Arts and Culture

Creating Holiday Memories, Not Garbage

Listen to what some funny people are unwrapping for Christmas: themselves.

By Shannon Rupp 2 Dec 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor, whose previous articles can be found here.

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Out of the box campaign: Metro Vancouver's laughter-driven push for a greener Christmas.

As Simon Webb begins his tale of Christmas magic at Vancouver's cozy Cottage Bistro he is accompanied by the clink of silverware, but as it builds to a climax the room of more than 120 diners has gone quiet with anticipation. The veteran Vancouver actor's story has the sort of details that would make Dickens proud, including a Christmas miracle and a shot at personal redemption. Webb, a self-confessed Grinch, is recalling how he was a reluctant participant in one of those wretched Secret Santa schemes. His gift recipient was a stranger, his budget was $10, and his mood was foul. But when he awoke on the morning of the gift exchange with nary an inspiration, he sensed the Sally Ann thrift store in Kits calling his name...

What follows is one of those tales loved by flea marketers, a story of finding a treasure amidst the drek, and it's even more delightful because it seems less a case of serendipity than Christmas spirit. I was entranced and could almost feel my heart warming on this rain-soaked November night when suddenly Webb gives the story a twist so surprising and redolent with shockingly funny misanthropy that he might as well have kicked Tiny Tim's cane out from under him.

The restaurant erupts into laughter. And you can see why they're roaring starting Dec. 3 when the show, The Flame: Create Memories Not Garbage, is broadcast on Shaw Cable and at the MetroVancouver.org website.

'I am not crazy'

Webb is just one of 17 raconteurs in the Christmas edition of The Flame, a monthly show of storytellers that's now in its third season at the Main Street restaurant. It's being televised for the first time as part of Metro Vancouver's campaign encouraging consumers to opt for a greener Christmas. The roster features stories from well-known Vancouver performers, including Shawn Macdonald, Allan Morgan, and Veena Sood.

While many of the stories are comic, the memories are also surprisingly personal. Stand-up comic Riel Hahn recalls how doing theatre in Armstrong one Christmas triggered a breakdown that landed her in the local hospital's psych ward. "There," she notes wryly, "I realized I am not crazy." Actor Lucia Frangione offers a poignant tale of her first post-divorce Christmas that begins with a miserable road trip in the company of a taciturn stranger and ends with some seasonal kindness.

The Metro Vancouver website already has a host of videos reminding people of the environmental cost of making merry, but they're full of less-than-festive facts: most gift wrap can't be recycled, decorative fake snow will keep your Xmas tree out of the compost, and calculations on the real cost of a $14.99 plastic toy truck will put you off your plum pudding. It's made from Middle Eastern oil, manufactured in China, packaged in Indonesia, trucked across North America and travels more than 53,000 kilometres with all the attendant costs in greenhouse gas emissions. It will find its way to the landfill in about a month, on average. Next to that, a locally made wooden truck looks like a steal at $35 -- but only if it comes without a bow.

The earnestness of eco-reform messages often earns the green brigade comparisons with Puritans who, let's not forget, managed to outlaw Christmas. And once the greenies start listing all our Winter Solstice sins -- you know that shiny new iPhone means your old phone will go in a landfill, right? -- environmentalists can sound like killjoys set to rival the Grinch.

Gordon Inglis, manager of multimedia services at Metro Vancouver, is under no illusions about how preaching green when everyone else is in the mood to party can make them sound dangerously Scrooge-like.

"We're not asking performers to talk about waste," Inglis deadpans, when asked how he got together with The Flame. But he later notes that he hit on the idea after catching the shows and seeing how storytelling helps us make sense of the world.

That's when he decided to take a tip from social reformer Charles Dickens, who used Christmas as a tool to improve all sorts of shoddy Victorian behaviour. Inglis hopes that the show's line-up of entertainers recalling their own Christmases will remind people that big screen TVs are not what anyone remembers most about the holidays.

'Has to be true and about you'

In weaving their anecdotes, the storytellers were given the usual Flame instructions: "It has to be true, about you, and told in a few," plus the requirement that the narratives touch on the Yuletide. Which in many cases means stories involving family.

"We should probably subtitle the show: 'Where the only garbage is emotional,'" quips Deborah Williams, co-producer of The Flame (with Joel Wirkkunen). She's a seasoned storyteller herself and one of the witty parents behind the Arts Club's long-running show Mom's the Word. She can often be heard mining her personal life for entertaining narratives on CBC radio's Definitely Not the Opera, or at Winnipeg's Comedy Festival.

Williams describes storytelling as a green form of entertainment that makes it an ideal fit for Metro's consumption reduction campaign. The Flame is the least pretentious form of theatre you can imagine -- just one person telling another a story without props or costumes, let alone sets. While all the entertainers are pros, the neighbourhood café is casual, and the advertising is non-existent -- word-of-mouth and Facebook are enough to ensure that on most nights they turn latecomers away. Admission is by donation.

In an era when most people find most of their entertainment on a screen, and heavily spiced with branding, The Flame's intimate setting is refreshingly human. Restaurant tables are pushed together to accommodate a small stage, and soon you're chatting with your neighbours.

It's also a rare opportunity to see some of the most gifted performers in the country up close. Nothing explodes, nobody is naked, and yet somehow they manage to hold dozens of people rapt with nothing but a yarn. Someone really should tell Hollywood about this.

For those who want to catch The Flame live, there's a show on the first Wednesday of every month, and the next one is Dec. 7 at 7:00 p.m. While storytelling is always better in person, The Flame also archives some of its best performances online.

Bard on the Beach director Christopher Gaze's recollection of how his first job as a waiter had him serving more than the daily soup is particularly funny.  [Tyee]

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