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.
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.
(In lieu of yesterday’s travesty on CBC Radio One’s Ontario Today, I’ve started a petition to induce Rita Celli and her producers to program a counterpoint show, one that will hopefully be a little more informed, and a tad more positive about the state of the theatre. Read below for the full details and SIGN HERE.)
On February 4th, 2014, CBC Radio One’s noon-hour call-in show Ontario Today aired a live episode whose leading-question title (“Why is Live Theatre Dead to You?”) slouched towards the morbid. Host Rita Celli and guest R.H. Thompson dutifully fielded calls from a number of listeners, whose mostly negative comments ranged from the uninformed (“Theatre is ten times more expensive than a movie”), to the ignorant (“Two-and-half-hour movies don’t have intermissions, why do plays?”), to the frankly bizarre (“I got bed bugs [from going to the theatre].”)
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.)
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.