Announcing: “Potosí” at the 2014 Fringe Festival!

 

A few years ago this April I found myself on the sidewalk across the street from the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in the pissing rain, dressed in a Banana Republic trench coat and far-too-expensive-to-admit Ray Ban glasses with ever-so-nerdy-chic thick black frames, feeling very out of place in a crowd of veteran  anti-mining activists, all of whom clearly had thought ahead and checked the weather report, and were comfortably dressed in rainslickers and Blundstones.

We were there protesting the Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, whose worldwide campaign of oppression, murder, environmental atrocity, exploitation, and more I won’t précis here. We spent the day there, until the leather of my shoes began to fall apart and I couldn’t see through my glasses anymore.

The next day I wrote the first act of Potosí.

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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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Character, feminism, & the paradox of representation (corrected – 07/02/2014 @ 9:57 AM)

(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.

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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: http://www.cbc.ca/ontariotoday/2014/02/04/tuesday-why-is-live-theatre-dead-to-you/

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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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