Saturday, April 30, 2016

Let's play together: a guide to cooperative games

Red alert! The world is under siege from four diseases, and you and your team must work together to stop the spread of the diseases over the course of "the worst year in the history of humanity." So goes the plot of the game Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, which immediately captivated the board game community upon its release last fall. Within three months of its release, the game shot to Number 1 on BoardGameGeek, an honour that only a select few games have achieved over the decade and a half of BGG's existence, and one that has never been bestowed on the style of game to which Pandemic Legacy belongs: cooperative games.

The original version that Legacy was based on, Pandemic, marked the first mainstream breakthrough in coop games in 2008, and it likely would have won the Spiel des Jahres for game of the year had Dominion, another genre-defining release, not also come out in the same year. There had been a few cooperative games released at that point, but Pandemic was the one that opened the way for many more entries in the genre over the past eight years. Pandemic was my second cooperative game, but it was definitely the one that got me hooked on the genre, and it remains one of the standby games that my wife and I play to this day.

As much as I enjoy a highly competitive board game, I acknowledge that there are a lot of times in which it is refreshing to play a game in which you are not competing against each other, but against the game. It might be the level and style of players with whom you are playing, or it might be that you have just churned the brain gears trying maximize those victory points, but I often find myself turning toward coop games as a way of mellowing out or enjoying a gaming experience without the pressure of having to beat the other players.

I have played a number of coop games in recent memory, so I thought that this would be a valuable time to consider my history of playing cooperative games, particularly in honour of International Tabletop Day (today, April 30). After reviewing my collection on BoardGameGeek, I was able to compose a list of over forty cooperative games (or games with cooperative scenarios) that I have either played, want to play, or might play at some point in my gaming. There are, of course, more cooperative games than those listed here, but I have merely attempted to capture a snapshot of the games that I have either played or investigated for future plays.

There are quite a number of games for which I have recorded a limited number of plays, so my comments on those games should be taken with a certain level of scrutiny. It's not that I think my comments are incorrect; it's more that it can be difficult to get a sense of the way a game plays with only one play, though it is admittedly easier with cooperative games than with competitive games because you can share strategy and talk more openly. But before I get into the comments on specific games, I thought I would start by outlining and defining characteristics of what makes cooperative games successful from my experience.

The characteristics of successful cooperative games

I think a cooperative game has to have five different characteristics in order to be successful. These are non-negotiable for most games, period, but they are particularly noticeable in how they function in coop games, so that is why I have outlined them here.

Accessible core mechanic - Cooperative games need to be accessible and feature a core mechanic that is easily learned and applied. I know that could be said for any game, but the style of players who enjoy cooperative games, at least in my playing history, tend to need some streamlining in their decision making process and to not have to think too strategically about their options on a given turn.

Challenge - This is perhaps the toughest balance for a cooperative game to achieve, and a number of games seem to struggle to present the level of challenge well. While players should not be able to win every time, the game should also not be perceived to be unwinnable, as even one or two negative experiences can sour players on a game. The games that do this best also allow for players to vary the level of the challenge based on various modules and inclusions, so it's best when a game is not static in its presentation of challenge.

Player involvement - Ideally, each player should be able to be fully connected to the game on their turn. Sometimes it turns out that a player does not have a good move, or that their individual powers are not useful in a given situation, but players should all be involved. Some cooperative games have the issue of having an "alpha gamer" who controls the game or a predetermined set of "best" actions on a turn (*cough* Pandemic *cough*), but the best coop games feature choices and situations that allow (or force) players to be engaged in the game on more than their own turn.

Social space - Part of the appeal of playing a cooperative game is that it should allow for socializing in a way that competitive games tend not to because of the need for focus on individual strategy. The best coop games provide and often necessitate social involvement from all players.

Tension - Although the core mechanic should be accessible, a successful coop game should involve compelling decisions for most players on most turns, as mentioned in player involvement, but there should also be a sense of significance in the decisions a player needs to make. This is accomplished in many different ways: limited information; limited resources; a timer; or a deck of cards that changes the conditions of the game without warning.

Beyond those five mandatory characteristics, there are a few more features that make a cooperative game intriguing, especially as the games increase in complexity. Unlike the previous five, these five are not necessarily needed to make a cooperative game work, but their presence goes a long way in increasing the replay value of a game, its complexity, and the level of enjoyment, particularly for experienced players.

Asymmetrical play - Many coop games feature an element of asymmetrical play in which one player is pitted against the others as a traitor. In some games, the traitor is known; in others, it has to be deduced, but it almost always makes a game much more interesting to have one person working against the rest.

Inversion of social expectations - Some of the more intriguing coop games of recent memory have inverted the social expectations of games in various ways. In some, players have to communicate differently (ie. without vocalizing); in others, all players but the player have access to certain information (like the cards in your hand).

Strategic play - A cooperative game, though not encouraging competition with other players, should still feature the ability for strategic play. Part of the tension of the game should come from the game itself, but there should also be freedom for a player to see how different strategic moves would affect the course of the game.

Theme - While a number of cooperative games on this list have similar mechanics - there is, in theory, only so far you can go with changing the ways in which cooperative games can be played - what separates some of them is the thematic experience. I find theme to be more important in coops for immersing myself in the game than in competitive games in which I am more focused on making the game work, and there are certainly some examples of great themes in this list.

Variable player powers - I find it more interesting when players are given roles or abilities that allow them to do something that the other players cannot do, even if those powers are minimal (like in The Grizzled). The division of labour does not always work out well - I have endured a few games in which my ability ends up being useless because of whatever circumstances arise - but the games that do this best also allow the opportunity for players to strategically switch their roles.

With these characteristics in mind, here are my thoughts on the coop games I have played and want to play, starting with the simpler entry level games and progressing onto more complex coop games.

Entry level cooperative games

...and then, we held hands. (1 play) - This unique two-player only cooperative game is simple in concept but definitely more complicated to win. The two players are trying to play emotion cards to achieve objectives and make their way to a central point without speaking. I have played only once with speaking (as recommended by the game), so I'm interested to see how the game plays without vocalization.

Forbidden Island (10 plays) - This beginner's version of Pandemic features a simple action system and a great theme - you're all explorers on an island that is sinking around you and you have to get four treasures and get away before it goes under completely. It's a light fun coop that's great for kids (as young as three years old in my experience) or adults.

The Game: Are you ready to play The Game? (1 play) - Aside from having the worst title in board game history, this cooperative game surprised everyone by being nominated for the 2015 Spiel des Jahres. It has an incredibly simple concept that is surprisingly hard to win: your team has 98 cards numbered from 2 to 99 to play on four piles, two of which descend starting from 100 and two of which ascend starting at 1. It's by far the least complex on this list, so I imagine that The Game will have a long shelf life once it gains mainstream attention (which it almost certainly will).

The Grizzled (2 plays) - In The Grizzled, players take on the personas of French soldiers in World War I trying to avoid threats before their Morale runs out. The theme and the core mechanic do not really match, but each are interesting enough on their own that the fact that they do not line up does not matter. I have heard that the game is very difficult, but I have managed to win both times I have played so far, likely because of card distribution rather than skill; still, despite winning both times, the tension of the game is high, and I'm looking forward to playing the game more, especially with an expansion being released soon.

Hanabi (19 plays) - One of my favourite coop games, this is one of two entries on this list to win the Spiel des Jahres. The central idea is quite simple: everyone needs to work together to play cards in different coloured piles to score as many points as possible as a team. The inversion that makes the game interesting is that only the other players can see your cards, and the number of clues you can give as a team is limited. It features deduction, memory, and press your luck, and it's one of my favourite games to play at the end of a game night. I have also only scored a maximum of 21 points (of 25 possible without including a multi-color expansion) once, and as many as 18 on only five other rounds, so the challenge is definitely still there. Plus it's the cheapest coop game available by far, so it's worth picking up.

Paperback (2 plays) - Paperback is a deck-building game in which players use letters in their hand to construct words for points - think Quiddler (or Scrabble) meets Dominion. In the cooperative version of the game, players are working together and helping one another. It is a great entry point for learning the game, and it has replay value because of the challenge; in two plays, I have not come close to winning, and there is great fun in playing a word game together, rather than in competition.

Scotland Yard (1+ plays) - The classic asymmetrical game pits Mr. X trying to escape detection by the detectives of Scotland Yard as he tries to flee their dragnet throughout London. I have only one recorded play, but I have played the game more often than that before I started recording, as it is one of my favourite asymmetrical games and by far the easiest coop game with a "traitor" mechanic to learn.

Star Realms (Gambit Set): Pirates of the Dark Star (1 play) - One of the expansion sets for Star Realms, a space-set deck-building game, includes two modules for cooperative play. I have only played one of the modules once, and we did not win, but I hope that the team at White Wizard Games releases more cooperative modules for the game in the future.

Entry level cooperative games to play:

Firefly: Out to the Black - Players are members of the crew of Serenity setting out on Missions across the 'Verse aiming to misbehave.

Forbidden Desert - A slightly more complex version of Forbidden Island in which players have to work together to build a flying machine before they sink into the sand.

Star Trek: Five Year Mission - Simple dice rolling coop game based on either TOS or TNG.

Tiny Epic Defenders - The cooperative game of the Tiny Epic series seems like easy fun.

Medium level cooperative games

Bomb Squad (1 play) - Take the central mechanic of Hanabi - other players can see your cards - and remove the stress induced by limiting the number of clues. Add the stress of having to play specific cards for a robot to take a path before the timer runs out and the first (of three) bombs explodes. Lose and go back to the comfortable stress of playing fireworks rather than being them.

Commissioned (1 play) - Commissioned is a game in which players play as the early apostles spreading the church throughout the known world and establishing the canon in the years after Christ. I was skeptical of Commissioned, as I am of almost all church-themed media, but the game had all of the characteristics necessary for a successful cooperative game as well as a theme that worked with the game rather than feeling pasted on.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue (15 plays) - The players are firefighters working to rescue people from a burning structure before it collapses. The theme is fun, the tension is great, and we still have yet to play several of the expansion boards (including the submarine).

Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game (3 plays) - A team of Marvel heroes assembles to defeat the scheme of a supervillain and assorted minions. It's easy to learn, the deck building mechanic works, and although there is some fiddliness with set up, the game is mostly easy to play and the Marvel theme is a lot of fun. The game is mostly cooperative, although if the team wins, the winner is the player with the most points in his deck. There are also compatible versions based on the Alien franchise, as well as upcoming games based on Firefly and on a truly underutilized intellectual property in all forms of media, Big Trouble in Little China; I can't wait to play the "6.9 on the Richter Scale" card.

Pandemic (39 plays) - Pandemic is by far my most played cooperative game, with 24 more plays than the next most played game - 31 more if you factor in the next two versions of Pandemic on my list - but I still have not come anywhere near to mastering it. We have played most of those 39 plays with either the On the Brink expansion that adds Virulent Strain Epidemics and Mutation, or more recently with the In the Lab expansion in which diseases need to be processed through several stages in a lab before being able to be cured, so there is still a lot of life in this game for us.

Pandemic: The Cure (1 play) - The Cure is a version of Pandemic that uses dice to both simplify the game in some respects and to eliminate the "alpha gamer" or "best move" problem that can be part of Pandemic. I really enjoyed my one play, and I would like to try it a few more times.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (6 plays) - We just finished April, so we're a third of the way through the game. We're 4-2 so far, feeling like we're playing the meta-game (ie. the choices that affect future games) well, and waiting to see how bad it gets in our May plays. It definitely deserves all of the love it has been getting.

Sentinels of the Multiverse (2 plays) - The theme is not that different from Legendary - the players are original superheroes who team up against a supervillain - but this game is a little more cooperative and action-reaction ability based as opposed to Legendary's deck-based system. It's not a game I would own, but I do enjoy it when I play it.

Medium level coop games to play:

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game - This is a "Living Card Game" with several dozen expansions, but I would like to try it at least once.

Mysterium - I've heard that this game is a mix of Dixit and Clue, as players have to use obscure clues to solve a puzzle given to them by one player who plays as the "ghost" giving them hints.

Space Cadets - Each player plays as a different member of a spaceship crew who has to complete their task in order to be successful on the mission - a neat asymmetric division of labour.

Complex cooperative games

Arkham Horror (1 play) - AH may have been the first really popular coop game as well as the reason that H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos became an incredibly popular theme in board games over the past decade. Players take on personas of different characters attempting to stop interdimensional monsters from destroying the Earth. I played once and enjoyed it, but it does take several hours to play.

Betrayal at the House on the Hill (2 plays) - Players reveal one room of a haunted house at a time until one of them is revealed as the traitor and one of fifty "haunts" begins pitting all other players against the one. One of the classic "horror" board games, and one that I would definitely play again.

Lord of the Rings (3 plays) - Reiner Knizia's classic coop game (the first I played) takes players through the story of all of the Lord of the Rings books as the hobbits. It's really interesting and really challenging, but rewarding to win.

Mice and Mystics (1 play) - An RPG-story based game in which players are mice working their way through chapters in a book. I enjoyed my recent first play, and the theme of the game is a lot of fun.

Orleans: Invasion (1 play) - The first big expansion for the instant classic Euro-style "bag builder" has a module in which players have to work together to stop the barbarians from invading the city. It's a neat inversion on the play of the game.

Shadows Over Camelot (1 play) - The players each play as a member of King Arthur's court, attempting to successfully complete quests and determine the traitor. This is a very challenging game, and although we managed to win in my one play, I wouldn't expect to win every time.

T.I.M.E. Stories (4 plays) - Players work together to solve puzzles in this innovative "Choose Your Own Adventure" style time travel game. The base game includes a scenario that we solved in 3 plays over 6 or so hours, but there are already two more scenarios (with more on the way) for players to solve.

Yggdrasil (1 play) - The players are Norse gods attempting to stop the evil forces of the Nine Realms from causing Ragnarok. This game perhaps more than any other on this list is known for being brutal and nearly unwinnable, but I enjoyed my one play despite our loss, which is the mark of a fun cooperative game.

Complex cooperative games to play:

Battlestar Galactica - Some of the players at your table might be Cylons, and you have to figure out who they are. It's easily the most complex social deduction game out there.

Dead of Winter - Zombies and a traitor? No wonder it's so popular.

Eldritch Horror - EH is a slightly streamlined version of Arkham Horror, though it can take almost as long, so I would like to try it sometime (perhaps along with the card game Elder Sign).

Freedom: The Underground Railroad - Players work together to end slavery in the US in this historical simulation that alienated some gamers due to its theme. I'm interested to try it to see just how they make it all work.

Legends of Andor - The surprise winner of the Kennerspiel des Jahres (Connosieur's Game of the Year) in 2013 features players working to complete adventures in a fantasy setting.

Mage Knight / Star Trek: Frontiers - Mage Knight is a highly ranked though notoriously difficult fantasy game that has a coop setting; my hope is that the new implementation of the game which is themed in the Star Trek universe will simplify the game a bit and provide additional thematic goodness to the game.

Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island / First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet - Another highly ranked release that has a new sci-fi implementation coming. It's strange that I haven't played Robinson Crusoe, considering how much it has made the rounds in the past couple of years (along with many of these other complex coops), but I would still like to try it sometime.

Space Alert - What sets this coop sci-fi game apart from the rest is that the actions happen in real time, adding an extra level of stress onto the game.


As you might have been able to tell from my gushing throughout this post, I really enjoy cooperative games; my wife also really enjoys them, which is why we play together cooperatively probably as much as we play competitively. But I cannot think, of all of my plays of cooperative games - which, at around 120, represents around 10% of my total recorded plays since December 2010 - that I have had too many negative experiences with coop gaming. Sure, I've had a couple of dud games of Flash Point or Pandemic in which the game decides to beat us by the end of the first round of turns, but I find myself to be more good-natured about those losses because of the congenial nature of the game.

I will almost always try a new cooperative game when it is released because I have had such success with the genre as a whole. They are less intimidating than other games to learn or to teach, so I tend to gravitate toward them with new gaming friends or less experienced players. I also find cooperative games to be a great warm-up for a game night or a cool-down after a particularly intense competitive game, so there are a lot of situations in which playing a game together is just the best decision for the circumstances.

Although I do enjoy some of the more complex coop games, I think that their complexity would also be a disincentive for playing them in some of the contexts in which I play coop games, so although I will almost always play them when they are made available, I doubt I would choose to own many of them. I look forward to filling out my experience of cooperative games by playing the titles I have listed here and in trying many of the other coop games I have played once or twice again.

My favourite cooperative games are the three I have played the most, which are all in my collection: Pandemic; Hanabi; and Flash Point: Fire Rescue. I own six other coop games listed here (including modules of competitive games), so between the various expansions and games I own, I have a lot of choices for cooperative gaming already. I have enjoyed most of the other games on this list, but I doubt that many of them would end up in my collection because of my affinity for those three aforementioned games; I did, after all, sell Lord of the Rings because I picked up Pandemic as my go-to coop game. With that said, I do think that The Game and The Grizzled will have a lot of replay as shorter coop games, so I anticipate playing a lot more of those games after buying them in the near future.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

See what you started by continuing

It was a sunny day in early 1996. I hopped into the front seat of my grandmother's 1985 Tercel (one that I would myself own a decade hence, and that I would later sell to pay for U2 tickets) after school. She popped a cassette tape into the deck, at which point she informed me that this was a recording of her rock band, in which she played keyboards. (If you haven't already guessed, my grandmother was not your typical blue-haired baker hanging out at the seniors' centre.) What came out of the stereo was a now-familiar guitar phrase that I would argue has become one of the seminal rock riffs of the past twenty years:

Buh-dunh buh-dunh buh-dunh nuhnuhnuh Bun-dunh buh-dunh buh-dunh

After a few repetitions of that phrase and kicking into the main groove of the track, the singer intoned with the opening lines: "Color me any color. Speak to me in tongues and share. Tell me how you'd love to hate me. Tell me how you'd love to care. Well, I just want to shake us up! Let's mingle, and make it well. Come together, and let's gel." The song, of course, was "Gel", Collective Soul's rock radio staple and one of the hottest rock tracks of the mid-1990s, thanks to its prominent position on the soundtrack for The Jerky Boys: The Movie. (I wish I had made that up, believe me.)

I wasn't instantly hooked, but that memory sticks out as the first time I noticed Collective Soul, and I'm still a fan two decades later. I recently saw Collective Soul in concert for the fourth time, and I thought it might be fun to take some time to reflect on my journey with Collective Soul over the years and to see how I got to where I am now with the band.

Smashing Young Man

I didn't think much about Collective Soul much over the next couple of years until I, like most teenaged Canadians, listened to Big Shiny Tunes 2 endlessly after receiving it for Christmas in 1997. Sandwiched between Matchbox 20's "Push" and The Tea Party's "Temptation", both of which had been hit videos on MuchMusic, was this incredible rock song that featured an instantly recognizable drum beat followed by a killer guitar riff: "Precious Declaration" by Collective Soul. MuchMusic had not given the song a lot of airplay, but the song had definitely earned its place on the compilation, despite how painfully 90s the video is in retrospect.

At that point, I was hooked, and I'm fairly certain that I used some of my necessary selections from Columbia House on all three of Collective Soul's albums. By the time the band released their fourth album, Dosage (which is arguably their best and my favourite), I was a full fan, and I went to see the band in concert in March 1999 as my first real rock show. I still remember many moments from that show: the band's opener, "Tremble for My Beloved"; their cover of U2's "I Will Follow" (which I am fairly certain helped inspire my affection for that band); the encore that began with flashing lights that were coordinated to the opening guitar riffs of "Heavy"; and, of course, finishing the show with their first and arguably biggest hit, "Shine".

After releasing a surprise album the following year, guitarist Ross Childress left the band (after making some poor decisions that caused lead singer Ed Roland to kick him out), and I thought that I had seen the last of Collective Soul with the two new songs they released on 7even Year Itch: Greatest Hits, 1994-2001. Their contract with Atlantic was up, Ross was gone, and I, like many fans, assumed that the band was done, destined to live on as a musical relic of the 1990s like Blind Melon, Gin Blossoms, Marcy Playground, or Smash Mouth.

Memoirs of 2005

After an absence of several years, seemingly out of nowhere, lead singer Ed Roland started his own label, the band recruited a new guitarist, and Collective Soul released a new album, Youth, in November 2004. Youth featured a more mainstream pop rock sound along with a healthy dose of positivity; not that the band had ever been negative or dark, but it seemed like a fairly intentional shift in identity nevertheless. It turned out that both Ed and his brother Dean (the band's rhythm guitarist) had both gone through divorces in the intervening years, so their absence and attitude on their subsequent return made more sense in that context.

I saw Collective Soul live again twice in four months in 2005: at a cabaret in May and in an arena show four months later in September. The cabaret was a mostly forgettable experience, as the venue was sub-optimal for both sound and visuals, save for two things: an acoustic performance of "Needs" (one of my favourite Soul songs) halfway through the show; and an encore that kept on going with the band rocking out to "Highway to Hell" with the lights up and most of the crowd gone. I enjoyed the show, but it felt like Collective Soul might have, again, been headed for the territory of "cabaret band", and I prepared to say goodbye again to the band that I had once known.

Then came the show in September, which restored my faith in the band and which inspired me to write this piece for the Sheaf, the University of Saskatchewan newspaper, in which I wrestled with the band's search for identity and reconciled myself to their journey over the previous decade. Here is the text of that article, which was published on October 3, 2005.

The world I know is done shaking me down: the journey of Collective Soul

March 1999. Collective Soul was riding high on the release of their fourth studio album, Dosage, and is on a cross-Canada tour. They stopped in Saskatoon, where for one night they amazed one sixteen-year-old fan with their showmanship, musical talent, and ability to rock. That same fan has since been disillusioned and somewhat disenchanted with the progress the band has made. 

After jettisoning their lead guitarist and being dropped from Atlantic Records, the band has had to reinvent themselves and start again as an independent band on their own label. They released Youth in November 2004 to mixed reviews, and many questioned whether this was still Collective Soul, or if the band was a hollow shell of itself attempting to regain long-lost glory but only succeeding in hastening their descent into musical oblivion.

Now fast forward several years to September 2005. The band had appeared in Saskatoon in May in a concert that that same fan hoped would be an uncharacteristically disappointing performance caused by poor sound and a poor choice of venue, but that he secretly feared spelled the end of everything he knew as Collective Soul and marked the start of a substandard bar-band existence in which has-been rock stars attempt vainly to hold on to the scraps of what was once a decent career. That fan now entered the concert venue with trepidation. 

Which Collective Soul would show up? One reminiscent of the glory days, or one further down the spiral of advancing age and rock senility? That fan was not sure what he would get, until he experienced the former, and not the latter, at Collective Soul’s recent show in Saskatoon.

Realistically, not much changed between the two shows, as only three songs were changed from the May show to the September. Yet the change was far more significant than song choice.  It seemed as if the reinvention of Collective Soul was far more complete by the September show. In May, they had seemed less sure of themselves, as if they knew that there was this pressure on them to be the same Collective Soul they had been in years past while themselves knowing that they were, in many ways, a band who was just beginning. All the weight of their former selves fell on them, and they did not quite know how to manage it. Only four months later, they were a changed group, and it showed in their set. 

So what changed? Their attitude. Rather than attempting to live up to expectations or to be something they are no longer, it truly seemed as if Collective Soul had found themselves. They are, basically, a bunch of forty-something rockers who enjoy entertaining crowds and who want to rock out and have fun. 

They are not trying to change the world or to make a point; they are out there to be rock stars.  Whereas ten years ago they lamented “The World I Know,” now they exclaimed that “the world’s done shaking me down” and that “I’m feeling better now.”  The weight has been lifted, and it has freed them to enjoy the rock star life as they see it: go out there, play the songs, and make sure everyone has a great time.

Although the deeper meaning of songs like “Heavy” and “Shine” still exists, this rejuvenated version of Collective Soul has brought new meaning to these hits: great songs meant to be enjoyed and sung anthemically by crowds who have been intimately familiar with them for years.  And with this application of new meaning, songs that may have formerly seemed incongruous within the Collective Soul catalogue can now co-exist and complement one another. 

Once, the triad the band played in their encore – “Tremble For My Beloved,” “Feels Like (It Feels Alright),” and “Shine” – would have felt awkward, but now, they have something in common: they are all great rock songs. And that is all they need to be.

Collective Soul might not change the world. But why should they have to? For now, they are entertaining fans, especially here in Saskatoon. They are doing what they want to do and loving every minute of it.  They seem to have discovered their fountain of youth. And this fan is feeling better now.

I will grant that the conceit and style of my writing at that time - particularly the awkward third person construction of the opening paragraphs, the mix of overly verbose sentences and staccato punctuatory statements, and the dependence on rhetorical questions - feel a little forced in hindsight, but much of the sentiment of what I wrote at the time still stands a decade later. I do think that Collective Soul had to wrestle with their identity in the years between Blender and Youth, and although I am now slightly more skeptical of my claims of the change in their attitude between the shows in May and September of that year, I stand by my assertion that the second show of the two was far superior and closer to the Collective Soul that I knew and loved.

Upon reflection, I think that my need to reconcile their journey, though born out of legitimate observations at the time, was, unbeknownst to me, also a product of my circumstances and my need to work through the changes in my own life and what my future held, as things had drastically shifted for me in the previous year in almost every area of my personal life.

In a way, having that realization about Collective Soul and that all they needed to do was to rock out and enjoy life was the kind of realization that I needed to have about myself; I needed to get out of my own head and find ways to enjoy where I was. (I do, of course, recognize the irony in the amount of mental energy I am devoting to this now, as it might not be too much of a hyperbole to accuse me of still staying too much in my head and not enjoying life now - but just wait to see where the river flows for the rest of the post.)

New Vibration

In the years since I wrote that article, the band released an EP of acoustic versions of their own songs, a live album of greatest hits as performed with the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, and two albums of new material: Afterwords and Collective Soul (better known as Rabbit from the cover image so as to not be confused with their second, also self-titled, album). I enjoyed all albums from these few years, particularly as each effort marked an entry that I had never expected and felt more inclined to appreciate as a result.

Fast forward to last October, when the band again made yet another improbable return after an absence of several years and released a new album, See What You Started Continuing, with yet another new guitarist and drummer accompanying the three guys who have formed the heart of Collective Soul for over two decades: lead singer Ed Roland, rhythm guitarist Dean Roland (Ed's younger brother by almost a decade), and bassist Will Turpin.

The album was instantly recognizable as a Collective Soul album, but it felt a little different yet again, with another tonal shift from the albums released from 2004 to 2009. This one had a bit more of a lyrical edge, and it seemed that the band (or at least Ed, who wrote most of the songs) had perhaps had some experiences that had left him a little more bitter and jaded than before. Nevertheless, it still contained the hallmarks of Collective Soul: the crunching guitar progressions; the virtuoso riffs; the shift between rock songs and slower ballads; and, perhaps most importantly, Ed's rock star swagger, which was clear even in the way he sung the songs from the record.

Given the success of what the band attempted on the record, it was virtually a no-brainer that I would attend the show when I discovered that they would be coming to Saskatoon on their See Where You Started Tour, which brings me to the events of Monday night. Collective Soul played in the same venue I had seen them play just over a decade earlier, and I could only hope that they would be able to recapture the magic of the two good previous shows that I had seen.

Collection of Goods

After inexplicably entering to the triumphant strains of the final reprise of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from The Sound of Music, the band launched into a sequence that instantly removed any doubts from the minds of those in attendance. They started with "Smashing Young Man" (their dig at Billy Corgan) and moved through rocking hits "Heavy" and "Precious Declaration" before finishing their opening onslaught with rollicking version of "December" that included a searing guitar solo from new guitarist Jesse Triplett that seemed to be the answer to the question of whether he could actually play.

The band then moved onto a trio of songs from their new album, See What You Started By Continuing: "Hurricane", "This", and "AYTA (Are You The Answer?)" before launching into into two bigger hits of what is now their mid-career, "Why Part 2" and "Better Now". They then returned to the new material with "Contagious" and an unreleased song called "Rule No. 1" which will be on their next record before mellowing out with "Needs", a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Going to California", and one of their best songs, "The World I Know".

They picked up the pace again with the last quarter of their set with a searing rendition of "Confession" that went on for several minutes after the album cut ended before moving onto three classics from their first two albums - "Gel", "Where the River Flows", and "Shine" - before finishing the set with "Run". At the end of the show, the members of the band embraced one another as Ed repeated "God bless" and played the acoustic guitar to lead the crowd in the refrain from their closing song - "we've all got a long way to run" - until the lights came up and the stark opening of Prince's "When Doves Cry" brought us back to reality.

In all, the band played for close to two hours, playing nineteen songs, (five from the new album, five from the first self-titled, three from Dosage, one each from Blender, Disciplined Breakdown, Hints..., and Youth, one unreleased song, and one cover). They played almost all of the hits I expected to hear with two notable exceptions: "Counting the Days" from Youth and another of my all-time favourites, "Tremble for my Beloved" from Dosage. I was slightly disappointed also not to have heard any tracks from their previous two albums in the set, but it was a great show nonetheless.

Precious Declaration

And so I find myself again reconciling the journey of Collective Soul, but this time within my own context rather than theirs. I don't feel the same need to justify their continued existence as a band, but I have felt the need to explore their connection to my life and why they mean so much to me. It certainly does not seem to be as a result of musical complexity, and though Roland's lyrics are interesting and cryptically poetic at times, they mostly do not provide a deep window into my soul; the songs that do, however - "The World I Know", "Shine", and "Needs" primarily among them - have a deep resonance with my spirit. But that's not the main appeal.

The reason I enjoy and connect with Collective Soul as much as I do is somewhat tautological, as their continuing appeal is due in large part to the fact that I have a long history with the band, as I have outlined here. I suppose I could have picked other mid-90s rock bands to follow throughout the past two decades, but Collective Soul is the one that stuck for me, partly because I had friends who also really enjoyed their music. (The only other 90s rock bands I have followed at all are Switchfoot, Foo Fighters and Creed, the latter of which remains firmly in the camp of 90s kitsch; I was never really a fan of Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I only really ever liked Weezer's blue album.)

But, as I thought about it, there is something to the content of Collective Soul that is present in their lyrics but that transcends them: they are far more positive and hopeful than almost any other band I can think of. They did not have a "grunge" phase, and even their songs that deal with more intense situations are ultimately framed in a way that is hopeful and meaningful. They have rarely engaged with bitterness directly, as most of those other bands have, instead commenting on the futility of those that do, like Smashing Pumpkins (in the aptly named "Smashing Young Man").

What is more, there is a community aspect to Collective Soul that is present even in their very name, which, by the way, was chosen from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead not because of any deep meaning but because they liked how it sounded. The three original members who still form most of the band - Ed, Dean, and Will - have been together for over two decades, and it is not hard to see why their relatively new drummer Johnny and guitarist Jesse would be excited to be a part of Collective Soul; there is something special about them as a unit that has set them apart from their peers.

There was a lot of speculation early on in Collective Soul's career about whether they were a "Christian" band because of a number of religious and spiritual metaphors and allusions in their music, and though Ed has admitted that his upbringing as the son of a pastor has certainly influenced his writing, he has denied that there is an evangelical purpose to his songwriting, which I believe to be true. Collective Soul is not overly or overtly religious, and although several of their songs do contain indications of an understanding of a deeper meaning in life, any faith that the band members might have does not overshadow their work.

There is, however, a sense of unity, hopefulness, and perseverance that permeates their work, and I often turn to the music of Collective Soul when I feel that need to be encouraged. Sometimes it's the need for a particularly uplifting lyric or song; other times, it's just the desire of familiar chords reminding me to enjoy life; yet others, it's the reminder that there are other people who have gone through rough stuff and come out on the right side of things. It is part of the DNA of who Collective Soul is, and that is what I think I appreciate most about them as a band.

It has been a great journey over the past two decades, and I'm glad that I get to keep on journeying with them. I don't know that I feel the need to see them play live again in the near future, but I could see making an effort in another five or maybe ten years to see them play, if they're still doing their thing at that point. Judging from what I have seen over the past twenty years and what I saw recently, they're not anywhere near done, and it's going to be a fun journey from here on out. After all, as they are so fond of reminding us, we've all got a long way to run.

Monday, April 25, 2016

On creativity and community

I have been thinking a lot lately about creating, in part because of my exhaustive review of the influences of various directors, writers, and producers on my life, but also because of the events of the past few days - namely, the death of Prince and the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. In particular, I have been wondering about what I am creating right now, how I am being creative, and what it means to be creative, particularly in this format in this season of life. I have found inspiration in a few recent examples of how established artists are breaking some of the assumptions of their media, and I have spent some time reflecting on my own current practices and habits as a result. But first, I wanted to take a bit of time to contribute my own thoughts to the already voluminous body of work that has been produced in the few short days since Prince died.

Purple Rain

Over the past few days, I have read at least two dozen reactions and thinkpieces about Prince, and I have been interested to find a few commonalities amongst them. First, The Purple One was a weird dude; my wife and I as educators had the conversation about how it seems like he was autistic, given his incredible talent and odd social behaviour. Second, he was relentlessly creative and inventive, and most (if not all) pieces included anecdotes about his musical innovation, his inversion of accepted moral behaviour, and the ways in which both the quantity (39 albums!) and quality of his output demonstrated his unyielding pursuit of creativity.

Third, and perhaps most interesting to me, was the overwhelming recency in many of the experiences that were described. It seemed as though many of the artists and writers had either watched Prince play in the past year or had some other kind of interaction with him in recent memory, and many of the pieces expressed incredulity at how, even at age 57 after four decades as a professional musician, Prince was still not finished creating. He has still been releasing albums at a breakneck pace, playing shows well into the night, and appearing in unexpected places and doing generally Prince-like things. One post even detailed the last records he bought as an example of his ongoing pursuit of creativity.

I did not have any personal connection or affinity for Prince. I never saw him perform live (though I wish I had), and aside from a few songs, I am not even that familiar with his catalog; I haven't even watched Purple Rain, although I definitely feel like I have to now. But I do remember that Bono described Prince as the greatest artists of the past thirty years, and I have been enough similarly hyperbolic statements that I am now being inspired to spend some time and energy investing in a deeper knowledge of his catalog. And perhaps that is the greatest legacy of Prince - his collaboration with others and the way in which he has inspired so many other musicians.

Horace and Pete

There are two recent experiments in pop culture that I have found very fascinating to watch unfold. I have not yet experienced either of these two pieces directly, but it has been very interesting to watch people following them and to see how there can be creativity even within established forms of media. The first is the television series Horace and Pete, a television series which has been written, directed, produced, funded, and distributed by comedian Louis C.K. rather than through established networks or emerging services.

Horace and Pete is creative enough in its content and style, as it presents the cast of lifelike characters (portrayed by Emmy winners C.K., Jessica Lange, Edie Falco, and Alan Alda, along with Emmy nominee Steve Buscemi) in their daily lives at a bar. The style of the show has been compared to a teleplay - a multi-cam sitcom with a stage-like set and without a soundtrack - but it has also been noted for C.K.'s well-established twist on genre conventions in regard to content, particularly in the subversion of typical comedic tropes for a more dramatic and tragic feel.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the creativity of Horace and Pete has been its distribution. C.K. chose to eschew traditional networks or even emerging avenues of distribution such as streaming services in order to create and distribute the show on his own, in part because he wanted to see how far it could go. He deliberately buried the show by releasing it with no fanfare on the last Saturday in January and without any notice of how long the show would last to see whether the narrative could be shaped on its own merits rather than on external criteria (ie. an advertised length of a series).

The episodes were filmed each week and released on the following Saturday, which meant that the discussions in the show included reference to real-life events from the timeline during which the show was being filmed, which is a type of connection to current events that is rarely - if ever - featured in scripted fare because of the nature of the medium. (The only other prominent example I recall was when The Simpsons used beer glasses to obscure the characters' mouths as they discussed their favourite teams in the 1999 Super Bowl, which had been dubbed in at the last minute, in the post-SB episode "Sunday, Cruddy Sunday".) Horace and Pete is arguably more of a product of its specific time (ie. February to April 2016) than any scripted show has ever been, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.

The final episode of Horace and Pete was released on the first Saturday in April with a fitting lack of fanfare, and it was only then that C.K. revealed that the season (and series) was in fact over. C.K. has now begun promoting the show, in part due to the media misconstruing comments he made to Howard Stern about going into debt to produce the show (which, as he has since noted, is the way that every TV show is made) as the fact that Louis C.K. was broke because of Horace and Pete and that the show failed. C.K. actually expects to make his money back on the distribution of the show from his site, and that's without the money he expects to earn from leasing it to streaming services later on, so he will be just fine; after all, he owns a TV show and he can do what he wants with it.

I am planning on watching Horace and Pete at some point, but for now what I find interesting is how C.K. is subverting not only genre but medium expectations and how he is being creative with television, a medium that has experienced only relatively small changes in its delivery model since its inception after World War II. Granted, C.K. has the critical and commercial cachet to be able to attempt such a venture and to make it a success, but it is still interesting nevertheless to see someone who could play it safe trying something that might not have worked; it will also be interesting to see whether Horace and Pete will garner any nominations for the Emmy Awards, which would be the ultimate validation of the success of the show, considering its pedigree. But whatever happens critically or commercially with Horace and Pete, the fact that it even exists is evidence that there are ways to be creative with the construct of television that were not conceivable even a few years ago.

The Life of Pablo

The other enigmatic ongoing creative construction of the past few months has been Kanye West's seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo. I am admittedly not a huge hip-hop fan, but I have tuned into West's work over the years, as "Yeezy" is one of the more singular artists working in music today, a fact that Pablo proves and advances. After changing the name of the album from Swish to Waves to The Life of Pablo in the weeks leading up to its advertised release in early February, there was a palpable excitement and nervousness among West's fans, some of whom wondered if he was fully in control of his faculties. He debuted the album at a fashion show in February to much anticipation, but there was also a lot of confusion, as the version of the album West played did not contain several songs that he had recently released.

Moreover, West has continued to update the album through its "official" release in early April, and he has indicated that he will continue to update it after its release to mainline streaming services. It is fascinating to watch people who are listening to the evolution of this album, and that West is not treating Pablo as a manufactured product so much as he is treating it as a creative process. It has been interesting to watch the "behind-the-scenes" process in creating an album, as most of what West is doing publicly is usually done in the studio before an album officially releases. I think that Pablo's success - it was the first album to hit No. 1 on Billboard on the strength of streaming - will inspire other artists to undergo similar experiments, and it may be viewed as a seminal development in the way that albums are consumed, much like Radiohead's Kid A or Beyonce's self-titled album.

The Life of Turner

Now, to move from The Life of Pablo to the Life of Turner, which, like Kanye West's career, started in 2004. Like West's work, my creative career has been a work in progress in the public sphere, as I have spent the past decade and a bit wrestling through questions of purpose, identity, function, and creativity in this very space, often in real time as I write (though with a lot less profanity and misogyny than in West's music). It has been quite a journey throughout the years, which has included periods of inactivity, some of which have been intentional and some of which have been more incidental based on external circumstances.

A quick review of the numbers of posts in my blog reveals that those periods in which I tended to write fewer posts coincided with significant life stresses such as starting work at new schools. But blogging has been a consistent presence in my life despite those periods of difficulty: in the 142 full months since I started blogging, over three-quarters have featured an average of a post a week, with only 32 months not hitting that average (nineteen months with either two or three posts, eleven with only one, and two - October and December 2014 - with no posts).

My worst period of blogging, perhaps predictably, was June 2014 to September 2015, a period in which I moved across the country, started a new job, and dealt with the death of one of my best friends; I blogged only thirty-two times in total over those sixteen months, with twelve (over a third) of those below-average posting periods coming in the course of that time. I had begun to wonder during that period whether it might be time to stop writing, but I was encouraged by the response to a couple of the posts I wrote to continue and to press into my writing even more, which I think has led to my current renaissance.

It has been invigorating to be writing again, as this marks my sixtieth post since the beginning of October. The last time I was this consistently productive in posting was in 2009, and I would posit that the quality of my posts now far outstrips those from that period of my life - a statement that has been affirmed by many of the people who have read my blog throughout the years. I am much more confident in my process and my product, and it has been energizing to have had the time and life space to work through some of these posts over the past few months and to know that I am a far better writer now than I was then. Of course, I needed to have those years of blogging to get to this point, but it is heartening to look back and to see significant progress (as much as I am embarrassed by the quality and content of some of those posts now).

I have also found it useful to declutter my unfinished drafts folder, as many of the posts that I have published in recent memory have been in some form of composition, ranging from ideas to mostly completed drafts - for several years. It has been refreshing to put these ideas out there and to see the clutter of my drafts folder decreasing in addition to adding to the online dialogue in what I believe to be a positive and meaningful way on the whole.

I am also finding, as I have begun to write more, that my creative consciousness is clearer and that I am able to consider other avenues of creativity with more attention and intention, although it certainly helps that I have no external avenues (ie. classroom teaching or church leadership) that are demanding external creativity at this point. I have been freer to consider other avenues of creativity, such as game design (more on that later), as well as where my writing might go in the future.

On writers

Over the past few years, I have spent a lot of time thinking about writing and its place in my life, even if I was not always writing. As I reviewed my drafts, I found a post from April 2013 that has shaped much of the idea (and in some cases the text) of this section of the conversation. At that time, I had just discovered Rachel Held Evans through her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. In the three years since reading that book, I have followed her blog and read other books (though I am still only partway through her most recent book, Searching for Sunday), and I have continually been struck by how much I resonated with her stories.

From the way Evans described the way in which she and her husband, Dan, live their lives, I felt as if we could be friends in real life, at which point it occurred to me that the weird thing is that, we actually could be friends. I could connect with her online through Twitter or Facebook and develop a friendship with her (if our schedules and intentions aligned). I have not done so yet, but I have had a couple of Twitter interactions with Evans in recent memory, so there's hope on some level.

Evans is not the only working writer with whom I have had that kind of palpable connection. The first time I remember it happening was reading Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, but it has happened several times since when I have read books written by authors like A.J. Jacobs, Matthew Paul Turner, Rob Bell, Bill Simmons, Sarah Bessey, Chuck Klosterman, and even Malcolm Gladwell. The lines are further blurring now as I have started to enjoy podcasts from some of those authors, as well as other cultural commentators like Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, and I feel that, given the right circumstances that I could develop a professional - if not personal - relationship with any of these people, each of whom inspires me in a different way.

Perhaps what I find most astounding is how little separates them from me, both in terms of the way in which barriers have been destigmatized through social media, but also in regard to their writing. Most of those authors, as well as others whose work I read and/or hear regularly, started writing in the same way I have through a personal blog, and they have put in their 10,000 hours (see Gladwell's Outliers if you are not familiar with that reference) to become masters of their content, voice, and overall craft. I'm not sure that I have logged 10,000 hours of writing, but considering that I wrote academic assignments for a decade and that I have written for some combination of student press, various websites, and personal blogs for twenty years, I figure that I have to be getting close to that mark.

The main difference between them and me, as far as I can tell, is that they have made a choice to make writing their profession, whereas I have not done so. I hope this does not come across as demeaning their skills or their accomplishments; in fact, I have nothing but admiration for the way these authors write and think about the world and the risks they have taken to get to where they are. Rather, I am merely noting that there is not a lot that divides me from them other than a vocational shift, and that they have done what I have not been able to: to make those dreams of being a writer into the reality of a paid profession.

I am not sure where my future as a writer will go - whether it will continue to be a hobby I enjoy or whether it might become something more at some point. I still have an idea and a title for my first book, which is waiting to be written; although, come to think of it, there's a good chance that I have already written a large portion of it over the past decade, at least in rudimentary edits in the form of blog posts. I will, however, continue to write as I am inspired, and I will keep riding this wave as it goes, wherever it might lead. And I will take inspiration from another area of my life in which I have begun to experience some success as a creator: board game design.

Game design

In the past few years, I have started to explore game design. I originally had an idea for a game in 2012, but it took two years before I actually sat down and designed the rules. It has then taken another two years, much of which has been inactive in regard to the design, for my game, Pot O' Gold, to make it to the next round of play testing, which is currently in process right now. And boy, am I learning a lot not only about designing a game but about editing and refining a game and how to guide other people through the process.

It's really exciting to have something that feels like it's on the cusp of being something more - to have something that I have created making it to the next stage of the creative process and to be getting closer to being a published, created thing. Seeing the game take more concrete shape is inspiring me to make connections and to explore new areas of game design, and I'm excited not only to see the game coming to fruition, but also to start on the next game I have already started designing in my head (of the four designs I want to start to work on). I am organizing a group of local game designers to start working together on our designs, and I am genuinely excited for the possibilities therein, as well as the creative possibilities that my potential success in this area is inspiring in other areas of my creative life, such as my writing.

Conclusion: disobeying the laws of thermodynamics

Between my writing and my game design, I am feeling more activated creatively than I have in years, at least in my own pursuits; after all, for much of the past decade, most of my creative energy has gone into my teaching and roles of ministry in church leadership. I'm not disappointed in making the choice to pursue those avenues - in fact, I have thoroughly enjoyed much of that time and energy spent in those ways, as well as the concept of actually being employed - but I am feeling quite refreshed to have the time in this season of life to be investing in creative outlets that have fewer external demands.

Part of what I am really appreciating is how creativity is an endlessly renewable resource that does not obey the laws of thermodynamics; it cannot be contained, it is not limited, and it does not head toward entropy. I only just recently encountered what I'm certain is a fairly well-known quotation from Maya Angelou about creativity - "You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have." - but I wanted to include it here because I am finding it to be very true for me in this season of life.

I am spending more time and energy on my personal creative pursuits than I have in many years, and I am finding the experience to be invaluable.  I am more creatively engaged in my writing than I have been in years, and I am again excited about the possibilities of what I might be able to publish in the future, whether books or board games. I am not sure how long this season will last, but I am determined to enjoy it and value it for as long as it does.

I am also enjoying how my engagement in these two particular manifestations of creativity has been creating community that transcends the media. I am enjoying the reports from my lead play testers as they are learning how to play my game with their communities. I appreciate it when people comment on my posts, whether on my blog or on the links that are posted to my Facebook. I feel immeasurably fulfilled when people call or message me to discuss what I have written on a personal level.

I think that there are times in which it feels like I'm spending a lot of time and energy in isolation as I write, in particular, and it is endlessly encouraging to know that what, how, and why I am writing are inspiring someone else, as I know that many of those aforementioned writers inspire me. So let this be an encouragement to you not only to engage in your own forms of creativity, but also to be in community as you do so. I know I could not be creative without the community of creators surrounding me, so thank you for your part in this collaborative process and for being creative with me in community. I don't know about the end product, but I guarantee that the process makes it worthwhile.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

All the world's a classroom

After spending the past week in the shallows of my own relatively ephemeral experience of pop culture in the past twenty-five years and spending the past few days considering the innumerable thinkpieces on the nearly four decades of the work of Prince, it is somewhat refreshing to now turn my attention toward the four-century legacy of William Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death. There is, of course, little to say about the Bard's life that has not already been said by many others, so I am choosing to focus on my journey in learning to appreciate Shakespeare and how I have come to love reading and teaching Shakespeare over the past two decades.

It's amazing to think that Shakespeare wrote over a dozen plays that have lasted four centuries in the dominant public consciousness, particularly when there was such a significant presence of "pop" sensibility in what he was doing at the time. It's hard to conceive of much material that is being produced now in any medium that would last even a quarter of that time, much less with the kind of impact that Shakespeare has had (and no, I'm not a conspiracy theorist who believes that someone else wrote his plays).

I have read, studied, or taught only just over a third - thirteen - of his plays, which comprise the mainstream comedies and tragicomedies (As You Like It; Measure For Measure; A Midsummer Night's Dream; Much Ado About Nothing; The Tempest; Twelfth Night; The Winter's Tale) and tragedies (Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet), with twenty-five plays that I have not read, including all of his histories, the lesser tragedies, and the rest of his comedies. As you can see from the unfortunate brevity of that list, I am by no means an expert on Shakespeare, but I have had interactions with his works throughout my life as student and educator that I believe are worth sharing.

My first exposure to Shakespeare came when I was nine years old. One of the highlights of the Saskatoon summer calendar was the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, in which mostly local actors would transpose a Shakespearean play or two into a modernized setting. I didn't go every year, but my mom had some interest in the local arts scene, so we went a few times during my childhood. I do clearly recall attending and enjoying a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1992 with a 1920s gangster presentation and that a classmate of mine was a fairy in the production; in retrospect, this was probably my first experience with Shakespeare, and it was a positive one, even if I didn't fully grasp most of what was happening in the play, both in terms of basic plot and the many (many) double entendres embedded in the text.

The first time I studied Shakespeare in school was in Grade 9 when we studied Romeo and Juliet. I was not a fan of the play at the time, despite the concurrent release of the seminal Baz Luhrmann version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, which we watched in class as a new release. We were stupid boys who cheered when Romeo died, but I have since found a deep admiration for Luhrmann's adaptation as I have shown the movie several times when I have taught the play. I don't remember much the play itself from studying it at that time, but I do recall the fact that the only scene our male English teacher showed us from the 1968 Zefferelli version was the "morning after" scene, which seemed questionable even at the time - not that we minded, of course; it was just an odd pedagogical decision even in the eyes of thirteen-year-old boys. (I still find it amusing that the teenaged actress who played Juliet, Olivia Hussey, was not allowed to attend the premiere because it was rated R due to the nudity in the film, which was her own - or so the story goes.)

We studied Julius Caesar in Grade 10, which I found to be incredibly tedious other than a few speeches; that may, however, also have been a result of being a fourteen-year-old male who was more interested in assassinating enemy agents in Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64 than in the plot to assassinate the Roman emperor. I do, however, remember that we did a group presentation on the topic of "persuasion" in the play, and that our classmates took issue with our use of the "mind eraser" clip from Men In Black as a version of persuasion. I also remember that one of the extension assignments we had for the play was to write a new soliloquy for a character, so I wrote one for Antony in iambic pentameter with great pride.

Something changed in me in the years between when I studied Julius Caesar and Hamlet in Grade 12. It might have been that I just actually matured and stopped being a Grade 10 student (they are, after all, the worst), but it might also be that Shakespeare became cool again between Luhrmann's revival, Branagh's Hamlet, and the then-nascent trend of reviving Shakespearean plays as high school movies. I still have a soft spot for 10 Things I Hate About You, but that might be in part that the girl on whom I had a crush at the time really liked that movie, too; also, I think I had a thing for Julia Stiles for a while because of that role.

At any rate, by the time I studied Hamlet in my last semester of high school, I was much more able to appreciate Shakespeare's work as literature and art. I still vividly remember one of my favourite student experiences: realizing at the same moment while reading early on in the play that both The Lion King and the Bob and Doug Mackenzie movie Strange Brew were based on Hamlet. I thoroughly enjoyed studying Hamlet, although I wish in retrospect that our study had been more systematic in going through the play (a wish that has subsequently guided my own teaching of his plays).

I studied a few more plays in my time in university. Othello was studied in a genre class I took in my second year; I use the passive tense deliberately in this case because I recall not being very diligent in my studies that semester, as I was in the midst of discerning a new path for my educational aspirations after not applying for the School of Journalism. I concurrently took a class on his comedies and tragicomedies - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Measure For Measure, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest - and though I was slightly more attentive in that class, my main takeaway was not academic, but aesthetic; I learned to appreciate Shakespeare's artistry and wordplay, even though I did not devote myself to my studies at that point.

It was not until after I took those classes that I made the decision to switch my career orientation to Education, so I had not considered what it would be like to teach Shakespeare until after I had studied his works in university. But just like when I matured between studying Julius Caesar and Hamlet, I matured between that semester of half-heartedly studying Shakespeare and my time becoming an aspiring English educator, so it was a no-brainer that I would be teaching Shakespeare in his original text to my classes by the time I had my first full-time job teaching high school English a few years later.

I was teaching Grade 10 through 12 in a small private Christian school, so I decided to embed one play into each year of English with the knowledge that students who attended the school were entering Secondary with two plays under their belts: A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice. My choices, although pedestrian and predictable, are nevertheless defensible: Romeo and Juliet in Grade 10, Macbeth in Grade 11, and Hamlet in Grade 12.

I know that some teachers feature other choices for those age groups (Othello, King Lear, or even Twelfth Night in Grade 12), and that there is an argument to be made that students should read at least one comedy in addition to the tragedies, but when I considered the plays that I wanted to ensure that students read for their own good, especially with the perspective that these could be the only three Shakespeare plays that these students would ever read, those were the three that stuck out above the rest. I could not, in good conscience, deprive students of the experience of reading Hamlet, which I believe is still one of the best pieces of literature (if not the best) ever composed.

Over my four years of in-classroom teaching, I have had the privilege of teaching several of the Bard's plays; I have taught Romeo and Juliet four times, Macbeth thrice, A Midsummer Night's Dream twice, and Hamlet only once. (I remember, in regard to the latter, inspiring my pastor in his subsequent sermon after he overheard me delivering the "to be or not to be" soliloquy in class one day.) I have enjoyed each time I have taught Shakespeare, and I am quite confident in my ability to teach the content of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth in particular, but I also find that I really enjoy the rhythm of teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

I have used a guided instructional method in which students read through the entire play together in class in Shakespeare's English with my intervention over the course of four to six weeks that also incorporates smaller extension activities to understand Shakespeare's use of language and the significance of events and characters in the plot. I have students identify the source of given key quotations from the play, and by the time that the play enters Act III, I give the students their final projects, which are more creative and open-ended in nature.

I have tended to shy away from having students write literary analyses or essays about the plays other than an in-class essay, as there are too many possible ways for students to use online resources to cheat and to not have the assessment authentically indicate their own understanding of the work. I would much rather have students engage with the material on a personal and creative level and to demonstrate how the play has affected them.

Over the years, I have seen some really interesting work, including paintings, treasure chests, video games, and more, and I have some very funny stories of how students have otherwise interacted with various scenes. I remember vividly that in my explanation of Hamlet Act III, scene 2, when Hamlet is punning very sexually in his conversation with Ophelia about "country matters", one student took it upon himself to very loudly proclaim the anatomical pun therein to both my chagrin and delight.

Beyond enjoying the play itself and appreciating the rhythm that studying Shakespeare's works brings to my teaching, I have found that the process of re-reading and teaching Shakespeare is transformative for me as a person, which is I think the best argument for Shakespeare being relevant after all of this time. There are often new things I notice as I am teaching these plays, but these tend to transcend basic plot devices or observations about character; these are often deep, meaningful connections between something in the play and something in my own life.

It saddens me to see that there are more and more high school English teachers who are abandoning the practice of teaching Shakespeare in Elizabethan English, and in some cases, entirely. I do understand why it's happening in some situations; it is, after all, a challenge for students, especially students who do not speak English as a first language or who have learning disabilities. There is also less focus on teaching the canon now than there was even twenty-five years ago, so it's much easier to discard Shakespeare with the rest of those old dead white guys, especially when you consider that students might spend up to a quarter of their English education on his plays in some contexts (it's probably closer to a sixth or an eighth in Saskatchewan, but that's still a significant amount).

There are legitimate barriers to reading Shakespeare, but I think that those barriers can and should be overcome. I read a study recently that stated that there is only 3% of what Shakespeare wrote that is entirely inaccessible to a modern reader, and even in the aforementioned cases of students with language deficiencies or learning disabilities, there are ways to work around the barriers that exist. I have done so even in my short career, and I have been encouraged in my efforts to assist students who have required assistance in their pursuit of Shakespeare.

But it's ultimately not about the barriers; it's about the benefits of reading Shakespeare, which include the fact that the past four hundred years of literature and art depend heavily on his works and that he is the progenitor of many ways of manipulating language and specific linguistic turns of phrase that we still use today. But more than an understanding of canon and in building the ability to appreciate art, in reading Shakespeare, I believe that the value lies in the fact that students learn how to connect with something outside their own circumstances.

So much of English Language Arts education now is centered on the idea of choosing works that are accessible to students, but I think we have tended to eliminate too much from outside their immediate context, and it is to their detriment. I have refused to teach The Hunger Games in part because it is not very good literature, but also in part because it is highly contextualized and I do not think that it will have much staying power beyond its immediate generation; in fact, I have found that students have already, in many cases, moved on from that trilogy because the movies are now all done; Shakespeare, however, is significantly more timeless than most dystopian YA fiction.

Reading Shakespeare provides students with a literary challenge, as it forces students to work at their reading, but it also gives them the opportunity to engage with a complexity of moral and ethical material that is not as common with material written for them now. Part of my work as an English educator is to encourage and equip them to wrestle with deep issues and to prepare them to be better people as they leave the confines of secondary school for the world, and I think that Shakespeare provides one of the best ways to do that, which is why I will continue to teach Shakespeare and to read his works on my own. To read or not to read; there is no question.

Friday, April 22, 2016

SMART 2016: The Comedians

Here it is: the finale to my recent SMART (Shows/Movies Authoritatively Ranked by Turner) series, in which I am attempting to rank the value and influence of various forms of pop culture in my life right now. I started with my favourite comedic television shows and continued with my favourite creators (directors, writers, and showrunners), and recently finished with a ranking of dramatic actors. That leaves one last category to review: the comedians themselves.

I have not written a post with this kind of list before, so it took some effort to compile the list as it stands, which includes over sixty different comedic voices, including performers, writers, and directors. Some of the names mentioned here will be familiar from recent posts, but their inclusion here is based on their comedic talent alone.

I should mention that inclusion in this conversation does not represent a blanket approval of all of the work of these various comedians. As you might expect, many of these creators and performers push the boundaries of good taste at times, and I do not appreciate everything they do; in fact, many of them have performances or shows that I avoid because of style or content or some combination thereof, and I cannot recommend all of these comedians to everyone in good conscience.

I am again attempting to answer a question very similar to the questions I have asked in recent posts in my SMART series: "if all I knew about a comedy was the involvement of a particular performer or creator, how much would I initially want to watch that piece of work?" Like my other posts in this series, I have ranked the over sixty performers and creators according to my level of current interest in their comedic work, and each performer/creator in a given category would (mostly) rank higher than those in lower categories.

Mild Interest

Most of the members of this group have earned a spot of at least mild interest from past efforts, even if they may not have been actively comedic recently. It's a mix of "lifetime achievement" status, along with a few performers that I wanted to include but could not include higher. I have included notes for a couple of these entries, as I deemed necessary.

  • Alec Baldwin
  • Jack Black
  • Jim Carrey
  • Zooey Deschanel
  • Zach Galifiniakis
  • Ricky Gervais (Used to rank higher, but has had a couple of lean years lately.)
  • Will Ferrell
  • Steve Martin
  • Matthew Perry (We should be enjoying the end of Season 4 of Go On right now, which also might have meant that John Cho and Terrell Owens might have made this list.)
  • Monty Python (Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones, Palin)
  • Paul Rudd (Ant-Man definitely helped put him here.)
  • SCTV Alumni (Levy, O'Hara, Thomas, Moranis, Short, Martin, Flaherty, etc...)
  • Ben Stiller (on a huge cold streak lately)
  • Owen Wilson (because of Wes Anderson)

Moderate Interest

Aziz Ansari - Aziz might be my favourite stand-up right now, though I think he's better in YouTube-sized chunks. I've only watched the first two episodes of Master of None, but it definitely has promise.

Elizabeth Banks - Now that she's done with The Hunger Games, I'm looking forward to seeing her do more true comedy.

Kay Cannon - Cannon was a writer on 30 Rock and New Girl and she wrote Pitch Perfect, which is enough for her to rank here.

Bill Hader - The SNL alumnus pops up in so many weird places that he earns a spot here just for doing his thing.

Dan Harmon and the cast of CommunityHarmon is here entirely because of Community; I  tried and swiftly thereafter abandoned Rick and Morty, which just crossed too many lines for me. The main cast of Community - Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Donald Glover, Gillian Jacobs, Joel McHale, and Danny Pudi - earns my interest from their role in making my favourite comedy of all time, but I'd like to see them do some different comedic pieces soon. Add the fact that Jim Rash and Dino Stamatopolous are doing a bunch of writing and work with other prominent comedians, and there's a possibility that Community could be one of the best resources of comedy for the foreseeable future.

Mitch Hurwitz and the cast of Arrested Development - Unlike the cast of Community, AD is full of seasoned comedic veterans who are constantly exploring new venues. I've singled a couple out later on their own, but I felt the need to include the group (Bateman, Cera, Cross, de Rossi, Tambor, Walter, etc.) here as a contribution to a generation of comedy.

Armando Iannucci - I have yet to go back into The Thick of It, but Veep earns him this spot.

Mike Judge - I tried a few episodes of Silicon Valley and then stopped, but it's Office Space that permanently earned him a spot of attention on my list.

Ellie Kemper - I hear she's even better in season 2 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - and she was so gosh darn good in the first season that I find that hard to believe.

Anna Kendrick - I really want to see Kendrick dig into a seriocomic role like she did in Up in the Air, but it seems like we might be destined for a few more years of star vehicles before that happens.

Jane Krakowski - She had an unfortunate storyline in season 1 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but her work there and on 30 Rock earns her a spot here.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller - I have not yet watched the Jump Street movies or the entirety of Clone High, but their work on The Lego Movie has earned them a spot in the conversation.

Melissa McCarthy - I wanted to rank McCarthy higher, but the truth is that I have not watched a lot of her movies over the past few years. She's definitely hilarious in the right context, but I don't think I have really appreciated many of her recent contexts.

Chris Pratt - Pratt is doing the superstar thing well, but he'll always be Andy Dwyer to me, and I would love to see him going back to comedy.

Maya Rudolph - Another SNL alumnus who steals scenes when she makes her appearances, which are just not as frequent as they should be. I mean, she does have four kids, but since when has that been any excuse?

Kristen Schaal - The queen of awkward comedy is more awkward than ever in The Last Man on Earth - and that includes her time as Mel on Flight of the Conchords.

Martin Starr - Starr might be a bit background player, but he always steals the scene when he appears in sitcoms like Community and Silicon Valley. Plus, he's Bill Haverchuck, which is pretty much a lifetime pass.

High Interest

Will Arnett - There's always a part of Arnett that will be Gob from Arrested Development, but you can't blame the guy for trying new things, with significant roles in several television shows since AD's first cancellation. Plus, he has The Lego Batman Movie coming up, so that's gotta count for something.

Steve Carell - I was surprised to learn that Carell has not done a live action comedic role since he finished on The Office three years ago, but it's true.

Larry David - Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and now a spirited run as Bernie Sanders on SNL. David might be in the starting five of your all-time television comedians.

Paul Feig - Feig has been on my radar since Freaks and Geeks, and though his last few years since the breakthrough of Bridesmaids have been somewhat hit or miss, he's always interesting, which is why Ghostbusters could reclaim its comedic heritage. 

Will Forte - The Last Man on Earth isn't necessarily enjoyable all the time, but Forte's performance gives it the level of empathy needed to endure its extreme awkwardness.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele - Key and Peele are creating conversation about race like Amy Schumer does about gender, with a mix of ridiculous situations and really sharp satire. I always appreciate when they pop up, like they did in the first season of Fargo.

Kate McKinnon - She's the main reason to watch SNL at all right now, and she's essentially a mix of the awkwardness of Kristen Wiig with the uncanny comic timing of Dana Carvey with the fearlessness of Will Ferrell - a perfect storm of improv comedy.

Bob Odenkirk - I was mildly interested in Odenkirk's work before Breaking Bad, which put him at a new level, but his work on Fargo and Better Call Saul has vaulted him onto an entirely different plane. I could not rank him higher, however, because I have not spent any time on his work with David Cross.

Nick Offerman (and Megan Mullally) - If his turn as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation was not enough (which it was), the fact that he helped create one of the best comedic scenes of the past few years in the midst of the intensity of Season 2 of Fargo as the loquacious inebriated lawyer Karl Weathers solidified his place here. The fact that he is married to, and often appears alongside, sitcom scene-stealer Megan Mullally is a bonus.

Patton Oswalt - I might want a career like Oswalt's more than almost anyone else on this list - just popping up as a guest star in random places and being one of the best Twitterers around. He earns this spot, if nothing else, for being Constable Bob on Justified, one of the sneakiest funny dramas in recent memory.

Andy Samberg - No one plays a man-child better than Samberg, whose first SNL digital short "Lazy Sunday" came out over ten years ago. Now he's stealing scenes as Jake Peralta on Brooklyn Nine-Nine each week.

Jason Schwartzman - Schwartzman has to have had one of the coolest careers of any young-ish actor - commonly works with Wes Anderson, played in a rock band, and has had a half-dozen iconic roles already. Plus, how did I not know that his mom is Talia Shire (Adrian Balboa from Rocky)?

Amy Schumer - Schumer is doing some really cutting-edge comedy, especially about gender roles and perceptions, and she has a sharper eye for satire than almost anyone else on this list.

Jerry Seinfeld - Seinfeld gave him a lifetime pass, but what I find really interesting now (other than his intermittent appearances on Louie) is his role in mentoring other comedians and discussing their work on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. He's Garry Shandling for this generation.

Rebel Wilson - Wilson's scenes in Bridesmaids were the main reason I saw Pitch Perfect on opening day (that's right, I was waaaay ahead of the curve on that one). I would like to see her try something new, though.

Extremely High Interest

Wes Anderson - Anderson's movies are all, in a sense, comedic, even though some of them have delved into some darker emotional and thematic territory, and he has truly mastered the subtleties of character-driven comedy and in deriving unexpected performances from his actors.

Louis C.K. - Although I acknowledge that his stand-up is often difficult to watch and he transgresses into troublesome areas more than any other comedian on this list, his work on Louie cements his position as one of the most interesting people in comedy - and I still have not yet watched Horace and Pete.

George Clooney - Clooney might be better at comedy than he is at drama, which is saying something.

Joel and Ethan Coen - The Coens know how to do comedy better than almost anyone else out there, and they have proven it time and time again, including with a few scenes in Hail, Caesar! I can understand why not everyone appreciates their style of (sometimes very dark) comedy, but

Stephen Colbert - Colbert has not exactly found his groove on Late Night yet, but when he hits a piece or an interview that works, there is nobody better. I think he's just struggling with the vacuous vapid part of Hollywood, which is a huge part of the show, as well as filling four hours a week (rather than two).

Greg Daniels, Dan Goor, and Michael Schur - It's hard to separate these three, who have been responsible in various combinations for The Office (US), Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, so I'm going to include them here together.

Tina Fey - I don't think I need to explain her presence here.

Flight of the Conchords (Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie) - Whenever I hear that either Bret or Jemaine is involved in a project, I am immediately intrigued.

Christopher Guest - The master of the mockumentary has a rotating group of twenty or so comedic collaborators who join up with him every so often to make a new movie (or TV series, in the case of the short-lived Family Tree); his new effort, Mascots, is expected to debut on Netflix later this year, with many of the same actors appearing in the movie.

Tony Hale - From Buster Bluth on
Arrested Development to Gary Walsh on Veep, Hale might be the best supporting comedian out there - and that's saying something.

Jennifer Lawrence - Is there anything she can't do?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus - It's amazing to think that Queen Julia is still at the top of her game after three decades, but it's true, and Veep, like Seinfeld before it, works primarily because of the empathy she creates for a character who is reprehensible in almost every moral aspect.

Bill Murray - We're going straight to the tippy-top of the A-list: the big BM. That's all we need to say here.

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright - I have grouped these three together, as their comedic successes are significantly interlinked because of their Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End). Pegg has had the best career so far with comedic turns in Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, and Wright's work on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World should not go unnoticed, but they are definitely best as a group.

John Oliver - I cannot understate the excitement I feel as soon as I see the title of Oliver's new rant from Last Week Tonight every Monday. He does take some unfortunate detours into crass comedy, but when he's on his game, his satire is as sharp as any out there.

Amy Poehler - See Tina Fey.

Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick - I have followed Reese and Wernick since their early work on The Joe Schmo Show in 2003/2004 through their cinematic breakthrough with Zombieland to today, so the success of Deadpool was no surprise to me.

Aaron Sorkin - While Sorkin has not written a comedic TV series this millennium, and even his "comedic" films (Charlie Wilson's War) tend to be significantly dramatic, he nevertheless has a distinctly comedic bent in his work and remains one of my favourite comedy writers.

Kristen Wiig - There is something uniquely endearing about Wiig's awkwardness, whether it goes back to her days as Dr. Pat on The Joe Schmo Show or her appearances as random interviewees on The Tonight Show, but whatever she does she is hilarious.


There you have it: my favourite comedians working in television and movies right now. I know that this list, like my other lists in this SMART series, is quite mainstream, but I'm okay with that. I actually don't spend a lot of time on alternative media or new media, so most of my sources are mainstream or on the "indie" fringes thereof. I have realized that I'm actually mostly happy with my current state of entertainment, including the amount of time and energy I spend on it, especially because I realized that these posts were also attempting to summarize seven years' worth of entertainment watching, which made them more onerous than they should have been.

I know with my first post that I was experiencing a bit more existential angst at the whole enterprise, and although I'm sure that's still present, I'm feeling a bit more settled about this series of posts as a whole. I don't know what the future holds for me in terms of spending time and energy on entertainment, but I am glad to have done these posts and to be moving forward in my continued exploration of the world of pop culture. I don't know how often I will return to this series of posts in the future, but I'm glad to have it in the books now and to feel like I can pursue writing something else in the near future - and I'm sure many of you are glad about that too.


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