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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“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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Most revolting ad ever, maybe?

As if the rancid breath of consumer capitalism hadn’t done enough to debase & degrade the integerity of modern childhood, the chthonic footsoldiers of Toys ‘R Us have turned their gaze to the last bastion of reasonably authentic outdoor/environmental education – the school field trip – by directly pitting the natural world (i.e., boring) against the plastic (fun!). It’s enough to make you lose your appetite:

 

A Riposte (of sorts) to Sarah Garton Stanley

Though probably I surrender some amount of high ground by doing so, I must begin this post with a bashful mea culpa. In her latest, rather moving & impressive article for SpiderWebShow’s #CdnCult Times, National Arts Centre English Theatre A.D. Sarah Garton Stanley calls me out on a rhetorical snafu by citing my previous post:

[Offord] goes on to say: “The fact of the matter is, we Canadians are deeply insecure about most things, & our theatre scene (I’m being hugely Toronto-centric in this, note; Toronto’s all I know, really), … has an inferiority complex for which “Napoleonic” is putting it mildly.

The use of the word “fact” is incredible here and so too is the use of a “we”, or “our”, all of which leads to paradox of the “us”. How interesting.

Yeah, I deserved that one. I should probably avoid making sweeping, nationality-based generalizations while at the same time attacking the substantive value of both nations & generalization. Garton Stanley’s barbed acumen on this point & others (“intermittently accurate” is such a great phrase I may have to steal it) is matched only by the very touching account she gives of her teenage years, inveigled by Levesque’s particular brand of acid-sharp PQ separatism, & the lasting effect this had on her patriotic father. It’s a lovely passage, & apropos; we can forget all too easily that these questions do not dwell just in the suburbs of academic discussion (I almost used the word “discourse” there – without irony – which perhaps says a lot about me). These issues matter.

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W(h)ither a National Theatre? (corrected below)

The impetus for this post comes from Michael Wheeler (Artistic Director of the politically minded Praxis Theatre Company), whose new project is called SpiderWebShow, described as “A theatrical space where Canada, the Internet and performance minds intersect” (the absent Oxford comma is, I assure you, thoroughly sic). Both Mr. Wheeler & Praxis are rare creatures of at least the Torontonian theatre scene that I know, in that they are interested not just in the creation of performances, but in seriously pursuing the “Why” of theatre in Canada. Practitioners too often leave these questions to academics – Holger Syme, for example – & adopt a sort of “See No Evil” attitude which ultimately manifests in the work. Not to say the work is bad, per se; merely that a lot of times it seems disconnected from a public discourse about theatrical teleology. Even in the way plays are marketed (& reviewed) they adopt the qualities of commercial products, of things which are bought & sold but not necessarily important, vital, or immediate.

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Undergrad Franco

My friend Luke Kuplowksy has started a new website called “Undergrad Franco.” The premise is great because of its simplicity – take James Franco’s characteristically feeble Vice essays & grade them as if they were the essays of an undergraduate film student. (N.B.: Luke, in addition to being a professional musician, is also getting his Master’s in film studies from U of T.)

For the full shebang, go to undergradfranco.tumblr.com. Here’s a little taster:

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Notes taken while backstage at the tech rehearsal for “The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic”

2:10PM – Arrived at the stage door of the St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts (late, of course, because the TTC is run by a deranged clutch of syphilitic orang-utans). I’ve signed on to be lightwalker/stand-in for Antony and the Johnsons front-man Antony Hegarty, despite the fact that I’m about three inches shorter than his 6’5″ & about a 100lbs, lighter. It being a Robert Wilson show (Wilson being the theatrical father whom I must someday Oedipally kill), I am terrified of fucking up even in the slightest, so my lateness causes me a particularly acute degree of psychic pain. I am greeted by the assistant director, Yevgeniya Falkovich (alias Yev) who sweetly informs me that what I thought was going to be lighting levels is in fact a tech work-through, & it is in fact going almost excruciatingly slowly & so the actors are themselves doing it. She tells me that I should get into the whiteface makeup & stick around anyway, just in case.

2:45PM – A thick membranous coat of white face-paint is applied by a kindly & chipper middle-aged man who looks more like the kind of guy you’d see double-fisting bottles of Labatt at a “family diner” on the outskirts of Hornepayne, Ontario at 1:00 in the morning. I’m sent upstairs to a waiting Yev who warns me that Robert Wilson (or “Bob” as everyone & soon myself begins to call him) runs his rehearsal hall with an almost proto-fascistic seriousness & that any ambient noise or distraction is cause for immediate removal from the premises. I’m told to sit, watch, & shut the hell up, basically.

3:00PM – Brought into the theatre. On stage is a phenomenally gorgeous set comprised of three stylized coffins arrayed in a line with geishaesque women in masks reclining on them with folded hands. They are identical in almost every way except for those particular ways that seem noticeable only to Robert Wilson, who remains unseen but whose disembodied voice booms across the microphone system as he directs hapless stagehands to lift the hems of dresses up fractions of inches to conceal white-powdered neck-flesh.

3:30PM – On the floor next to the coffins are what look like weird, red dinosaur bones. Wilson has spent the past half-hour or so rearranging them, telling the aforementioned hapless stagehands to shift them single-digit degrees until he gives a kind of satisfied “That looks better.” The guy’s sheer attention to detail is sort of humbling; that these changes are noticeable to no one else in the room is clearly of no importance to him whatsoever, what matters is that his vision pleases himself. I admire this.

4:25PM – Hapless stagehands spread dog treats all over the stage. Three big, black Dobermans are released on stage & begin wending between the coffins to lick them from the floor. Yev tells me that Wilson had the dogs dyed black.

4:29PM – One of the dogs takes a shit on stage. The afternoon’s surreality is matched only by its wonder.

4:45PM – Willem Dafoe (a.k.a. the Green Goblin, a.k.a. Grace’s father in Manderlay, a.k.a. the guy from Boondock Saints) is now on stage. He is the only actor in the piece who actually speaks lines, basically, & he has an almost obscene amount of text. Yev tells me that apparently Dafoe, who did the part a year ago when The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic first premiered, has since that time rented out room & gone through the entire play every Sunday of every week until now, & comes to rehearsal fully an hour-&-a-half early to go through a pretzelish yoga routine before then doing the casts’ group warm-up & then doing a full day’s work. The guy’s devotion to his craft is almost monk-like. I admire this, also, & make a note to myself to emulate it. Dafoe is in whiteface too & sports a huge red sheaf of hair (wig) & army suit. He looks awesome.

5:00PM – Dinner. I join the rest of the cast & crew in the greenroom where I awkwardly help myself to some coffee & hummus. I look stupidly around the room for a place to sit & decide to stick near my friend Graeme, who’s “lightwalking” with me, for safety. Although I did not think I was the type of person to get star-struck, being in a room eating finger-foods with Robert Wilson, Willem Dafoe, & Marina Abramovic is really too much. I try chatting up one of the other performers about Wilson’s process. She’s a Belgian expat living in New York & has very little affect when she speaks, which makes me think that I just bore her tremendously with my amateurish questions (e.g., me: “So is your background as an actor?” She: “Performer” [which difference means what, exactly?]). She tells me that basically Wilson draws a “scene book” from which he works, & shows the cast the choreography himself, then asks that they imitate it. The room left for input from the actor is nil, which is very good for Robert Wilson & his audience, but not much fun for the actors themselves, it seems to me.

5:33PM – Now there is a man with a giant albino python in the hallway. This snake is apparently used in the show, & her name is Medusa. (This is getting very weird). The man drapes Medusa around my shoulders & suddenly I’m in love. The snake’s weight has the sensation of the hug, & the curl of the tail around my thigh is comforting in ways that are difficult to convey. I’ve never considered keeping a big-ass snake for a pet, but now I want one.

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6:00PM – Back in the theatre, where we left off. One of the performers is clearly not living up to Wilson’s standards, & Wilson kind of gives him shit for it. Yev tells me that all of the music is performed live by an invisible orchestra in the pit, which is kind of incredible considering how weird & avant-garde the music in the thing is, & how sudden the cues come.

6:30PM – Willem Dafoe is the man.

6:34PM – Willem Dafoe just bit a blood capsule while doing a bit of choreography & is bleeding from the mouth. I’ve never cared for his films, but man, the guy has just become like my favourite actor ever.

(End of notes because apparently my scribbling stuff was irritating to Robert Wilson. Am I moron? Perhaps. Do I regret note-taking? Perhaps.)