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.
A few years ago this April I found myself on the sidewalk across the street from the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in the pissing rain, dressed in a Banana Republic trench coat and far-too-expensive-to-admit Ray Ban glasses with ever-so-nerdy-chic thick black frames, feeling very out of place in a crowd of veteran anti-mining activists, all of whom clearly had thought ahead and checked the weather report, and were comfortably dressed in rainslickers and Blundstones.
We were there protesting the Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, whose worldwide campaign of oppression, murder, environmental atrocity, exploitation, and more I won’t précis here. We spent the day there, until the leather of my shoes began to fall apart and I couldn’t see through my glasses anymore.
Can I possibly be correct in assuming that I can write a piece about the state of art criticism today without seriously fearing for the future of my career? As in, should I be prepared for a cut-away to a cigar-chomping & mysteriously Brooklyn-accented Richard Ouzounian slamming the screen of his laptop shut & shouting “Offord’ll never work in this town again!”? Like, what is this? Hollywood of the ’40s?
Except that it’s a real fear & not to be considered lightly (although, it does seem to say a lot about me as a writer that I tend to begin all my posts with some variation of bashful apology). I don’t want to overstate the power of critics in the theatre community – I’m generally distrustful of those who do – but credit given where credit due & all that. The negotiations of the weird relationship between artist & critic have always been murky & at worst openly hostile. Where terms are good, the artist risks accusations of “selling-out,” & the critic of favouritism. But if the worth or merit of a play can be discussed in critical terms, surely what’s good for the goose is good for the whatever, no? After all, though I’ve taken issue with particular modes of criticism & feel little compunction in calling out individuals by name, I can’t possibly be accused of “attacking” anyone, exactly, can I? I have no interest in writing broadsides, & the code-of-conduct to which I enjoin my blog’s comment-section (to little avail, unfortunately) is the same for my posts: snark is fine. Who doesn’t like a good snarkfest? But rudeness, vindictiveness, & general derision: not for me, thanks. I leave that stuff to the pros.
(This article originally appeared in SpiderWebShow’s #CdnCultTimes.)
I’m going to have to acknowledge from the outset, here, all the conspicuous and morally ticklish not-so-niceties which are necessarily involved when a grotesquely privileged, white, heterosexual, cisgender (I’m sure someone will correct my use of that particular neologism), Canadian male writes about the problems of feminism in art. This is not intended as irony. Doubtless I place myself squarely in the sights of a particular kind of lefty scorn, appropriation-of-voice-wise, to say nothing of the dubiousness of my targeting (isn’t there a tag in The Second Sex about it not occurring to a man to write about what it means to hold the condition of being a man in society?). Well, all’s fair in the gender wars. I admit my undeserved privilege and surrender the field.
There are (at least) two ways to consider this question, and they’re interrelated but crucially different; on the one hand is the issue of feminist entelechy in the theatre world – i.e., the quantifiable by-the-numbers stuff about women’s gross underrepresentation among the ranks of regularly produced playwrights, directors, and routinely hired ADs – and on the other, more ephemeral questions of feminist aesthetic: what is a feminist play, and do we have a moral responsibility to make them?
(Correction: an earlier draft of this post identified Darrah Teitel as both a playwright & an actor; this was mistaken – she is a playwright.)
Or, my original title: Can We Just Cut Michael Healey Some Slack, Please?
A few days ago, Spider Web Show’s theatre & politics blog CdnCult Times released its “Feminist Issue,” (already, it seems, drawing a clear distinction between a “feminist issue” and a “feminism issue”), a component of which was an I-think-it’s-pretty-fair-to-say rather angry review of Michael Healey’s play Proud, by Ottawa-based playwright Darrah Teitel.
This excerpt I think captures the vibe:
After watching the play I was mortified and my MP guest was horrified. She turned to me flatly and said: “That was the most misogynist thing I’ve seen.” Given her exposure to misogyny and sexism since her election, that is saying a lot.
It certainly is saying a lot. It is, in fact, the review’s upshot, & the rest is given over to variations on similar themes. Now, I live in Toronto (where Proud was, apparently, born in sin: the whole Tarragon Theatre snafu is still fresh in the mind [though possibly undeservedly so]) so I have not – nota bene – seen Proud. It is possible that Teitel’s friend’s claim is accurate & fair; I’m not interested in pronouncing on that particular point (though, having seen the average beer commercial, I’m somewhat dubious), except to say that even if they are being generous, & the play really is a kind of Jew Süss of anti-woman propaganda, this would not mean, ipso facto, that Healey is himself misogynistic. We ought to at least be able to discuss a work of art in good faith.