Ideamancy – Ideas for Back-To-School Magic

A running start to Fall.
A running start to Fall.

The first week of school is over. Routines are starting to gel, kids are on their best behaviour and starting to make friends. Teachers are breathing a sigh of relief. It’s the honeymoon period for elementary teachers. This glistening doorway of opportunity, lit by September magic, will not stay open long.

Invite all the kids in, before that dull ‘day-to-day feeling’ arrives. Hook them with creativity. Kids love to be stimulated and challenged to imagine. They want your teaching to take them places they could never go on their own. Surprise them and help them stretch their minds, and they will know you are on their side when things get harder.

With this goal in mind, here are a few book suggestions for September:

Steal Like an Artist. Long books on creativity can be counterproductive. This short book by Austen Kleon is full of art, poetry ideas and inspiration for teacher-artists, or anyone who wants to live more creatively. I recently reread it and find it excellent for visual, material, dramatic and literary artists.

Kleon suggests that you take whatever artistic thing you do to procrastinate and do more of it. He gives practical advice for artists like ‘learn about money,’ and describes ethical ways to draw inspiration from the work of others. One of his big projects is Newspaper Blackout, a website which begat a bestselling poetry book.

You could have a lot of fun doing newspaper blackout poetry with your students. How? Students take fat markers and strike out words on a newspaper page, until the remaining words form a poem. The result might be a simple message like “Eat your vegetables!” More sophisticated students could juxtapose the title of the original article against their ‘secret’ message. For example, they could take an article about war and block out words to reveal “give peace a chance,” or “support our troops.”


Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends appeals to boys and girls. It’s not new material but his poem, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out,” is a guaranteed giggle. I introduce it by telling kids how my Dad used to recite it to me when I was little. “Sylvia Stout,” is a good model for student ‘chore’ poems or poems about garbage. With Green Philosophy paramount in modern schools, it’s time for young Silversteins-in-the-making to write recycling poems. If you like his style, there are videos of many of his poems and songs available on YouTube. “I’m Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor,” is fun to sing with young children. Just be careful, not all Silverstein material is safe for school. Ever heard “Never Bite a Married Woman on the Thigh?”


Make your own crazy character mix and match flip book. Have you ever played this game? Fold over a small stack of paper and staple to make a booklet. Make two scissor cuts to divide the book in three, top-to-bottom. Students draw the head of a character or creature in the top box, the body in the middle and the feet at the bottom. Students open the booklet to the next page and pass it to the next student. This student continues by drawing another monster, athlete, animal or character, aligning the head, body and legs in the correct box. This process continues until all pages are filled and the books are returned for sharing, flipping and discussing. This little art and creativity project can be a jumping off point for writing “What if” stories or just a fun get-to-know you activity. Enjoy!


‘What if’ story starters:

  • What if you woke up with the legs of an Olympic runner?
  • What if you had the chest of a fish and could breathe under water?
  • What if you had the body of a bird and could fly?
  • What if your head was an octopus, legs and all?
  • What if you woke up with a hairy gorilla body?
  • What if you woke up with the pitching arm of a pro baseball player?


Here are some examples of different flip books:


This one is just for writers. As a writing book junkie, I procrastinate by reading about writing. What better way to goof off and still feel productive? In my home office, I have a bookshelf of reference and writing advice books. Other titles I’ve purchased as ebooks or borrowed from the library. I’m not proud of my addiction, but it puts this next statement in context.

Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, is the best book on fiction editing I have ever read. Reading it feels like having an editor at my side, pointing out potential flaws and providing techniques for reworking and deepening the second draft of my novel-in-progress. The chapters on polish and proofreading are short compared to those on style, craft and characterization. This is no grammar book for beginners.

If you want to do more substantive editing before you submit your work to a professional, this book is an excellent reference to read, and reread. The checklists at the end of each chapter help diagnose weak points and prioritize the complex processes of rewriting: adding, subtracting and re-imagining to enrich voice, style and emotion.

Earthquake concert a success

I attended a wonderful concert at Mel Lastman Square this Sunday to raise money for earthquake relief in Peru. The music ranged from jazz to contemporary, traditional to pop. Many performers were local, others flew into Toronto specifically for the benefit. The concert was arranged by There are articles about the concert in Spanish at Correo Canadiense or Torontohispano (which has photos and a handy translate-to-English button). You can still give International or Canadian relief to the victims of the earthquake.

Mel Lastman square held hundreds of people enjoying the music, dancers and typical Peruvian foods. I enjoyed trying to order in Spanish (even though the volunteers spoke English!). As you can see, my motives were not entirely pure. It was a great chance to combine Spanish immersion with a fun family outing.

Peru, Chile, Mexico, Bolivia were represented by traditional dance troupes. Folklore Inka had the most unusual costumes, with long sleeves that could be waved like flags.

Of the groups listed on the program, I especially enjoyed the Tequila Band, Somos Peru, De Rompe y Raja, Manuel Cardenas, Rosario Arce, Grupo Difusion, Grupo Pisco, Grupo Placaso and Alex Bello, with his hit “Sin Ti.” It was a moving end to a talent-filled concert ‘marathon.’

Musical vs. Opera

I recently watched the musical We Will Rock You, and the opera Elektra. I know I won’t be getting any Brownie points for excellent taste when I tell you I loved the first and didn’t care much for the second. To be fair, I knew every song used in the Queen musical, right down to the little sample from the Flash Gordon soundtrack they used as a sound effect.

Richard Strauss’ Elektra was first performed in Dresden in 1909. I am not a big fan of modern music. The music was aggressive and unpleasant to these unsophisticated ears. The heroine’s hysteria was unpleasant too. I am so tired of women in art who go insane instead of doing something rational. The costumes were unpleasant. Of course, the original story from Sophocles is unpleasant. It’s the kind of high drama and suffering that should be perfect material for opera.

That said, I wasn’t engaged. When a show is good, the seats can be hard and too close together. You can have a sore back or sore feet or feel sad and it doesn’t matter. Once the show starts, if it draws you in you don’t notice the pain. You are there.

During Elektra, in the perfect acoustics of the new Opera House, I kept hearing the lady sitting next to me, chewing a candy. She must have been wearing dentures too because her mouth kept making a clicking sound, as if she were knitting. Click, click, chew, chew, knit one, purl two. I’m just glad she didn’t ruin a great show for me…

Rocky Horror Stage Show

I went to see the Rocky Horror Show on March 28. As a teen I was given the soundtrack by my parents but forbidden to see the movie itself. I have since watched it on DVD. My husband hadn’t seen any version of the Rocky Horror Show when I took him to see it.

It was great because the music was great. There was even some interesting pre-show business where characters in tight, leather bell-hop uniforms interacted with the audience. I was in the balcony where a dancer was going around gibbering and stroking women’s hair. On the lower level, a male ‘bell-hop’ was sport humping a standing patron. To watch performers challenge theatre-goers boundaries was fascinating in a slightly repulsive way.

Actually, the whole show is a bit like that. The wild free-wheeling sexuality of the ‘Transylvanians’ is offset by the fact that Frank ‘n’ Furter, the transsexual leader of these space aliens, is a murderer who lives only to satisfy his sexual appetites. In the movie, he is such a charismatic character that I wanted him to be the hero instead of namby pamby Brad.

Oh well, I guess that would be just too wrong. Sexual ‘deviants’ have to be monsters and bad guys don’t you know… We shouldn’t get too carried away or all this “decadence will sap our wills and our minds may snap…”

The musical is based on cheesy cliches from “the late night double-feature picture show,” the same inspiration for the new movie Grind. I would be interested to hear someone else’s comparison of the two.

I would also like to think that if old B movies were the inspiration for a show written in 2007, the end message would be less pat and conformist.

Screenwriting, Opera, Kegger & Contest

As part of the ImagineNative festival, on Saturday I went to an excellent screenwriting seminar given by Elke Town of Storyworks, sponsored by the Harold Greenberg Fund. She was an excellent presenter and a good sport as well since she posed for this picture!

Top tips:

  • Study the films that you like the best and try to emulate them.
  • Structure and visual storytelling come before dialogue
  • Hook your reader by making them care about your characters
  • Dig deep and find out what your story is truly about

There was also a reading list, notes on structure and allusions to the harsh realities of trying to write a great screenplay. Hint: Your first draft may not be your last!

Town suggested we go to scriptfly to purchase screenplays in order to compare final scripts to DVDs of finished films.

After a very short break I attended a round-table discussion about moving from short to feature filmmaking. The speakers were generous with their experiences and opinions.

Moderated by Adam Garnet Jones (left), the discussion featured (from left to right) : Kanakan Balintagos, director of Tuli, David Craig, an investment analyst with telefilm, 2005 Alliance Atlantis Mentorship Recipient Gail Maurice and Richard Story, Writer/Director/Producer.

Craig gave a fascinating account of the cultural imperative for Canadians to tell their stories using government funding to create art. He emphasized making the right film for the right reasons. In Craig’s opinion, in Canada it is comparatively easy to make a first feature film, but making a second feature is much harder. He recommends making many, many smaller films first and suggests that making a feature film need not necessarily be the ultimate goal.

Gail Maurice advised filmakers to trust their vision and just go do it. An all-round artist with experience acting and directing, she was enthusiastic and supportive. Why wait when you can make a film on your cell phone and post it on YouTube? No more excuses, folks.

Richard Story was very friendly when I spoke to him between presentations. His tip for independent filmakers and writers? Attend the monthly Trinity Square screenings to network with independent directors.

Balintagos had the saddest story. He modestly attributed his success in documentary, short film, music video and feature length formats to ‘beginner’s luck.’

When asked to name his biggest challenge, he said it came after his first feature film, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, which won international awards and became a breakout commercial success in the Philippines.

No one involved in the project had expected to make much money, but once profit became involved, he found out not to trust deals made with a handshake between friends. Without wanting going into details, Balintagos concluded that he was happy to have won prize money because it allowed him to “survive.”

More weekend than I probably deserve…

After the festival I went to write in the Reference Library, ate dinner with my hubby and friends, attended the opera and went to a tenth anniversary keg party featuring a 48 hour writing contest. I didn’t win first prize but hey, I did win a CD and some delicious free trade coffee. I feel honoured to have such fun, creative friends.

Cosi Fan Tutte — The COC kicks back in its new home

It was wonderful. I had a chance to look at the new home of the COC and hear a delightful opera. For me, the overture alone was worth the price of admission.

I enjoyed the saucy direction too. A campy interpretation of the wafter-thin plot is an ideal way to present this opera about worldly frivolity.

The Horror, the Glitter

  • There are two excellent, memorable short films in Short Cuts Programme 5, outstanding for their professional acting, production values and stories.
  • The first is Aruba, directed by Academy Award nominee Hubert Davis. The gentle, lyrical pacing and soundscape are at odds with the events of the story. A boy is beaten at school during the opening sequence. Later, he walks in on the man of the house, choking his twitchy, drug-addled mother. The neighborhood he lives in is so dangerous, that the nice lady he buys food from, relocates her corner store. The climax is triggered when the boy is caught with a handgun at school. When the police come to call, the man is caught with drugs and arrested. These are the bare facts of the story. What fascinates is the the boy’s vision and yearning.
  • Screening, directed by Anthony Green, looks and feels like a big budget drama. In the space of 15 minutes, he has us second guessing prejudices we have developed in the paranoia of post-911. Anti-racist propoganda, if you will, but handled with such finesse that I look forward to seeing more from this director.
  • El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) is a film of rich textures and colours, grit and viscosity. The models and sets in this piece are a welcome relief from the bland surfaces of cheap CGI, and in brief moments where animation is used, it is extremely subtle. The dark, organic menagerie of Guillermo del Toro’s underworld is a slippery, crunchy, horrifying treat.
  • Living a nightmare fairytale inside the real nightmare of Franco-occupied Spain, Ophélia and her very-pregnant mother come to live with the sadistic Captain (Sergi López). This is the real world where rebel forces oppose the Captain and his men. From her vantage, at the intersection of real and fantastic worlds, Ophélia must accomplish three tasks, with ramifications both over and under the ground.
  • The faun, an enormous, evil-looking creature, leads dauntless Ophélia to her rightful place as the lost princess of the underworld, but at a price.
  • I recommend this film highly, but not for the faint-of-stomach. This is the first non-action flick in which I have seen a man sew up his own wound. I had to look away, which does not mean the acting is exaggerated. One of the best things about this film is the realistic, sensitive portrayals of characters, trapped in Del Toro’s deadly maze.
  • What can I add to what has already been written about Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine? As producer Christine Vachon said when she introduced it: This one is fun. The music is glam rock grinding and guitar fabulous. The costumes, David Bowie’s wet dream. But what this movie is really about is beautiful, terrible boys. These fellows wear eyeliner with intent so look out — They’re going to take over the world.

Suicide and Sex and Suicide

  • Kurt Cobain About A Son, is a visually exciting documentary that uses animated drawings, landscapes and portraits of people from Cobain’s hometowns of Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle Washington. Director AJ Schnack has assembled the soundtrack around groups that Cobain listened to both as a child and later. The voice recordings for the film are taken from 1992 and 1993 interviews done by Michael Azerrad for his biography of Cobain, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvanna. Unfortunately, this film is not about Nirvanna. No Nirvanna songs are used and the few still photos of Cobain and of the band performing are held back until the very end. That said, the technique of creating a soundtrack using interview tapes, original music by Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard plus Cobain’s punk and pop influences is worthwhile in itself.
  • If you are interested in Cobain, the man, this is your documentary. As someone who enjoyed Nirvana’s music in the nineties but knew little about the man, I was initially intrigued but eventually got bored. The director should have edited out some of Cobain’s deluded ramblings. That said, I overheard one satisfied patron call this film her highlight of the festival. I guess you have to be a fan.
  • Shortbus opens with a minute examination of the Statue of Liberty in all her physicality. Next, the camera wings over a confectionary New York city made of card and lights, to focus on a man in a bath, videotaping himself. We get a close shot of his penis, peeing into the water, followed by a bubble of flatulence. Perhaps this is director John Cameron Mitchell’s way of announcing his themes, or maybe he’s just warning patrons who might have stumbled into the wrong theatre. There be sex here! Turn back all ye who are not open of mind.
  • For those who are open-minded, there is so much sex in this film, it could be enjoyed without any plot at all. But don’t worry, you don’t have to. The characters are realistic and well-acted, each with his or her own story, set in post-911 New York. Near the end, the film shows how these people react to the great blackout of 2003.
  • In my neighborhood, when the lights went off, people pulled out their defrosting meat and lit barbecues up and down the street; neighbor talked to neighbor, even if they had never done so before. Shortbus is a lot like that too, except the meat they pull out is genitalia and instead of talking to your neighbour, you just join in the orgy. It’s “just like the sixties only with less hope,” is how drag queen Justin Bond sums it up.
    His private sex club, Shortbus, is full of sexual non-conformists working out troubled relationships and having lots of fun. And for the climax? The extremely frustrated marriage counsellor (played by Sook-Yin Lee), finally has her first orgasm.
  • Falkenberg Farewell, directed by Jesper Ganslandt, is a reflective piece that should resonate with anyone who grew up in a small town. There are no jobs in Falkenberg so the young men in the story live with their parents, repeating the pleasures of adolescence, long after these have ceased to satisfy. Although the story is based on the lives of Falkenberg residents and although the director had some of his friends move back in with their parents to shoot the film, the story is fictional and partially improvised. Visually stunning, this film deals with depression, suicide, loyalty and identity in ways that are extremely likeable and very Swedish.

Four films in less than twelve hours

  • I just saw four films in less than twelve hours! What a smorgasbord for the eyes. Here are my impressions:

  • The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is worth seeing but I recommend it with reservations. I loved the Camera D’Or winning Atanarjuat (the Fast Runner), also directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn. While that film was accessible and universal; this film was more challenging. At times it was even confusing.

  • The film, set in 1922, is based on the journals of Rasmussen, a scientist who recorded Inuit culture. Avva, the main protagonist is a shaman who is powerless to protect his people’s beliefs and ways. It is also the story of his daughter Apak, who shares some of his spiritual powers. The main motif is storytelling as different characters tell the tales of their lives both to Rasmussen and to us.

  • The film focuses on first contact with Europeans but it is also about politics within an Inuit community. In the end, the choice each family member must make is to either convert to Christianity or starve to death.

  • The glorious Inuit music throughout, including mystical throat singing sequences, are set against the Christian Inuit songs at the end of the  story. These tunes are “easy to learn” and performed without vitality; dirges for a condemned people and culture.
  • Laitakaupungin Valot (Lights at Dusk), directed by Aki Kaurismäki, is film noir without the detective. A crime is committed and blamed on the protagonist, a loser who fails to make good choices throughout the film. Unlike Philip Marlowe, our underdog protagonist never gets to fight back while the bad guys grind him harder and harder into the muck. There are some funny moments but not enough for me. My favorite is when the gangsters are playing high stakes poker over a super-charged soundtrack. As we are drawn into the scene, the gangster’s wife spoils the ambiance by starting to vacuum the room. Overall, the tone of this world is bleak; a place where love and virtue are never rewarded.

  • Nouvelle Chance, directed by Anne Fontaine is yummy. Visually pretty and artistic yet accessible, I recommend it to anyone who loves theatre and actors. Augustin, a character from Fontaine’s two previous films, works by day as a chichi pool attendant. In his off-hours, he is a theatre director who strives to create a typically French play for his Swedish clients. He casts his play partly at the posh  club and partly at a kind of group home. The resulting conflicts between  a retired operetta star and a TV actress are funny yet subtle.  

  • Fontaine gave charming responses at the Q&A, explaining that although she originally set out to create an 18th century piece, based on correspondence by the Marquise du Deffan, her idea developed into a playful, backstage homage to theatre people. In fact, Fontaine said each role was written for the actors who, in turn, play roles influenced by their off-screen selves. The subtext of this sprightly backstage confection, is a nod beyond the world of theatre, to the multiracial citizens of  current French society.
  • Wang-ui nam-ja (King and the Clown) deserves it’s place as the top-grossing film in South Korean history. It has everything: low comedy, noble sacrifice, aerial acrobatics, murder, suicide, sex, a gymnastics throw-down, romance and tragedy to rival the ancient Greeks.

  • The director, Lee Jun-ik, brings out the beauty in every scene. Lee Joon-gi, who plays the sexually ambiguous Gong-gil, is stunning. Performing in a Korean clown style which combines high wire gymnastics and street theatre, he plays the ingénue opposite Jang-seng (Karm Woo-sung), who decides he will make his fortune by mocking the King.

  • I laughed and cried, feeling empathy for the two performers who have enough audacity to cause revolution and enough tenderness to die for each other. Now that is ultimate showmanship.

The Magic Flute — Twisted Marvel

  • The Magic Flute exceeded my expectations. I laughed and cried in turns. In the opening sequence, spring meadows and Mozart’s vivacious music are set against the falling shells and falling men of World War One. Bright colours, stunning CGI and odd juxtapositions, such as soldiers carrying band instruments, induct us into a magical realm.

  • Mozart’s opera is playful, mystical and symbolic. The original has the incoherent logic of dreams and is structured around the secret ceremonies of the Masons. The danger, in an often literal medium like film, would be to explain too much. Branagh makes his story clearer yet more mysterious. The Magic Flute is a familiar opera, yet one of the pleasures of this film is suspense. We wonder how famous scenes will be adapted to create Branagh’s new vision.

  • The film is set in WWI, yet it isn’t. During the overture, a battalion of blue fighter planes turns aerial pirouettes to music. There are two sides fighting and yet the main conflict is within the hearts of the protagonists. Despite this, elements of history are retained. For example, a Christmas day ceasefire, when opposing armies come out of their trenches to play soccer, recalls real incidents but the moment is reworked to drive the story.

  • Such elements are not easily parsed and Branagh’s symbolism invites ambiguity. A blue army opposes a red army but neither is named. The hero changes sides for love. The conflict is universal, yet based on personal vendetta; heroism is glorified, yet the flute symbolizes peace.

  • The libretto and dialogue by Stephen Fry succeed on many levels. The earthy needs and desires of Papageno are respected even as they are gently mocked. The ‘nesting’ scene between the bird man and his fluttering wife is an ironic wink at suburban nest builders everywhere.

  • Between recognition humour, irony and poignancy, this film tugged my head and heart. Symbols of the Masonic temple are represented on a massive scale by Zoroaster’s fortress/cathedral. The masons are a community of multiracial folk, healing and rebuilding. For me the most powerful symbol is the graveyard. Names in every language mark stones that repeat over and over the ages of the fallen, often at only eighteen years. Fortunately the ending is uplifting.

  • The Magic Flute also features outstanding entrances. The serpent, traditionally killed by Queen of the Night’s Handmaidens, is represented here by poison, snaking out of a gas canister. The Handmaidens, appearing in the stark white uniforms of battlefield nurses, fall in love with this beautiful young man and begin to quarrel over who should get him. How fitting when young men are dying in the thousands – a poignant twist on the fairy-tale original.

  • The Queen of the Night gets the best entrance of all. She rides in astride a tank wearing a long leather coat. Popping and pinging the high notes while the camera focuses on her mouth, a convoy of tanks in the background appear to roar out of her throat. Evil indeed.

The Magic Flute — Kenneth Branagh’s Adaptation

  • I’m looking forward to seeing The Magic Flute, directed by Kenneth Branagh. He has restaged the opera using an English libretto by the well-known actor and writer Stephen Fry. I’ve been a fan of Fry’s comic acting since I first saw him in the BBC’s Blackadder series. I also enjoyed the satirical humour in his novel, The Hippopotamus.
  • Presenting the opera in English and setting it during WWI may be an inspired risk, but only if the tone is right. I’m especially intrigued to see how Branagh will handle Mozart’s references to Masonic ritual set against trench warfare on the Western Front.
  • Adapted for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, the film features James Conlin conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser.
  • How delightful to start the festival with Mozart! It’s as if the programmers were thinking of me. With Mozart’s 250th anniversary approaching, in 2004 I was obsessed with Mozart’s life. I read biographies, listened to his music and, of course, watched Milos Forman’s brilliant film Amadeus. Peter Shaffer’s conception of a villainous Antonio Salieri, pitted against a carefree, frivolous Mozart has always stayed with me.
  • For the 2004-2005 school year I wrote and staged a school musical about Mozart, the world’s most famous ‘child star.’ The show featured period costumes, live piano, violin, flute and a dance set in the French court where the child prodigy, Mozart, meets a slightly older Marie Antoinette. It was lots of fun for me and the performers who were in grades 6-8. Who knows, maybe attending the festival will inspire me to write something new.

    Cereal Girl