Walks with Espresso
January 30, 2014
On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival commissioned Placemaking: A Decade in the City, a collection of essays from artists and writers to explore the Festival’s ‘place’ in the public life of Vancouver. “Walks with Espresso” by Alex Ferguson is one of these five essays. You can read the full collection as a PDF online.
I love fine espresso. I love the cherry-red crema of a perfectly drawn cup and the full- bodied taste of a shot that has been pre-infused with water before being patiently drawn through the basket. I inhale the granular aroma as a taste as much as a scent.
I also adore the scenography of espresso bars. Looking in from the street the window frames the interior. What does that interior promise the senses? What colour palette is on offer? Does the cafe have an earthy feel with rough wooden floors and exposed rafters, counterpoised by a red-enameled espresso machine? Or is the machine an embraceable yellow? Maybe the floor is of polished concrete and the machine a curving silver alloy that revives art deco-era visions of a chrome and plastic future that promising hygiene and progress.
One of the first things I do when I visit a new city is take a long walk, sometimes up to 10 hours. I hope to discover the good espresso bars, unique boutiques, surprising architecture, and hidden alleys. I create a mental map. Alien space becomes personal place. Usually I’m in the city for a performance festival so I also stake out the venues and their distance to the closest cafe of quality. I want to be able to get to that cafe before or after a show. I imagine meeting friends and colleagues there, writing, thinking, or just getting a feel for the locals. A topography of espresso bars, venues, boutiques, and eateries takes shape. I create an urban scenography from these ‘found’ materials. The theatre venues offer performances but they also become part of a larger performance that includes the other locations on my map and all the people at them. This larger performance takes on a rhythm informed by my walking from one place to the next, and by the lighting conditions (morning, afternoon, evening), the general atmosphere (cloudy, clear, rainy), the spatial characteristics (crowded, sparse, intermittent), the acoustics (dense, tranquil, murmuring), and the smells (floral, fresh, pungent).
I’ve lived and performed in Vancouver all my life, so my map of this city is very detailed. A visit to the Cultch, for example, is like an archeological dig into my personal history. At the deepest layers are my first experiences watching the Tamahnous Theatre collective and apprenticing with the company in the mid-1980s. This was long before the recent renovations so the venue’s past as a church was much more ‘tangible.’ You could feel the creaking bones of the building. Of course that feeling might be coloured, for me, by the night an older, very creaky actor I was performing with fell off the stage and broke her bones, never to return to the show or the Cultch (as far as I know). Each show I’ve done or seen at the Cultch since then has changed and deepened my relationship to the place. Performing in Rumble Productions’ Penelope last fall in nothing but sneakers, a wig, and a red speedo is an experience that was a little humiliating and a little empowering, one that will stay with me… as will the Internet images that never go away.
Two blocks down Venebles Street and around the corner I can get one of the best espressos in the city at Bump n Grind. The cafe was so named by its original owner, a dark and scowly misanthrope who turned a lot of people off (I liked him). After him, a friendly couple that also had a dog-walking business bought it. The decor brightened up a bit but the place retains the feel of an artist’s loft, concrete all around. Behind the bar is a raised terrace where you can get some privacy, but out front it’s hard to avoid chatting with fellow patrons. I like to grab an espresso there before a show.
I live about 10 blocks to the south so normally I walk or bike to the Cultch or Bump n Grind. I look in windows as I walk. My interest is in how people decorate their living rooms and kitchens, and the way they arrange space. Sometimes I’ll see people inside and get a sense of how a room accommodates movement. Maybe I’ll catch a moment of interaction between these ‘performers,’ a moment that is a small dance or a small drama. While watching the little worlds created in these homes I also take part in dances and dramas with passersby on the street. This act of watching domestic performance worlds and of taking part as both spectator and performer seems very much in keeping with the blurring of art and life that has been such a pronounced tendency in performance during the past hundred years or so.
Whether I’m looking into windows, through a proscenium arch, or at a sited performance, it all becomes more interesting after an espresso.
Espresso is my Skytrain. It gets me from one place on my mental map to the next faster. It makes colours more vivid, shapes more defined, performances more meaningful. Sometimes I feel as lost without it as I do when I imagine Vancouver without PuSh.
PuSh is the highlight of my art year—whether I’m creating work for the Festival, writing about it, or just taking it in. In the 10 years PuSh has been around, Vancouver has gotten that much more expensive, become that much more a site of consumption for wealthy shoppers, and that much more hostile to low-income citizens, many of them artists. Vancouver is, and has been from its beginnings in the late 1800s, a real estate developer’s creation. And while PuSh expands the boundaries of what performance is, it also ‘pushes’ other values onto the civic agenda, values that have nothing to do with buying stuff and investing in your material future. The same houses I stare into, the detached homes with front and back yards that everyone feels they must have, represent something horrible. Actually, I don’t give a fuck about them or the people who live in them. Or I wish I could not give a fuck. But my rent is higher than many homeowners’ mortgages so I’m forced to think about trying to own a place one day (a scenario that isn’t all that likely for me). Which means I too might become a domestic performer acting out comfort and security inside a hardwood and drywall investment portfolio… with dreams of future material comfort… and worries about how my retirement savings are doing. I have no power in this. My fellow investor-citizens win and I lose. It’s too bad for me, but I’d rather spend my time thinking about art, visiting my favourite cafes, and having time to think and talk with friends and strangers there.
… I too might become a domestic performer acting out comfort and security inside a hardwood and drywall investment portfolio…
And go to PuSh shows. From Bump n Grind I can choose a number of routes to another area of significance on my map: Revolver cafe on Cambie Street and SFU Woodward’s on Hastings. I put these two together because for me they are linked— brilliant espresso at Revolver and a history of brilliant PuSh shows at SFU. The area has changed a great deal in the past ten years. Lots more condos (I don’t care about those), some good bars, boutiques, and eateries (those are of interest), and most of all the significant upgrade in espresso and performance. Revolver doesn’t stay open late so I have to get there before the show. Looking out the window at Bump n Grind, I consider which route to take and whether to go on foot, bike, or transit. I decide on walking. It takes more time and therefore offers more space.
Alex Lazaridis Ferguson
Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is a Vancouver-based theatre artist, writer, and teacher. In the past year he has devised work with MACHiNENOiSY Dance (Bamboozled), Leaky Heaven Circus (Der Wink), and Projet in situ at PuSh (Do You See What I Mean?). Last fall he performed in Rumble Productions’ Penelope at the Cultch and directed Nanay: A Testimonial Play at PETA Theater in Manila. Alex has devised or performed in several works at PuSh over the years beginning with Neworld’s Crime and Punishment. He teaches performance theory in the Bachelor of Performing Arts program at Capilano University.