Brief notes on “literacy” in the 21st century

Partly as a consequence of my natural inclination to sloth, and a partly due to the precarity of certain financial realities in my otherwise cushy life, I’ve had a habit, in this space, of failing to address various criticisms or counter-arguments as they’ve arisen. There was, moreover, a period of time when my absence from blogging was largely due to my preoccupation with creative labours; these labours have since dried up like so many shriveled pricks. The play I’ve been working on for well over two years now (!) is not going well, and hasn’t been for some time.

Since quitting this theatre racket altogether and going off somewhere to build cabinets for a living is not really in the cards for me, handy-man-wise, and since one must, so to speak, use it or lose it, and since I’ve now used two penis-related metaphors in so many paragraphs, I return belatedly to discursive writing to flex the old muscle (damn damn damn…) and address some of the riff-raff (I love you all so very much).

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Response to the CPC’s Unauthorized, Unofficial Statement on Arts Policy

(This letter is written in direct response to Daniel Karasik’s semi-satirical(?) post about the CPC’s arts policy. Which was in turn a response to Fannina Waubert de Puiseau’s open letter to the CPC.)

 Dear Sir,

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.

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Review: Jordan Tannahill’s “Theatre of the Unimpressed”

Coach House Books 160 pp.  $14.95 CDN

Coach House Books
160 pp.
$14.95 CDN

 

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.

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The Condescension of “Emerging Artist”

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?

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Reflections on the #audTO Forum, or, Grumpy Uncle Alexander is Grumpy (edited below)

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?

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The Left, the Theatre, and the Myths We Need to Stop Perpetuating

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.

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“Potosí” – why I didn’t include a trigger-warning, & why I will next time (SPOILERS)

(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.

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What is the point of negative criticism?

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.

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Do artists have a responsibility to be feminists? (Commissioned by SpiderWebShow)

(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?

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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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