The Long and Short of it – Prairie Books NOW Review

Motivation for playwrights, comedy for readers

Collection of PTE shorts highlights some of the city’s most talented playwrights

Reviewed by Kyla Neufeld

A debate about pies, an argument about alien abductions, adolescent chess players, and a zombie asking to be remembered: all of these can be found in The Long & Short of It: A selection of short plays written by the Prairie Theatre Exchange Playwrights Unit, a new collection of “Short Shots” written by the Prairie Theatre Exchange Playwrights Unit and edited by Brian Drader, the executive director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.

Every year, the Playwrights Unit showcases new plays during the Carol Shields Festival of New Works. The Long & Short of It represents the best of those 50-plus plays by playwrights such as Sharon Bajer, Joseph Aragon, Rick Chafe, Debbie Patterson, James Durham, and Alix Sobler.

“There was such a cohesive voice to all of these. It ended up, I think, fitting together really well,” says Collins, adding that most of the plays have a comedic slant. “I like, too, that it feels like a snapshot of what that experience [of writing for the Carol Shields Festival] has been like,” adds Trish Cooper, author of the play “Life of Pie.”

“I actually think for anyone else it would be fun to read,” says Cooper. “There’s a lot going on.”

The Long & Short of It is dedicated to Bob Metcalfe, artistic director of PTE for 15 years, who founded both the Playwrights Unit and the Carol Shields Festival. Metcalfe has commissioned, nurtured, and produced 19 plays through the Playwrights Unit and has been a source of constant support and encouragement for local playwrights.

“When we found out that Bob Metcalfe would be leaving Prairie TheatreExchange, we thought it would be a loving parting gift to give him, to publish this book and dedicate it to him,” Collins says. “We presented it to him at the last Carol Shields Festival where he was the artistic director.”

For Brian Drader, who recently returned to Winnipeg to head MAP after being the director of playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal from 2004 to 2017, editing The Long & Short of It was like catching up with old friends.

“The PTE Unit represents many of this city’s most talented and active playwrights,” he says. “And what a pleasure to dig into their plays! To experience how my old colleagues have grown as artists and storytellers, to experience the work of two former students who have come fully into their own, and to discover the work of new playwrights who I didn’t
know except by reputation.”

Drader concludes, “To be able to so quickly get reacquainted with old colleagues and meet new ones was a blessing.” 

Moon Was a Feather – Winnipeg Free Press Review

Reviewed by Jonathan Ball

Scott Nolan’s Moon was a Feather (The Muses’ Company, 96 pages, $16) finds the Winnipeg singer/songwriter offering sad meditations in short, clipped lines: “I’m like an upright piano. / I need to at least be in tune with myself. / No one really wants / to hear a grown man sing.”

In an early poem, Nolan compares his childhood excitement for a “Judas Priest concert, / running on hormones and our parents’ liquor cabinets” to the calmer reality of the rock star life: “Meanwhile, Judas Priest played the back nine / at the Charleswood golf course.” Many of the poems try to pop the romantic bubbles that bloom to engulf some experience for a harderedged acceptance of how things are. A must-have for Nolan fans, and a strong, minimalist collection.

Moon Was a Feather – Prairie Books Now Review

Long walks and the search for stillness help germinate debut collection

Singer-songwriter Nolan lets snippets of the city speak through his poems

Reviewed by Steve Locke

The neighbourhoods, streets, and interstitial spaces of Winnipeg appear frequently in Moon Was a Feather, the first poetry collection from hometown singer-songwriter Scott Nolan. Stripped down to its quiet grit in moments of nostalgia and contemplation, the city spirit of uniqueness and integrity pokes out between lines like blades of grass through cracks in the pavement.

Take this description of spring fever from “Privacy Issues,” for example: “It always brings with it a sort of hysteria. / Two months we have / before we return / to our waking hibernation.”

“Winnipeg has its influence on everything I do,” Nolan says. “I used to defend it, yet now, I often brag about it. We live through four distinct and often difficult seasons, and historically speaking, we are a frontier town. Something about these extremes tends to foster a deficit of pretense.”

Brief but lingering, Nolan’s poems give readers an experience like glancing out through a car window during a pause at an intersection, witnessing small moments from a distance. This makes sense, given Nolan’s creative process, as most of the poems found in Moon Was a Feather were typed into an iPhone during pauses on long walks throughout the city.

“These long daily walks found me in the neighbourhood I grew up in, and frequently in the company of a childhood friend. I’m about middle-aged, I suppose, and I’m taking some inventory,” he says.

The inventory includes reflections on addiction and loneliness in “New Year’s Eve,” missing and murdered Indigenous women in “Springtime in Manitoba,” and rebellion and sharing stamped-out cigarette butts in “Grade Eight.” In “Deli,” the owner is remembered for loving baseball and jazz, and for honouring Nolan by placing a photo of him on his wall of fame.

Also remembered are certain beloved artists who have recently passed, their legacies immortalized in text. In “Telecaster Tears,” the loss of Prince Rogers Nelson is felt as the “colour / formerly known as purple” dissolves into blue and red. Gord Downie lives in “The Man Who Walks Amongst the Stars,” which articulates a feeling of homesickness in singing along with a barroom of strangers to memorized anthems of courage and hockey.

Movement and stillness both play significant roles in the collection, as one flows into the other, leading Nolan to settings that are described in “Cancelled” as “The kind of quiet you could tell your secrets to.” There, the reader becomes intimately acquainted with his introspective, detached voice.

In “Upright Piano,” the speaker watches folks enjoying ice cream on a warm summer day while he is “learning to breathe again.” Contemplating his detachment, the speaker compares himself to the titular musical instrument, claiming, “I need to at least be in tune with myself.”

These poems come from an authentic need for stillness and contemplation.

“I’ve lived with anxiety disorder for a number of years now, and have had some recent successes with the practice of meditation,” says Nolan. “Quiet and stillness twice a day for 20-minute sittings has done wonders for me.” 

Finding Home in the Promised Land – Review

Reviewed by Darlene O’Leary

“I fought my way out of the wilderness, but I still wear cuts inside my body and soul.”

In Finding Home in the Promised Land, author Jane Harris shares her deeply personal story of domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, and social exile. She also offers a narrative and historical glimpse of her Scottish immigrant ancestors, particularly her great-great grandmother. Their struggles in the new “promised land” of pre-Confederation Canada both parallel and contrast Harris’s own quest for home.

As the book moves between the past and the present, Harris searches for answers about the brutal reality of poverty. She offers an account of her own experience with what she calls the “poverty industry.” In the process, she also provides disheartening facts about poverty in Canada and who is most impacted.

Harris is both a victim of and resistant to the deeply held notion that poverty is a personal failure. She recognizes that surviving and thriving in any context requires not just hard work and determination, but it requires social relationships and supports.

Harris’s analysis of social and institutional failures is broad ranging, and her personal experiences illustrate these failures powerfully.

In pointing towards solutions, Harris makes a case for more affordable housing, along with a housing benefit for those in need. She also recommends exploring a guaranteed annual income as an alternative to the “shame-based poverty industry.”

Ultimately, this book is a personal search for home and an exploration of the social exile of those most vulnerable.

The Weekly Express News – A Tale of Two Divas

Unrelenting researcher: ESD employee sparks book idea

by Patricia Barrett

Evergreen School Division’s career development consultant turned a passion for research into an idea for a book about two Canadian singers who carved out major musical careers in the Canadian West at the turn of the 20th century.

Gail Kreutzer, who has been with the division for over 30 years, was a member of the Winnipeg Humane Society board when she came across a brief citation to the animal shelter’s founder in a book called Aunt Winnie, written by famed Canadian biographer Elspeth Cameron.

That sliver of information led Kreutzer down a three-year research path that ended in A Tale of Two Divas: the curious Adventures of Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller in Canada’s Edwardian West, which was released earlier this year with Cameron as writer and Kreutzer as primary researcher.

Although she works full time, Kreutzer spent countless evenings, weekends and holidays deeply immersed in the silent world of archives and libraries. She also purchased online subscriptions to historic newspaper and magazine collections.

She said she was unable to stop researching because the story she began to uncover — that the shelter’s founder was a celebrated singer — was “so intriguing.”

“I’d come home [from work] and I could’t stop doing it,” said Kreutzer, who does some teaching at Riverton Collegiate. “Then I’d go to bed and think, ‘I wish I could have found a lead on that,’ and your mind is going like crazy, and you think, ‘I never thought of this angle. Tomorrow I’m going to go and do that.’ It’s funny how you find these different angles … and it opens up a whole new path.”

Covering the period 1893 to about 1933, the book details the musical training and careers of Jean Forsyth, soprano and founder of the Winnipeg Humane Society, and Edith Miller, contralto and international singing star, both of whom started their careers in Manitoba church choirs.

The book takes the reader through the burgeoning music scene in Winnipeg and Edmonton and the fashionable entertainments – teas, musicales and balls – in which ladies of high society partook. The two singers began working together in 1894 when they were hired as vocal teachers for the newly established Winnipeg Conservatory of Music.

In some chapters, Cameron creates a compelling fictional narrative (based on factual documents Kreutzer obtained) of significant events in the singers’ lives. Her novelistic ingenuity brings the characters, their manners and their thoughts to life.

“It really gives you a picture of cultural life during that time,” said Kreutzer. “A lot of things have been written about Western Canada during that period of tim in the early years, but nothing has focused on the cultural day-t0-day life.”

Given Cameron’s extensive writing experience (biographies on Canadian literary and cultural icons), Kreutzer tasked her with the job of writing the book.

“I had said to her, ‘I think you should write another book,'” said Kreutzer. “I was trying to convince her to write this book. I kept sending her packages and packages of material because I just couldn’t believe all this stuff I was finding. I thought this woman’s [Forsyth] story deserves to be told.”

Cameron initially resisted. In the Acknowledgements at the back of the book, she reveals her reluctance to pursue the story. She wrote: “I emailed back a lukewarm response because I thought of Aunt Winnie as my last book.”

Kreutzer was undeterred.

“I kept sending her stuff because I thought if anybody could write this, it was her.”

Kreutzer herself is no stranger to the written word but had not tackled a book.

“I’ve done articles in local magazines like H2O and the Winnipeg Humane Society’s newsletter, and I did a tribute to Jean Forsyth on their website,” she said. “I also co-hosted a radio show on CJOB called All About Animals.”

In the face of Kreutzer’s persistence, and stacks of documents about Jean Forsyth that would arrive at her St. Catharine’s (Ont.) home, Cameron finally relented.

The two women developed a working relationship almost exclusively by email. As the documents continued to flow in, Cameron found a number of references to contralto Edith Miller and tasked Kreutzer with additional research. The way Cameron structured the book was impressive, said Kreutzer.

“She would take these snippets … put them in dated order and get a story out of it. How she put them together just blew me away; it gave me a better appreciation for her as a talented author.”

Kreutzer continued to dig up letters, concert reviews and photographs, all of which form the backbone of the book’s 52 chapters.

“I didn’t know what it’s like when you write a novel, but I know with this, it was an eye-opener as to how long – and I don’t mean long, painful – but it was three years of research and back and forth. Three solid years. One of those years was myself doing research even before she decided to take on the project.”

Kreutzer even braved endless reels of microfilm in the Legislative Library. If anyone has ever taken that on, he/she knows it’s almost like running a marathon.

“I would sit there for eight hours sometimes and I’d get nauseous after a while,” laughed Kreutzer.

Through her research, Kreutzer discovered a distinct evolution in the places where musical entertainment was traditionally offered.

“When Jean first moved to Winnipeg, she was recruited here by Grace Methodist church, and all the serious  music that was offered at that time was through a church. And you’ll see a transformation: it moved from church to hall eventually.”

Forsyth and Miller eventually tour together across Western Canada, and formed a company with two male singers. Forsyth then moved to Edmonton, where she founded a popular tea room. Miller found success as an opera singer at Covent Garden in London (England) and sang at a series of celebratory concerts marking the Coronation of George V in 1910. She eventually married a baronet and retired from singing.

If it hadn’t been for Kreutzer’s research zeal, the story of two remarkable, independent women establishing a musical niche in Canada’s West may not have been told.

In the Acknowledgements, Cameron wrote: “This book owes its existence to Gail Kreutzer.”

The Interlake Spectator

Gimli Woman Special Part in Historical Novel

What started off as a chance correspondents with one of her favourite authors, turned into a captivating non-fiction novel for one Gimli woman.

Evergreen School Division teacher Gail Kreutzer, and Elspeth Cameron, well-known Canadian historical biography recently published the book A Tale of Two Divas: The Curious Adventures of Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller in Canada’s Edwardian West. The book chronicles the life of two Canadian singers, their philanthropic activity and for one, her famous performance for the King of England.

“In my lifetime, I never thought i would be part of a published book, never mind doing a book with Elspeth. I’ve been a great admirer of her writing for many years,” Kreutzer said to the Interlake Spectator, Feb. 8.

Her journey started when she read Cameron’s book Aunt Winnie. In the book, she read a section that featured Forsyth, stating she could have been the founder of the Winnipeg Humane Society in 1893. Kreutzer, who had spent many years working with the organization, even serving on its board, was impressed by Forsyth and wanted to learn more about her.

“So I started doing some digging, and the more I dug, the more I found on Forsyth,” she said.

She wrote an email to Cameron, asking her to write a book on Forsyth, to which Cameron was initially hesitant.

Kreutzer researched about Forsyth anyway, amassing heaps of information on the little-known singer, then sending it to Cameron. Cameron slowly made her way to reading the material and was hooked.

“She had said she was not planning to do anymore book writing, but she was prepared to do this project,” Kreutzer explained. The pair spent months corresponding via email, with Kreutzer doing the research and Cameron piecing together a cohesive narrative.

“It was one of these things, that once I got into it, I was so fascinated by it. I was just so obsessed with it that I couldn’t quit researching,” she said. The two later added the story of Miller into the book, after finding just as much on her, as they did on Forsyth.

Cameron and Kreutzer met for the first time in 2015, after years of sharing their correspondents.

“It’s been three solid years of work for me doing research on this, but I have to say, I loved every minute of it,” Kreutzer said.

She said the story was special, because it was an accidental discovery.

“Nobody would have ever thought about doing this story, because you would never think to dig up all of these connections, but their story really deserves to be told and it would have never been told otherwise. They lived quite a fascinating life,” she said.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Cameron thanks Kreutzer for bringing the book to fruition.

“This book owes its existence to Gail Kreutzer,” it read, adding they remained friends after the book’s publication.

For Kreutzer, the entire experience was rewarding.

“To finally get a hard copy and to see it, it’s indescribable, I am just thrilled that I can see all my hardwork come to fruition,” she said.

View the full article here.