All emphasis, editing and formatting is mine.

I'm in with Public Recordings at the Theatre Centre working on an Encyclopedia, so that's where most of my writing energy is going,
but I came across this and it doesn't fit there, but I wanted to share.

Brecht on Realism:

Now we come to the concept of realism. This concept, too, must first be cleansed before use, for it is an old concept, much used by many people and for many ends. This is necessary because the people can only take over their cultural heritage by an act of expropriation. […]
We must not derive realism as such from particular existing works, but we shall use every means, old and new, tried and untried, derived from art and derived from other sources, to render reality to men in a form they can master. Our concept of realism must be wide and political, sovereign over all conventions.

Realistic means: discovering the causal complexes of society / unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power / writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught up / emphasizing the element of development / making possible the concrete, and making possible abstraction from it.

These are vast precepts and they can be extended. Moreover we shall allow the artist to employ his[sic] fantasy, his[sic] originality, his[sic] humor, his[sic] invention, in following them. We shall not stick to too detailed literary models; we shall not bind the artist to too rigidly defined modes of narrative.

We shall establish that the so-called sensuous mode of writing where one can smell, taste and feel everything - is not automatically to be identified with a realistic mode of writing; we shall acknowledge that there are works which are sensuously written and which are not realistic, and realistic works which are not written in a sensuous style. We shall have to examine carefully the question whether we really develop a plot best when our ultimate objective is to reveal the spiritual life of the characters. Our readers will perhaps find that they have not been given the key to the meaning of the events if, led astray by various artistic devices, they experience only the spiritual agitation of the heroes. By adopting the forms of Balzac and Tolstoy without testing them thoroughly, we might weary our readers - the people — as much as these writers often do themselves. Realism is not a mere question of form. Were we to copy the style of these realists, we would no longer be realists.

For time flows on, and if it did not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. *Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change.* Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new.

The oppressors do not work in the same way in every epoch. They cannot be defined in the same fashion at all times. There are so many means for them to avoid being spotted. […] What was popular yesterday is not today, for the people today are not what they were yesterday.

Anyone who is not a victim of formalistic prejudices knows that the truth can be suppressed in many ways and must be expressed in many ways. [...]

[Read the whole thing]

I am not in agreement with everything or at ease with the language or thinking that what was funtioning in the late 1930's is the same as what would funtion now (since that would actually be the opposite of what B is suggesting.) I find it a compelling and provocative.

2012 Open letter...

As we prepare to sing songs from 3penny together, an event that warms my heart every year, I want to share an open letter to the collaborators and supporters of Small Wooden Shoe.It is bolder in tone and more forthright than my Cape Breton upbringing usually feels comfortable with - but it is all also honest and true. 

This is a statement of values and of dreams.

This year I applied for a few other jobs and opportunities - sometimes publicly and sometimes not. Each time, I returned to my love and belief in what Small Wooden Shoe is and could become. Each time made it clearer that while there’s a ways to go my interest and passion is in growing something different, something that embodied my history and future and the histories and futures of the people I work with and who support us.

I also realized that the only time I express my interests, passions and plans are to anonymous juries and committees - and that is ridiculous and harmful. The people I work with and who care for us might want to hear too. I will be better for you hearing it and me hearing your feedback.

Thank you for being a part of something and for making it possible.

May we continue to visit regularly.


Dear friends of Small Wooden Shoe,

You are a constellation of  people with whom I’ve worked and I can only imagine continuing to collaborate and support your inspiring work. You are people whose intelligence, curiosity and talents feed my practice as a director and we have, with few resources and great resourcefulness, created art unlike anything else. We have affected the way theatre and performance is thought of in this country. Thank you.

We are presented with a special opportunity to bring excellence and energy to the Toronto theatre scene.

We are in midst of a significant social change – generational and demographic shift, changing global economies and politics, new ways of connecting to one another and accessing information and media. Theatre in Canada has been painfully slow to participate. The changes we face aren’t cosmetic adjustments to how we do the same old things. They inspire and shift priorities, they leave behind some models and open a window on others.

There must be a theatre that spreads like wildfire through networks; ideas and events that emerge from and point to singular experiences; experiences that are live and immediate, that remind us of human connections and reasons for leaving the house. 

It is these singular experiences that I’ve strived for in making theatre. Simple songs in middle of the night at Koerner Hall (Difficult Plays and Simple Songs at Nuit Blanche), a massive reading of a new translation of a major work that brings a community together out of love (Life of Galileo – for Tracy Wright); a tender, intimate science fiction about three friends that travels the country and touches its audience with vulnerability and delight (Perhaps in a Hundred Years); a bootstrapped vaudevillian lecture demo about science that announced a generation of Toronto theatre makers to the country (Dedicated to the Revolutions)

All are singular experiences carved out of our frantic times, created in collaboration, with your help. 

With your help, I continue to pursue of experiences that matter and speak to the needs of our times. I want to build on our history of collaboration and the knowledge and passion of artists, volunteers and supporters; seizing the opportunity for Small Wooden Shoe to take a leadership role in Toronto, in Canada and internationally. We have the potential to lead, as exemplars of artistic excellence, critical curiosity and embodied pleasure.

In leading Small Wooden Shoe I see the opportunity to find a populism I can stand behind, on a scale that excites and thrills me. Putting the company in front of the public more often and in more ways with iterative development and the creation of digital content – not as mere promotion but as delightful experiences in themselves. I imagine stadium shows and intimate evenings that become legends. I believe that accessibility and diversity in theatre is born through lowering the barriers of access – primarily cost – and the need for a good night out. We live in times and a city where there is so much to do, even if I stay at home. The reasons, joys, politics and transformations of leaving the house for the live experience must be our priority and we must go to people where they live, with affordable shows that admit the pleasure and complexity and emotion of life. 

Artistically I value the present and engaged performance. I start from questions about our world and by imagining the shows I wish existed. The work has varied in style and approach but leads with values of social engagement, theatrical investigation and an open sense of play. I believe that as artists we must examine and confront the awkward and uncomfortable problems of society with kindness and generosity. I believe in great, complex writing and simple powerful performances. I believe in the comedic turn and the undeniable power of singing and music. I include all of this in my work.

 

Plans going forward:

- The first priority is a full run and possible tour of Antigone Dead People. With performances by Maev Beaty, Philip Shepherd, Liz Peterson, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Sean Dixon, Antonio Cayonne, Lindsey Clark and Sky Gilbert, the designs of Christopher Willes and Trevor Schwellnus our initial prototype performance was met with full houses and great response. Evan’s voice is unlike any other playwright in Canada – epic and complex while deeply personal, he brings old stories into the present with poetic language and a healthy dose of humour. Together, we've created an evening of theatre that transcends genre and imagines ways forward. 

- Developing and launching Delayed Knee Jerk Reactions – a bi-monthly 90-minute live variety show that produces two 30-minute podcasts and five or so 5-minute internet videos.

- Finding the right tone, work-flow and frequency for Minor Expletives as a podcast and a blog.

- Continuing Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs and the 3penny Concert as traditions that make people happy.

- I would like to find opportunities to go back into a room with Ame, Chad and Kilby to make a sequel of sorts to Perhaps in a Hundred Years while find chances to perform it again. This year I understood that this is a seminal collaboration for me and Small Wooden Shoe.

- I think about translating / adapting more Brecht, born from the translation and development of Life of Galileo. I would like to return to this project, including many of the collaborators from the original Convocation Hall reading. It might be a project, along with Delayed Knee Jerk Reaction to develop the combining of live theatre with “radio” recording (in quotes since podcast distribution is more likely) and the creation of internet videos. Live streaming and digital distribution should not be the sole domain of the operas and the National Theatre’s of the world. Contemporary practitioners should be leading this work.

- Finding and developing playwrights and theatre makers with similar interests in scale, the questions of our time, and specific voices is a priority for me.  Since we bring a different openness and challenge to new play development, Small Wooden Shoe can be a platform for kinds of work that has a hard time fitting into the traditional Canadian development pattern. 

- I hope also to continue to develop collaborative non-script based projects – specifically, having the time and resources to return to Upper Toronto, a science-fiction design presentation that takes the form of a sales pitch for the building of a new city in the air above the current Toronto.  It is a project that requires partnership and collaboration with architects and designers, city builders and front line workers. Ideally in partnership with a large civic event, Upper Toronto is an ideal candidate for touring inside the GTA, a practice that I think is vital for the future of Toronto theatre.

- I’m curious about how these questions are being looked at elsewhere. My interest in international work has led to trips to Argentina, the United States, Germany and Austria for training and experience in theatre, contemporary dance and dramaturgy. Additionally I’m drawn to work in the UK – from Forced Entertainment and Welfare State International to the National Theatre and the Donmar Playhouse – where there is a shared interest in pushing the form while opening the doors. I am excited to explore international relationships as well as the important local and national presence. References and introductions are more than welcome.

- Outside of theatre making, I believe strongly in the need for contemporary, boundary pushing theatre to be involved in educationtraining and neighbourhood outreach. We cannot silo ourselves and expect public support or the next generation of art makers and lovers to emerge from out of blue. I want to develop Making and Showing Labs for professionals.

- Last year we ran a Recreational Performance class in which non-artists worked on a play, learning skills for their professional lives, while developing a shared understanding of theatrical choices.

- We’ve also convened three iterations of the UnConference on the Future(s) of Toronto Performance which brought together artists from across spectrums of age, ethnicity and practice to share common struggles and articulate ways forward. I would like to continue to  develop these programs with additional support.

Along with the artistic ambition and vision, I’m excited by the work that is required to be an Artist as Producer. As times shift and government funding becomes less reliable, I believe strongly in the need to find other sources of support.  Public funding is vital and must be protected, but we have to start looking outside the historic frameworks. 

I believe in, and hope I foster, a positive collaborative environment and I want to to continue to work on how-to-work. I want to get better at communication and sharing, of embracing leadership when needed and being open to other voices. 

 

So that’s it. Big, crazy and a bit much - but what else is worth it? 

 

Great ideas come from collaboration with purpose.  I am proud of and humbled by the bands of remarkable people on the stage, in the rehearsal studios and behind the scenes of Small Wooden Shoe.

I believe, despite all the pressure and scarcity, that by bringing together people from different backgrounds to work on the wicked problems that face us as citizens and artists, we can participate and contribute to positive change.  

It is with this spirit and these beliefs that I continue forward with Small Wooden Shoe.

Thank you for being a part of it.

jz

 

A big list of things I did in 2012

January

  • Dancemakers development for The Adpatation Project
  • Antigone Dead People planning and plotting.
  • Upper Toronto planning and plotting.

February

  • JZ travels to the PuSh Festival to pitch Antigone Dead People and see some shows.
  • Upper Toronto at Parkdale Arts and Recreation Centre.
  • JZ attends EMERGENCE: A Symposium on Community Arts Practice
  • Boys who say no (with Frank Cox-O’Connell on drums) release their very good CD
  • Speak to Sky Gilbert’s grad students at University of Guelph on Realism

March

  • Recreational Play Acting 1 starts. Using Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards to teach non-actors some of the helpful things about acting.
  • JZ takes How to talk to people about things - Misha Glouberman’s very good negotiation class.
  • Wooster Group visit Toronto. Always a pleasure
  • JZ does some work as a dramaturgical advisor for the Looking Glass Collective in Hamilton.

April

  • JZ joins the Imagining Toronto Panel at the Kofler Centre to talk Upper Toronto
  • Evan Webber and Frank Cox-O’Connell perform Ajax and Little Illiad at Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage to much deserved praise.
  • JZ serves as dramaturge for Dancemakers’ The Adaptation Project
  • Launch Perhaps in a Hundred Years Indiegogo campaign.

May

  • Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs #1. A new series, curated by Leora Morris with some interference from me, we get together and read a difficult play and sing a simple song. Great evenings out at our secret location.
  • Upper Toronto Scenario Planning planning with Tim Maly and Peg Lahm
  • Perhaps in a Hundred Years at the OFFTA. Thanks to your support, Chad, Ame, Kilby and I perform at the OFFTA - adding a show by popular demand and meeting lots of wonderful people. Feels great to be back in Montreal.

June

  • Upper Toronto Scenario Planning. Teams are assembled and semi-random world events are predicted. Scenario’s are created.
  • JZ travels to Caravan Farm Theatre to assist Artistic Director Courtney Dobey direction Right Robert - a new play by Sean Dixon.
  • Minor Expletives - the blog gets more regular posts including a much read and talked about public application to Factory Theatre.

July

  • Enjoyed the Farm and working with a great team.
  • Prepared for Antigone Dead People
  • Took some early steps to learning guitar and story telling for Sedition
  • First set of inspiring get togethers to talk Public Recordings Performance Projects and how we can all work better.

August

  • Sedition or Kindness Makes Me Cry Like Nothing Else at Summerworks
  • Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs #2
  • planned for Antigone Dead People
  • welcomed Theareworks Productions to the Antigone Dead People team.

September

  • TIFF
  • started volunteering at AIDS Committee of Toronto as a Support Group Facilitator.
  • Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs #3 Koerner Hall and Nuit Blanche edition. Got to read, late at night, in a gorgeous hall with wonderful people.

October

  • Joined Dancemakers for a few days of Viewpoints to welcome new company.
  • Antigone Dead People at the Tranzac. Amazing group of collaborators, 3 great performances.

November

  • Research with Dancemakers on loveloss
  • Populism, Affect and Sedition - part talk, part performance at the University of Waterloo.

December

  • Second edition of Populism, Affect and Sedition - this time as part Dancemakers study group
  • Launched Minor Expletives - the Podcast - the beginning of making more things to listen to, read and watch. The first edition is audio from the populism talk.

Big list of thanks

Along with choir singing (ours, where we sing 3penny Opera, is on Sunday the 30th - click here)It’s the time of year for lists, including lists of people - so I thought I’d make one of the people I’ve been blessed to collaborate with at Small Wooden Shoe this year.

More or less in chronological order, there are many repeat offenders and new friends. It was a special and busy year for us. Thank you all. (and please forgive me if I've missed you.)

Our lovely Board of Directors: Naomi Campbell, Fiona Highet, JP Robichaud, Carl Wilson.

OAC Playwright in Residence: Evan Webber

Upper Toronto: Tim Maly, Constance Tsang, Matthew McLean, Peg Lahn, Sasha Plotnikova.

Recreational Play Acting Participants: Jessica Cattaneo, Andrew Eckart, Haran Aruliah, Jillian Rogin, Mohamed Khimji

Perhaps in a Hundred Years: Ame Henderson, Chad Dembski, Kilby Smith McGregor.

Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs: Leora Morris, Christine Brubacker, Bruce Beaton, Eric Goulem, Hannah Cheesman, Eleanor Hewlings, James Cade, Rylan Wilkie, Marc Tellez, Evan Webber, Stewart Arnott, Frank Cox-O’connell, Miranda Calderon, Sean Dixon, John Gilbert, Erin Brubacher, Erin Shields, Amiel Gladstone, Matthew Macfadzean, Lindsey Clark, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Sean Dixon, Liz Peterson, Scott Maynard, Gregory Prest, Laura Barrett, Henry Svec, Thom Gill

Antigone Dead People: Evan Webber, Maev Beaty, Philip Shepherd, Liz Peterson, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Sean Dixon, Sky Gilbert, Lindsey Clark, Antonio Cayonne, Leora Morris, Marcie Januska, JP Robichaud, Trevor Schwellnus, Christopher Willes, Vanessa Fischer, Erika Hennebury.

3penny Christmas Concert: Scott Maynard, Jessie Fraser, Justin Hiscox and the rest TBA...

Our hosts, partners and friends: the OFFTA in Montreal; Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, Theatreworks Productions, Tranzac Club, Koerner Hall, The Monarch Tavern, our undisclosed location, Public Recordings, Aluna Theatre, Dancemakers and Centre for CreationTheatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

and to all the people who supported us by making donations [JOIN THE LIST]: Alison Zimmer, Andrew Soren, Andy McKim, Ann Brophy, Anonymous (4), Bethan Lloyd, Bob Lloyd, Bonnie Kim, Brian Lloyd, Cathy Gordon, Chris Lloyd, Chris Zimmer, Christopher Dupuis, Claudine Hubert, Daniel Arcé, Daniel Karasik, Daniel Mroz, David Demchuk, DD Kugler, Dustin Harvey, Emily Pearlman, Erin Brandenburg, Erin Brubacher, Evan Webber, Fiona Highet, Gaile McGregor, Gillian Lewis, Jillian Rogin, Karen Henderson, Laura Nanni, Lori Duncan, Maev Beaty, Marco Posadas, Mark Loeser and Christine Latimer, Matthew Jocelyn, Matthew Payne, Michael Rubenfeld, Michael Trent, Muriel Zimmer, Naomi Campbell, Robert Plowman, Roxanne Duncan, Rupal Shah, Sean O’Neill, Susanna Hood, Tai Zimmer, Tedd Robinson, Tim Maly, Trevor Schwellnus, Vikki Anderson, Vivian & Julian Cattaneo,

As well as our government supporters: the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council

Artist as Producer Part 1

The first in a series of posts I’ve wanted to do for quite awhile - a post-internet, probably more mangled with logistical concerns, response to Walter Benjamin’s Author as ProducerSheila Heti’s Back to the World post on artists talking art is worth a read (click here), but a useful sample to start us off is:

I think it’s the wholesale infiltration of concerns about money and commerce into art that leads to art’s withering on the vine, not direct and serious conversation about how to make art now. Stop talking about Amazon, for godssakes! For one minute! […] Artists should think about art, and should talk about it together, the same way people agitating for social change should talk about social change together. Would Occupy Wall Street have happened if people didn’t finally decide to put their collective grievances into a public space and talk about them? Art is not frivolous. Art is not a luxury. It moves the world forward… It creates models of possible worlds in opposition to the worlds we live in, which we cannot imagine our way out of without art.

I found it quite convincing, or at least influencing. I can be cranky about art about artists, more because I enjoy the distance provided by metaphor and difference and a hope that the shared distance will create room for others to slip in.[1] Though a dose of narcissism-fear and privilege-guilt shouldn’t be entirely discounted.

Reposting on Facebook caused a little comment thread about the need for theatre directors to get together to talk art and practice without slipping into conversations about money / state of the industry / gossip. This is very important and something I need more of in my life. I’m often the person who takes the conversaton to lack of resources and frustrations, a trate that frustrates me (it’s a fun cycle, can’t you tell?)

So: yes and...


What changes if we embrace that we are in

an era of “artist as producer”? The time in which there was a clear distinction between the creator, producer and distributor is waning in film, comedy, music, publishing.

Theatre in Canada has been slow, artistically reluctant and imaginatively bureaucratic to adopt this, let alone leading or clearing new paths.

If I want to Direct a play - to make an experience I want to share - I need to consider and have real power over a bunch of things historically outside the work of the director. Part of how I direct Antigone Dead People is by choosing to produce it in the Tranzac, by shaping the social frame around the event, deciding how people could buy tickets and for how much. I need to think and be involved in those decisions as well as maintaining the more traditional relationships with performers, playwrights, designers and other collaborators (though those need adjusting as well.)

We’re in a time where a lot of the logistical barriers to the producing work have been lowered. With a Paypal, Brown Paper Tickets and iPhone credit card readers I can deal with ticketing better than most regional and established theatre ticketing services at less cost. I can tell people about the work with honesty and accuracy using Mailchimp and with Wordpress and iBooks Author I can find, curate and distribute writers and sites to curcumnavigate the declining influence of old press formats and rear-guard critics.

All of this, in an age of artist as producer, is part of what I need to think about as a director – because it impacts the reception of the art.

This shouldn’t mean that one person has to do all of this. Artist Producers can (and should) still assemble teams of excited and capable people to work with. People who have different skills, frameworks and passions, but share the values of the work and of the time.


I want to stop seeing scarcity everywhere. I need to stop whining about which regional theatre isn’t doing what I wish they would, I need to stop complaining that by-design-slow government agencies and professional associations can’t keep up with the needs and realities of being an artist now. And I want to talk to other artists about art without talking about Amazon or envious gossip.

But I also want us to recognize that what we talk about when we talk about art is different now than it used to be.

As we go into the next cycle of the Mayan calendar, I want to find the political, personal and artistic potential of being an Artist Producer. Talking about it with others will help.

In future posts in the series I want to talk more about how Artist as Producer might look like and to respond more closely to Benjamin’s article. I would happily take suggestions, comments or questions on any part of this.


  1. Often I’ve used science, science fiction and scientists as my metaphors (Dedicated to the Revolutions, Perhaps in a Hundred Years, Life of Galileo.)

Thanks for coming!

It’s been a week since we welcomed people to the Tranzac to see the prototype of Antigone Dead People. The presentation left us excited about the future of the project and with clear questions for the next stages. It was two nights of standing room only crowds and a Friday matinee that have me thinking we should always have Friday matinees. Thanks so much for coming. We were overwhelmed and delighted by the support.

[Click here] to see more galleries of photographs taken by Mark Loeser [email] and Erika Jacobs [site] - both of whom did a beautiful job (and would for you too, if you need such things - highly recommended.)

Also, I was serious about wanting to hear from those who came about your experience at the show. You can leave a comment here or email me if you're the private type. In theatre we rarely get to hear from the audience in a clear way, and while I’m not advocating art-by-focus group, I would love to start a back and forth.

Some questions that I would love to know about - What are questions do you have about the performance, story or night out? Are there images, moments or ideas that have stuck with you since? Did you connect any of ideas or images the in the play to your life or the world as it is? How did the venue effect your experience? [Click here] for some of the values Small Wooden Shoe works with – Do these connect to your experience of the show? Or you can ignore all that and say whatever you like.

I was also serious about needing your support to continue with the project and with accessible ticket prices - you can donate to the next stages of Antigone Dead People by [clicking here]. Or buy a lifetime subscription to Small Wooden Shoe by [clicking here].

Thanks very much.

Coversating on the stage

Recently I was asked for some thoughts and red flags for moments of “casual” performance and audience interaction. This is a slightly edited version of what I wrote, in case it can be of use to anyone else.

First, I mostly try to replace “casual” with “conversational” these days, since there’s little about casual about it.

Key (but general) thoughts might include:

Allow - don’t generate. This is a specific kind of improv note really. Let what is happening happen - let it play on the face and body and voice and heart. As a performer, I find my Viewpoints, hosting and clown-through-mask experience helpful in this if dialled way down to awareness and acceptance.

You are always performing There can be a refusal to approach repeatable systems (like jokes or clear language) in a misguided authenticity claim. It’s still a show, you’re still a performer. You have some skills to cope with the craziness of being in front of a crowd and everyone being ok with that. It’s ok to allow those skills as well. (Viewpoints, clown, hosting - as above)

Do unto others. +20% for subjective variation This is part “make the show you want to attend” and part “how would you like it if.” Making Dedicated to the Revolutions (the main experience I have with “audience participation”) - we all agreed that we hated audience participation. Given that, what were we ok with? Mostly the answer was doing things that left the audience members autonomy intact and avoided humiliation that wasn’t requested. Also, Frank was very good at this, so he did the heavy lifting.

Some other lessons learned from Revolutions
Any time we said “Another interesting thing we found while working on this show…”: we shouldn’t have. We cut 15 minutes of that kind of crap after the first run and nobody was sad.

People can make jumps with you, too much work on complicated transition talking is rarely helpful for anyone.

Momentum matters. As does dramaturgical rhythm and drive. These don’t have to look all well-made-play or Canadian “all the threads connect in the end” but think about the experience of the audience and their attention.

Jonathon Burrows: “Not only must things change, but the rate at which things change must change.”

Emotion matters. (important: see “Allow, don’t generate”) The songs carried much of the emotion in the show, but there were other places we let it through and it was important.

If people want to research information, they’ll go to the library (or use google, who are we kidding) - they come to the theatre for something other than that. Maybe: For people, not so unlike them, trying to overcome an obstacle (“how do we talk about progress and science as non-experts”) and being reasonably entertaining while doing it (i.e. caring about the audiences experience)

ok… that’s a long list of generalness. Let me know if it’s useful of if there are specific thoughts.


You can also join me in seeing Architect Theatres' This is the place: The CN Tower Show at Theatre Passe Muraille (click here for more) to see how they dealt with things like this. I had a great time this summer with Georgina and Greg and am looking forward to seeing what they all came up with.

More on storytelling.

This is a long removed continuation of the conversation with Holger. But takes no account of the comments section which looks really good, but editing this post is more procrastination than I can afford.

For the other ways I deal with theses questions:
- Please join us at Koerner Hall any time (come and go) between 1:30 and 4am on Nuit Blanche for Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs. We'll be reading Gertrude Stein plays.
- Antigone Dead People tickets are now on sale. Click here to buy


I became an interesting tackling dummy.

I don’t know that many, looking at my body of work (with Small Wooden Shoe, Public Recordings and Dancemakers) would find an ongoing defence of narrative - though it’s true, I often like people narrating things. I like to watch and listen to people reading things. I like radio, podcasts, audiobooks - and I like it on stage - live and in process. This is not a global position on “What Theatre Is” – it is a preference. And I hope that with the correct application and approach, this preference can do something for me and for the other people who see the work.

But I find myself defending and promoting a kind of “story telling” - in large part because when I hear: “‘storytelling’ is reductive” - my reaction is about power. That it is a patronizing and “palace” response - dismissing the folk and the clear - privileging the refined (paid for) and exclusionary.

I used to champion the self proclaimed elitism of Howard Barker - and there is much in his writing I still respond to.

But in terms of cranky old Brits, John McGrath has taken over. This is, in some ways, a return. I think I might be happier if I could go back to Barker. Or if not happy, at least self-satisfied. There is something so cozy and reassuring in his writing. The way it soothes us that we, Theatre Artists, are so special - so much smarter and more right than everyone else. In a world where theatre is largely irrelevant this is nice to hear in my head:

“It is the world’s fault. It went wrong - if only we could return it too…[?]” Ignoring that unanswered question, it continues, “The thing that others do, ‘storytelling’ - we don’t do that. We do something holy, something transcendent and nobler. We are above storytelling”

I’m not. I like stories.[1]

I use common language and conversational tones for a reason - I will take their vague-ness and possible critical mis-interpretation over the simultaneous irrelevance-producing and status-confirming of jargon and the overly specific.

Emerging from post WWII European culture - with fascism and Soviet rule as clear examples, it is no wonder that Barker et al (with the continental philosophic backing of Barthes, Derrida, Lacan etc…) looked for art that could separate the individual and break up feelings of “togetherness.” Togetherness and sharing are the domains of the worst kinds of people - Party Members and Marketers. Socialists and Accountants clamour for the full house of laughing people.[link] Real Artists work to make sure each individual understands their solitary psychosis (Bond) or Catastrophe (Barker.) Brecht is replaced by Müller. Clowns are permitted - as long as there aren’t belly laughs. All these angry privileged dudes defending the well educated against the mindless mob.

I’m being reductive and a bit mean. Bitter in the way that only an ex-disciple can be. And I still carry the torch.

But in the end, I have no interest in arguing the nature of dramatic literature.

I am not satisfied with either relational aesthetics or commercial musicals. I understand that the vagueness, repetition and locality of populist strategies have (and continue to have) devastating outcomes for people, environments and movements that I treasure and care for.

But I want to fight against alienation and anomie, no matter where it comes from. I don’t want a togetherness that is without laughter, singing, sex, dancing, kindness and quiet moments.

And that’s the story I want to tell - because it is the story I want to live.


  1. “I like stories, I just don’t like plots” - Harmony Korine in a talk in Torotonto a bunch of years back. ↩

To talk about depression.

I read Jacob Wren’s post on the day I woke up feeling it and wondered about writing about it. About why I don’t.

I take two little pills a day and go see someone twice a week. I try to routinize my mornings and to exercise as part of that. I look for mindfulness training and other strategies. I use a fancy light for 20 minutes in the morning once it starts to get dark. It’s out now as I write this.

All to try to be better. My depression isn’t as severe as some and my pills are pretty low dosage, but they help. It all helps.There are good days and bad days. Sometimes I don’t do the things that help, sometimes I do. There are triggers and things that make it more work -
e.g. arranging rehearsal schedules - a crucial, but to me a difficult and disproportionately fraught, activity that is part of directing a theatre company.

When everything is going well and the projects are fantastic and the people are amazing, and still there are still issues - because there will always be issues[1] - I can edge towards the grumpy and grim.

In a time where I most need my excitement and energy to make these great projects work, with the support of so many great people, I linger and sink into depression. Maybe getting up and throwing the kettlebell around could help. Maybe closing my eyes and just making the calls could help. Maybe volunteering with the AIDS Committee of Toronto can put my shit in perspective and help.

Like Jacob, I sometimes think about depression as a reasonable response to a deeply unjust, alienating and anomic world. I have profound distrust of the pharma industry that developed the pills I take and a historical critique of the psychoanalytic frameworks that my therapist uses.

But they help - and they help me resist and look for alternatives to the unjust, alienating and anomie generating world - at least the small corner of it that I have influence on.

And maybe part of that resistance is talking about it in public a little more.
Living with the values that we use in the rehearsal room:
Admit what’s going on.
Try to help
.


  1. I want in no way to put this on anyone I work with. This is the stuff of life. ↩

On absolutely silly shit

[Doing some Front of House for TIFF really dented my blog production - I'm writing new stuff, inspired in part by Peaches and Joss Whedon, in the mean time, here's something I've been meaning to post for a few years now.]

One of the troubles of Dedicated to the Revolutions (and maybe many Small Wooden Shoe projects) was reconciling some of the big idea thinking with the often absurd, stupid and/or plain silly stuff that happens on stage.

But in this trouble is something important to me – part of the big idea itself.

A goal is to find a big thinking that includes the silly – one a little different from the “absurdism” of the fifties and the Dada of the 30’s - both of which are bleaker and more absolute then what I’m interested in – too close to nihilism / hedonism. That there is silliness and positive movement – that we can recognize and create absurdity and impossibility – and enjoy them – and move on them. (That is, not thinking that everything is absurd or impossible and therefore we shouldn’t act)

Absurdity can paralyze but it doesn’t need to.

And positive action doesn’t need to rule out or ignore silliness.

And the holding up of apparently contradictory positions and moving between them is one of my desires and a large part of Dedicated to the Revolutions. To put together disparate things - not in collage or to generate synthesis. But to propose that they belong to the same ecology - and while that’s tricky, unclear, provisional, temporary and fluid (all those protection words)

it is something we can talk about,

something we can sense (our senses can identify)

silliness/big ideas

art/science

irony/sincerity

all of these things are present and that’s not paradoxical - it’s just true.

A not really geeky request and 2 helpful applications

Starting a second geek-centric post with a request:[please, no one take this personal, so many do it:]

FOR THE LOVE OF GODput your name in the file name of your bio. Seriously. Don’t send anyone a file named “bio.doc” or “newbio.docx”

With only going to level 1 of this: “Zimmer-bio-2012.rtf”

I use dashes or hyphens cause in the olden days files couldn’t handle spaces, and it’s still better for the inter web.

Same for applications:: “MFA application final.doc” is fine for me as the applicant - but do you want to be the person sorting through 100 of those? Trying to match them with the appropriate “My resumeNEW.doc”?

The next step is putting the date in the file or agreeing on file name protocols with collaborators - all Antigone Dead People files should include “ADP” in the fine name. This means if I need to search for something on my computer that is for the show, I just spotlight: “ADP” and I can (ideally) see everything related, no matter where on my computer it is. I still really like nested folders as a way to file things, but that doesn’t mean I want to dig through and try to remember where I put it.

File naming is an act of compassion for others and your future self.

2 little geeky applications:

Text Expander

Link
I don’t use this to maximum capacity by any measure,
but as someone who likes shows and companies with long names (see: Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs) and spends a lot of time writing about them - Text Expander is a blessing.

Very basically - you set up shortcuts and TE expands them so:
“ssws” = Small Wooden Shoe
“swsorg” = http://www.smallwoodenshoe.org
“hhome” = my home address
“swsrpd” = Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs

when writing a play, this can get helpful for character names:
“G$” = Galileo

It can also do email signatures and things that change - so
“ddate” = todays date : 12-09-04
“wddate” = todays date “wide” : September 4, 2012

It cost money, but I think is worth it.

Alfred:

Alfred uses the butler metaphor well and is basically a way to launch applications and files (and do much much more if you want to.)
Link
Computers are much better at certain things than I am, including remembering where files are and opening them. I’m trying to find ways to let them do those things so I can do the other things (like writing blog posts, grant applications, production schedules and sometimes directing theatre.)

Let me know if this stuff interests you or if there's anything specific and geeky you'd like to know about. All this stuff can get really fiddly - but also is helpful.

Unthrowing my name

[Background]

I am revoking / not going to submit my application for the position of Artistic Director of Factory Theatre.

There are some very practical reasons.[1]
but more than those -

My application was made in an effort to have a conversation. This hasn’t materialized. I’ve had some interesting private chats with people I run into, but, despite being able to see that the blog posts have been read bunches – there has been no real conversation about possibilities. I know that close friends have not known how to start conversations with me about the proposal, so maybe there’s something in the writing or the mood. If that is going to be true, I want no part of it. The conversation that has been happening on Facebook and in the press is of zero interest to me and makes me depressed and frustrated. My only possible responses are sharp and unhelpful. If that is going to be true, I want no part of it.

Which leads to the most important reason: I don’t want the job.
Don’t get me wrong, I want a job (anyone?) and
I really like the idea of a home for the work I want to do. Work that includes theatre, but also includes community and neighbourhood. I think more theatres need to become neighbourhood centres[2], have real connection with the people and businesses that surround them and respond to the local issues and needs.

And, honestly, I don’t want to spend that much time in the entertainment district. Bathurst may have been something else before and something else in the future, but as it is, I’m not the person to try and make the Factory into the kind of local working / internationally looking neighbourhood theatre space that I want to be a part of.

I’m not sure that big ship can turn. Or, again, I’m not the person for it. I’m un-interested in fighting the forces that will lay claim to the legacy. I don’t care to struggle through the press and the conservatism[2] of the “community” evidenced this summer. While I have many differences in outlook and approach, I have such empathy for Matthew Jocelyn and his struggles with a hostile environment for change.

also
Given the range of change possible, I think an Artistic Director who is not a white dude would be better. This shift might get the boat turning and better reflect the Toronto and Canada that should be represented in downtown theatres. I would urge that there needs to be more than the same types of works written and performed by different people, but different people might be a decent place to start.

ultimately and productively -
I want to be part of starting something else. It will probably not be in the Entertainment District (which seems to have spread west to Ossington and north to Bloor) and it will probably be something more than a “home for the Canadian playwright.”
I’m not sure what it is, or how we get there. . But those are problems I’m way more interested in working on with others. (Want to join?)

Thanks for the conversations that I have had - it’s been a very useful process of writing and coming to this place. I wish everyone involved better summers in the future.


  1. Like not thinking the “boss” is going to resign in order to interview me. And having other things I’d rather be working on. ↩
  2. Not all. And some are. ↩
  3. Literally, “wanting to conserve things as they are”. ↩

Attention and behaviour

Some recent (slightly cranky) thoughts on attention and good audience behaviour:

Be interesting enough to take photos of and record

If the person next to me taking photo is more interesting or too distracting compared to what is on stage – that’s the performances problem not the audience members.

That person is a fan - or potential fan. A fan who is so excited by what they’re seeing that they want to share.

Choir!Choir!Choir has been successful mostly because it’s a great idea, led well (a lesson for theatre in there too.) ALSO, it’s a great idea that has been documented well and shared - allowing it to spread.

Anyone here have a serious current issue with bootleg images and recordings ruining their business plan?
Anyone here have a serious problem with too many fans who care about what you’re doing?
I hate to speak for others, but I’m going to wager the answers are no.

Yes, yes of course – “But my show’s that’s not a like that, it’s quiet and delicate flower and requires full attention” – sure you can still try to arrest with quiet quality - I love those shows too. The show I can barely imagine breathing in, let alone take a picture.[1]

I believe that coming together in quiet reflection and solidarity is needed in this world – especially for us secular folks who don’t have the space provided by religious practice.

I think there are people who really want and need that, and that it’s a service that theatre can provide some of the time.

None of these beliefs are going to change what the audience walks in the door with. That’s my work as an artist.

It seems likely that the focused perfect submission in the dark room is no longer going to be the norm. The brief period between the integration of electricity and middle class decorum through to the invention of the ubiquitous computer/camera/connection device may have been the heyday for our quiet shows[2]. But, with the rate of theatre’s adaptation, we’ve still got time - as long as we don’t need new people to come.

Take our attention

If you have to harangue us with volunteers and pleading from the stage to pay attention you are: a) doing it wrong. b) doing it at the wrong time c) doing it in the wrong place d)all of the above. - Taylor Mac taught me that in a heartbeat.

We’re so busy threatening to charge people with transgressing, we’ve forgotten our job is to arrest and encourage them.

We’re supposed to lead, not plead for a return to yesteryear.


  1. I don’t take pictures or tweet during shows. I have enough trouble paying attention, and besides they often don’t turn out. But that’s me and this stuff is not native to me.[?]
  2. No way that Beckett writes Godot in the same production conditions that Shakespeare writes Henry IV.[?]

Public Application

On the day that the situation is back in the news,

Here is a draft of my Letter of Experience for the position of
Artistic Director of Factory Theatre.

I've broken it, for the purposes of the blog, into three posts
plus the older cover letter

Lots of people have asked if I expect that this will even be considered.
I don't know.
While the talk of mediation is important and hopeful, in the online discussion at least, there's lots of ego and turf claiming and stake placing. I can't imagine that being on the board is particularly fun or rewarding right now, so maybe a way out that isn't about "loosing" is a possible way out.

(of course, if I were doing this behind closed doors, it'd be more likely)

(and of course, they may just not want me for the job)

I also have no idea how the boycotters would react to my unlikely hiring. The language is very clear around Ken's return, but I would certainly be reaching out - lots of those people are friends and respected colleagues.

All that said, I submit this letter for review. Comments are welcome.
Typo and grammar corrections can just be sent to me direct at jacob at smallwoodenshoe.org - as can other feedback if you want.
There seems to be some shyness about talking about this in public for many folk.

Comments here are also welcome

Public Application: Cover Letter
A change in the cover letter: Originally I had said January 1st as a date for the turn over of the Board to be set. That seems unreasonable in terms of good governance and operation of the company, so I've moved it to March 1st, 2013.

Public Application Part 1: of Values
Public Application Part 2: Personal Background (an extended version of my bio - skippable)
Public Application Part 3: @Factory Theatre

Public Application Part 1: of Values

[In which I articulate some by big picture values for doing what I do]

of Values

It is the event of theatre that excites me. The meeting of two groups of people: one group who mostly knows what is going to happen and one group who mostly doesn’t. One group who mostly witnesses and one who mostly does. This meeting of publics and artists is so full of potential and hope: the excitement and unknown generated by a simple trip out, the faith and desire expressed by the audiences’ presence, the labour and love of the artists. The manner, meaning and ambition of this meeting is my primary concern in the theatre.

I want to speak to the curious part of people and to the alienated who wish they weren't. This is a potentially broad and diverse group, since I believe in the capacity for curiosity in everyone and we live in deeply alienating times. I don't think theatre is going to "cure alienation" or completely fulfill anyone’s curiosity. That would be absurd and terrible for them and us but I am drawn to create spaces in which people come together. Spaces in which there are conversations about things that people care about. The time is relaxed and filled with laughter, but death and politics are still discussed, people fall in and out of love, plans are hatched and actions taken. Stories are told. Songs are sung. A social, community-generating environment is created. The impact of Cape Breton and Halifax on my work should not be overlooked.

Public Application: Cover Letter
Public Application Part 1: of Values
Public Application Part 2: Personal Background (an extended version of my bio - skippable)
Public Application Part 3: @Factory Theatre

Public Application Part 2: of Background

[Biographical information: most worth skipping - if you're on the blog you might have some sense of it already.]Public Application: Cover Letter

Public Application Part 1: of Values

Public Application Part 3: @Factory Theatre


Beginning with my family and deepened by my experience as a director, dramaturge and organizer, I have been encouraged to be curious and critical with a belief that what we do and how we do it matters – politically, socially and ethically. I’ve been inspired to believe that the best things matter to the broader society I live in, as well as the community closest to me; that there is a responsibility to make something that matters.

I have independently produced and directed over 25 new works in the past thirteen years. With Sabotage Group (Founding member, Vancouver and Toronto) and then Small Wooden Shoe (Founding Director, Halifax and Toronto) I’ve expressed the belief that developing a sound artistic practice shouldn’t limit me to one performance genre or methodology. My work has included political agit-prop; hard-boiled live-to-air radio; Chekhov adaptations; multi-media solo shows and the conversational formalism I’ve become best known for. I have worked with playwrights, co-translated Brecht, staged monumental readings, convened community Christmas concerts, on-line think tanks, public meetings, taught workshops, sat on panels, given keynote lectures and written for publication.

My projects are created in collaboration. I often bring the conceptual framework and starting points to the collaborators and the work is the result of the responses to my propositions and my response to those responses. This creative feedback-loop expands the work beyond the possibilities of a single maker, with all participants having a personal investment in the work, while maintaining a distinct and rigorous artistic vision.

Most of this work has been done with regular collaborators of Small Wooden Shoe, and has also included important partnerships with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Dancemakers, High Performance Rodeo, Hub 14, Theatre Passe Muraille and Canadian Stage, among others. We have found touring partners in Edmonton (WorkshopWest) Calgary (One Yellow Rabbit); Kitchener (Magnetic North,) Halifax (Eastern Front Theatre) and most recently, Montreal (OFFTA). I believe in the strength of these partnerships. We live in interdependent times and need to embrace that.

In my on-going dramaturgical relationship with Ame Henderson and Public Recordings I’ve participated in and grown from working with dance artists of incredible quality and on the development of performances that are at the edge of their field and have toured nationally and internationally.

Through my work as Resident Dramaturge and Animateur at Dancemakers and the Centre for Creation, I have invested in questions of how a company with a significant history engages with new work development, audience experience and organizational structure and leadership. Assisting Artistic Director Michael Trent, I have helped program seasons and taken part in strategic planning and field-wide discussions of value-based leadership and the role of performing arts institutions and spaces in the arts field and broader world

.

Public Application Part 3: @Factory

@Factory Theatre

[In which I talk about what imagine for a space like Factory. This is the first stage of the application and I haven't seen any numbers or talked with staff, so there is an aspirational tone without the specifics, but I believe in collaborating based on aspirations and then working hard on the "how."]

Public Application: Cover Letter
Public Application Part 1: of Values
Public Application Part 2: Personal Background (an extended version of my bio - skippable)


The space — physical, social and historical — that Factory Theatre affords is an amazing opportunity. I imagine a range of works on the main stage — works of scale, intimate works, musicals, adaptations and translations of classics from all parts of the world and brave breaks from what has come before. Artistic and political adventure with a populist frame. I imaging a “Never Be Dark” philosophy, with the Studio used as a flexible social performance space.

The building is an opportunity for an important centre for the city and the community. We must find a way, together as an organization, to make commitment more than slogans, we must aggressively match lived experience to our values. We have to lead in the Canadian milieu with a sophisticated and nimble relationship to our publics. As we bring them to us, so must we go to them and reach where they are - physically and virtually. I am inspired by movements towards transparency and affordable tickets. I am inspired by theatres that become more than theatres. Theatres that serve their communities

While there is no doubt that I would bring significant change to the company, I also believe in the values Factory has stood for: giving emerging artists an early safe space to flail (we all flail), nurturing on-going relationships with theatre makers of all generations and providing a space for Toronto as-it-is to be reflected and shaped. The wisdom of the current staff, associated artists and patrons are a great strength and must be collaboratively engaged with.

Working values of investment, respect and pleasure can guide these collaborations.

Looking ahead I imagine a theatre that embraces scale and ambition while maintaining the ethics of community and directness. I am compelled to find a populism I can stand behind. I want to direct a theatre that believes and provides “a good night out” while also engaging in the political, social and existential problems of our time. I continue to believe and pursue a practice that is rooted in the local and looks to the national and international for conversation and opportunity.

I will be happy to speak more to these ideas in future conversations.

Finally, I am not proposing to leave my position with Small Wooden Shoe to take the position with Factory Theatre. Rather, I propose: Small Wooden Shoe @Factory Theatre.

Small Wooden Shoe would continue to be the home for my artistic creation practice, allowing me to select, with the team, the other programming at the theatre so it continues to be a home for a diversity of voices and practices. Artistic leadership in the current and coming times can be driven by curation and programming - not just of works, but, by being a home to meet the public, of artists and collaborations.

I also propose a five year term for this relationship, extendable by one year if the situation requires and both the Board and I agree. After that, I will remain Artistic Director of Small Wooden Shoe, leaving Factory to new leadership and vision.

I believe the Factory Theatre has and can continue to have a central role in the theatre of Canada. I would like to be a part of that, assuming that we can reach agreement on the transition.

Thank you for your consideration
Jacob Zimmer

Artistic Director - Small Wooden Shoe

Future Present Shock 1

I just did a little survey that Eventbrite asked me to, and there were a couple interesting things for theatre:

… over the next 12 months, how important do you think information from social networks will become in identifying the best attendees for events you plan to organize?” [emphasis mine]

Not any attendee, not “new” or “returning” but “best.” “Best” – despite what the world might have us believe – does not have to mean richest, or most powerful or most cool – to me, it means the people who care the most and the people who find (or might find in the future) some solidarity and help in the work I’m part of. They are the people who stand in line, who sign up and unfortunately, the people we tend know very little about.

Chatting with the great young makers at S.L.I.P. – I was the internet guy, pushing for basic uses of web analytics to help identify who cares about us. That might tell us how best to let them know about what we’re doing.

“Basic” because I don’t think any of us have the numbers to do the hard-core stuff. But please, check your stats on open rates, click rates, platform (mobile or computer), software (browser), search terms, page interest and on and on.1

The other issue it raised was a clear focus on mobile. As in an assumption that mobile will play a large role in events and ticketing in the future. 56% of Small Wooden Shoes emails are first opened on a phone. If you are in a major wealthy city, and your email or website doesn’t work easily on a phone, it’s broken. And a bit embarrassing. Simple. Because its not that hard to fix. Services like Wordpress and Squarespace have pretty clear ways to make mobile versions - the branding and design won’t necessarily stay the same, but when I’m on your site on my phone I’m not looking for fancy and pretty - I’m probably looking for information. Make it easy. It’s insane to try and predict the future of this stuff. But I’ll go out on a limb and say, we won’t see less mobility.

All this can make me feel like I’m wandering away from the work - except of course, that dealing with the world and the people in it is my work.


  1. If you don’t get this information from you website, contact database and email distribution (I use Mail Chimp - there are others) – you need to change them. Sunk costs are no reason to stay with software or processes that are difficult to use and don’t provide the information you need.  ?

Playing the conditions

"The fundamental challenge remains: How can you foster both a deep and applied understanding of how things currently get done in a professional field, while also deeply questioning those standards of practice?"
-- Traditions of the calling - The Artful Manager

Can we both "play the condition" and work to change those conditions? It's a question that's been rattling around.

Tied as a performer - and as a producer and more importantly as a human being - to the questions in realism and pragmatism, it continues to trip me up.

In theatre school "playing the condition" was a significant part of what I took from the acting training of Penelope Stella and Marc Diamond (still missed.)

"Admit what's going on" is how I phrase it these days.

To see the world as close to as-it-is as I can manage, understand the circumstances that led here and then deal with this moment as honestly as possible. Whether applied to a fictional character, a task based improvisation or group facilitation, I find it hard to imagine "play the condition" not being decent advice to start from.

However, Brought up against a world so needing changing - whose conditions are unacceptable and unbearable for so many - do I play those conditions or try to change them?

In a positive sense, playing the condition is a call to be mindful of the situation on the ground; not to pine for a past that was never as good as we pretend and certainly never going to return; to take the situation as we find it and find a way.

In a less good sense, it can be seen as accepting the status quo and trying, at best, to game the system. It raises the historic failures of "changing the system from within."

It bristles against the hard-liner in my head that wants the conditions radically changed before any playing is to be done. "Playing the condition is the privilege of the few. The rest are played by the condition." …etc, etc.

I don't know that there are answers - but the question seems important.

loose thoughts at the end: It's worth being weary of abstracting performance practices and theories into geo-politics or social principles, but I think it is worth trying on, at least for moment.

Difference if not Contention

In Toronto Theatre: Five Points of Contention Holger Syme raises a lot of good questions and makes his arguments in a clear way. There are things I agree with and things I don't -- but thanks so much to Holger for bringing them out in a non-hysterical mode that allows for generous disagreement.

Below I go through his 5 contentions one at a time, include a brief summery of Holger's point (and approved by him.)

dir /w> 1.Our theatre needs classics 2.Our theatre is predictable 3.There is never enough time 4.Our theatre is a deeply immoral institution 5.Money isn’t doing what money should be doing


1. Our theatre needs classics

Approved summery: There are not enough plays from before the 20th century done in Toronto. This is in part due to false notions of relevance and nationalism.

I would frame this a little differently: Our culture needs context. And so stories are helpful.

My practical answer to most of this is in the becoming-regular Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs

there is something more radically surprising about an innovative staging of an old play than about any staging of a never-before-seen play, because the former comes prepackaged with expectations that can be disrupted.[…]

plays become “classics” because of their ability to remain current — to continue to feel like “emergent” works, to continue to speak to audiences generation after generation (even if what the play is taken to say may shift radically from century to century).

This is, I think, confusing stories with plays.

The story of Iphigenia was well known at the time. Known stories are helpful entry ways into being able to change stuff up. They can also provide structure, which can be super helpful. This is very different from staging the old play.

I love the story of the Oresteia - but I will buy a ticket for a Charles Mee way faster than for a translation of Aeschylus – even for some fancy new translation. We are in a different time. Story telling modes change. (This DOES NOT mean grafting on conceits and technologies of the day - there better be a deeper zeitgeist than that in the modes of theatre)

Obviously - as Small Wooden Shoe finally gets to show people Even Webber’s Antigone Dead People – a show that has been supported by many and took a while to come to the stage – I think a lot about why we return to certain stories. But that’s a whole other post. <top>

2. Our theatre is predictable

Approved Paraphrase: There is not enough diversity of practice and approaches to work - new or old. Every play should be treated as new. Timidity is bad and a healthy competition for innovation would help.

That’s true. And I agree with you on most of this. (Though I think Factory could easily commission new tellings.) And I love the Brecht quotes, but I guess that’s not surprising.

I still think there’s a difference between a story and a play. Between a new treating of an old story and a new production of an old play.

The language has so changed and the way we hear language as people in the world, has changed. The way we understand pictures and what it means to be human has changed since the script first played. Never mind that the understanding is different between Halifax and Toronto. So something needs to be worked, to become local.

This is also true of translations - the Brecht translations (the ones I’m familiar with) need to be updated. They can play fast and with humour and they’re great that way – not the boring museum piece or an overwrought Müller rendition.

My Brecht is a Brecht for here and now. The translation I like and work on might not play in Germany, that’s fine, I’m not in Germany. All this to say, we need our classics. We’re also not all from one little white area of the globe anymore. Classics are going to be different now, if there’s to be any meaning in them.

I really don’t want to watch a bunch of people try to out innovate each other. They can start a jam band. Or invent a time machine to a different time. Also, I have seen some terribly boring European theatre too. Good work is good work. And the other way.

I worry about defining the problem with the word “timid”, only because my mind jumps to antonyms like aggressive, angry, rash, and to a lot of yelling and serious meaningful faces, and I want to die a little. Or at least, I want to do something else with my night out.

Because it can and must be a good night out. Good ideas are entertaining. The separation of pleasure and theatre is not helping anyone.

But also of course, bravery and courage are required. This is terrifying shit we’re doing and the material rewards are so little as to make us all into amateurs (those in it for love.) And it takes real bravery to work with pleasure and rigour and politics and ethics. And not many people are trying to do that. So that requires some courage. (To be reminded of the cliche that courage is only required where there is real danger and fear.) <top>

3. There is never enough time

Approved summery quote: "You can’t be innovative, or radical, or especially deep, or especially thoughtful in a three-week rehearsal process. It’s just not enough time."

There is magic math I believe in. A math of rehearsal time and interesting-ness. 4 hours is enough. 8 is too long. 24 hours, if in a row, is enough. One week is enough, 2 is dangerous. It goes on. And is imprecise and probably deeply personal.

But something in it holds - with Small Wooden Shoe’s work we think about it a lot. For the big theatre projects, I prefer multiple short chunks of rehearsal (10 –14 days) that have various sorts of pressures - performing for people usually - ideally spread out over longer time frame. I like to have time to let things settle and reflect in important ways. It also gives us the time to change our minds, something dearly lacking.

Also, I am useless after, at most, 6 hours of group work, and I don’t think I’m alone. Quiet time is needed in our life. As is time in parks and with friends doing things other than working on some play.

The intensive model I can get behind is the retreat mode. This often means short rehearsal times because of the cost of room and board - but I like it a lot. Especially on farms. The company eats together and lives together. The grounding happens through that process, and the space created by the distance from home.

For the fast work, we think about the importance of time math. We’re asking performers to swing big and have fun inside challenging material, and we think this can reveal meaning and depth. This means we try to be very clear and that we rely on the actors competencies. It is time to let loose and trust the years of work and pleasures of playing that have come before. It’s about allowing choices to made - getting out of our own way in the same way that long rehearsal periods can be about getting around our blind spots and inhibitions. The readers theatre is really a kind of actors theatre. Given all that, Leora and I are going to play to people’s strengths - a (basically) cold read is no time to get tricky with casting.

In these ongoing projects we build a language and a process and keep a good balance of regular collaborators and new people. This is what a standing company could also do. None of us have the resources to move beyond project funding, and so without alternative economic models, are not going to be able to maintain a “company.” I’m not convinced that that’s the model I’m interested in anyway. I want a creative and strategic core that is a stable and diverse team, but different projects need different people.

What I interested in with Small Wooden Shoe (and I don’t think we’re alone) is to create a more open company structure: where there is leadership and real value placed on previous experience in the processes and a relationship with the values of the work and we recognize the value of bringing new people into the work. (This work interests me - Jonah Lehrer scandal aside)

Part joys of the Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs is that we get to meet and introduce people who don’t know each other. And enjoy reading difficult plays. Even this little blow to alienation from labour is a start.

HONEST QUESTION And besides: How does a Shakespeare scholar support longer rehearsal times, given the modes of production at the time? I don’t want to open the original practices can of worms (or maybe I do.)<top>

4. Our theatre is a deeply immoral institution

Approved summary: It is immoral and unsustainable for theatre to be in a continual semi-pro status. It leads to under-realized projects, one person self directed shows and jack-of-all-trades master-of-none "theatre artists."

The “theatre artist” - for better or worse, comes in large part from a 60s movement of shrugging off the heavy dead velvets of a colonial hierarchy and trying to find room for autonomy. So it’s not shocking that it’s different in the mother country. It came at a time when the silos of universities, big institutional theatres and professional associations had almost succeeded in fitting an art practice into the beurocratic industrial frame. It came when there was so much more new money, that the cup runneth over and a little spilled over the edges of the institutions to almost create an independent scene.

That being said - I agree that skills are varied and that fact should be celebrated and put to use. We all have strengths and weaknesses – things we enjoy and are good at and things we’re bad at and don’t like doing. Largely, I try to find ways to do more of the former. And then find people who compliment those features and try to work with them. Enforcing singular roles on people or people doing things resentfully and poorly isn’t going to help. The money’s not good enough for resentment and the last thing we need is bitter and bad art.

Capacity, talent and desire should shape what people do. Desire usually trumps. Which should be leading to some difficult conversations, but often doesn’t.

We are also in the age of artist/producer - perhaps after only a short and lobotomizing detour. I keep meaning to return to Walter Benjamin’s The Author as Producer. The skills of dealing with the world are changing. I’m sorry that upsets the some part of the current racket. There is another essay coming on that article and how it plays now.

I am in complete agreement about cast size. Love me a big cast.<top>

5. Money isn’t doing what money should be doing

Approved Summery: The funding distribution is broken and supports an unsustainably large number of companies with unsustainably small amounts of money. There are options other than direct Council funding to projects.

I too lean this way time to time. That less people should be getting more money. But I will certainly say, reading it here, I thought, “That’s fine for tenure track to say.” The problem is that when any of us imagine this possibility, we imagine the money going to the projects and companies that we would pick. Which, given history, is an incorrect assumption.

I want encourage living wages, diverse earnings and support amateurism. All at the same time. And if we don’t do the last two, the first one isn’t coming.

Find me one knowledge worker who only does one thing any more? The age of life long single specialization is over. We can have some sadness, regret or outrage about this, but pretending that nothing has change isn’t going to be helpful. I worry sometimes that I missed a golden age that I should fight for the return of. But then, I believe in a guaranteed minimum income for all residents of Canada (not just the one town that one time) - so when we really want to talk economic models that don’t replicate and ensconce power, let’s talk about that.

And I certainly agree that the granting system needs a good shake. But I’m not signing on until it’s clear that established companies aren’t always going to come out the winner. I’m very curious about the changes to Canada Council Operating Grants changes. And IF they were made less substantial after the consultations – who were the current clients lobbying to prevent movement of funds based on value of contribution?

The 3rd party recommender system has real strengths, but it adds a bunch of curation and admin onto the theatres that they might not have interest or capacity in, and not everyone is a curator. It also runs the risk of turning to the NEA where only institutions can get grants and power stays the same.

But, no, don’t dream - You have a university worth of space. Who’s stopping us? The big bad System is a thing we made up and agree to keep making up the same boring way. Waiting for someone else (especially one doing ok in the current system) to change is a mugs game.

We can imagine different ways and agree on those.

It’s not going to be London in the good old days - (was that the bear bating or the blackface?) - nor Chicago or New York or Berlin. It might not be Bathurst Street or Queen Street, and I’m not placing bets on the Distillery. So it probably should be Mississauga or Scarborough or maybe the Junction.

What would we have to do?<top>