don’t get a lot of undergraduate teaching,” he continued.

The course is one of four interdisciplinary streams that UC One students can choose from; each will look at how university-based research can stimulate “larger questions” about the city. The other streams are Canadian Studies, Drama and Health Studies.

Students will be marked based on critical reflection papers on weekly readings and lectures, participation and a final research paper. The course is limited to 25 students, and every week in the fall, students from each program stream will have a two-hour lecture by guest speakers and then break into four tutorial groups based on their stream. Guest speakers will include prominent business leaders, community activists, and political figures such as former Toronto Mayor David Miller and Ontario’s Minister of Research and Innovation, Glen Murray.

In the winter, students do the research seminar portion of the course with their instructor and go out in to the community. Students enrolled in Sex in the City will have the opportunity to tour some of Toronto’s most historic sexualized spaces including the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and the Pink Triangle Press.

Among other assignments, students will organize their own sex-themed “Jane’s walks” or walking tours aimed at engaging people with their neighbourhood. Jane Farrow, founder and executive director of Jane’s Walks, will be a guest lecturer this fall, talking about queer history and queer space in Toronto. In the second semester, she will show the students how to design a ‘Jane’s walk.’

Rayter hopes that having students organize these tours will help them to critically engage with Toronto’s unique sexual identity. “It’s about getting to know your spaces and taking advantage of them,” he said.

McConville wins CIS and OUA honours

Varsity Blues women’s soccer player Eilish McConville won big with three awards, being named CIS, OUA, and Varsity Blues’ Female Athlete of the Week.

The honours came after the striker scored five goals combined in games against the Laurentian Voyageurs and Nipissing Lakers over the September 10 weekend.

alt text

McConville’s OUA-leading five goals have come in her first season as a Blue, though this is her second year studying medicine at U of T. She does, however, bring a wealth of experience to the team. McConville spent four years as a member of the Gaels soccer team while doing her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at Queen’s University.

With the Gaels, she was named the CIS women’s soccer rookie of the year in 2003 and a first team All-Canadian from 2004–06. She also won two of Queen’s University’s most prestigious athletic awards, the Alfie Pierce Award in 2004 and the PHE ‘55 Alumnae Award in 2007.

Every sports team goes through a transition period at some point. In university athletics, graduation inevitably leads to the loss of key players. A crucial component of championship success is consistency, as is a veteran leadership presence. McConville has stepped up to fill the latter role for the Blues.

As the oldest player on the team (nicknamed ‘Grandma Rook’) McConville has proven to be an invaluable resource for her teammates, as they go through a transition period themselves.

“I think I bring a lot of experience to the team,” McConville said. “Because the team has just had this coaching change and we’re going [in] a new direction for U of T soccer … I was excited to be able to be a part of that and hopefully bring my experiences from Queen’s … and bring a new winning attitude.”

After leaving Queen’s, Eilish moved to Calgary, where she worked for an engineering firm for two years before returning to school, this time at U of T. Injuries kept her out of action in her first year. Fully recovered from a patella injury, she began training with the team in the winter semester of 2011.

Some athletes never forget the moment they got involved in their chosen sport. Some, like McConville, have been doing it for so long that it’s hard to remember that moment. “The first season I played, we played seven a side. That’s all I really remember.”

McConville played competitively for most of her youth as a member of the Ottawa Internationals and the Ottawa Furies. Soccer runs in the McConville family: one of Eilish’s two brothers currently plays as a defender for the McMaster Marauders. “We were sort of hoping the McConville’s would take the OUA by storm this year,” she explained. “[McMaster] have done well so far this year, so I’m really excited for [my brother] but I can’t go see him play this year because I’m playing myself.”

McConville was a multi sport athlete growing up, competing in volleyball, basketball, and track and field. The sports in which she really excelled, however, were soccer and tennis.

“Tennis was kind of my winter sport, and soccer was my summer,” she explained. McConville eventually qualified to play in the Indoor Tennis national championships at the age of 14, but in high school she decided to focus solely on soccer.

The decision to quit tennis was partly due to the benefits of playing a team sport as opposed to an individual one. “Tennis is a very demanding individual, mental sport,” she said. “On the other side I had soccer, where you have a team of girls who are really supportive of you, and you definitely get more of a camaraderie with the girls.”

As for the advice ‘Grandma Rook’ has for student athletes aspiring to compete at the university level, McConville stresses that academics have to be the first priority. “What I would advise is [to] first pick a university that’s going to give you a university experience,” she said. “The number one goal of going to university is not to play soccer. It’s to get a good education and to learn the life skills that will help you later on in life.”

That is not to say, however, that soccer should play no part. “If you have the opportunity to go to a university that is both going to give you that experience and have a strong soccer program ,then that’s obviously the ideal choice for you,” McConville said. “And then once you get there, put in the work — because it’s the stuff that you do outside of your time at university that is going to benefit you most on the soccer field.”

The Gaels made it to the national championship tournament in three of the four years that McConville was on the team but only made it to the final in her last year. Despite scoring first, the Gaels ultimately lost the game. Still, among all her personal accomplishments, she counts “stepping out onto the field to play in the national finals [and] being able to share that moment with my teammates” as her greatest achievement of all.

As is the case for any high-level athlete, the goal is always to win a championship. McConville now has a second chance at winning that final game, and has set the bar high for herself and her teammates. The OUA’s leading scorer has her sights set on winning both the OUA and CIS championships.

“I love the feeling of scoring a really important goal in an important game. I don’t think there’s anything that I’ve done in my life that really matches that. It’s just exhilarating.”

The doctorate’s dilemma

When people ask me what I did this summer, I tell them that, among other things, I worked in a cognitive neuroscience lab. After an appreciative pause, I am quick to explain: “it’s not as cool as it sounds, believe me.”

This summer I learned that I don’t want to be a scientist. And for someone who has always had some plans do some science PhD, that’s a pretty big deal. As many students in their final year at university will appreciate, the decisions we’re facing aren’t just about what we want to do; they’re about how we want to live. For me, the life of a scientist just doesn’t seem like a good fit anymore.

For a taste of that life, look no further than last month’s issue of the science mothership journal Nature. The issue featured a series of pieces on “24/7 lab” culture — a phenomenon that has become increasingly prevalent in scientific research. It’s a culture where the expectation of working nine to five will get you laughed out of the room. Evenings, weekends, and holidays are all fair game for a long haul in the lab. The rationale is simple: the more hours you can work, the more grants you can apply for, and the more articles you can publish.
The sheer volume of work isn’t simply about attaining post-human productivity. In science, working hard is sexy. Of course, hard work is applauded in other fields, but scientists take it to the extreme.

Take Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, a neurosurgeon in the US who’s notorious for pulling 140-hour workweeks. He enforces the same hardcore work ethic in his grad students, and he also happened to publish 113 articles in the past six years. Scientists of this breed pride themselves in driving themselves inhumanly hard without an ounce of a break. They’re feared, and enormously respected.

Yet for the kind of person who has interests, or friends, outside of science, the 24/7 lab culture spells-out a pretty certain road to burnout. In my brief stint at the cognitive neuroscience lab this summer, I became accustomed to the 12-hour workday. I lived on cafeteria sandwiches, becoming completely numb to the passage of time and study participants. When I wasn’t pitying myself on the bus-ride to work, I was looking forward to my favourite part of the day: the time to sleep, before another day of research would dawn.

But I don’t want to paint an unnecessarily bleak picture of science. Thankfully, not all scientists subscribe to the cult of workaholism, and not all labs will drive you to those extremes. Yet, for the soon-to-be graduate who’s on the brink of a research career, your work life is something to consider seriously. The trouble is that as competition increases for limited research funding, the chances of succeeding without putting in the extra hours are growing increasingly slim. If you want to be ambitious — get published, earn grants, and do all the things that the culture of science has ever taught us to want — you have to make sacrifices.

But are the sacrifices worth it? On a personal level, it means throwing away any naive notions of work-life balance, and recalibrating your biological rhythms to the pulse of the grant cycle. Some people have the stomach for it, others don’t.

Still, there’s more at stake. It’s not just a question of whether the 24/7 work ethic is good for the scientists; it’s worth it to ask whether this culture is even good for science. What are the chances of generating creative, penetrating research questions, when you haven’t had more than ten minutes to yourself, apart from sleep? What is the likelihood that you’ll commit an error in analyzing data, when you’ve been awake for the past 20 hours? What can your science be worth if it has mistakes in it?

As Julie Overbaugh argues in her Nature commentary, science needs to create space for both kinds of researchers — the hardcore workaholics who focus all their energy on research, and the original thinkers who seek a better work-life balance, and drive new ideas.
So let me qualify my first assertion: This summer I learned that I don’t want to be a scientist, and a scientist only. Like most people in their twenties, I want to pursue other interests outside of laboratory. I want to keep up my relationships with friends and family. I want to have the space to generate my own ideas. But by the looks of the current scientific landscape, that kind of balance seems near impossible if you want to make your mark.

I’m not afraid of hard work, and have put in my fair share of 18-hour days-with gusto. But I’m not willing to put the rest of my life on hold while I complete a PhD that will get me somewhere I’m told is amazing. In the end, nothing is worth it if I don’t find some value in the process of doing it.

In a perfect world, of course, we’d all be able to be ambitious, award-winning scientists, who have time for both the grunt work and the deeper questions. Until that world is created, the doctorate’s dilemma is simple. Being able to say “I was at the lab til 10 p.m. last night” may give you that wonderful sense of self-pitying pride, and even a few publications under your belt before graduation. But if you’re more inclined to find some joy in what you do, it might be wiser to take the scenic route.

Gryphons Singing the Blues

Over 1,600 fans were on the edge of their seats throughout this past Saturday’s home opener between the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and the University of Guelph Gryphons. It was a nail-biter to the end, but Toronto secured a 21–12 victory over the Gryphons, improving their record to 2–1 for the 2011-12 season.

Fifth-year veteran quarterback Andrew Gillis led the charge, gaining 173 yards by air and 52 yards on the ground while adding two touchdowns to his stat sheet.

alt text

The Blues’ defense also made a big contribution, sacking Guelph’s quarterbacks six times, and repeatedly shutting down the Gryphons’ offense, allowing Toronto to gain excellent field position whenever they got the ball back. Fourth-year linebacker Wilkerson DeSouza kept U of T’s defensive intensity at a maximum, leading all Blues players with 11 tackles. “We just kept bringing the pressure, and our defensive plan worked,” said DeSouza.

The game not only had implications in terms of the season’s record; the Blues were also looking to exact some revenge. In last year’s matchup between these two teams at Guelph, Toronto held a 13-12 lead late in the game, only to see it slip away as the Gryphons convert a field goal with six seconds to go to win 15-13.

The Blues were determined not to suffer the same fate again, though the Gryphons certainly gave them a run for their money.

Down 7–0 after Guelph blocked a punt from Toronto’s own end zone and recovered the ball for the touchdown, the Blues opened the second quarter with an 11-yard touchdown run by second-year running back Aaron Milton. Two and a half minutes later, Gillis scored on a play from a yard out, set up by a huge 49-yard pass to fourth-year receiver Michael Prempeh.

Guelph came out for the third quarter with fire in their eyes, pushing Toronto’s defense all the way to their own two-yard line. Fortunately for the Blues, DeSouza recovered a fumble, putting the Blues back on offense. Forced to punt from their own end zone again, Blues head coach Greg Gary — in his first year at the helm — elected to take a knee and concede a safety rather than risk another blocked punt by Guelph.

alt text

The Gryphons trimmed the deficit to two points after converting a 33-yard field-goal in the fourth quarter, giving Blues fans a scare and no doubt reminding the players of last season’s loss. Gillis, however, would make sure there would be no repeat of last year’s result.

“We definitely didn’t want to let Guelph think they could steal a game from us for the second straight year,” said fifth-year receiver Sebastian Magalas. “Gillis was huge for us when we needed him most, and our entire offense stepped up to the challenge, staying composed and determined with the pressure on.”

Paul de Pass reeled in a 44-yard reception ­— the highlight of a six play, 84-yard drive by the Blues — and Gillis capped it off, rushing for a 25-yard touchdown with 47 seconds to go. This effectively sealed the win for the Blues and dashed any hopes Guelph had of making a comeback.

“I approach every game the same, but this game had a little extra drive behind it,” said Gillis. “Getting this [win] definitely meant a lot to the team as well as to myself.”

Fans also caught their first glimpse of defensive back Dorian Munroe — who started for the University of Florida Gators — as he made a spectacular play, intercepting a pass in the second quarter. Munroe is in his fourth year of eligibility and also appears on special teams, returning punts as well as kickoffs.

U of T has now won two straight games, following their 10-8 victory over York in the Argo Cup the previous week.

No sunset on terror laws

Ten years after the September 11 attacks, terrorism remains a serious threat to Canadian security. While there have been no attacks in Canada since 2001, the RCMP and CSIS have foiled several plots. The most serious of these plots was hatched by the “Toronto 18,” who planned to detonate truck-bombs and to kidnap and execute Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Arguably, the risk of terrorism has increased since Canada stepped up its involvement in the war in Afghanistan in 2006. In order to meet the threat of Islamist terrorism, the Conservative government plans to reintroduce extraordinary post­–9/11 security legislation this fall.

The legislation, which had expired in 2007 due to a sunset clause, granted two controversial powers to the courts and the police. First, the police can detain anyone they suspect of being associated with terrorism for three days without charge. This lets the police prevent people whom they suspect of planning attacks from doing so while they gather enough evidence to charge them. Second, the courts can compel potential witnesses to testify terror-related activities by imprisoning them. This allows the courts to bypass the usual procedure, which would require a trial and conviction for contempt of court.

While both powers are hypothetically useful in support of Canada’s counter-terrorism efforts, they were not used during the period in which they were in force. However, it may be that the types of threats that Canada faces in the future, such as an increased number of so-called “homegrown” terror plots, will require the use of these powers. Thus, what is disturbing is not that the government plans to reintroduce these powers, but that Public Safety minister Vic Toews hopes to do so without including a sunset clause or substantial judicial or legislative oversight.

Most laws passed by Parliament remain in force until they are repealed. However, some controversial or time-sensitive laws are subject to sunset clauses, legislative self-destruct buttons which ensure that they expire after a period of time. Thus, no matter what Parliament is doing at the time, the sunset clause forces the government to consider whether they will reintroduce the legislation, and gives the opposition a chance to decide whether they will resist it. That way, it is hard for these laws to outlive their utility and, more importantly, ensures they will not be used for purposes other than those for which they were intended.

Past Canadian governments not only interned “enemy aliens” during the First and Second World Wars but also made plans to arrest thousands of communists and communist sympathizers if war had broke out with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. These arrests and plans for arrest were authorized under similar legislation to that which the Conservatives plan to reintroduce. They are now widely considered to be an overreaction, as the threats to Canadian security were vastly exaggerated. Unless these anti-terror powers are limited, they could be used in similar ways by future governments.

Moreover, aside from the requirement that the Public Safety minister report annually on the use of these powers, the government has no plans to provide real accountability. The opposition should demand that the government only be allowed to reintroduce these powers if it agrees to provide ongoing and substantial oversight. Since these powers will largely be used by the RCMP and the federal justice system, the government should make the RCMP more accountable for its national security activities by creating an external committee, modeled on the one which oversees CSIS, to scrutinize its operations and recommend policy changes.
It may be that radical Islamic terrorism is actually a significant threat to Canadian security, and the courts and the police require these new powers to meet it. Granting these powers without giving them an expiry date and providing for real accountability, however, leaves too much room for abuse. Canadians want to see our society kept safe, but not at the expense of fundamental rights.