I’m Michael R Caplan,
and I’m the “Renaissance Man of the House of ShAkE” because, over more than forty years now, I’ve been creating successful work in publishing, performance, theory and music.
Theatre is my first love, and the place where it all comes together. But that doesn’t diminish my passion for books and for writing, for design, for singing the classics of popular and folk music, or for trying to understand our crazy world conceptually.
I used to direct my public school friends in little shows: sitcom take-offs, news spoofs, kid silliness. Later, intrigued with experiment, I sought out courses in physical theatre, mask, even clown and European buffon (with teachers from France’s École Jacques Lecoq). At the same time, I was making my first publication, a science fiction fanzine we wrote and produced.
I discovered performance art and dance, went to York University and then to Montreal’s Concordia, where I got my B.F.A. (Contemporary Dance, 1987). I’d also started doing Contact Improvisation in 1979, and kept it up until just a few years ago.
I taught movement and multimedia arts at community mental health centres in Montreal, and did administration for a small French theatre company. I worked in the special events industry, booking entertainment and planning functions for major corporations like O’Keefe, Loto-Québec and IBM. Around the same time, on the other end of the spectrum, I created a solo performance for friends in my home, featuring kitchen polkas, storytelling under a tent in the bedroom, breaking dishes, and burning paper puppets.
Back in Toronto in 1991, I teamed up with Bill Coleman and Penny Couchie to form Heartland Events. Our first dance-based residency and community performance was with the Ojibways of Heron Bay/Pic River on Ontario’s Lake Superior, and other projects followed. I later worked with Bill on his event Grasslands in rural Saskatchewan (also the site of my singing debut), and with Penny on a series of short performances in various outdoor locations, again with the Pic River community.
I directed two productions for Toronto’s fledgling Cabbagetown Theatre Company: Murderland (1993), a surrealistic murder mystery dinner theatre, and Shadows of Angels (1994, Winchester Street Theatre), “theatre noir” with cartoons before each act and a Chorus in old movie-theatre seats. I returned to directing in 2008, self-producing a Shakespeare adaptation, The “Tempest” Trailer (The Citadel, Toronto).
I taught movement and performance in Toronto schools, and in 1997, worked as special events coordinator for the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg. During all this time, I was also building my freelance career in copywriting and editing, page layout and publication design. My clients included Spring Journal Books, imprint of the world’s oldest Jungian psychology journal (one of my intellectual interests), Citizenship & Immigration Canada, the Toronto District School Board, and many other businesses, organizations and artists.
My first book design was David Earle: A Choreographic Biography, by Michele Green, for Dance Collection Danse Press/Presses. It was described by Ballet-Dance Magazine as a “magnificent new volume” and by Dance International as “elegantly designed”, and was selected by Susan Walker as part of the Toronto Star’s “Complete Dance Library” of 2006. I also designed the Dance Collection Danse Magazine for fifteen years, beginning in 2003.
Singing-wise, my big debut was for an audience of cowboy ranchers and modern dancers (that mix couldn’t make me happier!) in the bar of the Val Marie Hotel, Saskatchewan, on the Montana border (at the end of the Grasslands event). I sing classics from “the great North American songbook” – country, blues, folk, standards – and what was supposed to be a few songs ended up with me closing the bar, then continuing around a campfire. (My little debut had been in 1994, in a dance solo directed by Pam Johnson where I sang Hank Williams Sr.’s “Ramblin’ Man” – it sometimes takes me a couple of tries, often a few years apart, to fully take the stage.)
Since my debut, I’ve performed in all kinds of settings, to very diverse audiences: Toronto’s LGBT Pride Day for three years running; my local joint, The Grasshopper Bar, every week for a year; singing a cappella in Pam Johnson’s choreography Which Side? (Toronto, 2009); in Pittsburgh, to celebrate the life and work of renowned Jungian psychologist James Hillman; at the “Aria” performance art fashion show for New Dance Horizons in Regina; and at other venues including The White Rabbit in Freiburg, Germany. Most recently, I was the opening act for a family-friendly, daytime outdoor EDM rave!
Virtuoso Cree steeldrum player Gabriel Chartrand and I collaborated in 2006 to record Steelpan Country. It caught the ear of Canadian composer/sound artist Gordon Monahan, who invited us to perform at Electric Eclectics, his experimental music festival in rural Ontario – where we were, needless to say, unlike anything else on the programme.
I’ve performed a number of times with Bill Coleman doing his innovative, expressionistic tap dancing, including at Peterborough’s Public Energy and Toronto’s Imperial Pub Backroom. And I organized shows with guest performers including Bill, local blues harmonica legend “Cabbagetown” Steve Grant, and contemporary rising stars The Slocan Ramblers and Whitney Rose in their earlier Toronto careers.
After some years of distance, I “returned to dance” at age 52, studying solo improvisation with Dawne Carleton. Dawne then invited me to perform in her work, Ordinary Joy, a series of structured improvisations for four dancers, to live music from the album of that name by The Cluttertones (Quixotic Sounds, Toronto, 2016).
Since 2014, I’ve been presenting essays on contemporary culture at international conferences of the ISPDI, which I’m working into a monograph for publication by House of ShAkE.
The notion of a “house” of some kind – a gathering place for entertainment, education and celebration, where my various interests could come together – has been with me since childhood. My mom used to drive past an abandoned Tudor-style building in our neighbourhood, and I – a geeky kid who loved history – fantasized what I used to call History House, where there would be exhibitions, enactments and such.
Now I have my House of ShAkE. Stay for a while! And come back again soon. There’s a lot of good company.