Too often, we men (and women! It can no longer be doubted that the female mind is, under certain circumstances, able to subvert its whimsical nature and contribute substantively to the catalogue of intellectual endeavor) of letters perform our criticism with a chisel, rather than a flower (with the obvious exception of the great Brazilian critic Manuel Oliveira, whose geranium-based critique of Pound is among the most elegant – and fragrant – in the field). We have reached, it seems, a downward turn in the Freitagian pyramid of scholarship in the humanities, in which upstart postmodernists and “historians” of Bolshevik character are content simply to deface the monuments of our most learned minds with so much electronic graffiti.
It is a pleasure I reserve for myself, then, to undertake a first serious analysis of the poetry of former Stanford University student Brock Turner, whose debut long-form work of free verse appeared in public yesterday, to the delight of poetry lovers everywhere. Keats once said of Byron: “He describes what he sees – I describe what I imagine.” Turner has struck a kind of miraculous fusion of the two, in which what he imagines and what is actually the case become indistinguishable from one another. Whatever my failings as a literary critic, I consider myself grateful that, in future years, I will be able to recall that I, alone among scholars, was the first to plumb the inner reaches of this budding genius’s surreal and abstracted universe.
Turner dedicates his 11-page, untitled work to Aaron Persky, the Californian judge whose mercy has since spared Turner from several decades in state prison. The poet has endured a profoundly traumatic past year-and-half; on January 17th of 2015, he fell victim to a bout of alcoholism, upon which he accidentally had sex with an unconscious female. No doubt shaken by the experience, he turned his pain into verse, and has produced the magnificence to which we turn our attention now.
Thank you for your missive of September the 10th, re: the Unofficial, Unauthorized Conservative Party of Canada’s Policy Position on the Arts. It was an absorbing read, and, typical of the CPC’s remarks on such issues more generally, rather dazzling in the sheer volume of misremembered facts and obfuscated issues. In this, your party is truly Canada’s leader.
This is not to say that there is nothing of value or truth in the letter; far from it. I myself have long complained of artists’ general complacency in terms of advocacy or activism. It is certainly true that the artistic community at large has alienated itself from the political process for a long time. We have not made our case to the Canadian population with anywhere near the necessary urgency or verve. We do not pay attention to the key elections that can have the most meaningful long-term influence on the Canadian art scene – school trusteeship. In fact, the absence of artists who run for school board trustee positions is doubly glaring; it’s a well-paid, part-time job, after all, and who would say there’s abundance of those?
I concede that general point. It isn’t a small concession on my part. Nevertheless, the ensuing bouts of free-association in the, say, latter 3/4 of your statement require my attention as a Canadian citizen. Though I did not vote for your party, I feel an unfamiliar – if not unwelcome – stirring of patriotism in my gut, and believe it is my Canadianly duty to correct you on certain points with respect to the existing facts. My hope is that this will improve your governance overall.
Too late in Theatre of the Unimpressed does its author offer a defense of his thesis against the charge of hipsterism. By the time it arrives on page 123 of this 149-page essay in a chapter entitled “Beckett’s Children,” we’ve been treated to countless anecdotes of admittedly interesting-sounding performances few of its readers will have had the opportunity (to say nothing of the funds) to see, parties in obscure, Kensington Market bars, and even a few personal tales of sexual adventure. We’ve heard Mr. Tannahill (I’ve met Jordan once, but don’t really know him and doubt he’d recognize or remember me; having staged a show at Videofag, I know his ex-partner, William Ellis, a little better – anyway, I’d prefer in this space to distinguish between “Mr. Tannahill,” the author, and “Jordan,” the very talented and by-all-accounts lovely guy) effuse over the magic of actors who don’t know their lines, and devote several paragraphs to deconstructing what, exactly, makes Driving Miss Daisy a bad play – as if we needed to be told. His chosen title isn’t doing him any favors – “unimpressed” strikes me as definitional synecdoche for the affect of my (and Tannahill’s) generation. I found myself feeling throughout the book that it was not about a theatre of the unimpressed, but rather a theatre for it.
Mr. Tannahill’s protest against the charge is compelling:
I’m not interested in, nor am I articulating, a stylistic trend of the cynical or ironic, which for me defines the hipster caricature. To the contrary, I find believe the Theatre of Failure is a profoundly optimistic and human proposal, one that reconstitutes failure as a hopeful iconoclasm. (p. 123)
There is a semantic issue to parse here – while “hispterism” as Tannahill chooses to define it does not at all map onto the idea of a “profoundly optimistic and human proposal,” certainly the neo-hipsterism (post-hipsterism?) of McSweeney’s or “New Sincerity” fits the bill. After all, the aesthetic of All Our Happy Days are Stupid had much in common with the light-as-air superficiality of, say, a Wes Anderson movie, complete with the earnest indie-pop songs by an artist too cool for you to have heard of.
If you’re on social media at all (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you’re on social media), you’ll have been made aware of the cool $25 000 RBC has scraped together (presumably they ran a bake sale) for “emerging artists,” and we were all invited to vote for which Canadian art organization we wanted to be given the money.
Something in that last sentence seems strange, and it’s not my syntax. We have 1) RBC’s Emerging Artist Project with 2) $25 000 to allocate to “emerging artists,” so we must vote for 3) a major (national/international) organization to receive the money so they in turn can 4) decide what constitutes an “emerging artist,” and 5) which of these are worthy of money, 6) exactly how much money they’re worthy of, and 7) which activities are acceptable for them to be spending money on.
There are some several steps too many in this scheme, and not, as far as I can tell, for any good reason. And the First Principles implicit in the logic belie much more sinister attitudes about artists, power, and hierarchy in Canada. Why on earth Canadian Stage, TIFF, the National Ballet, the Writers’ Trust of Canada, the Walk of Fame, and the Canada Art Foundation are necessary middlemen for a Project supposedly not designed for them is rather intensely mysterious. Still more weird is RBC’s mandate for the Project – “Bridging the gap between emerging and established” (emphasis de mois). What is this gap, and between which two precipices does it supposedly exist?
On January 11th, a forum on the “Disappearing Act” of Torontonian audiences (this post will, like so many others, be a tad Toronto-centric, I’m afraid) in the theatre world played out in the belly of Passe Muraille’s Mainspace. Hosted by producer Derek Chua, producer and arts-marketing expert Sue Edworthy, and Shelia Skye, executive director of the Associated Designers of Canada, the forum was (fortunately for me, since I was not able to attend) recorded and posted on the Title Block podcast. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I encourage you to do so; I will endeavor to calibrate my ensuing thoughts such that you hopefully won’t need to have heard the podcast in order to understand them, but it is a worthwhile listen regardless (as is the back-catalogue of the podcast, available at the website and on iTunes).
The premise of the afternoon’s discussion was this: there are many shows in Toronto in various different kinds of theatres, some of them quite good, and they are, generally speaking, under-attended. There are fewer audiences members overall than there used to be. Audiences are “shrinking.”
The event consisted of four-ish umbrella categories of questions which were put to the crowd for answers, challenges, solutions, commentary, and the occasional bout of free-association. I’m going to deal with things more-or-less in chronological order, but there is one guiding principal or question which necessarily informs all of my discussion of this, which is – what do we actually know?
Given the massive and probably somewhat brand-destroying lacuna between my last blog post and this one, and given the fact that I’ve spent some of the past hour washing my dishes and sort of muttering softly under my breath about god only knows, I’ve decided to take this occasion as an excuse to get back to blogging.
One of the realities of writing about theatre in the blogosphere is that generally speaking, most of the people doing it have political affinities which are remarkably similar to my own, and while this experience can at times be veritably cockle-warming and sort of affirming, emotionally, it doesn’t always yield the most exciting or useful debates when it comes to politics and theatre. One of the characterizing features of theatre-thinking in this country is that it is dishearteningly echo-chamber-like, especially online. Yeah, we get the odd Twitter conversation about Factory Theatre’s decision to delay the invite to critics, or Kelly Nestruck’s recent (and interesting) article about Equity – but these are concerns about particularities; what’s missing (or at least marginalized), it seems to me, is any kind of fundamental disagreement about what, how, or why theatre is, or ought to be.
I don’t pretend to offer a total paradigm-shift here. But I’ve been thinking a lot about, specifically, the influence of the Internet and the proliferation of a post-New Left vocabulary on theatre artists (at least in Canada), and how these otherwise mostly positive forces might be having a negative effect on not only our artistic practice, but on our ability to talk sensibly about systemic and cultural deficiencies in Canadian theatre.
A warning: this is going to be long, and circuitous. I’m nothing if not verbose. Bear with me – I promise I’m going somewhere with this.
Last month at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a group of 50 or so prominent Scottish cultural figures signed an open letter demanding that one of the Festival’s venues – the Underbelly – cancel a programmed run of an Israeli play. Their reasons were admirably explicit:
The current, brutal assault by Israel upon the people of Gaza, which is an appalling collective punishment, underlines the seriousness of this error in co-operating with a company which is funded by the Ministry of Culture of the State of Israel.
The state of Israel uses the international ventures of its artists to attempt to lend itself a sense of cultural legitimacy and to distract attention from the brutality of its illegal occupation. Some brave and principled Israeli artists oppose the Israeli state’s cynical attempts to use them for propaganda purposes.
The show was shut down soon thereafter (though, the influence of the letter per se is somewhat dubious).
There are many lines of argumentation at play here, some more sound than others, & all of which deserve rich consideration. I will say without further ado that I disagree entirely with the “Cultural Boycott”’s intent, though not necessarily its spirit – that, I promise you, is as discursive I’m willing to be with my own opinion w/r/t to the current situation in Israel & Gaza. This is a blog about theatre; anyone interested in my half-baked opinions on world affairs is welcome to buy me a drink at their leisure – around the third martini or so, my eloquence is unmatched.
Truly there is no talk cheaper than that of the established artist prating in public to his younger colleagues with vaguely patronizing (& unfailingly vague) advice about how to make their work better, or giving some haughty lecture on how to accrue audience attention, as if the world hadn’t changed in the 10, 20, 30+ years these guys have been working, as if funding structures adjusted to inflation, as if money for public works like the arts hasn’t been slowly siphoned into the evermore cash-hungry maw of the military-industrial complex. If it isn’t Kurt Vonnegut parroting Orwell, it’s Elmore Leonard or somebody shifting the $100 bills off his or her keyboard to tell us: “Leave out the part readers tend to skip.” Well gee, thanks awfully.
Now I see this 2007 article from Scottish-born playwright Anthony Neilson swimming around social media, descending like some aesthetic afflatus to deliver the first (& only) Commandment of the Theatre: “Thou shalt not bore.” (Or, actually, THOU SHALT NOT BORE, for reasons unclear). It’s been getting a lot of attention lately, & I think it’s emblematic of serious flaws in thinking about the theatre today.
(Note: this piece contains massive spoilers for my show Potosí – there are still three shows left, so if you intend to see any of them & do not wish your experience to be coloured by these remarks, desist reading immediately. Otherwise, carry on.)
I didn’t know Potosí was particularly violent until people started telling me it was. Other than the British avant-garde tradition of the 60s & 70s, the theatrical lineage of which I think of myself as being a part must include the 90s of Sarah Kane, the novels of Cormac McCarthy & William H. Gass, all of whom wrote brilliant & impassioned – & controversial – studies in violence. Of these, the most salient is doubtlessly Kane; Blasted was by the far the work most on my mind as I wrote what would become the final drafts of Potosí.
Set against such a backdrop, my own opus seemed somewhat tame & toothless; even no less a mainstream Toronto theatre than Buddies in Bad Times had recently staged the relentlessly violent Pig, & there seemed to be a vogue in the intellectual culture for artistic discussion of what constitutes violence, sexual or otherwise (q.v. for example the success of Kat Sandler’s recent Cockfight, which was itself more-or-less about the inherent violence of males). When the reviews for Potosí began coming out last week, it was a surprise then, that critics appeared to be deeply struck not only by the darkness of its subject matter – all of which is based on true events – but also the graphicness of the physical violence put on stage. In part this is contextual – after all, the Fringe has not historically been the most conducive venue for dark or challenging subject matter – but it may very well evince hubris on my part.