Storytelling Review: You’re Being Ridiculous, February 3, Steppenwolf Theatre

Posted on by halley in Reviews, Theatre | Leave a comment

So, as I age (or, as I prefer to call it: “ripen” or “mature”) I have found myself widening my cultural interests from music to theater and, most recently, storytelling. Why? I hear you ask. Thanks for asking! Let me tell you: So, two main things I love about going to music shows are:

1) Lyrics. Clever, eye-opening lyrics can open minds and eyes and make you question your conception of narrative and connotation. One of the frustrating things about songs is the inability to ask the singer what a specific lyric means or how the song-writer came up with it.
2) The freedom the audience has to react however they want. When you go to a show, you have people singing along, clapping, closing their eyes, laughing, crying – you name it and there’s one in the crowd. I love this variety of reaction – so unlike something like a stand-up show where there is one acceptable reaction: laughter. And if that doesn’t happen, everyone feels uncomfortable.

Two main things I don’t love about going to music shows are:
1) People on their phones. I HATE realizing I’m looking at the stage through someone’s iPhone who’s recording it as opposed to actually watching the show.
2) Standing.

Enter… storytelling! This amazing artistic exercise combines all my favorite things: clever wordplay that is then elaborated upon and explained in great and gripping detail; audiences who snap, close their eyes, “mmhmmmm,” laugh out loud, cry, wave their hands, etc; MCs who forbid phone usage and mean it, and comfortable seats! I highly recommend it.

If you are in Chicago, I highly recommend it at Steppenwolf. This amazingly curated venue is intimate, creative, perfect for a first date, offers beautiful cocktails, a full coffee and pastry bar, and sparking water on tap (!). The staff are impeccable, the stage set up is welcoming, and the audiences are diverse and friendly. I really can’t praise this place highly enough.

I found this amazing venue through its “You’re Being Ridiculous” storytelling performance as part of its LookOut Series. The show Saturday night included 9 talented storytellers who regaled the audience with short but super memorable stories ranging from tear-jerkers to laugh-out-loud tales. Topics included:

1) Procrastination as denial of fear – and a way to push yourself to try new, unexpected things
2) An ode to breasts
3) Suicide and the power of family and laughter to bring survivors through it together
4) The terror of substitute teaching 4th graders
5) A husband-wife rendition of how they met (very different interpretations!)
6) Tales of life-changing surgery
7) The highs and lows of gay Jews vacationing in Boca Raton, FL
8) My favorite: a tear-jerker on the power of letting go.

The stories made me laugh, cry, learn, question, and start conversations I otherwise would never have dreamed of having. And the small venue allowed us to walk right up to the talented narrators and hug, high-five and praise however we wanted to. It really was an incredibly powerful night and I’m so glad I was there.

My storytelling pales in comparison to what you’ll see when you try this out – so go! Please! Whether a narrator or a listener, you’ll come away richer.

ImagineNATIVE Review: The Road Forward (Marie Clements, 2017)

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Reviews | Leave a comment

To varying degrees and on a spectrum of acceptance, we are all aware of the issues facing our First Nations communities. If our knee jerk reaction on being exposed to these painful, negative stories is denial, then we shouldn’t be surprised that this selective pressure pushed for the evolution of fighters: singers, songwriters and activists whose whole lives are built around being heard, being recognized to promote change. And thus, we come to this film. The Road Forward is a positive (and forceful) image of people who had no choice but to fight for their own rights, told through songs.

The Native Brotherhood/Sisterhood of BC are organizations that sprung up in the 1930s in response to deprivation of liberties of the native people on the BC coast. Originally formed around fish processing factories to the blueprint of a workers union, it gradually took on the job of neighborhood watch in Canadian politics regarding native rights and freedom. Recognizing the need to unite the cause as well as to communicate news in general, in 1946 they began to run the paper Native Voice, not as the mouthpiece of the organization, but as THE gazette for native life and politics in BC and around the country. That is where The Road Forward starts.


If we are feeling reductive (and blind and deaf and dumb), we could categorize this as another “struggle film”: documenting and prominently highlighting the otherwise invisible hardship people endure outside of our plastic anechoic chamber. But that would not only be a gross understatement, but also an irresponsible one. Calling this a musical slightly breaks the term as we typically grasp it in the Broadway sense. Yes, it uses blues, rock and rap to convey, emphasize, and weave together a story. Yes, it is a great showcase for native talents who persevered despite adversity. But it has more soul, and more self-determination, than that description betrays. Like saying fried chicken is just poultry pieces with breading in hot oil for 10 minutes, the secret is in the cookin’ and eatin’. The vehicle on which these feelings of pride, shame, fear, sorrow, cultural confusion, and far more beyond, is the key to this film. This allowed it to take on a new ability, and strike a distinct tone on the same subject that we all know (and tend to bury in ignorance) so well. And so, even if it lacks analysis of pragmatic solutions as to the road going forward, you need to watch this. It’s a powerful and important monologue, and we need to hear the (war) cries and start to discuss and enact realistic and humane solutions.

Documentary Review: Taming of the Queue (Josh Freed, 2017)

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Movies, Reviews | Leave a comment


Taming of the Queue (not the CFHI conference series of the same name, or blog-posts of the same name) is a rather short but succinct documentary on the modern, post-WW2 idea of lining up for services, purchases, transport, and pretty much everything else in life that requires waiting amongst other people. It is a popular psychology attempt at rationalizing common issues with queues and how “researchers and social engineers” have tried to alter the queue-scape.

In 3 chapters and several cardinal rules, Josh Freed tries to generalize the Line-Up as he saw it in different countries. By trying simple tricks to perturb and agitate people, he gets them to spill their beans (or in the case of the British, just their upper-lips) and reveal some of the underlying issues that must be balanced while we wait – do I want to, do I need to, and is it acceptable?

While quite entertaining for its length, I felt that Taming only just scraped the surface in terms of a dialogue on queuing and social etiquette. It highlighted but never explored nor extracted WHY countries have different ideas regarding waiting in line. It’s up to the viewer to spell it out for themselves. Yes, densely-populated countries like India display (to our eyes) a bewildering attitude toward cutting-the-line, but that is not a function of the particular socio-economic stratum itself – it’s a collective social contract that evolved independently. We might as well have concluded from the out-set that Indians have a different culture from the British and let it be. What would be more interesting, instead of small examples like installing mirrors and automated wait-time estimates, would be devoting some screen time to asking how to change the perception of queuing in places where it’s not popular. Because how we react to queues is simply a reflection of the degree to which we prioritize ourselves over other human beings. THAT’s social engineering. That is something that we should think about more than avoiding the issue by automating our social interactions away.

Hot Docs Review: A Cambodian Spring [Chris Kelly, 2017]

Posted on by guestwriter in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


A Cambodian Spring is a sobering look at a protest movement beyond Western society’s usual attention. The film follows three Cambodian activists as they fight for land rights in the Boeung Kak area where the poor are forced off their own land in the name of economic development. The characters are smartly chosen to show the struggle for social justice. Two of the activists are young mothers who are actually living in the area and are forced to take a stand – lest they are left with nothing. Then there is a Buddhist monk who rebels against the supposed apolitical nature of the Cambodian religious organization to aid in the cause. The film covers this trio over a six-year span and provides a glimpse into a protest movement that is vastly different and more deadly from that of many developed nations.

This documentary benefited greatly from a filming period that lasted 6 years. It is fascinating to see the protagonists develop throughout the film amid the struggles and setbacks. Toul Srey Pov, one of the mothers, rose from a timid individual to a prominent face of the protests and then to a rather sad soul. The other mother, Tep Vanny, remained true to the cause and gained international notoriety, yet laments the loss of her being a mother to her children. Then there is a poignant scene where the Buddhist monk breaks down in a van as he realizes the serious danger he is in – far removed from the idealistic enthusiasm he felt at the start. A Cambodian Spring intelligently uses these narratives to provide an honest look at the personal involvement of a chaotic and violent protest.

Perhaps the main strength of this documentary is its sense of reservation. Other filmmakers, such as Michael Moore, would have been tempted to explicitly tug the audience towards the side of the protesters but this film avoids such over-preaching. There is no mood setting music, no commentaries, or any of the usual devices. Instead, it allows the characters’ actions and the resulting consequences to speak for themselves. Just to be clear, there are the usual “evil doers” – corrupt government, shady corporation, mindless thugs, and inept UN organization. Any decent human being will sympathize with the poor wretched souls fighting to keep what little they have. The film restrained itself from sensationalizing the struggles and the triumphs of the protests to provide a more nuanced storytelling. There are some unsettling (mostly bloody) scenes but they never reach such gratuitous levels as to wholly turn away the audience or overpower the film’s essence. This subdued nature truly enhances the seriousness of the film.

It is impossible to encapsulate a struggle as complex as the one shown in a 120 minute film. Decisions are made to keep the audience engaged and satisfy budgetary constraints. The omission of character updates between various chapters of the film gives a jarring discontinuity to the storyline at times. The ending chapter is particularly notable as the two mothers go through a profound change in the protest movement and their relationship to each other. Yet, little is devoted as to how they arrived to that point and a potential moment is missed.

In retrospect, A Cambodian Spring presents a contrast to the many protests that are being sprung up in modern western society. It rarely idealizes the protest as a struggle for morality or nobleness – it is simply fighting because there is little left. There is a real personal cost that happens for those involved. It is a film recommended for those who romanticize the notion of protests without being truly aware of the privileged circumstance they are given in developed nations.

5/5 Raised fists for Pepsi marketing executives.

4/5 Raised fists for everyone else.

Thu, May 4, 12:30 PM @ Hart House Theatre
Sun, May 7, 6:15 PM @ Toronto Centre for the Arts