Rambling Along

It’s a pace we’re perfectly happy to adopt.

We’re in Stony Stratford for a couple of days to visit family and ramble about. It’s a village outside of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire that used to be an important stopping off point for coaches travelling between London and northern England. Stony Stratford was, we’re told, primarily a high street of inns. It has some fabulous history to it, perhaps most excitingly as the place from which Richard III abducted one of the two young princes, the uncrowned Edward V, at the Rose and Crown Inn in 1483. Although the Rose and Crown is no longer an inn, several others remain ­–– The Cock, The Bull (from which we apparently get the phrase Cock and Bull) and The Old George.

Tim in front of the former Rose & Crown

Behind the high street lies the River Ouse, with lovely, twisting Riverwalks. It’s easy to imagine Ratty’s “bijou riverside residence” tucked here.

The pasture lands beyond the river led us on a path to the nearby hamlet of Passenham, which consists of a Rectory, Manor, former Mill and St. Guthlac’s Church, mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles of 921 AD. We’ve been assured by our B & B host Jim that the church is still haunted. “No, really, it IS!” Jim runs the best B & B we’ve ever stayed at. Fabulously comfortable, with lovely big full English breakfasts, Telford House on its own is worth the visit to Stony Stratford. Jim’s been running the B & B for over 40 years, and his enthusiasm is infections. “I love my job!” At 82, he’s an inspiration.

St. Guthlac’s Church and churchyard in Passenham

Time doesn’t exactly stand still here –– we ate a marvellous Indian meal in a converted 17th century chapel, with exquisite, tiled floors (the fabulous Calcutta Basserie.) But time doesn’t move quickly. Our three-hour ramble beside the slow-moving Ouse and across the pasture fields needed to be followed by a pub lunch and a pint of local ale (Razorback) at the 400-year-old Old George.

The dining area has sunk below ground. We sat in the front window and watched people’s ankles.

It’s a pace we’re perfectly happy to adopt.

Truth and Serendipity

“History is most often written from a distance, and rarely from the viewpoint of those who endured it.” Chris Killi

The National Portrait Gallery is one of my favourite places to visit in London. It is a gallery of humanity, of how we see ourselves and understand each other. If you have never been to the Portrait Gallery, you may think of it as a stuffy place that shows paintings commissioned by stuffy people to show off their status. I know I did. But The Portrait Gallery is filled with images of people from all walks of life. When done well, these portraits reveal inner lives, truths, and sensibilities.  Whenever I come to London, it is top on my list of places to go.

So I was broken-hearted to learn that it is closed for renovation until June 2023. However, I resolved that this was a good excuse to discover something new.

The Photographer’s Gallery is not far from The Portrait Gallery. I’m passionate about photography, especially black and white. My father was a photographer in the 1950s and I have spent much of the last two years pouring over his portraits of people and places in New York. The protagonist in my next book, Focus. Click. Wind, is an aspiring photographer. Yet I have never gone to The Photographer’s Gallery in London.

When I turned down Ramillies street, I was greeted by the sight of thousands of people, queuing. Were there really that many people lined up to go to photography exhibits? I cursed myself for not buying a ticket online and began to turn away. But I found it hard to believe that so many people had come out to see “Chris Killip: A Retrospective.” So I ventured on a bit further and saw the sign for the gallery with no line up out front.

a small fraction of the people queuing outside the Photographer’s Gallery

Inside, it was calm. People were enjoying Sunday morning coffee and cakes. “What’s going on out there?” I asked as I bought my ticket. “Auditions,” a young man smiled. I thought briefly about how years ago I would have eagerly joined that line up. And I thought about how much happier I was to be doing what I was doing.

I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the Manx photographer Chris Killip (1946 – 2020.) He is known as the chronicler of the “English De-industrial Revolution,” and his photographs that show the stories of those who, in his words, had history “done to them” –– the men, women and children who lived in North Yorkshire, Northumbria, Tyneside and other harsh rural landscapes in the 1970s and 80s.

“History is most often written from a distance, and rarely from the viewpoint of those who endured it.”

Chris Killip

Killip spent years with people he photographed, and their trust in him is evidenced by the honesty of these pictures. They allowed him to access inner truths. These are profoundly moving portraits of isolated communities devastated by change.

I came away from the exhibit changed and deeply grateful for the ease and good fortune of my life. And for the serendipity that led me to discover a new Portrait Gallery.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2022/oct/04/this-was-england-chris-killips-pioneering-photography-in-pictures

Time or Tide

Travel is the domain of the imagination, and when you arrive it is as though your imagination has taken concrete shape around you.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
T.S. Eliot

The miracle of travel is something I don’t want to take as commonplace ever again. It is miraculous. In a relatively short amount of time I have journeyed to another world, a world both foreign and familiar.

Because of the impossibility of travel during the pandemic, it feels as though I have slipped into a place that only existed in my imagination for the past three years. Travel is the domain of the imagination, and when you arrive it is as though your imagination has taken concrete shape around you. I’ve read enough quantum theory this year to know that this is probably true, but this is the first time it feels true.

What I’ve found in this new world, whether it has sprung from my imagination or not, is that we have been on parallel paths for these past three years. We share commonalities of our experiences in a way that we’ve never done before. Different sides of the planet, with different political forces, yet we’ve been experiencing the same trauma. It’s made me feel closer than ever with family and friends as we share our experiences, our losses, our scars, our small victories. Our histories, which previously had been different, are now the same.

No doubt it is a unique moment. This will pass. But I don’t want to ever take for granted the good fortune that has allowed me to be here, experiencing the rawness of the pandemic experience. The shared humanity on the streets is the legacy of our survival.

And so we celebrate. We arrived in time for a double birthday party for Bryan and me, shared with Robbie Burns. A Burns night complete with Haggis, neeps and tatties, (turnips and potatoes), and Cranachan (an amazing dessert of toasted oats, whipping cream, raspberries and a glug of whisky). We don’t party as if there is no tomorrow, but because there was yesterday.

I feel as though the needle on the record skipped. I am birthday years older. But I’ve picked up the needle and placed it down again carefully, ready to start again.

Nae man can tether time or tide.
Robert Burns

Throwing ourselves to the fates

We did a lot of soul searching before deciding to go on an overseas trip.

Tim and I did a lot of soul searching before deciding to go on an overseas trip. We know that Covid still haunts us and are taking precautions. But the hardest decision about travel has to do with environmental concerns. It feels irresponsible to take to the skies these days.

We weighed our social responsibility against our need to reconnect with family in England. It’s been over three long years. Children have grown, elders have become elder. The joy of being hugged by friends and family is a powerful magnet.

As I write, we are sitting in the airport lounge. We have balanced some of our guilt by giving a donation to the Guatemala Stove Project, which reduces carbon by building efficient, non-toxic stoves for rural populations in Guatemala –– thus improving the lives of the people who cook over these stoves and reducing carbon in the atmosphere one stove at a time. It isn’t much, but it’s what we can do.

We also decided to spend a lot of time in the UK –– five and a half weeks –– to maximize our visit and reduce our guilt.  If the last three years has taught us anything, it is that we can’t predict what is around the corner. Who knows when we will next have a chance to make a trip like this.

Eleven years ago, we went for a year-long excursion. I was fleeing job burn out, Tim was pining with a deep nostalgia for England, and we both wanted to dig our hearts into European culture. It was a trip that changed us both profoundly as humans and artists. While this journey is much shorter it feels as monumental. Fighting the inertia of the last years has been hard. We’ve sheltered in place and been safe. But now we are stepping out into the wide world again, opening ourselves to the fates. It is exciting, thrilling, and somewhat terrifying.

I look forward to sharing the road with you. And I look forward to the changes in store.

Exit Stage Left

All of my life, I have believed in the power of arts education. I know that we develop empathy and understanding through the arts. We strengthen our all-important, intuitive right brains. We learn specific and tangible skills that benefit every aspect of our lives. As an artist instructor, I have taught calligraphy, writing and theatre arts and in each discipline, I’ve witnessed a tangible difference toward making the world a better place.

I’ve worked in theatre arts education in Ottawa for over twenty years. In 2013, I began the Ottawa Children’s Theatre with four classes on Saturdays at The Avalon Theatre on Bank Street. We had 28 students. In 2017, the school found a wonderful home at Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre. Over the years enrolment grew, we expanded our role as representative for Trinity College London, we learned how to teach online during the pandemic, then bounced back from the pandemic and celebrated live performances. This past spring we had 211 students, ranging in age from 5 – 17, in 25 different classes. A few of those students have been with us since 2013, many were with us pre-pandemic, and all are now part of the wonderful OCT family.

Through it all, I have had tremendous support. I have come to know parents, students, and instructors and to develop friendships that have deeply enriched my life. I have watched young people grow, solve problems, and thrive as they embrace the world of drama. It has been enormously gratifying, and I am deeply proud of everything OCT has accomplished.

But these years have been busy for me personally, aside from OCT. Over the course of the last eight years, I produced a play that went on to be produced at The National Arts Centre (Up to Low), I did an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I published three novels and have another three books under contract. And I have happily entered the world of grandparenthood.

I’ve decided it is now time for me to pass along the torch at Ottawa Children’s Theatre and focus on my family, my books and my garden.

I have worked with Nick Miller for 18 years. When I was Artistic Director of The Ottawa School of Speech & Drama, Nick was one of the first new artists I hired. He came to OSSD with exciting ideas about drama, clowning, improvisation, and circus skills. Over the years I have deeply valued his collaborative spirit, generosity and creativity. As I began to look for a successor to the work that I have done, I realized that Nick was the perfect person to take on this role. He has already had a tremendous impact on the development of OCT, and I am thrilled to announce that he will be taking over the reins. While it is very hard to leave, I know I am leaving OCT in wonderful hands.

This is not “retirement” as some people label it. It is a new phase. It’s been a great run and now it’s time to exit this particular stage.

I’m looking forward to the next show. Stay tuned…

Passing the Torch

Writing: These Are Not the Words

My new novel These Are Not the Words was officially released in North America on April 5, 2022.

Me with Scatty in our apartment in Stuyvesant Town, circa 1960. Self portrait taken with a timer.

These Are Not the Words is a semi-autobiographical novel.That means there are real people in it who do imaginary things, and imaginary people who do real things. I am not Miranda Billie Taylor, but we share a lot of history.

I started writing the story from a memory. I was taking the Picture Book Intensive at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adults program, and we had been given the prompt to write from an early childhood memory.

What came out was a memory of walking through the living room late at night to get a glass of water. The dark stillness, the flicker of the TV light, the sound of the record, the smell of cigarettes and marijuana are vivid. I was probably about four years old.

Nothing “happens” in that memory, but the assignment was to turn it into a picture book.

Because it was a picture book, the language was spare, evocative, and poetic. It didn’t work as a picture book, but it inspired me to begin writing vignettes, initially as prose poems and then as verse. As I began to drill down, more memories began to bubble up. I found myself writing a novel in verse.

Although I was writing from personal memories, I wrote in third person. I made the character older, and distanced her from me so I could tell, I thought, a larger, more interesting story.

It took a couple of years and many re-writes, but finally I started sending the book out on submission. The reactions were positive –– editors and agents told me that they thought it was beautifully written. (“Heartbreaking and lovely.”) But it wasn’t for their list, it was historical fiction and hard to sell, the character seemed too sophisticated. But one response really stuck out. An editor I respect they said that it felt as though the story was told from the perspective of an adult, not the child. It was verging on nostalgic. Clearly, I wasn’t “in” the story.

Out of frustration, I decided to try to write one chapter in first person. I’m not a big fan of first person and feel it is easily overused. But I chose the first chapter, the one that had started the process, just as a writing exercise. I was totally unconvinced that it would be possible. “I hate writing in first person,” I said to myself.

I remember starting to shake as I re-wrote that first chapter. Suddenly it was real, vibrant and alive. And suddenly it was a bit close for comfort.

I’ll confess to a lot of tears in the months that followed. But being a writer is not about being comfortable.

I created a book trailer for These Are Not the Words. I used some photos that my father took and a recording of Billie Holiday singing Tell Me More, recording it from a vinyl LP that belonged to my parents. I recorded myself reading a chapter of the book and then worked with a technician friend, AL Connors, to bring it all together.

Putting the trailer together was hard. The photos pull me back to those years. The living room is the one where that first memory came from, where I hear Billie, always. It’s the image and the sound that started me writing the book.

I am not Miranda Billie Taylor. But we share a lot of history.

Challenging Choices

A new family walks into my yard

In March, I marked a year of online programs at The Ottawa Children’s Theatre. I had to try to figure out what to plan for this summer. Last summer was the first summer OCT had done summer camps. We launched into running 17 online camps that were wildly creative and hugely fun. Everyone was thrilled to leap into online programming and our campers had a fabulous time.

A year later, we are all weary of our isolation and our online lives. But I had to think carefully about whether OCT was ready to make the transition back to in-person programming this summer. I had to try not to be impatient. Not my long suit.

I thought long and hard about whether to take a risk and pivot to in-person programming. I desperately want to be with students and instructors again! But in the end, there were too many uncertainties. I decided to keep the business online and stay committed to the virtual world for, hopefully, one last semester.

And yet my non-virtual life is thriving.

My writing life has taken off. I have a novel and a picture book in final edits. (I can’t wait to tell you more about them soon!) I’m working on new manuscripts, and a lecture for Canscaip for the fall. I have a wonderful and busy family who I want to spend more time with. My garden calls daily.

It’s a bit of a schizophrenic existence. I’m not entirely sure where I am at my most “real.”

I find myself wondering if this summer’s virtual camps will be the last gasps of my pandemic adventure? Or will life retain some of the positive elements that have come from my virtual life? Or, God forbid, will the variants take off and force us to endure another pandemic year?

The future is opaque. But whatever happens, I don’t want to pretend these past 16 months didn’t happen. They have deepened my relationships and priorities and made life richer in so many ways. They have helped to open new paths. Not always places I wanted to go, but places I returned from wiser.

Being Thankful

Classes started up again at The Ottawa Children’s Theatre last weekend. Teaching drama virtually is, for me, a constant challenge, both technologically and conceptually. I definitely miss our beautiful studios at Carleton Dominion Chalmers (check the profile of me and OCT at CDCC) But it is wonderful to have the opportunity to meet vibrant and thoughtful adolescents, and to get a glimpse into what the world looks like from their perspective. And the only way I can do that right now is through Zoom boxes.
 
My online drama classes have different rules from online schooling. I keep reminding students to keep their microphones ON, instead of muted. I WANT to hear their voices and make some noise! I WANT their unique contributions. I WANT them up on their feet, bursting with energy.
 
I’ve been searching out new materials that will work well in this format: group poems, where everyone can take a line and pauses don’t destroy the flow; neutral paired scenes, where students can work in Breakout Rooms to create characters and scenarios; treating each box like its own stage, with proscenium edges for entrances and exits. I’m also discovering ways of teaching drama skills that I wouldn’t do in a studio. Small movements become magnified on camera and they create moments of truth and honesty that do my heart good.

 Someone said to me recently that the most important thing about the pandemic is what you can learn about yourself. That’s certainly my case. It’s a rich time. Working with my wonderful drama students helps me to reflect and articulate what I am discovering about myself. I hope the classes do that for my students as well. As I look forward to a Thanksgiving like no other, I am grateful to be in such a caring and supportive community.

In My Zoom Studio

Dramatically Different

…the really exciting and unexpected benefit is that not only can our students come from all over the world –– we have students from Europe and across North America –– but our instructors aren’t tied to a location…

Recently, I was asked to do an interview with theHumm. theHumm is a great journal, both in print and online, that is dedicated to the arts in the Ottawa Valley. The questions that they asked gave me a chance to think about the process that we’ve gone through at OCT to make our conversion to online programming. Below is a transcript of the interview, but you can also read it online at: https://mailchi.mp/thehumm/h9si4v29uh-2052385?e=fb3712bb99

Dramatically Different: an interview with Amanda West Lewis

theHumm is reaching out to members of our Ottawa Valley community to ask how they are finding ways to use their gifts and skills in these challenging times. Today’s subject is Amanda West Lewis — actor, author, and founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre (OCT). We contacted her to find out how the OCT is rising to the challenge of providing creative instruction to kids during this time of social distancing.

theHumm: You live in Brooke Valley but have been active in the Ottawa youth theatre scene for many years now. Are you finally getting to work from home? If so, what have you enjoyed about it, and what are you missing?

I’ve been lucky to have Brooke Valley as my base for the last 30 years. But I’ve also lived in Ottawa off and on, which has allowed me to be part of the vibrant arts community in that city. For the past six years running The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, I’ve worked from home during the week then gone to Ottawa to work in the studios with the kids on the weekends. It’s really been the best of all possible worlds.

Now, with isolation, my schedule is basically the same, except that everything happens from my Brooke studio. I’m not travelling anywhere. I love that I’ve lowered my environmental footprint and that I have a bit more time to get into my garden.

But I do miss being in the same physical space with people – I miss the spontaneity and energy that is generated by the live space. Before Covid, we had twenty-seven classes happening every weekend. The studios buzzed with energy! I loved seeing what all of the different groups were doing. There is nothing more inspiring than watching kids create and share their stories! But now that the courses are taking place on virtually platforms, I don’t get a chance to pop in and watch what others are doing. I’m excited by the classes I am teaching, but there is that sad moment when I hit “end meeting for all” button, and everyone disappears.

I also miss talking to parents. We were very much an extended family, all dedicated to giving the children and youth the best experience we could. I miss those personal interactions.

You and your team of instructors have been busy pivoting from live classes to “LIVE Online” classes. What can people expect from this new format?

I’m working with the same core team of dedicated instructors that I’ve worked with for many years. We’ve developed a really strong curriculum that is both fun and teaches specific skills. None of that has changed. Converting to online has meant we’ve made the class sizes smaller so that we can focus on each child as an individual. We’re making sure to take time to listen to each child’s needs.

We’re running Musical Theatre, Drama, Acting, Improvisation and Writing camps this summer. We’ve designed the camps to be really interactive. There is a lot of physical and vocal activity. There is a lot of ensemble and shared work. Even the breaks keep kids occupied ––we’ve designed off-screen breaks where campers do theatre crafts. No one is just sitting and watching.

How has the technology been treating you? Have there been unexpected benefits, or major challenges you and your team have had to overcome?

The great advantage of teaching drama from home has been how personal it is. I have weekly Zoom meetings with my instructors, and it’s made us really close. We are sharing all of the joys and frustrations of our lives in isolation, as well as brainstorming how to teach drama online. It’s pushed us to be really creative problem-solvers. Also, the virtual medium is more intimate –– we’re talking to each other from our homes, with our art on the walls, our books on our bookshelves, and our pets, children, and partners in the background.

Some of this immediacy carries over to our relationships with students. You need to be attentive at all times when you are teaching online. There isn’t a moment of downtime. So the classes take on a different kind of bonding.

But the really exciting and unexpected benefit is that not only can our students come from all over the world –– we have students from Europe and across North America –– but our instructors aren’t tied to a location. I have some fabulous actors, writers and composers from New York City teaching for us this summer! They are inspiring all of us with their talent, passion and commitment.

The technological challenge in Lanark County, however, is bandwidth. I get my internet via a satellite and as those of us who live in the country know, it isn’t exactly a consistent signal. I cross my fingers every day that there won’t be a storm while I’m teaching. I’ve also had to make a decision to buy a new computer. I’ve been working on a 10-year old laptop which was fine for admin but not the best for online teaching!

Why is it important to try and keep young people engaged in artistic activities and pursuits even when we can’t physically get together?

Oh, my goodness, where do I start? Drama is all about communication. We work with language and gesture. We work with our voices, bodies and our minds to tell our stories. Is there anything more important for young people than the ability to communicate their ideas, fears, hopes and dreams? Especially now, when their voices are diminished because of isolation, young people need the opportunity to be seen by someone who isn’t a parent or teacher. Someone who can hear them and give them tools to express themselves. Someone who can help them to keep their heart and mind open.

Do you think that both children and adults will continue to perform (and watch others perform) while we are not allowed to gather in person?

I think that stories are more important than ever. I think we will always need to watch and listen to other people’s stories. Through story, we come to understand who we are. Story gives us a way to put the puzzle pieces of life into some kind of coherent whole. And I think that people will always need to share their stories, as they have done since the beginning of human times. We became a story telling species the moment we created language, the moment that we understood the concept of time, of birth and of death. I don’t think that isolation will stop that. In fact, I think the need has been exponentially increased.

What are you personally most concerned about at this time?

I’m concerned about the children who have fallen through the cracks. There are countless children who have no access to computers, let alone the kinds of opportunities I am talking about. When we were on site, I was able to give scholarships and bursaries to kids of need. But now? Who is looking after those children? Who is enriching their lives? There are so many children whose isolation is a nightmare. They are falling behind socially and academically. It is taking a terrible toll on their formative years.

There is a huge disparity between people in terms of how they are able to navigate the pandemic. This inequality in society will, I think, become even more apparent as we transition to the next phase, whatever that phase is.

What are you optimistic about in terms of what happens to the arts during and after the pandemic?

As I’ve said, I think the arts are necessary to give people the skills to understand and appreciate the world around them. I’m incredibly moved by what artists are doing online right now – the kinds of things that are being shared are powerful testaments to the resilience and empathy of human beings.

We are going to have huge challenges coming out of the pandemic. We won’t be going back to the way things used to be. Covid and the deep inequalities of our society require us to make major changes. Re-imagining our lives is not going to be easy. But I think that the arts will give us a voice to build that new world.

Teaching Drama Online

Learning together and staying connected

We’ve just finished our first week of Online Spring Semester classes at The Ottawa Children’s Theatre. What a whirlwind! In the past 3 weeks we’ve designed new programming, got it up online, offered it and filled it! There are 183 creative and energized children aged 3 – 18 taking drama classes, acting classes, musical theatre, writing for theatre, theatre criticism and more.

I’m learning so much! It’s been really exciting to see which of our drama exercises translate onto the Zoom medium. The artist/instructors are doing warmups: breathing, articulation and resonance. We’re playing “Pass the Face,” “What am I Doing?”and the “Tableau Game.” We’re teaching dance moves, character development, scene studies and vocal techniques. We’re re-imagining our spaces and creating individual set designs. Most importantly we’re laughing, and we’re moved to tears by the power of theatre.

It isn’t all working perfectly. Sometimes the internet goes down. Sometimes someone gets accidentally shut out in the waiting room. Devices behave differently and sometimes in mysterious ways. The time delay makes teaching singing really challenging! We miss being together and miss the way that we were able to create stories with our bodies and voices in the same space.

But we’re doing this together – artist/instructors and students – helping each other. Our students have great ideas. They are getting to know each other and to trust this new way of working. We are all learning and playing, experimenting and discovering.

We’re staying connected. One Zoom box at a time.

pass the face Emily's Acting up

 

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