Having been well traveled over the last year, I feel it necessary to compare two of the main cities I’ve visited, Copenhagen, Denmark and Manhattan, New York.   If you were to visit both for even a brief period as I have, you would in all likelihood find the differences to be that of night and day.

The city of Copenhagen and the borough of Manhattan are similar in population: about 1.6 to 1.9 million people live in each.   Manhattan obviously has a much higher population density as metropolitan Copenhagen is much larger in size.   That’s where I found the similarities ended, however.

Copenhagen

The first thing I remember noticing when I arrived in Copenhagen was how expensive everything was.   The cost of living was a shock to the system as a simple bus fare cost about eight dollars American.   The cost of food & housing were high as well, as were the taxes and I couldn’t help wondering why anyone would want to live here.

Energy windmills in Copenhagen

In the cab on the way to the hotel I couldn’t help but realize the lack of traffic on the highway, even during rush hour.   There just weren’t any cars.   The cab driver told me that car owners had to pay as much as a 180% tax on their automobile purchases so most residents decided to ride bicycles.   He wasn’t kidding.   When I arrived downtown there were a vast amount of parking lots for bikes, not cars and of course parking the bikes was free.

Another thing I noticed was the lack of recycling bins which was curious to me as I had always thought that Copenhagen was at the head of the pack when it came to recycling and renewable energy.   As it turns out, most of the waste that is collected is sorted and recycled and the garbage that cannot be reused is incinerated and used to heat people’s homes.   In the end, only 3% of the waste is put into a landfill.

The last major observance I made was the food.   The first meal I had in Copenhagen consisted of three small pieces of unusual cheese and some crackers that set me back about twenty dollars.   The prices didn’t shock me as much as the portions did; everyone received quite little at least by western standards.   At least I never had to wonder why there weren’t that many heavy set people in Denmark

The bikes of Copenhagen and cars of Manhattan

Manhattan

Upon arriving in the great borough of Manhattan at the center of New York and many would say the world, one thing I spotted almost instantly (aside from the traffic) were the parking lots.   Cars stacked on top of each other in rows, sometimes three or four cars high.   I didn’t even think people drove much in New York with all the taxis.

Waste in Manhattan. How much of this is recyclable?

As I made my way down Broadway, I realized that Manhattan, like Copenhagen, also had no public recycling bins.   I even noticed that the sidewalks in the fronts of businesses were littered with recyclable garbage. According to a recent article in the Gotham Gazette, most NYC waste is driven out of the city and into landfills in other states and only 15% of residential waste is recycled and less than a quarter is recycled citywide.   A far cry from Copenhagen.

Seeing all that garbage naturally made me hungry, but I was actually hard pressed to find a restaurant of quality, at least near time square.   I finally found some nourishment at an Olive Garden restaurant and ate a big plate of spaghetti with garlic bread.   All for a fairly moderate price, unlike the cheap fast food everywhere else I was all but forced to eat most of the time.   At any rate, I didn’t have to think too hard about why there were so many obese heavyweights walking the streets.

During the ride home I pondered for quite a while about what I had seen in both towns.   It made me mad that us as westerners, whether we’re rich or poor, old or young still value money and comfort above the actual city and world we live in.   In fact we even seem to cherish money and comfort above ourselves.   Something has got to give.

I would happily trade in cars, garbage and cheap junk food for a cleaner, healthier city regardless of how much higher my taxes are.   Can you imagine how much better Manhattan would be if bikes and bixies replaced cars and cabs?   Now that would be a sight to see…

Does this woman scare you? Lone Times Square Tea Party protester (photo Chris Zacchia)

She’s a lone protester we passed in Times Square the other week while we were in town. She didn’t look all that intimidating. She was wearing all the trappings of the Tea Party folk you see on the news, except there was no one in similar garb hanging around.

When we asked if we could take her picture, she gladly accepted, saying that no one had paid attention to her for hours. She was a little less excited when she found out we were Canadian. Maybe the fact that we have free universal healthcare (way more than what is being offered by the Obama plan) and didn’t have to go the dictatorship route to get it isn’t exactly in keeping with her narrative.

While she might not be all that intimidating, the specter of others like her rising up in November has some US democratic congress members wary of pushing through health care reform with a procedure called reconciliation. This comes after months of backpedaling and sapping the bill of anything that may offend insurance companies looking to preserve their bottom line and throwing in stuff that really has no business being there.

Now, finally, it looks like the Democrats may actually do it, or sort of do it and pass something that changes something in the world of healthcare. Unfortunately, the worry is starting to set in.

I normally don’t comment on US domestic matters, as I am a Canadian (foreign policy’s a different story), but this issue begs saying something. So, here’s some advice to the American Democratic Party from someone living in the industrialized world like you, but not in the only country that for some ridiculous reason doesn’t see the health of its citizens as an essential public service like the fire department is:

Just pass the damn thing, do what your opponents are accusing you of doing and “ram healthcare down everyone’s throats.” Better yet, strip it of all the concessions you made to the insurance companies first and then push it through. This will only work and not turn around and bite you in the ass if you give everyone free universal healthcare.

It’s not a dictatorship, it’s politicians who are supposed to pass laws and make rules doing their jobs by passing laws and making rules. You have the majority now, use it.

Don’t worry about losing elections over this. The people that are against it aren’t the ones who vote for you and they’re not the majority. They’re a minority, just like the lady in Times Square was compared to the rest of the people around her. In many cases, they are also the ones that could benefit from free healthcare the most, but they’re being led by an even smaller profit-driven minority

Imagine you clean the bill up and push the bill through. What will happen now when a poor person living in a “red state” and staunchly opposed to health care reform gets sick or has an accident? Now, instead of going broke to reattach their finger, that operation will be free for them.

Who do you think they’ll vote for now? Those who would have left them lose their life savings or the people who gave them a necessary operation for free? Who do you think their friends will vote for when they hear what happened?

All it takes is a little confidence to make the boldest move you could and bring your country close to where most of the rest of the world was over fifty years ago. And now, folks, you don’t really have a choice.

If you don’t do it, you’ll surely lose in November and this whole healthcare attempt and pretty much your whole administration will be more futile than that Tea Party lady in Times Square trying to convince a bunch of Canadian tourists that Obama is Hitler.

The J train stopped on an outdoor platform stretched out over Marcy Street and we exited and descended the metal staircase for the second time in as many days. The novelty of such an exit must disappear quickly for the locals, but for someone used to the organized monotony of the Montreal metro system, even this little bit of NYC Subway difference was interesting.

Marcy wasn’t bustling like it had been the day before when we arrived late afternoon, hoping to explore Williamsburg. Now it was nighttime and the frenzied pace of people coming back from a day of work in Manhattan had given way to indoor celebrations and a different kind of frenzy.

Wall art at Death by Audio (photo Chris Zacchia)

When we arrived at Death by Audio, there was already a healthy crowd inside and the show was in full swing. The sound quality and mixing in this basement loft venue were quite good, which makes sense when you consider that the space was started three years ago by the guitar pedal company of the same name.

According to Justin Sherry, the venue’s current booker and the evening’s soundman, Death By Audio features bands playing a variety of styles: everything from jazz to metal. This Tuesday night in particular, there was quite a bit of metal being offered.

The four-band lineup featured psychedelic metal from Elks, mystical metal from Wizardry and to change things up a bit, Afuche, who describe themselves on MySpace as minimalist progressive. All three are Brooklyn-based bands.

More wall art at Death by Audio (photo Chris Zacchia)

We had arrived late and spent our time between the show room and meeting friends in the second room through the curtains which served as a chill space. The cinder block and brick walls of both rooms featured murals by local artists, which both stood out and blended nicely with the atmosphere.

As such, we only caught one full set and it was from Pembroke Pines-based Hyimn, an incredibly tight, fast, band playing original songs fast and heavy. They are a three-piece comprised of Danny and Jaz Sainz both on guitar and vocals and Maria Chu drumming and singing. Female drummers aren’t common in rock and even rarer in metal, so Chu’s solid rhythm was a real treat.

Hiymn in concert at Death by Audio (photo Chris Zacchia)

We decided to stop off for a drink on our way back and happened upon Woods. It turns out Tuesday was karaoke night and the place was packed. Not only that, almost everyone was a good singer. To describe this place to our Montreal readership, try and imagine the Cock n’ Bull atmosphere and prices in a space that looks like Billy Kun.

The place had a real community vibe and we out-of-towners were welcome by the locals. We met quite a few people and even got up to sing. Among the clientele were some fellow bloggers and artistic types.

FTB members doin' karaoke at Woods (photo Stephanie Laughlin)

In fact, we met quite a few people who were involved in new media in the Williamsburg area. We had visited Bruar Falls , another showbar where we didn’t have the time to catch a show, the day before and revisited it again the following day and met people involved in web video and blogging as well.

Most people think Manhattan when they think New York and Manhattan does have its charm. Williamsburg, however, is where I felt more at home. While there may be no sleep ‘till Brooklyn, in this part of town, there really wasn’t any reason to sleep.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: theatre is a living, breathing animal. Whether you’re doing interactive improv on the street or story-driven dramatic fourth-wall realism on stage, there’s one thing that remains constant, theatre inhabits and deals with the space it is in. That means you can’t ignore the room when it makes itself seen or heard.

This is true even if your story is set in a place far away from where it is being staged. When an unexpected noise rings out from the audience, a confused or restless patron wanders onstage or some object gets thrown that deflects attention, it becomes part of the scene and the actors have to deal with it.

Part of the scene?

I remember seeing a production of Billy Bishop Goes to War in high school. The group I was with was a particularly rowdy bunch and some of them started throwing small objects on stage. Once the throwing became apparent, the actor, Bruce Dinsmore, completely in character as a lounge singer (he played several characters in the show) retorted that “the next person who threw something won’t be coming back anymore” which was the refrain of the song he was singing, to wild applause.

My recollection of the exact line may be a little hazy, but the point of the story is that Dinsmore did just what an actor should in the situation: deal with it, in character. To fail to do so would result in a break in the suspension of disbelief far greater than that caused by the audience intrusion.

A colleague once told me about how a confused old lady wandered on stage at the Centaur. The actors froze and waited for an usher to escort her off, then went on with the play as if nothing had happened.

I can only imagine what this might have looked like actors freezing like someone had pressed pause on the remote controlling the play. It’s not a TV show, it’s not a film, its theatre and those actors just froze mid-scene because the scene didn’t stop when the woman wandered onstage, only the other characters did.

When a cellphone rang out during a screening performance of A Steady Rain on Broadway last week, actor Hugh Jackman (yes, Wolverine) did the right thing. He asked the call recipient to “answer it” and kept talking about it until the ringing stopped.

He didn’t stop the show as some media reports have it, but rather allowed it to continue, incorporating the ringing cellphone into the scene. He didn’t break character as other reports have it, he even kept his character’s Chicago accent on throughout the exchange. There’s no real surprise here as Jackman is a seasoned stage actor and a good one at that.

The real shock here is how many people in the media see a character as being just what is written and theatre as being just what is planned. Anyone who interprets an actor staying in character and incorporating an unexpected noise in the audience into the scene as breaking character and stopping the show just doesn’t get theatre at all.

The fact that TMZ considers this news is fair, considering they’re a tabloid show that would probably consider Jackman getting a haircut news as well. The fact that some are using this to foster debate over ways to get the audience to turn off their cellphones in the theatre is fair play as well.

What’s not right here is that some of the theatre media and much of the media in general are treating this incident as news at all.

People have known for years, decades and even centuries that politics are essentially theatre. The actors say their lines, take part in the frequently slow-moving drama that is their house of commons or city council and sometimes get involved in more quick-moving drama that is scandal.

At the end of the day, the show must go on and it does, only this show affects the lives of its audience in ways most other theatre can’t. It is also a theatre that limits its principal roles to characters that resemble the “norm” of the day or rather the “norm” of 20 years earlier, with occasional flashes of something new that ultimately, though, conforms to the norm.

While most of it is loose improv, the overall storyline is written well in advance by behind-the-scenes people you never see. Sometimes, people from the outside, with honest intentions of making a difference in the real world can make their way into the theatre. They may get to be guest stars for a while, but soon enough the script writers take over and they either fall into the established storyline or end up written out or relegated to secondary or tertiary character status and the show goes on.

This happens because, as real people, they aren’t prepared for the dramatic situation they walk into. The solution may very well be to get someone who already knows how to use the theatre to challenge unfair situations and excels in changing an established script into this play. This may happen in New York City very soon.

Reverend Billy is the preacher of the Church of Life After Shopping (formerly the Church of Stop Shopping). He is the character of New York actor Bill Talen. For years, the reverend has led his choir and followers on retail interventions at places like Starbucks, Wal-Mart and the Disney Store, preaching against the sins of consumerism and consumer culture represented by those places.

He has written books and been the subject of a movie produced by Morgan Spurlock called What Would Jesus Buy. Lately, he has been defending historic NYC places like Coney Island and Union Square from pro-corporate gentrification being made possible and encouraged by the administration of Michael Bloomberg. He does all of this in a very theatrical manner.

Now, he is running as the Green Party candidate for mayor of New York City. His platform is founded on the principle that “New York City is the sum of its neighbourhoods” and supports local economies instead of big-box multinationals. He wants to see a sustainable, safe, educated, healthy, immigrant and LGBT-friendly city and is offering very concrete ways to make this happen.

His campaign is based on the streets and even in unconventional places like subway cars. It focuses more on the voices of the people then the candidate and as such is getting quite a bit of support from ordinary New Yorkers as well as well-known performers like Joan Baez who recently performed at one of his fundraisers.   His candidacy is also inspiration to people in other communities like San Fransisco, where he has been invited to speak.

So, he has a chance of getting elected, but what then? What happens when someone like Bill Talen who is doing this for the right reasons gets into the theatre of New York City government? This is where, hopefully, his theatre skills will kick in. He’s not just some actor who is used to playing by someone else’s script, but rather a well-rounded theatre artist who’s adept not only in performance but in changing an oppressive script into one that liberates.

Hopefully he will be able to change the New York political script into one that helps the communities and people he is fighting for and make it a show worth watching and supporting.