True story

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Truth is relative. Truth isn’t about facts so much as believability. Something can be objectively factual, but if I do not believe it, it is not true (to me).

And while this position can complicate social interactions and any discussion of politics, its corollary is vital to creativity:

Something can be objectively fictional, but if I believe it, it is true (to me).

I stumbled across this concept years ago, while studying improvisation at Second City.

I entered the school thinking I was there to be funny, but rapidly learned that despite the appellation “improvisational comedy”, the discipline is more about being fully engaged with the other performers and your environment rather than being funny.

Despite the lack of props, despite the lack of costumes, despite being confined to a stage, improv is about truth. If it isn’t, if the audience doesn’t believe you, then your performance is ineffective.

Without truth, the audience will not engage emotionally, they will not invest in the characters, and at best, the performance becomes an intellectual exercise. At worst, it becomes boring.

The same is true for writing.

As part of my everyday life, but particularly as a screenwriting instructor, screenplay competition reader and story analyst/coach for So, What’s Your Story?, I digest a lot of stories that cover every medium and genre. In analyzing these stories, teasing out what works and looking for ways to improve what isn’t working, I find that most of my feedback ultimately drills down to the truth of the story.

All good stories are true stories, but not all true stories are good.

Who are these characters? What do they want? What do they need? Why are they acting that way?

The world can be completely fantastical; it doesn’t have to look or function like any place I have experienced. The characters don’t have to be human or even corporeal.

But both must have a truth that I, as a reader or audience member, can believe in, something I can connect to.

Except with possibly the most Art House of work—where the thwarting of inherent truth is often the whole point—the world must have consistent laws by which it functions, even if those laws are completely alien to my real-world experience.

And, although I may not agree with a character’s motivations and reactions, I must on some level understand them and recognize them as true and consistent for the character and the world in which that character exists.

From my perspective, this is reason why Arrival works, and Valerian doesn’t.

Yes, there were plotting challenges in Arrival, its mixed timelines presentation often confusing things (and yet, ironically, that was the overall point of the story), but the characters made sense, their actions were believable, their world consistent if only in hindsight.

In contrast, the world of Valerian seemed to shift as required by the plot, a deus ex machina around every corner. And most of the characters seemed to suffer from erratic multiple personality disorder (respect to those challenged by the actual disorder) that invalidated each motivation and reaction as soon as it happened.

For me, Arrival had an inherent and universal truth, whereas Valerian was little more than artifice, an intellectual exercise in which I chose not to participate.

Consider your favourite stories from whatever medium—the page-turner novels, the lean-forward movies.

What pulled you into the story? What kept you enthralled? What made you forget there was a world outside?

Perhaps it was good writing. Maybe, an excellent plot. Possibly, interesting characters.

Whatever the intellectual rationale, you believed. If only for a brief period, the story was true (to you).

As difficult as it sounds, that is your target in writing. And because of your proximity to the story, it will be a challenge. But truth is the difference-maker.

Our writing is only as good as the truth we tell.

Best of luck.

 

Arrival: Screenplay (pdf) by Eric Heisserer

Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets: Screenplay by Luc Besson

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Artists I adore (and you should follow)

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Barnaby Dixon – puppetry

As many of you know, I am nutso for puppetry and have somehow managed to know some amazingly talented puppeteers. But as much as I adore my friends, one fellow blows me away not just for his skill as a puppeteer, but also as a puppet designer.

For a guy that looks like he’s 12—I’m over 50, so you all look 12 to me—Barnaby Dixon seems ancient in his craft and wisdom. From the very first YouTube video I watched, he has dazzled me with his love of the art form, his ability to bring the inanimate to life, and his presentation style that draws you in and makes you feel like this is a private conversation. Stellar!

Visit Barnaby’s web site, Facebook page and Twitter account

 

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Baram & Snieckus – comedy

I know, I know. I have to get past my addiction to these beautiful sketch and improv wunderkinds. But I can’t help myself.

Apart, Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus are wonderfully funny and vulnerable and endearing, but together, they rocket off the charts.

As I have reviewed previously (see below), Baram & Snieckus are to the modern era what Stiller & Meara and Nichols & May were to theirs, people who express the challenges and wonders of social awkwardness, allowing us to laugh at the things that frighten us in our daily lives.

No one is more neurotic than Matt…until Naomi erupts in her own mental mushroom cloud.

And that this husband-and-wife team are beautiful, friendly, giving, caring people is an absolute bonus.

You can follow Matt & Naomi on their web site, Facebook page or Twitter.

 

See also:

You and Me Both – A revue review

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

 

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Filippa Levemark – visual arts

As a photographer, I adore nature. As a writer, I adore bizarre or interesting juxtapositions. Thus, I had no choice but to fall in love with Filippa Levemark’s work.

With the seemingly simplest of compositions, Filippa combines nature and human infrastructure to powerfully demonstrate that the two worlds are one and the same. Try as it might, humanity cannot hold itself as distinct from the wildlife that surrounds us, nor should it.

Her work is beautifully approachable and yet is rife with meaning, offering depths that may be missed at first glance.

Based in Sweden, my greatest hope is to find a way for her to bring her works to Canada.

You can follow Filippa on her web site, Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

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Irene Carl Sankoff & David Hein – musical theatre

As a student at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre several years ago, I had the great fortune to meet and do improv with a gorgeous and talented actress named Irene Sankoff, a truly giving performer.

Years later, I heard that Irene and her husband David Hein had created the somewhat autobiographical stage musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which played to wonderful reviews in Toronto. What I didn’t realize was that the musical would explode in the theatre world both in Canada and abroad, setting these two up as a creative force of nature.

And just this past year, they have repeated (and likely surpassed) that success with a new musical Come From Away, based on events in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 when hundreds of air passengers found themselves suddenly grounded.

The musical just completed a spectacularly successful run in Toronto and begins Broadway previews on Feb 18 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, where it is sure to sell out quickly.

But like my Baram & Snieckus comment above, what makes these two particularly special is that they are genuinely wonderful people and have such love for their craft and for the people who come see the show.

Recently, on a frigid Toronto morning, the pair brought coffee and donuts to fans waiting for rush tickets to their final Toronto performance (Toronto Star article). The pair and performers from the show entertained the small crowd, singing songs and chatting with the chilled throng. That is simply beautiful.

Follow Irene & David’s adventures on their web site, Facebook and Twitter.

 

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

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If Elaine May and Mike Nichols were alive today that would be horrible, because Nichols was buried two years ago. (May is still alive.)

That said, I am sure they would be happy to know that the legacy they started in the 1950s is being continued quite ably by Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram, who previewed their latest revue tonight at the John Candy Box Theatre in Toronto.

Long-standing staples on the Toronto comedy scene, Snieckus and Baram are veterans of the Second City and both have had their turn at television (Mr. D and Seed, respectively). But this real-life husband and wife are at their strongest when they stand across the stage from each other and reveal their neuroses in a mass therapy session that other people pay $15 to see.

The new show is aptly titled as they truly are still figuring it out. A combination of sketches, Nichols & May-style audio pieces, some improv, and playful audience banter, the show, which runs about 60 minutes, is still a work-in-progress, some bits decidedly more solid than others. But in many respects, that is the charm of a Baram & Snieckus production; it never feels complete.

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This is a couple who consistently commit to their craft, who are willing to run with anything that comes up—including an audience suggestion of Dante’s cab ride, which turned into a motivational moment for an under-performing Satan with Daddy issues. But what makes this particularly charming is they are not afraid to let the audience know when they realize a bit isn’t working, and we all lean forward to see how they’ll extract themselves.

Their choice of venue facilitates this intimacy with the audience.

Although I have every confidence that Baram & Snieckus would have no trouble holding an audience in a large theatre, all of the revues that I have attended occurred in small venues, holding no more than 100 seats. The John Candy Box Theatre is no exception, and the audience sits so close to the stage that they become a tripping hazard for the performers.

Thus, when you see Baram & Snieckus perform, it is like you’re watching their lives from their living room.

[For the record, I have never been in their living room and this completely unnecessary ankle bracelet chafes.]

That intimacy, that vulnerability is the charm that bonds this team to the audience. These are your best friends and you are about to see them at their worst moment. Over and over and over again.

It’s schadenfreude for swingers. [The title of their next revue?]

One thing that was different from previous revues is the pair have started filming some of their classic sketches, and they projected two—from their previous revue You and Me Both—for tonight’s audience. This is part of a larger effort by the couple to make more of their material available online to audiences.

Still Figuring It Out, which runs until Friday, September 30, is practically sold out, so you’ll want to snatch the last few tickets soon, if you’re not already too late.

Alternatively, look for them on the web site of their company National Theatre of the World.

You will find laughs, and maybe a few insights as you too still figure it out.

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See also:

Toronto Star review of Still Figuring It Out by Carly Maga

My review of You & Me Both

You and Me Both – a revue review

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As a disclaimer, I should tell you that I am in love with Toronto comedian Naomi Snieckus. What keeps this from getting too awkward—for me, at least—is the fact that I am also in love with her comedic partner and husband Matt Baram.

There. I said it. It is out in the open. Let the restraining order chips land where they may.

Last night was the preview of Baram and Snieckus’ latest stage revue You and Me Both, playing at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille – Backspace. And short of attending the show in the performers’ living room, a more intimate setting could not be found.

Minimalist is too long a word to convey how intimate the Backspace is. As the sell-out crowd of about 40 patrons stirred on their Obus-form cushions, we were faced with an almost barren stage but for a handful of stools and chairs, the furnishings hearkening back to Baram & Snieckus’ days as performers at Toronto’s Second City. And the stage itself was little more than a black box that Schrödinger’s cat wouldn’t be caught dead in (or not).

The reason I go on about the environment is because this is the setting in which Baram & Snieckus work best. When you see these two perform, it is less a classical theatre experience where the actors remain in a distinct world, separated from the audience. Instead, the audience is embraced by the performers—not literally, more’s the shame—and shy of being brought on stage, are used by the performers to heighten and inform the performance. As an audience member, you feel special in their presence (see earlier disclaimer).

But onto the comedy.

Unlike most Baram & Snieckus performances where improvisational scenes take the day—you will be hard-pressed to find two better improv performers—You and Me Both is a scripted show, a combination of sketch and musical revue, most of which worked really well.

The opening musical number was a bit uneven, Snieckus seeming more comfortable with the music and routine than Baram. Astaire and Rogers these two aren’t, but Snieckus sold it for everything she was worth. Baram musically redeemed himself later in the show, however, in a number that played to his strength as a performer: frustrated under-achiever.

The sketches, however, were classic Baram & Snieckus as the two latched onto characters of all stripes. After a decade of performing together, the two are perfect foils for each other. If screwball comedies ever became vogue again, these two are Rock Hudson and Doris Day (with Snieckus as Hudson).

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As scene transitioned to scene, Baram & Snieckus chameleoned into their roles, the muscle memory of improv turning them into the characters rather than simply performing them. That being said, the only bit that really fell flat last night was ironically the lone improv piece.

Watching these two perform is tantamount to witnessing a comedic kaleidoscope, every twist and turn bringing something new to dazzle the eyes and ears. You and Me Both is just the latest twist and more than lives up to expectations.

The intermission-free show, which was listed as 80 minutes but has been cut to 65, runs until November 1 with shows at 7:30 pm and weekend matinees at 2 pm. Knowing these two, each performance will offer something new, so consider seeing the show more than once. For $20, you’re unlikely to spend a more entertaining hour.

Related:

Baram and Snieckus are the city’s most laughable couple (Toronto Star)

National Theatre of the World

MacKay away in Canada, eh

Parliamentarian MacKay can carry a tune

Parliamentarian MacKay can carry a tune

In honour of the announced departure of Canadian Parliamentarian Peter MacKay from political office, I would like to call back to a musical number I wrote almost 10 years ago for a Second City Training Centre sketch comedy show in Toronto entitled Da Tory Code.

The parody is sung to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Modern Major General  from HMS Pinafore and features current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper with his right-hand man MacKay.

MacKay blows kisses as PM Harper stares on lovingly

MacKay blows kisses as PM Harper stares on lovingly

Enjoy.

Harper

I am the very model of a primo ministerial;

Appointing every office, even got myself a Liberal.

I run a mighty fearsome ship,

I won’t allow a tongue to slip,

The press thinks that I give a shit,

Your primo ministerial.

MacKay

He runs a mighty fearsome ship,

He won’t allow a tongue to slip,

The press thinks that he gives a shit,

Our primo ministerial.

Harper

I am the very model of a sovereign most invincible;

Why wouldn’t I, my party is the only one with principles.

My gang and I will legislate

Who gays and lesbians can mate;

I’ll make Quebec a po-lice state

Your sovereign most invincible.

MacKay

Our gang and he will legislate

Who gays and lesbians can mate;

He’ll make Quebec a po-lice state

Our sovereign most invincible.

Harper

I am the very model of a ruler quite imperial;

Destroy all opposition like a killer almost serial.

I rule with all supremacy,

From sea to sea to fucking sea,

So screw your old democracy.

Your ruler quite imperial.

THE MUSIC CHANGES TO DARTH VADER THEME

MacKay

All hail the Harper!

EXIT

Da Tory Code poster

A Bug(gy) Life

I run toward bees, not away...and they me, it seems

I run toward bees, not away…and they me, it seems

There is a scene early in the film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective where Ace calls out to all of the animals living in his apartment and they swarm from every crevice to give him the world’s biggest group hug (scene was totally ripped off in Evan Almighty). Well, every once in a while (aka daily), I feel the same way with insects.

Insects—and here I also include arachnids—love me. I don’t know why, they just do.

The best I can figure is that there is something in my personal chemistry—blood, sweat, breath, pheromones—that drives bugs wild.

When I go to the local beach to work—hard life, I know—I cannot sit on a bench for much more than an hour before I become a buffet for biting flies. And when I get home from the local park or ravine, I invariably find a couple small beetle hitchhikers somewhere on my clothing. That I have not yet contracted Lyme disease eludes me, although I am grateful, because that shit’s nasty.

When my grandmother’s seniors’ complex became host to a bed bug invasion, I became the canary in a coal mine. After her place had been sprayed, it was my duty to sit on her couch and see if the fumigation had worked. If there was a bed bug within 1 km of her apartment, it would find me within 10 minutes and leave its mark as a large red welt. I was bed bug fly paper.

As luck would have it, I also seem to attract spiders, which is fine as long as they focus their attentions on the various flies and other critters and not on me. So far, so good.

Perhaps this life-long attention from creepy crawlies has made me immune to the sociological ick-factor and has in fact turned into a fascination with them, as my many photographic blog posts would attest. In short, I like bugs. (I’m not quite ready for a love connection.)

On one of my recent walks through a local ravine, I ran into a young gentleman who also wandered the woods with a camera. As the conversation proceeded, we shared our interests—his was birds. When I told him mine was bugs, he was confused. It made no sense to him that anyone would be interested in insects. He wasn’t questioning my sanity, just my logic.

Other people who wander with me, however, do question my sanity as I approach a flower bed covered in bees rather than run the other way as they do. Or as I walk into a swarm of dragonflies rather than swat them away as a nuisance.

I wish I could explain my interest. As I believe with all other life forms, I believe there is an inherent beauty in the specialization of bugs to their environments—their shapes, decorations, behaviours. It probably doesn’t hurt that they will also stay still when I’m trying to examine them, rather than scatter as most other animals will.

Having recently moved into a basement apartment (as mentioned in the previous post), I will have the opportunity to test the limits of my fascination…and undoubtedly of my camera lenses. Should be fun!

Ironically, I co-wrote a comedy show that became known as Bed Bugs & Beyond

Ironically, I co-wrote a comedy show that became known as Bed Bugs & Beyond