We do not owe fealty to a playwright’s wishes (a response to Howard Sherman)

I recently got myself into a bit of a pissing match with self-styled “theatre pundit” Howard Sherman on Twitter, over his blog post yesterday, “Who thinks It’s OK to ‘Improve’ Playwrights’ Work?” As quick perusal of Sherman’s opening paragraph reveals, the title is itself a total straw man (out of which, rest assured, Sherman proceeds to whack the stuffing), & pretty well emblematic of what’s to come.

The impetus for Sherman’s post is the recent controversy between Sarasota, FL’s Asolo Repertory Theatre & esteemed Irish playwright Brian Friel. The Asolo Rep, which by all reports has had a long history of taking supposedly daring &/or creative approaches to texts (having not seen their work, I can’t speak to the truth of this), has programmed a production of Friel’s play Philadelphia, Here I Come under the direction of Frank Galati. Galati’s original concept for the production included the excision of three of the play’s original eleven characters, & a stripping out of the intermissions, reducing the show’s runtime to a cool 90 minutes. Friel & his estate, upon notification of these changes, instructed the theatre to restore the play to the text as published, or risk losing the licensing rights. The Asolo Rep acquiesced, & has gone back into rehearsal.

Notwithstanding that Galati’s proposed changes constitute a radical or creative approach to the text only in the most deeply conservative & limited sense, Sherman’s ire towards Galati & the Asolo Rep’s AD Michael Donald Edwards is apparently a kind of moral outrage – as Sherman himself writes: “Mr. Edwards appears to have a fundamental lack of understanding of (or respect for) the rights of authors and their estates.” Adducing the Asolo Rep’s evidently successful (& author-approved) musicalized version of Yentl as “affirmation or precedent for this practice isn’t just foolhardy, it’s just plain wrong.” (N.B.: nothing that I’ve read indicates that the Asolo Rep necessarily argued this; Sherman’s straw men emerge as a motif.)

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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.

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A modest proposal for a better way to brand theatre (commissioned by SpiderWebShow)

(The following is an article commissioned by the Praxis Theatre & National Arts Centre joint venture SpiderWebShow.)

 

I’m a bad interview; I’ve learnt this now, from sad experience, a frosty November morning spent at Theatre Ontario’s offices at 401 Richmond, where I’d attempted with varied degrees of success to affect the folksy, unbuttoned erudition of what we might imagine characters in a Sorkin screenplay to sound like, my feigned patois unraveling after only three questions, flop sweat beading on brow and philtrum.  I was interviewing for a seat on TO’s Youth Advisory Committee, and after yammering at some length on a possible program to get young people to go to the theatre, I was asked, point-blank:

“How would you assess the demand for such a program?”

…Whereupon, having no lucid answer, I devolved into inarticulate grunts and rudimentary hand gestures. Later, slogging my way up Spadina, the question’s brisance having wiped the sun from morning’s glory, I began to wonder why, exactly, didn’t I have an answer prepared?  The question, you’ll agree, is not thoroughly difficult.

Except, actually, when I parse it out, the thing just seems more and more removed and weird and unanswerable. Why need we assess the demand at all, necessarily? Isn’t our job (at least in part) as artists, theatre producers, whatever, to create demand for our work, not just to react to it?

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So I won the Fringe Best New Play Contest yesterday…

I’m eating some kind of marinated tofu thing at Urban Herbivore in preparation for what was doomed to be a long, cold, hand-blistering but ultimately sort of bizarrely satisfying strike of the Mature Young Adults set at Videofag, when I get a call from Lindsey Woods over at the Toronto Fringe. She asked me if I was planning on attending the Fringe lottery party at the Transac lounge in the evening (having not entered the lottery, & being 100% certain Iwas not going to be winning any contests, I was not).

After a pregnant silence on my part, she concluded: “Because you’ve won the Fringe Best New Play Contest.”

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Rave review for “Mature Young Adults”!

Winter Park Large.jpg

A rave review from Mike Anderson over at Mooney on Theatre:

“Walking into Mature Young Adults is, itself, an experience. Videofag has been transformed into an urban forest…”

 “… punches you square in the gut.”

“Colford does fine work, including some excruciatingly (and delightfully) awkward moments, but Haché steals almost everything from him, delicately underplaying a role which could easily get away from a less talented actress. The script calls for her Caitlin to be both vulnerable and assured, upstanding and spineless, and she executes these contortions masterfully.”

“Director Alexander Offord also leaves a distinctive fingerprint. As he recognizes in his director’s notes, this show needs a light touch, a soft focus, an emphasis on gentle suggestion and easing-in, since the alternative would involve beating the audience over the head. (“LOVE THESE CHARACTERS! AREN’T THEY CUTE!”) He delivers exactly that–something far more challenging than many of us realize, but every bit as successful as it was in his earlier Hystericon.”

“…a sound basis for future work both on this show in particular and by this company.”

Still five shows left! Get your tickets at TOTix!

  • Friday Nov. 22 @ 8:00PM
  • Saturday Nov. 23 @ 4:00PM
  • Saturday Nov. 23 @ 8:00PM
  • Sunday Nov. 24 @ 4:00PM
  • Sunday Nov. 24 @ 8:00PM

Draft chapter of Trans-Pacific Partnership bodes not well for you & me (but great for Disney!)

This morning, Wikileaks released a draft chapter of the ultra-secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty, an international politico-coporate policy agreement masquerading as trade partnership. Much like Canada’s other major ongoing “trade” negotiation, the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA),  the forces behind the text of TPP have undergone significant efforts to conceal from the public what, exactly, the thrust & force of the thing will be; it is largely thanks to whistleblower organizations like Wikileaks that we have any insight at all into what dark material our masters have wrought.

Today’s revelations pertain to one of TPP’s most controversial strains, intellectual property (IP) rights, particularly w/r/t the internet. Those who have been following IP news in recent years will remember the near-defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) & the breathlessly named Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, (PIPA) in the United States, so defeated because of largely grass-roots opposition led by the cyber communities galvanized by Anonymous, & Internet domain companies such as Tumblr, Mozilla, Techdirt & others.

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Rob Ford & the moral lessons of Watergate (hint: they’re not what you think)

Apropos of my post yesterday & my frustrations with Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke’s staunch (not to say callous) refusal to answer any questions that weren’t totally unctuous & self-serving (no fewer than six – six ­- questions on whether Robyn Doolittle & Kevin Donovan were eligible for Pulitzers), I’ve decided to post something of a parable today. I’ve been avoiding writing/talking about Rob Ford’s meteoric decline for various reasons; mostly because it’s been all anyone else has been able to talk about, & I didn’t think there was much for me to add.

But yesterday, after I sifted through the twelve (!) pages of Star coverage on our mayor & endured the secretions of Michael Cooke’s Q & A, I’m relenting. You get one post – one & that’s it. So here it goes.

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Questions “Toronto Star” editor Michael Cooke ignored

This morning, Star editor Michael Cooke had a live Q & A internet chat on the papers website. Over the course of an hour, I asked ten questions. Mr. Cooke chose to ignore all of them. Here are my questions:

  • By what criteria do you, as an editor, determine how to assign coverage to certain stories over others? Isn’t the Rob Ford story (while obviously important) ultimately less politically/democratically important than the CSEC scandal?
  • Have you made any attempt to reach out to Glenn Greenwald or his affiliates to review the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden that pertain to Canada? Why do we have to find out about Canadian surveillance abuses in Brazilian papers?
  • What distinctions do you make between Justin Trudeau’s recent admissions to smoking pot while an MP? W/r/t drug policy, aren’t these simply matters of degree?
  • Kathy English apologized publicly for the racist slant of the “Star’s” articles early in the Ford story. Nevertheless, the emblematic photograph of Ford with the two unidentified black men is, in the words of Robyn Doolittle, unconnected to the video. Isn’t publishing it, then, still tacitly racist?
  • Why as the Star opted to remain silent on the fact that Barrick Gold is not only refusing to give restitution to the hundreds of women gang-raped at its Papua New Guinea mine, but also that has defied the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights by so doing?
  • Why has the Star not investigated into the mysterious dismissal of Extractive Sector CSR Counsellor Marketa Evans?
  • How does directing questioner Carlos Alfaro to the Atkinson Principles address his fair comment w/r/t the Star’s coverage of Ford story versus other worthwhile political news stories?
  • Which, in your view, is a more important story from a political, cultural, economic, perspective: that the Canadian government was spying on foreign governments to give intelligence to the private sector (how’s that for Atkinson Principles), or Rob Ford’s drug problem?
  • What quantifiable damage does “international embarrassment” cause to Toronto? Specific examples would be great.
  • Have there been any specific instances where the Ford story has damaged Toronto’s economic/political standing?

“DESH,” dance, & the virtues of theatre beyond language

In the opening minutes of Akram Khan’s solo show DESH (now on Canadian Stage), Khan stands down stage of Tim Yip’s sparsely lit set, dwarfed by the Bluma Appel’s cavernous embrace, picks up a sledgehammer & whacks with extreme prejudice a small metallic mound built into the stage’s floor. At the mound’s apex is some sort of plant which will undergo all kinds of contortions over the show’s 83-minutes of magic, the sledgehammer being the least of its worries. With each strike, a dull, hollow boom blankets the theatre, just ever-so-perfectly too loud for the audience’s comfort. For a show billed as a “dance” piece, it’s a brave opening, since we’ve come (at least some of us) for the feats of kathak-cum-Bauschian physical pyrotechnics Khan’s famous for, & he presents us with a moment that – but for the sonic black hole of the hammer’s thud – is eerily still, utterly quiet.

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