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.

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>

Art is all the parts.

Mission Paradox has these to very good posts - the first on the sports to church to theatre analogies (those Bears examples still hurt - redemption on Monday?) and then followed it up with Not nearly enough

"The implication is this: Art isn't enough. If you want a career as an artist, or a strong organization, you are going to have to do so much then create work."

And I agree - except (and.) I want to expand the notion of what the "art" is. It's certainly not the script we print out. It's not what happens between the house going out and the bowing. When we're making a show, that can't be it. The art has to be the part where we communicate with (entertain, excite, challenge, talk to) the people we'd like to share some time with. That's the art of performance. Posters, language, what happens as people begin to arrive (the dramaturgy of the half-hour), how the drinks are priced and what happens after. All of it is the art.

So - to make the art better (better at communicating to people) all of the parts need to be looked at as a whole. Better marketing won't save boring over priced plays and cheap great things that no one knows about isn't going to do it either.