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.

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



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

To start to talk about genres

Perhaps in a Hundred YearsI like genre pieces. which shouldn't be surprising. I learned to read and imagine in the worlds of pulp fantasy and slightly better science fiction. Even now, when I read fiction, it is usually some clear genre - sci-fi and fantasy have been joined by mysteries (the harder boiled the better), spy novels and historical fiction.

I'm not an expert in any of these genres, which is maybe why I don't identify them as influences as much as maybe I should. But writing about up-coming work recently, there were two science fiction projects (Upper Toronto and Perhaps in a Hundred Years [opening at Summerworks on Thursday]), one ghost story and I had just received an email about a hard-boiled radio show I had done 10 years ago. Dedicated to the Revolutions is a science vaudville - not a common genre, but I think still a genre.

Genre obviously gives a frame and some distance that allows for different stories to be told, for a different kind of thought experiment or "what-if." This observation is nothing new, but in theatre it's less talked about.

It's certainly not part of the critical discourse or "legitimate art"* theatre.

Why is that?

*I'm not even show what I mean by that, but I still think it holds true.

More coming on this subject. I would love to hear thoughts or get links.

What I was thinking


THE “WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?” AWARD Small Wooden Shoe’s Dedicated to the Revolutions, in which theatre artists attempted, badly, to explain scientific concepts they did not, or could not be bothered to, understand. What’s next: Hairdressers Teach Shakespeare

I would like to answer the question, “What were we thinking?” (At least for myself, I can’t speak for the others.) I think your question was rhetorical, but it’s always a fair one. I also think it’s fine if you didn’t like the show – of course that’s going to happen. But I do think that questions should be given some kind of response.

When we made Dedicated to the Revolutions, I was thinking a lot about expertise and knowledge – about broader social questions of specialization and the assumptions that go along with them.

A culture in which some people are allowed to speak of certain things and others (hairdressers, actors and the like) should just sit quietly and then applaud at the end is what I was thinking about. I was thinking that science (and art) are areas where this opinion is particularly strong – areas where non-experts fear to venture due to possible scorn and humiliation at the hands of the experts.

It’s an attitude that can lead to catastrophe as expertise removes itself from the everyday and we suddenly find ourselves with an economic crisis we can’t understand, a world we have to take on faith and hairdressers that aren’t allowed to do anything else.

I was thinking about how there might be room for something other than a particular kind of virtuosity and showing-off. And I love virtuosity and showing-off, and I think from your list that it’s the style of art you prefer too, but I wonder about other options – of proposing other strategies.

Of proposing vulnerability and even the importance of exposing our vulnerability in public. The show was loose and goofy in parts – maybe too much for your tastes – but it was intentional. The act of standing in front of people and trying to think, as opposed to recite, with pleasure, desire and not a small amount of vulnerability was a proposal for the loosening of the structures that dictate who can think about what.

Questions of expertise and virtuosity in art are long standing and always shifting, but those aren’t the most important questions – taste in theatre and the people who write about it will change and change back. It’s the social questions I return to.

Of course a 90-minute performance isn’t going to solve these problems. But maybe we can be part of a discussion; maybe we can open up the conversation even just a bit.

That’s a least part of what I was thinking.

Jacob Zimmer Artistic Director, Small Wooden Shoe