Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Mochrie and Stiles bring new laughs to Vancouver

I saw two of the quickest minds in improv theatre perform this week and they were hilarious. Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles, stars of the former TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, headlined a sold-out fundraiser at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Monday night (Feb. 21). Joining them were local improv actors Gary Jones, of Vancouver TheatreSports, Veena Sood, who trained at Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary, and stand-up comedians Christine Lippa and Denny Williams.

Williams started with a tongue-in-cheek thank you to Charlie Sheen for enabling Stiles to perform; Sheen’s TV show Two and a Half Men, which features Stiles, has been on hiatus while Sheen is in rehab. The evening’s actors, most of whom know each other from decades ago in Vancouver’s stand-up or improv scene, fell easily into teasing banter, repeat gags, and scenes of impromptu irony or outrageousness.

With his trademark dry comments, Mochrie narrated two comic tales from his  life while the others reenacted the events. One was his first kiss,  shared in a closet with a seven-year-old named Heather in Scotland, while playing the game “post office.” Lippa, Williams, and Sood gave that lots of body contact and bawdy innuendo.

The second story followed when Jones asked Mochrie about a time when he thought he was going to die. Mochrie recounted a true experience: while on a passenger jet with his wife and son, an engine malfunction forced an emergency landing. His wife, a nervous flier to start with, took his hand from across the aisle, and said: “I love you,” thinking that this might be the end. In response, Mochrie just shrugged and made a face. (He says now it was because he didn’t think the incident was that serious.)

With jiggly feet and mischievous flair, Williams aptly portrayed Mochrie’s son, who, of course, had to go to the bathroom, while Sood gave a great overly dramatic good-bye as Mochrie’s wife, reaching her arm across the aisle to clutch his hand.

At times, it was hard to hear some of the lines because the audience laughter was so loud. I haven’t laughed so hard so often in a long time. The two-hour show, with a break, included de rigeuer  volunteer participation and yelled-out ideas from the audience. Two young female volunteers, chosen from rows in the front, provided quirky sound effects for a helicopter, chainsaw, and other objects while Jones and Mochrie acted out a woodsy scenario as loggers.

I remember seeing Mochrie and Stiles perform decades ago at Granville Island (or maybe it was The Cultch) when they were part of the Vancouver improv theatre scene. Even then, their facial expressions and quick responses stood out. Williams spoke with obvious fondness of old times at Vancouver’s stand-up venue Punchlines, shared with Stiles. (For trivia lovers, Stiles met his wife at Punchlines; she was a waitress there.)

This week’s one-night-only event was a homecoming, of sorts, for Stiles and Mochrie. (I found out, through quick Internet research, that Stiles lives outside Bellingham, Wa. when he’s not in Hollywood. He’s even opened the Upfront Theatre, a small theatre in Bellingham dedicated to live improv comedy. Kudos to him for providing a new arts venue for local talent.   

All of the performers generously donated their performance time to help out The Cultch. In these harsh days of arts cutbacks, that means a lot. Thanks to The Cultch, whose executive director went to high school with Mochrie, the stellar performers, and everyone else who made Monday night such an uproarious good time.

February 25, 2011 at 8:52 am Comments (0)

Gracie characters are coming to life


Gracie: top left and right (in blue) with her brother Freddie (top right), dad (bottom left) and mom (bottom right)                — illustrations by Lillian Lai

What a joy it is working with illustrator Lillian Lai as she produces thumbnail sketches for my upcoming children’s book Gracie’s Got a Secret. I love the process of seeing how she translates my words into images. She’ll email me and the publisher roughly nine rough drawings or scenarios for each page, and we’ll select the ones that we like best. (Lillian took 2D and 3D animation at Capilano University in North Vancouver.)

She started with multiple drawings of each character and then the publisher, William Gelbart, and I suggested changes regarding facial expressions, body shape, colours and so on. It feels like participating in a magic show: you make comments, then see the results come back to you quickly. Voila — there’s the character, looking like a real creature with a personality all its own.

This reminds me of a playwriting course I took years ago. There were several professional actors in the class and when they read one of the students’ lines, within a minute, they truly inhabited that character.  It was like witnessing on the spot the embodiment of a new person who previously existed only on the page. I love witnessing such creative talent — it’s a gift that no one can put a price on.

As a first-time children’s author, having such direct, ongoing access to, and feedback regarding, the illustration process as it unfolds is indeed a privilege. I have a poet friend who has had dozens of books published and he often never even saw the cover of his book until it was already out. In most cases, he hated it.

Therefore, I am very grateful to William Gelbart, publisher of MW Books Publishing, for giving me this insider’s opportunity to shape the visual look of the characters and backgrounds of my story. It feels a bit like playing God — and I love it.

February 15, 2011 at 10:24 am Comments (2)

Two great films embrace life and death

Last night, three female friends came over to my place to watch the 1971 classic film Harold and Maude. In previous conversation, we had discovered that this movie was an all-time favourite for all of us, so I invited them for a group screening.

What a hoot. As my husband would say, this movie “has legs” even four decades after it was made. It was wonderful to watch this much-loved flick again and savour its irreverence. This movie is a tremendous affirmation to live life to its fullest, follow your heart, and embrace both life and death as an ongoing continuum. Ironically, without my realizing it until later, this informal screening  took place four months to the day that my dad died.

I don’t want to spoil plot specifics for those who haven’t seen it, but the film follows the coming together of a death-obsessed young man and an almost-80-year-old woman who share hilarious antics to the consternation of police, Harold’s wealthy, uptight mother, his shrink, priest, and wacky military uncle. The characters and dialogue are truly delightful. Stars Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort capture the perfect blend of rebellious eccentricity, gutsy imagination, go-for-it spirit, and refusal to conform to mind-numbing routine. They’re great role models for anyone who’s a creative anarchist at heart.

I was surprised at some of the scenes that I had forgotten and relished again; to avoid a spoiler alert, I won’t recount them. Several times, the movie makes a point of mentioning that what Harold and Maude are drinking or eating is “organic”; this was 4o years ago — the mainstream world is just waking up to such choices now.

Director Hal Ashby, who also directed another irreverent classic, Being There, has a cameo in the film as a scruffy, bearded guy in a midway complex. Screenwriter Colin Higgins unfortunately died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 47. The screenplay for Harold and Maude came out of his MFA screenwriting thesis at UCLA. He also wrote and directed Nine to Five in 1980 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1982. Before he died, he set up the Colin Higgins Foundation to further his humanitarian goals.

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Another intriguing film that tackles fearlessness towards death is the National Film Board documentary Griefwalker. Made in 2008 by Tim Wilson, it follows the spiritual activist Stephen Jenkinson as he counsels dying people, their loved ones, clinicians, and “people of the cloth” to befriend death, rather than try and avoid or deny it. This Harvard-trained theologian, who canoes, traps animals, and shares a deep reverence for life, death, and the  earth, says there’s “a hole inside most of us and it’s in the approximate shape of a soul.”

The filmmaker felt prompted to explore his own relationship with death after he wound up on life support and almost succumbed to a sudden post-surgery infection. The tone and visual impact of this movie are like a moving Zen koan with captivating nature close-ups and Jenkinson’s wise, inspirational words.

You can watch the film on the National Film Board website. For true Harold and Maude fans, check out the unofficial website full of trivia about the film.

February 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm Comments (0)