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>