Going Meta. Going forward.

I (like most of us) have no inside information on the reasons behind the cancellation of Helen Lawrence at the FTA beyond what is in the Globe article and the statements Arden Ryshpan and the Canadian Actors Equity Association (CAEA) have posted and comments on Facebook. But (like most of us) the headline alone was a trigger and I have some thoughts. Not so much about the case itself (because we don’t know anything), but about how it was handled and what the response tells us about the state of things.

Where I come from:

  1. Born, raised pro-Union radical left.
  2. The legacy organizations and metaphors - labour and producers etc… - in theatre and performance are not helping right now. Change is needed in how we organize and who gets to big salaries and Bay St. offices
  3. I want a 21st Century Labour Movement. We need it. The increased disparity between the rich and the rest is very bad news and only action in solidarity can change it.

So, in this case - in terms of public or community perception:

CAEA blew it because

  1. Near-total lack of faith in the CAEA in the indie community (members and non - the poorest of the field) or amongst people trying to figure out how to make and show theatre in the 21st Century. There is little belief that CAEA is protecting anyone other than themselves and their richest members (those working regularly in A house and above) or are in touch with the realities of making and showing work outside of the legacy PACT models. This lack of faith is based on decades of policy, behaviour and broken relationships.
  2. CAEA release citing timing of the request as cause for the concession. This reeks of the worst nightmare images that artist-producers have of dealing with the CAEA. It seems this is less the reason, but this initial release was perhaps the worst thing they could have said.
  3. People in community want these big co-production shows to work and know that there is such scarcity and rapidity of change that even the big A houses like Canadian Stage et al. need to find new and different ways and timings of getting things done.

Some good reasons that could have changed the story:

  1. A struggle against Precarity. That the CAEA is fighting the fight for artists not bearing the brunt of increased precarity in our economic system while executive, administrative, marketing and development staff have relative stability and high wages (cf #2.)
  2. Income disparity. That the CAEA is fighting for appropriate ratios of expenses between what artists receive and what executive, administrative, marketing and development staff receive (not to mention airline and logistic companies.) Negotiating for reasonable proximity in the ratio between the highest and lowest paid at the producer and presenters organization and where the performers fit in that is something I think people think CAEA could do.
  3. Unacceptable conditions That the CAEA was protecting members from a room, process, work or tour that had - for whatever reasons - gone deeply south and no longer constituted “safe working conditions.” It happens. It’s shitty when it does but it’s what solidarity is there to help with. Articulating this should include the continued anonymity of details and people involved, but is very different from saying “they didn’t file paperwork on time.”

Some big picture values that might help going forward

  1. Trust
    1. CAEA acting and altering policy in ways to build trust in membership and sector (especially younger and indie) that they are acting in good faith with a dynamic and up-to-date understanding the world. This will take a while and a lot of work.
    2. Transparent wages in the arts and adoption of Wagemark for all non-profit arts organization.
    3. Transparent relationships between all involved. See the Brooklyn Commune for some ideas. (but in basketball - down with Brooklyn, up with the North.)
  2. Responsive
    1. There is a need to shift to scale and types of work and have all parties able to do that. The world is always changing and we have to get with that.
    2. Different from compliant or complicit. Responsive doesn’t mean giving in to everything, but it does mean being able to change and contain difference.
  3. Justice
    1. Recognition that cultural workers are vasty underpaid relatively to the wealth of our country and that the long term goal is the raising of quality of life for the most people possible.
    2. Recognition that cultural workers have privilege and power that can be used to raise the quality of life for the most people possible or to participate in continued systemic failures.
    3. For all these solutions CAEA and producers would have to be an equal participants - i.e. sharing data on expenses and income disparity between executive staff and lowest paid member.
    4. Transparency is an often used weapon of the witch hunt, the bully and the oppressor - this is not my goal.

My regrets that this particular case didn't go down in a way we all would like and that people lost the chance to see the show and the work that was possible. Let's make it better going forward.

Maker - Artist as Producer Pt 2

Maker notebookI’ve been thinking about maker culture and theatre lately.

Briefly - “Maker” gets used to describe a hacker/DIY culture that values getting involved in building tech and stuff from the ground up (see: Wikipedia, CBC’s Spark.) There’s a leaning towards digital, robots and 3D printing, but I might toss in the resurgence of craft and reclaimed wood into the broad category.

There’s also lots of stuff around on “artist as entrepreneur” (like a whole magazine issue) and while I get the angle and think it can be helpful to bust up the entitled bureaucracy of Not-For-Profit conservatism, there is something in "maker" that draws me in. It resists the Always Be Closing, money driven image that entrepreneur calls to mind – but mostly making sounds more like what I want to do with my life. I’ve had a DIY value set since the beginning1 and I want to continue that, even as my ambitions grow.

There are questions of course: barriers to entry (knowing how to code) and orders of mystery (I don't want to have to make everything I use) and the fact that maker cultures are often amateur and/or supported by day jobs. But it’s a frame that I find helpful right now. And want to acknowledge more.

Making theatre, as I imagine it, is led by curiosity and a desire to put things in the world that make it better. It’s dedicated to human scale and connections. It’s social and accessible in the doing and the seeing. It's resourceful and cunning, ethical and generous.

An important part of maker culture that I’m missing, is the getting together. Toronto theatre big as it is, has all the problems of Toronto, big as it is.3 We’re busy, we’re trying to get by, we’re moving around and staying in our hoods. There are festivals and openings, conferences and professional development opportunities, but making needs something a bit different - it needs hackerspaces and meet ups. Something more open and announced than drinks with friends and less formal and certainly less expensive than associations and conferences in swank hotels.

It needs a bar night.

So, let’s make one. - Next Thursday - January 24th. Monarch Tavern (12 Clinton). Anytime after 7. They have drinks and some food for sale. (and some pinball) CLICK HERE for more info/let me know you’re coming.

Everyone is welcome. I talk about theatre in this, but think there are shared issues with dance makers, music makers etc…) No agenda or structure. Social and led by desire.

It's that easy if we want it to be.

  1. My parents were back to the landers and both did a lot of starting things. Halifax was a pretty boring place for a teenager, so fun had to be made. At university I was given the tools2 and as a young artist there was little was little option. I was (am) too contrarian / scattered / picky / impatient etc… to be a very good assistant director or to work my way up some ladder of approval in the established theatre. So the only option was to make and produce my own work. This has, almost to a fault, continued.(Yes, there’s a footnote in this footnote. Linearity is hard.) ?
  2. At SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, there are a series of courses on Playmaking. In my day that looked like a semester of intro to story structures, Aristotle and writing alone and in groups, a semester of Clown-through-Mask with Penelope Stella, then Black Box, a class making a new show of short works every two weeks (more come soon - I’m looking to do this in Toronto - email me to keep informed) and finally an advanced story structure class. These courses and the general ethic of the school at the time undeniably shaped my values on this. ?
  3. Probably not unique to Toronto, but the scale does seem to impact. ?

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.)