This is a repost of an original Sound Studies Initiative/Laurelle Miciak interview with Brian Fauteux (March 7, 2017)

Poet, songwriter, novelist, ladies man: Leonard Cohen was many things to many people.

Since his warm embrace by Montreal’s literary scene in the 1950s, Cohen’s singular voice propelled him to the fore of Canadian arts and culture. In 1967, he released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and quickly found an expanded audience. Cohen’s masterful lyricism and ability to interweave themes of love, sex, death and faith garnered countless awards and a lifelong career as a recording and performing artist. His final album, You Want it Darker, was released three weeks prior to his death to critical acclaim.

Yet Cohen was never satisfied by worldly success—his life was marked by long periods of solitude and a lifelong quest for spirituality. Religious and spiritual themes were ever-present in his work, and followed him from his early days as a young writer to his ordinance as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996. As Cohen’s life progressed, his search for meaning intensified and found expression in religion, the recording studio, onstage, and on the page.

Sound Studies Initiative spoke with UAlberta professor and musicologist Dr. Brian Fauteux to learn more about Leonard Cohen’s fascinating and multifaceted story.

Sound Studies Initiative: Leonard Cohen was publishing poetry for nearly a decade before he released his first recording as a singer-songwriter in 1967. What do you think fueled this artistic transition?

Brian Fauteux: A distinctive aspect of Cohen’s musical career is that he released his first album in his early-30s, emerging as a songwriter who was notably older than many of the rock and folk musicians who were popular at the time. It has been said that he finally decided to pursue a recording career for economic reasons. His written works were not selling as well as he had hoped and music seemed to be a way to generate a decent living. He also wanted to be able to reach more people with his words and his voice and music helped him to do this. However, while he was publishing poetry, he often performed with a guitar and his written work was shaped by the instrument. Cohen also played the guitar when he was young and at summer camp and played in a band in the early 1950s while a student at McGill University. He felt that there was little difference between writing a poem and writing a song. So, there is a longer relationship with music that preceded the official start of his recording career.

SSI: Cohen was linked to several prominent artists early in his career: Lou Reed, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg. Which of these contemporaries had the greatest impact on his writing and/or musical style?

BF: Judy Collins was a major champion of Cohen while he was beginning his career as a songwriter. Collins featured him as part of a singer-songwriter workshop at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967 and had a hit with Cohen’s “Suzanne” on her In My Life (1966) before he released his first album (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967). This, of course, helped to build an audience for his songs and to support his transition from the written word to song. I’m tempted to say that Dylan might have had the biggest influence on Cohen’s actual style, however. If we think of Dylan’s releases in 1965, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, these albums were released just a few years before Cohen became a recording artist and they were very influential in terms of demonstrating how words and lyrics could have a poetic quality within popular song. Cohen was a big fan of these albums and I’m guessing he found, in Dylan’s work, a model for how he could combine his poetry with song. Although it was less substantial than the folk scene New York City, Montreal also had a vibrant scene in the 1960s. Both artists spoke their lyrics at times, Dylan was cited frequently in reviews of Songs of Leonard Cohen, and both artists have been used to debate whether or not pop lyrics should be considered poetry.

SSI: Some of Cohen’s written works were criticized in the 1960s for being too racy. How was his music pushing the envelope at the time? Did it stand out from other folk music being released?

BF: I’m not extremely familiar with Cohen’s written works but I do recall that Beautiful Losers generated a mixed response from critics. Robert Fulford, in the Toronto Star, I believe, called it revolting but also the Canadian book of the year. Lou Reed expressed appreciation for Cohen’s written works around the time Cohen turned to music. I think this speaks to the fact that music in the late 1960s was a platform for dealing with some of the more serious or racy themes that Cohen was drawn to. Rock and folk were musical genres that were being taken seriously in the late 1960s, due in part to the fact that they dealt with themes of sex, war, and spirituality, often with introspective lyrics, but there is something about Cohen’s music at that time that sounds even more dense and serious. His first album was released at the end of 1967, just after the Summer of Love, but he sounds much darker than some of his contemporaries, communicating a sense of loneliness a little bit of self-pity as well. The sound of his early folk music is a little more simplistic too.

SSI: Cohen’s music was secular but consistently drew upon sacred themes and archetypes. It seems that many artists are not able to blend these themes so easily or successfully – what made his work different?

BF: Cohen excelled at blending themes of romance with sacred themes and archetypes. This was evident on early songs like “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne,” but also incredibly present on one of his most well-known hits, “Hallelujah.” The song has been called a “secular hymn” and Maclean’s described it as the closest thing in pop music to a sacred text. Obviously, a major contribution of Cohen’s artistic output is that it demonstrates that people can have significant spiritual connections to secular popular music. I can’t say for sure why Cohen was so effective at blending the secular and the sacred. Perhaps this is due to the amount of time and thought that went into his writing. “Hallelujah” took five years to write! He has also said that he wanted to be a songwriter to please both women and God. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he grew up as a Jewish boy in Anglophone Westmount (a wealthy neighbourhood west of downtown Montreal) where Jews and Protestants were grouped together by virtue of not being French or Catholic. Montreal is a city full of sacred symbolism (for instance, the giant illuminated cross atop Mount Royal that overlooks the city) but it’s also very much a secular urban space.

Join Dr. Brian Fauteux and other UAlberta professors in appreciating another folk music artist and luminary at next week’s “Let’s Celebrate the 2016 Nobel Prize: Bob Dylan”. This event will celebrate Dylan’s songs in various languages, feature an exhibition and round table discussion, and include a keynote speech by Dr. Fauteux, titled: “Bob Dylan, Storytelling, and the ‘Authentic Celebrity'”.

The event takes place this Tuesday March 14th, 2017 at Convocation Hall from 5 – 7:00 p.m. All are welcome, and refreshments will be served! For more information, please contact

This event has been sponsored by KIAS, Faculty of Arts, Canadian Center for Ethnomusicology, Sound Studies Initiative, the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, and the Music Department at the University of Alberta.

A trip to FAB Gallery quite often takes you outside of your world for a brief moment. Angela Snieder’s dreamy prints do just that. Looking at them you can’t help but imagine the mysterious world that they are giving us a glimpse of. You’ll be surprised when you look closely and see just how they were created.

Your prints invoke such a mysterious feeling. Almost like we are seeing pictures of other worlds. Can you tell me a bit about the themes you are exploring in your work?

That mysterious feeling you are describing has always been important to me, not only formally (in the images I am making), but also in terms of the motivations for making the work. For me, the feeling of seeing “another world” relates strongly to the strange relationship between physical and psychological spaces – the oscillation between knowing a thing, and being surprised, compelled, or unsettled by it. I utilize mystery and ambiguity in the images to create a space that is a kind of equivalent to the elusiveness of our perception.

detail of Storm I 2017 digital print by Angela Snieder

What got you interested in this particular exploration and style of working?

This particular exploration is new in some ways, but largely the core interests and motivations have persisted. In the beginning of my time at the University of Alberta, I felt it made most sense to create photographs by getting as close to the experience as possible. I would go out at night and shoot long film exposures of school fields in winter, trees, grass… scenes that held some of that mysterious feeling of obscurity or “in-between”. I’m not sure when it happened, but eventually I wanted a way to manipulate the subject matter more explicitly. In many ways, the diorama made a lot of sense. It’s a space that can mimic larger natural or built scenes, but that offers the artist more (or different kinds of) control. In addition to offering control over lighting and construction, the diorama is a space that can straddle the real and the unreal – which is very compelling for me.

detail of Diorama III 2016 photopolymer print, chine-collé by Angela Snieder

Can you tell me a bit more about your process in composing your prints and how you create the work? You use dioramas and then photograph them?

My process for building and photographing the dioramas is above all spontaneous and intuitive. From the start, it was helpful for me to work quite quickly and with non-precious materials (mostly cardboard boxes from the alleys in my neighborhood, of which there are many!). This was crucial because it allowed me to make decisions rapidly and without worry. Using a digital camera, I had the obvious benefit of being able to look at each photo as I shot and to react to what I saw happening. At first it was a lot of trial and error, which is actually very fun when the space is so malleable and easily manipulated. This playfulness was so exciting and was something that I realized was lacking in my practice. Eventually I worked out different effects (mainly through lighting and motion) that generated feelings of natural processes but also of more ambiguous dream-like spaces. With the photographs I then made a series of photo-polymer prints, and a pair of large digital prints. In the final, darkened room of the exhibition, there are three new dioramas that project onto the walls from light-sealed boxes using the same technology as the camera obscura. The difference is that rather than seeing a naturalistic projection of the outside world into a viewing box or chamber, the constructed worlds get projected out into the space of the room.

detail of Diorama II 2016 photopolymer print, chine-collé by Angela Snieder

What do you hope gallery visitors leave thinking about?

Firstly, I hope that visitors will have experienced some curiosity or surprise in the exhibition. Broadly, I hope that they will leave thinking about ways that illusion and artifice play a role in their own experiences and memories. My goal is for this reflection to encourage any kind of attentive contemplation of our physical and psychological relationship with the world.


Exhibition title: Angela Snieder: Obscura
Exhibition dates: until March 18, 2017
Venue: FAB Gallery (1-1 Fine Arts Building)
Gallery Hours: Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Saturday 2 – 5 p.m.
Admission: Free

Miriam Rudolph: dispossesion

Miriam Rudolph’s work has a sense of urgency in it’s beautifully layered and patterned narratives. Her show leaves you thinking about our own place in these narratives of our planet.

I had a chance to ask Miriam a few questions about her work.

Broken Seed Jar by Miriam Rudolph

Can you tell me a bit about your work and the environmental and activist themes you were exploring?

disPOSSESSION is an exhibition that explores the accumulation of wealth of few and the displacement of many with a focus on the expansion of soy and beef production in Paraguay, ensuing environmental, social, and economic consequences, as well as connected indigenous land rights and peasant food sovereignty issues. In my artworks, I explore the disappearance of the dry forests of the Paraguayan Chaco due to deforestation, the idea of enclosure as a symbol of privatization and capitalist systems, the struggle to maintain diversity through seed saving traditions in the face of expanding monocultures, and the displacement of local populations due to land grabs.

I grew up in Paraguay, South America. My life and my thoughts are forever linked to that beautiful and complicated place. I was raised in a socially complex setting with a colonial past and present in which European/Canadian settlers live next to indigenous communities, landless Latino peasants, and large estates owned by Paraguayan elites or, increasingly, by international investors and transnational corporations. Living standards, access to land, food, and education, as well as interests in land usage vary widely between the different groups. From this experience of unequal and unjust distribution of wealth and access comes a desire to bear witness and contribute to a dialogue on such issues as cultural change, sustainable farming and the environment, dispossession and migration, and food sovereignty.

Artwork by Miriam Rudolph

Your work is very narrative, can you tell me a bit about the stories you are telling in your work?

Through printmaking, I am building a visual narrative that not only analyzes but also embodies the issues I am addressing. In some of my prints, for example, I layer printed images over and over again to build up large-scale imagery that dwarfs smaller counterparts to portray power relationships. In other instances, I print on both sides of a translucent Asian paper, allowing the paper to embody a physical barrier between the past and the present. Demarcations of plate marks subtly reference enclosure or the gridding of land surveying. In another series, I explore the imagery of lightly etched figures of men, women and children, fences crossing the entire image, and detailed drawn sections of dense forest printed upside-down and disappearing off the edge of the paper. The translucency of the figures suggests a lack of presence, either a distant past or a disappearing future, while the other components of the image suggest separation or enclosure and the disappearance of the dry forests, an inversion of the natural order. I keep the titles of my works short and straightforward to give the viewer a key to enter the image’s narrative.

Seeds of Hope by Miriam Rudolph

Can you tell me a bit more about your process in composing your prints and how you create the work?

My methodology consists of gathering research materials, such as essays, articles, documentaries, literature, satellite imagery, personal testimonies and observations, and using them as layers of information in my artworks. I work with both scientific and empirical knowledge. I then try to figure out how to translate what I have read and heard into images that will carry the content I am trying to convey and that will draw the viewer in. In my etchings I have developed a process that takes advantage of the reproducibility and repetition of printing plates to achieve a complex build up of images that mirrors the multi-layered narratives involved in these issues. I have created a library of etched plates that I utilize as drawing tools to build up the imagery freely and intuitively on the sheet of paper, while maintaining control over the narrative content.

The physical and chemical process of leaving marks on the surface of a copper plate by etching it in acid lends itself remarkably well to my narrative imagery, allowing me to edit and layer the images. After making proofs, I can re-work and re-etch the printing plates, before inking them up, wiping the surface clean again, and running them through a manually operated printing press to transfer the image onto a damp sheet of paper. It is a very labour intensive process, but I love the subtleties and the variety of mark making I can achieve through etching. I can make highly detailed drawings, such as the forests and traditional gardens I have drawn using a steel needle, or I can brush loose washes of ferric chloride onto the copper to etch the clouds. These more general, abstracted marks carry emotion; they create a melancholy and ominous mood in the images. The clouds were a way for me to express a form of power, corporate power or market power that I could never quite seem to pinpoint or humanize in my readings. While my work is melancholy and dark, it is also beautiful. I’m trying to draw the viewer in, to seduce the viewer to step closer and then engage with difficult issues.

What can viewers expect to see?

In the gallery there are four separate spaces, each representing a part of the narrative. There is one space with more traditional prints that connect to each of the issues I talk about. Then there are also three larger print installations. The form of each print installation is important to carry its content. Colonization by Cattle, for example, is presented as a panorama built from multiple panels of Asian paper to portray the epic proportions of this ongoing linear narrative. The herd in its sheer number of cows and in its scale overwhelms the small remaining forested section. While on one level the herd appears quite threatening in its scale, the cows are drawn in an almost gentle or benign way, since in reality they are innocent participants, or even victims, in this expansion of meat production.

Colonization by Cattle by Miriam Rudolph

The Soy Field and The Garden, consisting of a grid of 146 paper tiles pasted on the wall, form a fragmented vision of the land impacted by industrial agriculture. I combine my own grid with satellite imagery of regions in the Chaco where soy plantations are cropping up. I again work with layers of imagery to portray a kind of take-over by the soy plants of the land. The scale of the whole piece also gives a sense of that take-over through its overwhelming size, encroaching on the one remaining traditional garden. On some of the tiles I’ve printed a more mechanical pattern of plants to reference the engineered monocultures. On other tiles I’ve printed a red droplet pattern to refer to the repeated application of toxins that fall on the land and seep into the ground.

The Soy Field by Miriam Rudolph

Seeds of Hope is a free hanging banner suspended above ceramic seed jars that hold the sacredness of life embodied in a seed. The vertical triptych invokes a gesture of blessing from above for the labour of planting and the traditions of saving seeds. The hands, drawn open in a giving or with a gesture of planting, symbolize the collective effort needed to fight for the right to save seeds and the collective effort to produce food in a sustainable way. However, the disembodied hands can also be read as the disconnect between people and the land or planting traditions.

Seeds of Hope by Miriam Rudolph

What do you hope gallery visitors leave thinking about?

While my research and imagery pertain to a specific region in South America, the issues I address are global issues and also lend themselves to comparison with Canada’s – and other countries’ – colonial heritage and agricultural practices. I’m hoping to create an awareness of where our food comes from and under what circumstances it has been grown or raised. As average consumers we can make choices to influence the food business industry. Do we support sustainable and/or local food sources? How does transnational agribusiness affect local populations and farmers? What colonial attitudes do we still have towards people, land, and food production? Through my artwork, I am hoping to turn “matters of fact” produced by the sciences into “matters of concern”, as sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour says so fittingly, and perhaps inspire viewers to see their world differently.


Exhibition title: Miriam Rudolph: disPOSSESSION
Exhibition dates: until March 18, 2017
Venue: FAB Gallery (1-1 Fine Arts Building)
Gallery Hours: Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Saturday 2 – 5 p.m.
Admission: Free

The plot of Government Inspector is a classic case of mistaken identity.

When a young civil servant is mistaken for a high-ranking government inspector in a small town in Czarist Russia, fear ensues when the town’s governor and government officials clamour over the consequences of their wrongful actions. Though the satirical play by Russian and Ukrainian dramatist and novelist, Nikolai Gogol, originally premièred to mixed reviews because of the slanderous ridicule of the Russian government, it was Emperor Nicholas I that enjoyed it the most and encouraged continued performances. Now 150 years later, Government Inspector’s comedic approach to the themes of self-deception and lawlessness is as powerful today as it was when it was first produced.

Ron Jenkins went with the David Harrower adaptation of Government Inspector, and he and designer Colin Winslow have created a timely political satire full of bright colours and off-the-wall characters. Hear Ron and Colin talk about their ideas behind the set and costume design in this production of Government Inspector.

We asked actors; Jacob Holloway, Jaimi Reese and Sarah J. Culkin how the set and costume designs influenced their performances.

Ron and Colin get into more detail on how directors and designers work together in theatre.

Now that you’ve heard more about the process of putting a play together, Jacob, Jaimi and Sarah think you should go see one!

The theatre experience is different every single time because YOU are in the audience.

Just think of how much funnier this will be when you are watching it surrounded by your friends who will also be laughing.

Government Inspector runs each evening at 7:30 p.m. February 9 – 18, 2017 in the Timms Centre for the Arts (87 Avenue & 112 Street). For the full creative team, show dates and ticket details, see

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: Government Inspector
Dates: February 9 – 18, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee Thursday, February 16 at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior, available online and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.

Music director in front of a stage full of students performing at High School Honour Band Weekend at the Winspear Centre

The Winspear Centre saw a record number of high school students on it’s stage at this year’s High School Honour Band Weekend concert.

On Sunday, February 5 more than 200 of the most elite high school music students gathered in Edmonton for a weekend of lessons, workshops, rehearsals and networking.

a student playing a cello

Photo by Epic Photography

Epic Photography was on hand to take photos, so if you, your friends or family participated in the weekend, you can browse the gallery and purchase prints here.

The program and program notes can be found online here.

Students performing music on the Winspear stage

Photo by Epic Photography

*Feature photo by Epic Photography

Colin Winslow on the set of Government Inspector

Hello and welcome to another edition of Talking Theatre.

I’m Alex Donovan and today I’m joined by Colin Winslow, Set and Costume Designer for Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol, a satirical play currently running at the Timms Centre until February 18.  You can read an excerpt of our interview here, or listen to the podcast for the full experience!

Some of the cast of Government Inspector

Photo by Ed Ellis

You have quite the storied career, I was hoping you could share some highlights with us.

It’s been a very long career. I was actually born on a small farm in a remote part of – in the middle of England. It was quite clear I was never going to be a farmer. At the age of 11, I was taken to the theatre by my parents and decided I wanted to work in the theatre. The big problem was how on earth I was going to do it! Much of family, that weren’t farmers, were school teachers. My parents thought it would be very nice if I were to become a school teacher. So I devised a rather nasty plan. I remember I was 17 and I was cycling home one night and I worked out exactly how to do it. I would tell my parents I would become a teacher to please them, but I wanted to become an art teacher. This meant I would have to go to an arts school and they asked me where, and I said Canterbury has quite a nice art school. This was very good because it’s a nice respectable cathedral town but I knew they had a theatre there. A repertory theatre. So my first day I dropped my bags where I was staying, found the theatre, went round to the stage door and knocked. I said I’m a student, is there anything I can do to help? And they said, oh yes indeed! In the paint shop, we’ve just opened a show, and we have dozens of dirty buckets. I scrubbed them! You’ve never seen cleaner paint buckets. I almost flunked my courses at the art school because I was round there every night helping paint scenery. Weekends, long holidays I stayed over and worked there. When I graduated, I came round and asked if they had a job for me and they said yes, indeed. So I worked there as a scene painter and assistant designer and worked there for three years, becoming a designer. So I literally got into the theatre by the back door.

You’ve worked in a lot of a different countries, Scotland, England, Holland, the US, and more. What are some of the differences working here in Canada?

There’s a great difference I’ve found. I’ve had to earn a living, enough to make the rent. For that reason, a lot of my work has been commercial theatre, where frankly, artistic standards are secondary to getting bums in the auditorium. I’ve had to work primarily technically, making sure it comes into budget and will fit into whichever theatre it tours to. Also, it seems extraordinary to have such a long period for rehearsals and such a long period for setting the show up onstage that we do here. In England, I was used to doing the presentation on the first day of rehearsals, they’d then read the play and start putting it on its feet. If you were lucky you’d maybe get three weeks of rehearsals and then you may be getting the scenery up on the stage overnight Sunday, dress rehearsing Monday morning and opening in the afternoon. It’s been that sort of thing. So it’s been a great luxury here to focus a bit more on artistic standards rather than just the business of theatre. But business of theatre pays the rent, or at least my rent!

Could you talk to us a bit about what your design process is?

The design process changes for the nature of the shows and conditions you’re working on. I probably would not approach a production of Hamlet or King Lear in the way I would approach this one. This play, Government Inspector, is rather extraordinary because I’ve done a lot of Russian classics, I’ve designed this one before, and in my experience it’s suffered greatly from very respectful translations. People tend to say lines like “pray, will you take a seat?” Whereas in this version they say “park your ass”! So the fact that it’s done in very colloquial, rather vulgar language at times, means you approach it in a very different way. I wasn’t at all interested in historical accuracy. Ron Jenkins, who’s a friend, we’ve worked together before. One of the first things he said to me was “this isn’t Downton Abbey”. I didn’t find it necessary to do any research into the costumes, I don’t know what the period looked like it’s just what I felt, what I’ve seen them like. We decided it should look a bit like Russia some years ago but that’s about it. That actually gave me a lot of freedom. It’s also very iconoclastic, it’s very rebellious… which is nice, because I believe the original production way back in 1836 was pretty shocking. It really was! And so in a way we’ve got something of the same shock value in this production. So that meant we go very very colourful, and very very crude in a way. It’s the first time I’ve done a completely yellow set. When I started working at Canterbury as a scene painter, one of the things I was told was you can’t have yellow on the stage because it’s an inherently nasty colour and doesn’t work in the theatre. That’s why the set is basically yellow from top to bottom! And I suppose I was looking for a sort of toy town feel. Originally I wanted the mayor’s house to open up like a doll’s house so that when they audience comes in they’d see the front and it would open up. We couldn’t do that because of budget essentially. We’ve replaced that with a projection of the outside which works fine.

I know most of these actors quite well and I barely recognize them, could you talk a bit about the costuming choices?

It’s very much character driven and that’s what I tried to do in the costume design. Most of the actors are wearing an extraordinary amount of padding over various places to give different shapes to the characters. They actors are of course very young while most of the characters in the play are elderly and doddery. I think it probably helps to hide their youthful figures and helps to make them feel a little less comfortable than they would be skipping around in jeans and a sweatshirt. I have to say I’m so very proud of the work wardrobe has done on this and the workshops as well.

Now that the set and costumes are in the space, what is the transition like from your page to the stage?

Doesn’t quite go like that. Theatre is a collaborative art form. I take that to the nth degree. Right from the very start if I have an idea I go to whomever is involved, and in this case we had an idea from the start that in the hotel room (it’s supposed to be the worst hotel room in Russia) that a train goes past occasionally and the whole set bounces up and down. Ron thought that would be quite funny. Before I did anything else with it I went to talk to Darryl, our master carpenter, how do we do this? And he did some work on it. He’s got more expertise than I do on these sorts of things. And talking about the form of padding and costumes I went to wardrobe first to ask what is involved, so if you’ve got any sense then you use the expertise of all the people around you. This is collaboration. I’ve never been the type of designer who goes and says “I want this, this is how I want it”. Because if you do that you’re on very shaky ground because you’ve got a whole group of people around you who’ve got a vast amount of experience in all sorts of different fields and you’re an idiot not to use it, really.

I think that’s the beauty of working in this kind of university level, there’s so many people with so much expertise here. I imagine this collaborative process eliminates any type of surprises when the set is put into the theatre?

Well there shouldn’t be any surprises. Except that after a great many years as a designer I still get, every show I’ve ever done, I get a slight surprise when I walk into the workshops. My first reaction is, oh my god, isn’t it big! But that’s because I’ve been working on a half inch/foot scale model for a long time on my desk and I’ve got used to those tiny little bits. Of course it’s much bigger when you see it for real!


If you found that interesting then give a listen to the whole podcast below or at Talking Theatre on iTunes. Until next time, this has been Alex Donovan giving you a glimpse behind the world of theatre creation. Thank you to my guest Colin Winslow, and get yourself to the theatre to see Government Inspector!   

Government Inspector runs each evening at 7:30 p.m. February 9 – 18, 2017 in the Timms Centre for the Arts (87 Avenue & 112 Street). For the full creative team, show dates and ticket details, see

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: Government Inspector
Dates: February 9 – 18, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee Thursday, February 16 at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior, available online and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.

Photo of characters on set for the Studio Theatre performance of Government Inspector

A Look at the Life of the Playwright

Portrait of Nikolai GogolNikolai Vasilyevich Gogol was born in 1809 in a small town in Ukraine called Sorochintsy. At the time, Ukraine was a part of the Russian Empire. Gogol struggled to find purpose in his life at a young age and experimented with a number of different vocations with mixed results. In 1828, he went to St. Petersburg to try his hand at civil service but realized he did not have the money nor the connections to succeed. In an effort to gain recognition as a writer, he self-published a poem he penned in high school. Its reception was so remarkably horrible that he burned all the copies and considered moving to the United States. Gogol decided instead to do some soul searching in Germany. When his money ran out, he returned to St. Petersburg and accepted an ill-paying government job.

Gogol stumbled upon the success he had been craving in his youth while working at his government job. He published a series of volumes titled Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which chronicled his memories of growing up in rural Ukraine. The whimsical nature of his writing captivated the Russian literary world. The sudden fame he encountered placed him in the sights of Russian poet, Aleksandr Pushkin, who would become one of his closest friends and gave him the inspiration for the Government Inspector, as well as Gogol’s most famous novel, Dead Souls. Through a special order from the Tsar, the Government Inspector was performed on April 19, 1836. The weight of the reactionary press and officialdom was too much for Gogol, who ended up leaving Russia for Rome after the play was produced and stayed there until 1842.

Gogol fought with depression for much of his life, and in his later years, he became deeply religious due to his friendship with a churchman, Matvey Konstantinovsky. This friendship proved fatal to Gogol’s creativity. Konstantinovsky convinced Gogol that his writing was sinful and following his advice, Gogol burned the unfinished manuscript to the second part of Dead Souls (a planned trilogy). He fell sick immediately afterwards and died in severe pain nine days later in 1852. Despite the difficulties Gogol faced in life, he had an immense influence on Russian literature, influencing the likes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

The History of the Play

Portrait of Emperor Nicholas IGogol had the opportunity to sit in on the rehearsals for the first production of the Government Inspector, but was dismayed at how the actors were playing the piece for cheap laughs. He insisted that truthful depictions would be much funnier and his initial fears were realized when the play premiered to mixed reviews. The audience had never seen a play like this before and many felt it was slanderous towards the Russian bureaucracy. Emperor Nicholas I, on the other hand, enjoyed the play, stating “That was some play! Everyone received their comeuppance; and me most of all.” Gogol felt that the Emperor and the audience had misinterpreted the play and would go on to do a rewrite in 1842. The revised version received its first production after his death in 1870.

The Government Inspector has been performed countless times since its inception in 1836. The most famous production is Vsevolod Meyerhold’s 1926 staging that made heavy use of expressionism and symbolism. The version you will see this evening was adapted by David Harrower in 2011 for London’s Young Vic Theatre. It was warmly received by critics, with Michael Billington of the Guardian commenting on how “Gogol’s play exists at a tangent to reality and boldly confronts endemic corruption with a form of certifiable self-delusion”. Despite the hardships of Gogol’s life, his play has continued to make people laugh for over one hundred years.

19th Century Russia at a Glance

At the time of the Government Inspector’s inception, the Russian Empire covered three continents and had a population of 125.6 million people, making it the third largest population in the world. The Empire was at a crossroads of history, torn between pursuing modernisation and retaining its traditional values, two themes prominent in Gogol’s work. The Napoleonic Wars took a major toll on Russia despite their victory in expelling Napoleon’s forces. The war gave Russian Officers a chance to travel freely to Western Europe where they witnessed the economic growth being enjoyed thanks to industrialism. This sparked uprisings against the autocratic Russian government, which were ultimately contained but led to Nicholas I implementing a doctrine called Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality (1833). He demanded loyalty to the Tsar and the Orthodox Church.

Russia was severely over governed in the 1800s. The size of the nation meant corruption was rampant because it was difficult to regulate the individual provincial administrations. Government employees would often hire friends and family and bloat the already overloaded government with more workers. The society was broken up into four categories: the clergy, nobility, urbanites and rural dwellers (serfs or peasants). These four categories had numerous subdivisions that were nearly impossible to keep track of and the rural dwellers felt the brunt of the system’s taxation. To give an example of the ludicrous titling system, when Gogol moved to St. Petersburg he was considered as “minor nobility belonging to the fourteenth class”. The Russian Empire was overthrown in the revolution of 1918, replaced by the Soviet Union which fell in 1991, and established the Russian Federation that still exists today.

Government Inspector runs each evening at 7:30 p.m. February 9 – 18, 2017 in the Timms Centre for the Arts (87 Avenue & 112 Street). For the full creative team, show dates and ticket details, see

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: Government Inspector
Dates: February 9 – 18, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee Thursday, February 16 at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior, available online and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.


Billington, Michael. “Government Inspector – Review.” The Guardian, 2011,, 2017. Lavrin, Janko. “Nikolay Gogol.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012,, 2017. Penford, Adam. “Resource Pack – Government Inspector.” The Young Vic Teachers Programme, 2011,, 2017.

Feature image by Ed Ellis.


Hello and welcome to another issue of Talking Theatre!

I’m joined today by Ron Jenkins, director of Studio Theatre’s upcoming play, Government Inspector, by Nikolai Gogol running February 9 – 18, 2017 at the Timms Centre for the Arts. You can read an excerpt of our interview here, or listen to the podcast for the full experience!

Can you tell us a bit about your background as a theatre artist?

I started in theatre back at what is now called Cape Breton University. I was planning on pursuing a law degree at the time and was in the middle of my Arts undergrad. They were doing Hamlet and the guy playing Fortinbras got mono and couldn’t be in the show. My English professor asked me if I wanted to be in the show and I was hooked from there! The law degree fell by the wayside at that point. I started as an actor and was mostly acting up until 1999, when I left acting to concentrate fully on directing. So for the last twenty years, I’ve been concentrating on writing and directing.

What drew you to this play?

The first time I read it was back in university. I’ve always wanted to direct this play and when Kate asked me to direct it for Studio Theatre I was thrilled. I think it’s a really funny, great piece. It’s a masterpiece! I love Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Bugs Bunny, Richard Pryor, and I think Nikolai Gogol is one of those masters of that type of comedy.

You mention Chaplin and Keaton, and this play is very much a period farce, so what are some of the challenges of dealing with a comedy of this age? Have you had to update anything?

I think we have. This is an adaptation of the original by David Harrower, who’s this brilliant Scottish playwright that has done his own work in terms of updating the show. This version was presented in 2010/11 at the Young Vic Company in London and I know they took a wild 70s mishmash approach. We’re staying more to the traditional side, but we’ve updated it in our own way in terms of the comedy. But when this play was first performed in 1836, Gogol didn’t know whether it was going to be well received or not. It wasn’t until the Tsar gave his ok that it was considered a success.

It seems the Russian audience at the time didn’t really know what to make of a show like this.

Exactly. I think it’s really funny, biting and great satire. I think that’s the key. Gogol wasn’t happy with the first production either, he felt like these actors were playing people like caricatures. And I think I agree with him, so that’s been our goal to avoid that since the beginning of rehearsals. We’ve tried to strike this balance with the characters so that it’s not just hijinks because there is a great story to be told. And that’s been hard, to strike that balance. We’ve been working on that for the last week or so and that’s where we are now. Comedies are hard too; if you don’t earn it, then it won’t work.

Speaking of rehearsals, what is your preferred style of working? Do you do a lot of table work, or do you like to get up on your fight right away?

Not a lot of table work. We’ll spend the first two days at the table and then we’ll start putting it on its feet. I’ve always believed, whether it’s right or wrong, plays are meant to be played. Actors want to get up and feel the play and work with the other actors. I think these are great young actors who do all the work at home and come in very prepared. So I like to put it up on its fight right away so we can get the play going. It’s been fun and very hard, which is the best place to be in.

Getting to work with students can be great because they’re steeped in a program that emphasizes doing the work. What are some of the joys and challenges of working with students?

This is, I think, the fourth show I’ve directed here. The students are always very well prepared and I’ve worked with many UofA grads in the professional world after they graduate as well. These roles are a big challenge for them; the whole play is a big challenge in fact. I think they’re rising to that challenge and they work hard to work on their craft. In another few months, they’ll be leaving the school to hit the boards and try to find work and find their technique. It’s a pleasure to come to work here every day and work with these actors.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what design approach you took with this show? You mentioned that you’re setting it in 1836 unlike some of the more wild adaptations like the Young Vic. What spurred that decision?

Well, coming back is always great because I get to work with Colin Winslow again who is just a wealth of incredible knowledge and such a pleasure to work with. Colin and I talked a lot about the play and the approach we wanted to take. I didn’t want to do my version of the play because I don’t know what my version is. I know what Gogol’s version is and it’s simply a room – the story takes place in the Mayor’s house, in the tiny little inn with the room under the stairs. I just felt like adding all of this other stuff to it, not that new designs for this play aren’t sophisticated and add something to it, but I didn’t want to put anything on it. The story’s great, the characters are great and I didn’t think we needed to do anything else but that. Colin has this book in his thousand, ten thousand or so library, called On the Estate – it’s a collection of watercolours that this woman had painted of this Russian Estate in this small town. It was before the 1917 revolution and it was this quiet country life look at what Russia was like in the 1840s and 50s. We’re a bit out of time era wise, but we’re trying to keep the integrity of that and let Harrower’s adaptation of things take care of the more modern elements.

To hear the rest of the interview head on over to the Talking Theatre podcast or click below to listen right here! Follow us on iTunes at Talking Theatre. 

Government Inspector runs each evening at 7:30 p.m. February 9 – 18, 2017 in the Timms Centre for the Arts (87 Avenue & 112 Street). For the full creative team, show dates and ticket details, see

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: Government Inspector
Dates: February 9 – 18, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee Thursday, February 16 at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior, available online and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.

Russian military outfit outline on green background

Government Inspector – Director’s Notes by Ron Jenkins

“Don’t blame the mirror if your face is lopsided.” – Nikolai Gogol

I first read the Government Inspector in 1983 at Cape Breton University when I was taking my undergraduate degree with a major in Political Science. I had no intention of going into theatre at all. I was going to finish my B.A. and then go to Law School. Or so I thought. I had only been in one play, Hamlet. I didn’t actually play Hamlet. I played Fortinbras because the actor who was supposed to play Fortinbras had contracted mononucleosis and couldn’t do it. So my English Professor, Liz Boardmore, roped me or semi-sort of roped me into playing the part because she liked the way I had read in class. Or that’s what she told me. Anyway, I did the part and I was hooked. On theatre. The first one is always free.

I started spending more time at the theatre, acting and reading plays, talking about the theatre, talking about how art could change the world and how I wanted to be a part of that. I was consumed and the thoughts of Law School started to dim. I was still taking all these excellent Political Science classes but I wasn’t nearly as interested. I still had to write papers and keep up with my reading but I mostly just wanted to read plays.

So. We have to write a paper about corruption and it is here that I first came into contact with Gogol’s masterpiece, Government Inspector. I had mentioned to Liz that I had this paper due and how I wasn’t that interested in Political Science anymore, and that I was thinking about changing my major and how I just wanted to read plays. She suggested I read this excellent play that dealt with corruption in Russia in the early 1800’s called Government Inspector. So I did. And for that I am eternally grateful.

I love this play as much as I did when I first read it in 1983. It is a sharp, biting, funny, and wicked satire about corruption, bribery, and of the hollow longing for life in St. Petersburg. It is an indictment and love letter simultaneously to the country and the people Gogol loved. And I am thrilled to have the opportunity to finally direct it. Thank you to Kate Weiss and the Department of Drama for inviting me. I have had an incredible time over the last five weeks working with these incredible students. I hope you enjoy the show as much as I’ve had directing it.

I did end up writing the paper. Scored very high. But I didn’t go to Law School.

Thank you,

Ron Jenkins

Headshot of Ron Jenkins

Government Inspector runs February 9 – 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Timms Centre for the Arts (87 Avenue & 112 Street). For the full creative team, show dates and ticket details, see

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: Government Inspector
Dates: February 9 – 18, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee Thursday, February 16 at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior, available online now and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.

Great design transforms Canadian books into works of art

When the e-book revolution began, there were dire predictions about the book industry, most heralding the imminent death of the printed book. Now, a decade on, the printed book has not only survived, it is thriving, and the reason may have everything to do with design.

While e-book sales have stagnated, print books continue to be in high demand, in part because the traditional paper format is familiar, but also because readers recognize and appreciate books as material objects that are visual, tactile and in many cases, works of art – as illustrated by the 34th Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada exhibit currently on display in the FAB Gallery.

Sue Colberg, associate professor of design studies and curator of the exhibit, attributes the endurance of the printed book to great design, and the 43 award-winning books chosen by the Alcuin Society (out of 230 submissions from 98 publishers) represent the highest achievement in this field.

“I’ve noticed that of the books that are produced, in particular those sent in for the competition, [publishers] are putting a lot more behind a few in terms of very high production values and attention to detail,” says Colberg. “There’s some beautiful stuff here!”

The Alcuin Society jury considered books (published in 2015) in eight categories: Children’s, Limited Editions, Pictorial, Poetry, Prose Fiction, Prose Non-fiction, Prose Non-fiction Illustrated and Reference. Once the selection was made, the books competed in both the Leipzig and Frankfurt international book fairs before moving on to the Canadian consulate in Tokyo and finally, back to Canada.

Good book design must meet or exceed the expectations of multiple audiences, and according to Colberg, this means asking and resolving a lot of questions. “Know the field and where the book will be placed,” she says. “Sometimes it’s wise to go with the visual language of that field and have it look like it’s visually connected to that genre. Other times, it might be better to do something visually quite different that will stand out as apart or unusual. And of course, publisher and author expectations. Becoming familiar with the text to get the flavour of the writing, the tone. Is it very simple, straightforward, clear kind of expression or is it very poetic and lyrical? All these things give the designer a sense of what kind of imagery might be used, the colour palette and what typefaces might be selected.”

Children’s books are always the most popular category in the annual exhibit, says Colberg, singling out the first prize winner, Dasha Tolstikova’s A Year Without Mom (Groundwood Books, Michael Solomon, designer) for its “really nice treatment, integration and pacing of type and illustration.”

A Year Without Mom (Groundwood Books, photo: TJ Jans)

Colberg points to designer Andrew Steeves’ work as another standout in the categories of Poetry, Prose Fiction and Prose Non-Fiction. As co-founder of Gaspereau Press, Steeves creates books of “elegant design”, such as the beautifully realized Brief Reincarnation of a Girl, I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are and German Mills: a Novel Pertaining to the Life and Times of William Berczy. “The letterpress polymer plates are pushed into the paper — a fluffier hand-made paper which leaves a kind of impression embossment,” says Colberg. “There are always a number of Gaspereau Press titles in the mix.”

A Brief Reincarnation of a Girl (Gaspereau Press, photo: TJ Jans)

One of Colberg’s former students, Natalie Olsen (’08 BDes), received three honourable mentions for A Revision of Forward, We Can’t Ever Do This Again and The Swallows Uncaged. “Even as an undergrad student, I could tell Natalie had a sensitivity to type,” says Colberg. “And she’s a self-confessed book nerd so I thought: hmm, that’s a combination of attributes that bodes well to becoming a good book designer!”

Colberg herself is a multiple Alcuin Society book design award winner and jury member. In March 2017 she will resume her role as a juror, reviewing the latest crop of beautifully designed books published in 2016.

Sue Colberg, photo: TJ Jans

Exhibition title: Alcuin Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada 2015 exhibit

Exhibition dates: until February 11, 2017

Venue: FAB Gallery (1-1 Fine Arts Building)

Gallery Hours: Thursday to Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Saturday 2 – 5 p.m.

Admission: Free:

Read more about the Alcuin Society exhibit (from 2015) here.

Click here to view the catalogue.

Photos by TJ Jans.