Material surprise

I caught two programs at the Images Festival this weekend and wondered if –The nature of surprise is different in analog and digital

(for the sake of a very digital either/or I’m including live performance in analog and - importantly for my experience at Images - including film as opposed to digital video)


In analog, we (the audience) can be happily1 surprised by content and by material.2

In both analog and digital we can be surprised by content of course - something unexpected happening in the thing we’re seeing. Structure, events, language, image, context, juxtaposition etc… The common elements can all be a part of this. Experimental or classical, academic or populist etc… all play this game.

In analog work, the material can also surprise - first the artists and then the audience and this surprise can be central to the meaning making. The body can do the unexpected, the language slips, the paint behaves in unpredicted ways, the celluloid does something different. These productive mistakes are then integrated into, or become, the content.

But material surprise is not something I, as an audience member, look for or experience with digital. When it exists it's only jarring (I'm thinking of digital noise, broken code, dropped frames)

2 pieces by way of example:

In Sugar Beach, it’s the in camera processing of film that surprises - Mark shoots through a small hole, rewinds the film and does it again – resulting in a “same but different” that’s beautiful and bound to the material of film.

On the other end of the spectrum: Simon Quéhiellard’s Maître-Vent is a piece of him setting up discarded materials (broken umbrellas, boxes, skin ply) by the side of the highway and recording their reaction to the wind of passing trucks. So much surprise, delight, tragedy, expectation and narrative ensue from watching his desire and the reactions of plastic bags and pop cans. It’s the best Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film made last year. The surprise, though, isn’t in the material of video. Digital accidents would be out of place and much less meaningful.

This probably isn’t a new thought in the world - and I’d love to be pointed towards the exceptions - but it was lovely to experience it first hand.

Images Festival is on until April 20th two things other things I want to catch:

  • Rope  - FADO co-presention at the Theatre Centre Pop-Up. April 16th is your last chance.
  • Ants at Interaccess - Oh!m1gas is a tribute to the sophistication and organization of ant colonies

  1. “Happily” for me is a pretty open term I use for a response that one is glad to have had - this, of course, can include a wide range of responses. ↩
  2. Another insufficient but helpful dialectic. ↩

Unthrowing my name


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.

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”. ↩

Sandbox: Some thoughts on Realism

Gall looking up

Brendan Gall during rehearsals for Galileo.

thanks to Sky Gilbert for prompting me to write this by thinking I had written it before. It is something I’ve been thinking about performing again in Perhaps in a Hundred Years.


“Realism” in theatre is often used to mean “realistic portrayal” - a style of acting in which the actor really seems like this other person. This style is dominant in film and TV and as such tends to dominate acting training. This is the “realism” that might be almost interchangeable with “naturalism.”

Another style of realism might be “dealing with the reality of the situation” - where in the situation is being in a room, performing for others who are watching. The performing that is being done could even include the “realistic portrayal style” of acting - but with an added realism of acknowledging the basic event going on.

It is this second style that I’m most interested in these days, though I am much less dismissive or judgemental of the first kind than I used to be.

The second kind of realism is NOT more authentic. The kind of the appearing-casual, appearing non-performing performance that I am often involved in shouldn’t make “authenticity” claims. I am not in the position to judge anyone elses authenticity, especially in trying to turn that judgement into a power play. I am, in being casual in front of a bunch of people, very much performing. If I were being authentic in that situation, I would run and hide. Or try desperately to tap dance in order to at least be doing something. This performing isn’t a bad thing. It’s what people might have come to see.

There is an honesty I appreciate in admitting we are in a room together, doing this funny thing called performing. I like that it doesn’t ignore or deny the audience performer relationship - but I don’t think this equals “authenticity.”

My understanding of this second realism is strongly related to the influences on me of Brecht, The Wooster Group, Jacob Wren, Nadia Ross, Darren O’Donnell, Forced Entertainment, relational art and "postdramatic theatre" . As well as the work I’ve done in collaboration with Dustin Harvey, Ame Henderson and Chad Dembski. All of us make different choices around these realisms but I feel like there are shared questions. Viewpoints and Clown-through-mask are also training strategies that have shaped the way I understand the doing of this - even though the work I do is distant from those practices.

The second realism, in my understanding, is also very present in more entertainment/commercial performing styles - vaudeville, stand up, sketch, musical. These are also clear and significant influences on my work and I am ever trying to run back and forth between these two paragraphs of influences.

I’m not sure what the question or even the polemic is here. Maybe I am trying to clarify my thinking - move it along, past assumptions of what my position should be.

Not sure I’m there yet. Better questions - always looking for better questions.

Loose thoughts at the end.

Even the most spectical vocal-track pop superstar concert has a moment of turning out to say “thanks for coming out.” This acknowledgement is a form of realism.

It’s also part of what I like about readings. The realism of reading aloud and music stands is undeniable.

This realism is the realism of task-based performance. Performing a “realistic portrayal” is also a task.

This realism has less to do with “naturalism” (a term that can only make me think of Brechts’ prologue to The Exception and the Rule:

We ask you expressly to discover That what happens all the time is not natural. For to say something is natural In such times of bloody confusion Of ordained disorder, of systematic arbitrariness Of inhuman humanity is to Regard it as unchangeable.