2 things to help in the rough patch.

It's been a bit of a rough patch. Broke and getting more No than Yes. Or at least it feels that way.

Many things are exciting and feeding me. The struggle is to focus on that. So inspiration is very helpful.

1.

Listening to Nature Theatre of Oklahoma's podcast is always good for the confirmation that others are fighting the good fight - but the most recent one with  Oskar Eustis, director of The Public Theater, is especially good.

A bold and honest conversation that is a must listen for every creator and artistic director everywhere. Great aspirations about bringing fairness and integrety back to not-for-profit theatre (hint: artists get more of the money, the cost of admission has to fall to turn away from elitism) and the search for a populism we can stand behind.

LISTEN HERE. Or download from ITUNES

2.

The new episod of the MADE HERE series (a HERE project) is also helpful - just to hear others say it out loud. It's also another example of a theatre institution doing important work on the internet.

Minor Expletives - Episode 1 - Emotion, Populism and making performance

Yes it's true, after day dreaming about it for quite a while, I'm launching an irregularly regular podcast. It will be a home for talks, a series of interviews that launch from the Conversation Starters (put guest requests in the comments) and beginning to make performances for the "radio."I'm starting with my talk at Dancemakers, built from a talk at the  University of Waterloo and the work I did around populism for the Toronto Fringe Festival. It also includes movement towards clarity of how I'm working these days with all the wonderful people I work with.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++ UPDATE

New Subscription stuff coming soon

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More on storytelling.

This is a long removed continuation of the conversation with Holger. But takes no account of the comments section which looks really good, but editing this post is more procrastination than I can afford.

For the other ways I deal with theses questions:
- Please join us at Koerner Hall any time (come and go) between 1:30 and 4am on Nuit Blanche for Small Wooden Shoe Reads Difficult Plays and Sings Simple Songs. We'll be reading Gertrude Stein plays.
- Antigone Dead People tickets are now on sale. Click here to buy


I became an interesting tackling dummy.

I don’t know that many, looking at my body of work (with Small Wooden Shoe, Public Recordings and Dancemakers) would find an ongoing defence of narrative - though it’s true, I often like people narrating things. I like to watch and listen to people reading things. I like radio, podcasts, audiobooks - and I like it on stage - live and in process. This is not a global position on “What Theatre Is” – it is a preference. And I hope that with the correct application and approach, this preference can do something for me and for the other people who see the work.

But I find myself defending and promoting a kind of “story telling” - in large part because when I hear: “‘storytelling’ is reductive” - my reaction is about power. That it is a patronizing and “palace” response - dismissing the folk and the clear - privileging the refined (paid for) and exclusionary.

I used to champion the self proclaimed elitism of Howard Barker - and there is much in his writing I still respond to.

But in terms of cranky old Brits, John McGrath has taken over. This is, in some ways, a return. I think I might be happier if I could go back to Barker. Or if not happy, at least self-satisfied. There is something so cozy and reassuring in his writing. The way it soothes us that we, Theatre Artists, are so special - so much smarter and more right than everyone else. In a world where theatre is largely irrelevant this is nice to hear in my head:

“It is the world’s fault. It went wrong - if only we could return it too…[?]” Ignoring that unanswered question, it continues, “The thing that others do, ‘storytelling’ - we don’t do that. We do something holy, something transcendent and nobler. We are above storytelling”

I’m not. I like stories.[1]

I use common language and conversational tones for a reason - I will take their vague-ness and possible critical mis-interpretation over the simultaneous irrelevance-producing and status-confirming of jargon and the overly specific.

Emerging from post WWII European culture - with fascism and Soviet rule as clear examples, it is no wonder that Barker et al (with the continental philosophic backing of Barthes, Derrida, Lacan etc…) looked for art that could separate the individual and break up feelings of “togetherness.” Togetherness and sharing are the domains of the worst kinds of people - Party Members and Marketers. Socialists and Accountants clamour for the full house of laughing people.[link] Real Artists work to make sure each individual understands their solitary psychosis (Bond) or Catastrophe (Barker.) Brecht is replaced by Müller. Clowns are permitted - as long as there aren’t belly laughs. All these angry privileged dudes defending the well educated against the mindless mob.

I’m being reductive and a bit mean. Bitter in the way that only an ex-disciple can be. And I still carry the torch.

But in the end, I have no interest in arguing the nature of dramatic literature.

I am not satisfied with either relational aesthetics or commercial musicals. I understand that the vagueness, repetition and locality of populist strategies have (and continue to have) devastating outcomes for people, environments and movements that I treasure and care for.

But I want to fight against alienation and anomie, no matter where it comes from. I don’t want a togetherness that is without laughter, singing, sex, dancing, kindness and quiet moments.

And that’s the story I want to tell - because it is the story I want to live.


  1. “I like stories, I just don’t like plots” - Harmony Korine in a talk in Torotonto a bunch of years back. ↩

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

art/science

irony/sincerity

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

We get to choose what to talk about.

Peggy Baker There are more interesting things to talk about. Part of the problem with the side bar to the article on Peggy Baker that people are talking about, is that it deflects from some of the very important and difficult things about gender and dance production that Baker raises.

Baker made a point in her speech about embracing androgyny and deploring gender stereotypes. … “I think that’s why I’m not a ballet dancer,” she explains. “Ballet is about dividing men and women. Women dance on pointe shoes, boys and girls don’t take class together. You also see it in folk dancing, where women do one step, men do another.”

And about producing on a "minor" scale (minor is my word and will continue to be developed here - hence the title):

When I mention a dream gig – say, choreographing a piece for the National Ballet of Canada – she smiles and shakes her head.

“I’d rather show things in more intimate settings – the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre rather than the mainstage. I’m talking with the AGO about creating dances for different galleries. And I loved my recent Nuit Blanche experience.”

Small-scaled, then, but never small-minded." RTWT

Both of these quotes are worth spending a lot of time with. They’re thoughts of an artist who has deeply considered her craft and the world it exists in. They’re deeply challenging to the status quo of dance discussion in this city and country. Way more interesting then a writer under a deadline spicing up a story with false comparisons. And yet, they’ll go under-discussed (except maybe in study group or late night in a bar) — again — unless we decide to talk about them.

We get to choose what to talk about.

Big Question answers (1)

Mission Paradox is rolling out a bunch of big questions. Out of appreciation of that kind of thing, I’m going to try and answer Adam’s questions. I will probably fall behind.First question (abridged): Why would someone want to work with you? (Whole thing here)

A while ago, I was thinking a lot about the community theatre leanings of my work with Small Wooden Shoe

(“Community theatre for and by professionals”)

We had done the first Christmas Concert and were working on reading of Life of Galileo, and I was loving the relationship with the people doing these projects and the audiences who were coming.

And they were also among my favourite art events of the year.

I started saying, “We have to have ideas so good people will work on them for free. And then we’ll work to find the money to pay the people.”

This formulation does a bunch of things for me.

It puts a lot of pressure on me to have good ideas. Or to work with collaborators to make my medium ideas into great ones.

This pressure is a good thing. I think it will pay off in the show we finally make. And it certainly pays off in the commitment and investment of the people I work with.

We also have to treat people well, We have to work in a way that moves towards the parts of their work they love That gets them excited. Because the idea isn’t just the final production The idea (the one so good) is usually about the process too. About how we work.

People shouldn’t work for free (or at all) on something because the final show is so good, but the process is hell. (This does goes on and maybe even has a tradition in the theatre, but it’s a tradition I don’t have much time for.)

Of course there are bad days, there are fights and phases of a process that slog along and nobody can remember why they agreed to this. But the generosity of the idea and the ways of working are what gets us through those days.

So I hope we’re offering the chance to work on good ideas in interesting ways, Offering a chance to beat back the alienation and cynicism that can set in the professional art world. Offering a chance to make a good idea great by doing what you love to do.

And we work very hard to offer a reasonable wage.

Conjuring Aspirations

Jacob Zimmer for Small Wooden Shoe

It’s been 10ish years of Small Wooden Shoe.

10 yearsOf fast, cheap and rough political agit-prop (Delayed Knee Jerk Reactions Series), of hard-boiled live-to-air radio (The Mysterious Death of WB), of Chekhov adaptations (The Orchard), multi-media solo shows (No Secrets) and durational task based performances (Mostly Just Doing the Saturday Crossword) of the conversational formalism we’ve become best known for (Perhaps in a Hundred Years andDedicated to the Revolutions.) of great plays in grand halls (Life of Galileo)

and Christmas concerts (more on that later), on-line think tanks, public meetings, workshops, lectures and writing.

And we are only upping the ante.

Times are different. Theatre companies must also be different.

Small Wooden Shoe changes what a theatre company is.
(Want to join in? Keep reading.)

We are a production company and a think tank, a social space and a big idea in a small room. An over-ambitious plot to make it better, one interaction at time. Dedicated to finding better ways of working and coming together.

We make things to come to. Experiences to have.

We bring people together to share an experience and talk about things they care about. There is probably drinking. The time is relaxed and filled with pleasure, but death and politics are still discussed, people fall in and out of love, plans are hatched and action taken. Stories are told. Songs are sung.

We care about a good night out. (We think that’s a fair desire for your night out.)

“Good” can include tears; bewilderment; mind bending; political fury and almost always: laughing.

Continuing these things we do, We will think about the good parts of populism and work on those. We will make things that lots of people can, and might actually want to, come to.

Tickets will be $20 and under. Accessibility is a financial issue.

We will embrace ambition, ethics, and the scale of our imaginations.

We will care more about the world than about theatre or performance.

We will find ways of spreading the word and listening to what people say.

We will find a way to be local. Where ever we are.

We will teach and study and seek out partnerships and friends with places and people usually distant from theatre.

Not everything we do will be immediately recognized as theatre. But it will be.

(And we will perform in theatres also. We won’t deny that we like theatre - telling stories, bright lights, acting out scenes, songs and dances, and all those old plays. All of that can be so great.)

We will admit what’s going on. And we will try to help. And for all of this, We will need some help. We will need a “we.” People who want to make this happen.

Singing songs together to fend off the cold seems like a good place to start - so, we sing songs from 3penny Opera. They are beautiful songs about horrible situations and cynical people. Perfect to tuck between Christmas and New Year.

It costs 3¢ at the door and is more party than performance. There is information and pictures here.

Please join us.

also,

Talk to us Let us know how to help. One of the oddities in the arts is not talking with the people we perform and work for. Let us know what we should be doing more of or places we should be doing what we’re doing. We won’t be able (or maybe willing) to do it all - but we’re curious about how you’d like us to help.

Spread the word Talk to your friends. In person even. For all the technology and money in the world - word of mouth is still the most important and effective way of getting people excited. That being said - sign up on facebook and pass this on to friends who you think would be interested.

Buy a lifetime subscription - for $500, you can see every show we will ever make. And through your belief and support, you can make sure we get there. Payment plans available. More info here. Donations of any size help too.

Train with us? - If we taught a workshop, would you come? What would you most like it to be about? And how long do you like your workshops to be? And how much would you pay (by the hour, by the day?)

Hire us - We don’t just make shows. We can facilitate conversations, conferences, brainstorming sessions. We can consult on making events better - more fun, more helpful. We can lead workshops and teach university courses. Or maybe there’s something else?

Contribute your time - We’re not sure exactly what it might look like, so we’re open to suggestions. Let us know what you’re good at and what you’d like to do.

email: jacob@smallwoodenshoe.org

The value of doing something fast

This seems true. And something I'm trying to figure it out in the theatre. (Galileo, What Keeps Mankind Alive)

Beyond the excitement and buzz factor, what’s the value of doing this project so fast?

Magazines don’t have money to pay anyone anymore. A lot of people are expected to invest a lot of time to get published but then don’t get paid very much for their efforts. This was a way for us to get super-talented writers and only ask for a morning of their time. And it was a sort of question in our heads: do you have a higher probability of getting great creative work from people because we made it fun and not burdensome? There was a “let’s make it happen” attitude that I think was really appealing.

via Museum 2.0: Adventures in Participatory Journalism: An Interview with Sarah Rich about 48 Hour Magazine.

Who needs who

More from 99 - this time as a guest at Parabasis

it puts into my mind a bigger question: is there a difference between writing to an audience, writing for an audience and writing about an audience, particularly if you're engaged in anything at all activist in your work? And should there be only one audience? Shouldn't a work be able to reach more than one group, provide more than one kind of entertainment? … Not every audience needs every message, or needs it in the same way.

He's referencing some very useful Scott Walters posts — The other night I was at a theatre festival that at the end of the night had a band play. And while I had enjoyed my night before the band, watching the band I started to think about who needed who. (As opposed to who made who - also a great question)

In the first few moments of the performance, it became clear to me that I needed the band. I needed the way the singer sung and the keyboards got played. I didn’t know, before they started, that I needed them - I knew some friends liked them - but I didn’t know I needed them.

And I had a feeling that they didn’t need me as much as I needed them. And that that was as it should be. I was, in that moment, sick of being needed by the shows I see, by the performances of those shows. [This all sounds terrible, I know that - but I need to track out this feeling.] That I had needs (dammit) that I didn’t even know, and what I really needed was for some performance to come out and meet those needs.

Maybe the devastating scarcity (funding, audience, fame, lunch-money) and desperate need for self-expression/exhibitionism to ward off alienation results in shows in which the creator “needs to say something” “needs to express” him or her self.

I want to be in shows in which something needs to be said - not for the well-being of the maker (though that will always be part of it) but also, and most importantly, for a need that is outside the maker. For a need in the public - who are sitting in the audience - who include me.

There is a crazy ego in these statements - I get that. But no one decides to - willingly, often - step out and speak in public without a fair dose of ego.

And I need to be clear that I want avoid patronizing and talking down. Because nobody needs that. So any real consideration of the needs of others removes patronizing - removes any desire to prove superiority - removes all non-consensual power games. Because nobody needs those things. Really.

And so, rather than an ego that is about exposure or dominance, the play of needs might be about consideration and kindness (when sometimes a splash of cold water to the face is the kindest act - this isn’t about only soothing or not saying hard things)

This is all fine to say - but what does it look like? A certain confidence. A certain care and craft. Some leadership and vision. Self-reflection and observation of the world around us. Because I don’t think my needs, honestly examined, are so unique or special that others won’t share them. But this will lead to some bold, scary moments. For everyone involved.

I’ve wandered and rambled from the original posts, but still think the wanderings are related - the need to have a great conversation with the local grocer is a very similar to the need theatre fulfills for me. Good ideas, good will, good time.

Whenever my theatre has failed it’s been by forgetting what I actually need from the theatre. Both as an audience and a maker.

What I was thinking

EYE MAGAZINE - Christopher HoileDUBIOUS ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS

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