Friday, October 24, 2014

Stickboy, Shane Koyczan, and an Unexpected Night at the Opera

My girlfriend, Erika Lax, has described British Columbia spoken word artist Shane Koyczan as a "genius." She's used him in two Youtube videos she's done - a funny, smart kinetic type piece, and a charming mini-movie she made for a school assignment. She admires him to the extent that when she went to an art gallery opening last week where he was bound to be present (while I was sidelined in Maple Ridge with a cold), I felt kind of sexually threatened: I haven't told her about this, but I imagined the dude putting the moves on her, and fantasized fearfully that she would no doubt dump me in a flash for the guy. Hell, who could blame her? And even though (as far as I know) nothing happened between them besides a nervous (on her part) handshake, I have to say I'm kind of jealous of Koyczan's success. I'm happy enough with where my writing is these days, but it's one thing to be published in the Straight, and another thing to be on its motherfuckin' cover.

But nevermind all that: I'm actually not entirely sold on his work, either. I think he's got a great sense of humour, and comes up with the occasional brilliant one liners - like the "don't fuck with the bees" bit in his recent video "Shoulders." It's a very smart way of connecting the lessons learned in childhood with respect for the environment, and I like how it resonates off the colony collapse disorder phenomenon: that one line is rich, dense, witty, and to the point, all things I admire in poetry, and he sets it up very skillfully. He loses me later in the same piece, however, when he starts rhapsodizing about environmentalism; I mistrust anyone who makes rallying-cry pronouncements of this sort, like he's waving a flag so people can line up behind him. The more intense he gets, the more I find myself wondering what's for lunch. And while there's some good storytelling in his Stickboy-related "To This Day" piece - pretty much everything involving the word "chop" - on the whole, it actually gets on my nerves, particularly as it draws to its conclusion: its just a little on the feel-sorry-for-me side, with his anger about what he's experienced poorly disguised under sentimentalized music and moralizing conclusions straight from the Oprah Winfrey world (bullying is bad!). Erika and I got into a mini-quarrel over the piece, in fact. I believe I made reference to this masterpiece of insensitivity by the Eagles in the course of the argument. But even though my flesh was kind of crawling at parts of the video, my reactions were just strong enough that they made me curious; something was happening under my skin that I did not understand. So I pretty much insisted that I was going with her to see Stickboy, the new opera with a libretto by Koyczan, about his experiences of being bullied in school. Besides, that way if Shane put the moves on her at least I'd be there.
Stickboy images by Tim Matheson, used with permission of the Vancouver Opera

Believe it or not, I loved Stickboy. At least until the intermission. And I cannot fault the production at all (save for one technical detail I'll get to). The music, by Neil Weisensel, is not the same syrup that accompanies "To This Day;" it manages to be dramatic and abstract at the same time, reminding me of the livelier side of American minimalism, akin to things I've heard from John Adams and Steve Reich. The voices were superb, too; Vancouver Island's Sunny Shams is as good a singer as he is an actor, convincingly making a transformation between the second and third acts from a poorly-dressed, picked-on preteen to a somewhat daunting, angry youth whom other kids are scared of (costume designer Carmen Alatorre deserves a big hand for this aspect of the character's development; you don't really appreciate how great the "before" costumes are until you see the "after"). There's also a lot of freshness to the presentation of this material in the context of opera; I'm no expert - besides a Japanese staging of Carmen, this is only the second one I've seen in my life - but I don't think there are many operas where people sing things like "get the fuck off me!" while being beaten on the ground. Koyczan's libretto through the first half is honestly observational, very believable, and, while there is pathos to what our main character goes through, there were many times when the audience laughed aloud, enjoying the storytelling and the cleverness. The background animations  and videos (by Giant Ant, who did the video for "To This Day," and James Nesbitt) are just terrific, complimenting the story on panels behind the stage with images of marching soldiers, school hallways, and occasional details of what's going on in front, as when one bully pins the boy and dangles spit over his face before sucking it back in. It's quite brilliant to use the video to illustrate this, since a) it would be hard to light an actual stream of spit onstage, and b) it would probably be somewhat distasteful for the cast to have to act this particular bit out live.
The production remains powerful and skillful right to the end. One errant, attention-seeking stick of celery aside, the only problem was that in several cases - at least from Orchestra Right, where Erika and I had the same problem - the recordings of Shane's voice were partially drowned out by the music and the action onstage; since his interspersed commentary does not get surtitled on the screen above, you actually lose sections of his text, which really should not happen, and which hopefully will be addressed with subsequent performances. It needs to  either be included in the titles, or played back just a smidgen louder than it was. (Maybe people seated more centrally didn't have this problem?). It also might be advisable for those of us the size of Sunny Shams, Shane Koyczan, my girlfriend, or, indeed, myself to SIT IN THE FRONT ROW, if possible, since the Playhouse has bum-squeezing seats with no leg room, further back. Erika and I both discovered during the film festival that the front row actually has wider seats, and no seats in front of it, so the long-legged and large can stretch out, while still being an appropriate distance back from the stage. (Perhaps, for the large, the seats lent an extra layer of poignancy to the scenes where our protagonist is being addressed as a "fatty?" It's like the Playhouse itself was bullying us!).
In terms of its writing, however, where Stickboy lost me a little is in the final act. It remains more or less believable: the bullied boy becomes an angry teen who cuts himself and, after his family moves, scares the kids at his new school by retaliating in excess of what he experiences. But it also begins to moralize a lot more, to try to dictate the conclusions that we should draw from the piece: that cutting yourself is a terrible, terrible thing, that bullying leads to bullying, that love is stronger than fear, etc. I may be unique in this objection, because the audience broke into loud, emphatic applause for the passage where the boy and his sympathetic grandmother sing about love and fear at some length, repeating the same homilies over and over. Personally, though, I'm not even sure what "love is stronger than fear" means, and was mostly moved to think of Chomsky's comment about good propaganda, that "you want to create a slogan that nobody's going to be against, and everybody's going to be for." Ditto the dramatic depiction of cutting as a terrible, terrible thing (something underscored by some of the most openly emotive music of the evening and some very intense readings from Koyczan). In point of fact, I think that such "ooh, it's so terrible" representations of cutting actually serve as propaganda for cutting, since they attach to it a significance that it doesn't really need to have.
Confessional time. I'm going to mostly skip my own anecdotes about being bullied, but I used to cut myself, back when I was fucked up kid in my early 20's. On several occasions, I used razorblades to carve crosses into my arms, chest, and belly, and then did what I could - coarsely brushing them, scrubbing them with cloths, spreading the skin with my fingers, rubbing aftershave lotion into them - to make them a) sting and b) scar, since I wanted to be marked by the experience. 25 years later, I still am, have several scars - some faded, some not - on my body, which I'm neither particularly proud of, ashamed of, or even that interested in. True, it was an unhappy time for me, for various reasons, but I'm not entirely sure that cutting didn't, on some level, help me get through the day (I'm a little more self-conscious about the times I got down on my knees and whipped myself with my belt, flagellant-style, because hell, that's just goofy). It's a little difficult to explain why, but I think this matter-of-fact, no-big-deal attitude to cutting is actually a healthier one to adopt; the more meaning you attach to it, the bigger the angsty aura around it grows, then the more this contributes to a certain dark, self-destructive romanticism, the feeling that it's a seriously dangerous, edgy, powerful thing to do to yourself - kind of like suicide, but without the permanent consequence. "Oooh, he cuts himself, ooh." Back when I was doing this - it would have been maybe 1989 or 1990 - it wasn't really something anyone talked about, and it certainly wasn't something that people made a big deal of in the media or so forth; I can remember being surprised, a few years after I stopped, to hear from other people that they had done the same thing, since I thought at the time it was something I was pretty much alone in. I suspect that if I were aware of it as something with a whole lot of drama and darkness associated with it, I would have done it more than I did, and attached more importance to it. Neither of which seem very healthy. The bigger we make a taboo, the bigger the charge we get out of breaking it. I'm not sure that self-harm of this sort needs any more drama attached to it than is implicit in the act itself.
As for bullying, there was a brief moment in the opera where I thought it was going to go a different way. Once the boy becomes a teen, upgrades to cooler clothes and a cooler hairstyle, I wondered if maybe Koyczan was going to take things in another direction: to show that, good and bad, his formative experiences made him the person he is today. I felt happy, in fact, when he first overreacted to one kid telling him to go on a diet; I was glad to see him getting some of his dignity back, even if he takes it out on the one kid a bit more than the kid deserves. Questions of proportion aside, I actually don't think kicking the shit out of a bully is actually that bad of a way of dealing with the problem. and don't need to believe, personally, that the bad experiences I had of bullying led only to bad consequences. Shitty as some of the things that happened to me in school were, I did survive them, and learn how to cope, and even perhaps developed some of my virtues (and, admittedly, my excesses) in response to the shit that I had to endure. I can't speak for Koyczan, but I suspect I wouldn't have become as skilled with words if I had been physically stronger; I had to learn how to manipulate situations, to talk my way out of things, and sometimes to make myself forceful and intimidating enough in my voice and bearing alone to avoid beatings, since I wasn't physically strong enough to be able to really fight back. I don't entirely regret that. Bullying isn't good, to be sure, but nor is everything that comes of it bad; the end of Stickboy seems to offer a rather thorough repudiation of anything based in fear, to endorse the way of love instead, but as much as people seemed to agree with this sentiment, it seemed too simple, too trite, too expected, too easy.
That's maybe in the end a minor disagreement, however. I enjoyed Stickboy, overall, and even if I didn't appreciate the writing uniformly, by damn, I must say the Vancouver Opera has done a fine job of presenting this material. If you had told me a few months ago that I would be going to the opera, I would not have believed you. If you had told me I would have a fine time, I would have raised my eyebrows and shaken my head. In point of fact, I did have a fine time - vastly better than I expected. In fact. I think even my girlfriend was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and of course, she loved it. (I'll post her thoughts separately, or link to them, or something - she's going to write something of her own).

Shane, if you're reading this, hands off, man. She's mine.
Oh: punks out there might want to know that at no time is the Hanson Brothers' "Stickboy" used in the opera. Which is just as well. It wouldn't fit.

(With thanks to Annie Mack).

1 comment:

Allan MacInnis said...

...the man himself has commented on my review on Erika's Facebook page...