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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Israel: the merits (or not) of a “Cultural Boycott”

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.

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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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Petition: Get CBC’s Ontario Today to start a new conversation about theatre in Ontario and Canada

(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].”)

The complete show can be listened to here:

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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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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?