A New Year’s Resolution for a Theatre Community

Dear Friends,

 

Regular readers of this space will have noticed a gap or lacuna in posts since last year. The reasons for this have less to do with other monopolizations of my time, & more to do with my having undergone in the past weeks a serious (though not severe) reassessment & reformulation of my own attitudes towards the theatre that is being produced in Toronto (geography & finance precluding me from enjoying the wealth of work in other cities), & a redrawing of those schemes through which I tend to scrutinize it.

Common threads of these posts have, it occurs to me, had much to do with various kinds of aesthetic prejudice: my frustration at what I perceive to be audiences’ tendencies to favour more traditional works based around conventional narrative structures, a lack of good faith on the parts of certain critics, &c. You might recall in particular my comparison of NOW reviewer Jordan Bimm to the food critic who complains that his sushi is undercooked.  These frustrations are authentically felt, & I think the comparison is apt; however it occurs to me that an honest assessment of my own aesthetic prejudices yields a glaring lack of self-awareness – not just in my writing on this blog, but also in the conduct of my life.

The truth I’ve come to acknowledge is: in terms of the theatre, I am not literate – not truly. I am at best a fan-boy, a geek, a dweeb; I have particular tastes & affinities, & though I am proud of the extent to which those loves excite me, it is nonetheless true that my artistic worldview is as much defined by paradigms of aesthetics as the theatre-goer who loves Mamma Mia & feels alienated & excluded by a more abstruse work – in other words, for me to sneer at forms of theatre which don’t adhere to my own tastes is for me to be as much a part of the Savage God as Jarry’s opening-night audience.

This isn’t to say that I abrogate the right to tell “good” theatre from “bad,” just that it seems to me that to be truly a connoisseur, truly a lover of the theatre as a medium not just of specific genres implies the ability to recognize what is best in all manifestations of the form. To be just a fan of Robert Wilson or Howard Barker or Caryl Churchill is to be as limited in scope as the “music-lover” who’s collected the entire Beatles catalogue, & rejects out of hand all country music because she just “doesn’t like country,” as if formal tendencies were formal rules, & it was impossible to actually learn to appreciate how certain works of art function within particular aesthetic systems.  It also occurs to me that a populist theatre does not mean a priori crass, commercial entertainment; in case we’ve forgotten, there was a time when Shakespeare was crass, commercial entertainment. It’s easy to dismiss the Mirvish jukebox musical on the grounds that it merely exploits pop music to generate a production which will sell as many tickets as possible to an audience which largely doesn’t go to the theatre – it’s also extremely cynical, & evinces a peculiar kind of snobbery. Even if this is true of particular productions, it isn’t – or doesn’t have to be – true of the form, & oughtn’t be adequate grounds for summary dismissal or general derision.

It could be argued that in a moral sense, I have less obligation to be open-minded in this way than Jordan Bimm or Richard Ouzounian or J. Kelly Nestruck; I am not a paid, professional theatre critic, & I don’t write reviews of shows I’ve seen. However, this brings me to much deeper concerns, concerns about what it means to belong to a “theatre community,” what the substance of such a thing might be, & what conventions of conduct should abide in it. & here, too, I’m brought to another uncomfortable truth: I have said shameful things about other theatre artists – often with the peculiar enthusiasm that arrives at your table on the same tray as the third martini. I’ve dismissed the works of other playwrights as being boring, or conservative, or conventional; I’ve accused major theatres of artistic cowardice & greed; I’ve rolled my eyes at fellow actors & wondered who on earth decided he should wear that?

It is entirely possible that these judgements are accurate & defensible; it’s equally possible that they are totally wrong or misguided, that I’m ignorant of an artistic decision’s history & rationale, that I was myself too preoccupied to fully appreciate a choice, or that my tastes are just too limited. The real question is this: why, when we want to show off the precision of our acumen w/r/t the theatre, is our instinct to sneer, belittle, dismiss, deride, or castigate? On Twitter every morning I see my fellow theatre lovers & practitioners saying lovely, enthusiastic things about each other – but in the pub in the evening, conversations turn sour.

This, at least, is my experience. It may not be yours, & fair enough.

But we can’t ignore it when things like this get written (emphasis added):

­ There are two reasons the Stratford Festival production of Romeo and Juliet, which opened its 2013 season on Monday night, is as bad as it is.

One of them is the bogus “original principles” staging imposed by director Tim Carroll and the other is the appalling performance of Romeo by Daniel Briere.

What’s left to cling to is the lovely performance of Juliet by Sara Topham and a few well-crafted supporting turns. But as for the rest, your time is better spent watching the Franco Zefferelli or Baz Luhrmann’s film versions on DVD.

 

 As for Romeo, Briere gives what is definitely the worst performance of Romeo I have ever seen and one of the worst major interpretations I’ve ever encountered on the Stratford stage.

He has no voice, no stature, no wit and no charm. And the lack of those qualities becomes increasingly obvious as the play slides deeper into tragedy.

One can only wonder why he was cast and — that mistake having been made — why no one in authority had the courage to replace him during rehearsals or previews.

 

 Briere looks like he’s wondering how many more episodes of Arrested Development he can catch on Netflix when he gets home.

 These are extracts of Richard Ouzounian’s May 28th, 2013 review of Stratford’s recent Romeo and Juliet. For anyone, let alone someone with Ouzounian’s platform & influence, to publicly berate & insult a young actor with this much vitriol is not just gratuitous but is totally inappropriate, unseemly, & well beneath the dignity of both Mr. Ouzounian & his readers (perhaps not, regrettably, his newspaper). We are told every day in the theatre that audiences are dying, that there’s no more money to fund the work, that the government (q.v. Rhubarb Fest) is becoming increasingly hostile to our efforts, & in the midst of this is a prominent voice with an opportunity most others never get to tell people why a piece of theatre is vital, & moving, & will set your soul aflame, & he says: Stay home & watch a DVD. This is astounding, it is shameful, & I don’t blame Richard Ouzounian personally because I don’t know what pressures his editor puts on him, but it speaks volumes about the theatre community that we did not rise to the defense of this young man who was so publicly humiliated in this review, that we did not collectively say: No, this is not how we will treat one another. This is not how we do things. We are better than this.

Let me be clear: I in no way begrudge anyone the right to dislike a production. We will not all like the same shows. But it is all too easy to forget that works of the theatre do not arise ex nihilo but are created by our fellow flesh-&-blood human beings who deserve to be treated with respect & generosity just as we would wish to be. Our critical discourse – not just among professional critics in newspapers but also among theatre practitioners, audiences, fans, academics, & administrators – seems to me so saturated with derision & pettiness & on my part particularly professional jealousy that we have lost what once most precious to us – the capacity, consciously cultivated, to not just respect but actively love & care about as many different kinds of theatre as possible.

Of course we will always have our little prejudices & tastes – that’s fine. But we can still approach productions in good faith, & be honest with ourselves that those prejudices are just that – prejudices, which reveal more about ourselves than they do about the production.

Of course, we will always go see shows, & leave thinking: “Holy hell, that was awful.” But here’s the truth – in the month of May, 2013, there were at least twenty other shows opening in the City of Toronto alone, to say nothing of the dozens of indie productions that don’t get the privilege of major reviewers, it was entirely possible for Mr. Ouzounian to have found one he liked, & written in his paper about why that show was worth seeing, how it made the condition of living deeper & more interesting & more vital. Just as it is entirely possible for me to do the same in my own smaller platform – amongst friends & loved ones.

& of course, we will always fail. We will have moments when booze, fatigue, or just plain laziness brings out that in us which is derisive or victimizing or snobbish. But to at least have the willingness to try do the work of being aware of how one’s prejudices shape our view of art, & to remind ourselves constantly of the human element that is the source of that art, & to cultivate the parts of us which are passionate, ecstatic, head-over-heels in love with the theatre must surely be the obligation of anyone who claims to belong to the “theatre community.”

To do this work is my New Year’s Resolution for 2014. Maybe it will be yours, too.

Be good at the bar,

-Alexander

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