Why did the Theatre Centre Publish this Terrible “Reviewer’s Gaze” Article?

On March 30, the Theatre Centre released a weird document written by one Charles C. Smith, in which the poet/essayist rendered a kind of meta-commentary on the reviews of the Theatre Centre’s November production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present…, to the effect that Toronto’s establishment theatre critics had been “limited by a ‘gaze’ that left them short-sighted when it came to Black and White bodies on stage.” The doc’s weird for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it was released three months since the production closed and the reviews themselves vanished from public memory (perceptive readers will observe that this essay is itself several months late; well, I write for free and make a living serving food to rich people for marginally above the minimum wage. This will stand as an excuse). That in itself is a shame, because anyone who’s ever taken pains to read the output of Toronto’s critical elite knows that it only occasionally rises above the level of the average term paper, and certainly warrants a good old-fashioned meta-ing (I myself have never encountered a meta-anything I haven’t liked).

If critical analyses of mainstream theatre reviews are wanted and needed, then you can perhaps understand my bitter disappointment that we didn’t get a better one than the one we got. Which isn’t to say that there’s exactly nothing redeeming or worthwhile about Mr. Smith’s essay – just that there’s also a great deal wrong and confusing and also just dumb about it. I’m referring mostly to Mr. Smith’s neurotic obsession with authors and their specific (and, apparently, knowable) intentions with respect to their plays’ meanings, and his totally unfounded implicit assumption that there exists some causal link between those intentions and those meanings. In the parlance, this is called the “Intentional Fallacy,” which phrase was coined in a 1946 essay co-authored by the aesthetic philosopher Monroe C. Beardsley and someone named William K. Wimsatt who’s remembered somewhat less.

All of which is to say that, despite the machinations of history, the Cult of the Author is evidently alive and well in the Torontonian theatre scene, our stages awash in the blood of sacrificial ungulates like so many gleaming ziggurats. Like the Mormonism, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon; like Scientology, it’s extremely silly.  Like the superstitions of certain other reactionary monotheisms whose names I won’t mention, its arguments have been shown to be patently fallacious, repeatedly, yet still it won’t go away.

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From Fun to Ruined: the poetry of Brock Turner

turner

The poet, in custodiam.

Too often, we men (and women! It can no longer be doubted that the female mind is, under certain circumstances, able to subvert its whimsical nature and contribute substantively to the catalogue of intellectual endeavor) of letters perform our criticism with a chisel, rather than a flower (with the obvious exception of the great Brazilian critic Manuel Oliveira, whose geranium-based critique of Pound is among the most elegant – and fragrant – in the field). We have reached, it seems, a downward turn in the Freitagian pyramid of scholarship in the humanities, in which upstart postmodernists and “historians” of Bolshevik character are content simply to deface the monuments of our most learned minds with so much electronic graffiti.

It is a pleasure I reserve for myself, then, to undertake a first serious analysis of the poetry of former Stanford University student Brock Turner, whose debut long-form work of free verse appeared in public yesterday, to the delight of poetry lovers everywhere. Keats once said of Byron: “He describes what he sees – I describe what I imagine.” Turner has struck a kind of miraculous fusion of the two, in which what he imagines and what is actually the case become indistinguishable from one another. Whatever my failings as a literary critic, I consider myself grateful that, in future years, I will be able to recall that I, alone among scholars, was the first to plumb the inner reaches of this budding genius’s surreal and abstracted universe.

Turner dedicates his 11-page, untitled work to Aaron Persky, the Californian judge whose mercy has since spared Turner from several decades in state prison. The poet has endured a profoundly traumatic past year-and-half; on January 17th of 2015, he fell victim to a bout of alcoholism, upon which he accidentally had sex with an unconscious female. No doubt shaken by the experience, he turned his pain into verse, and has produced the magnificence to which we turn our attention now.

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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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Long overdue, an interview, &c.

Well folks, I know this post is long overdue. The brisance of Toronto Fringe Festival has given way to a kind of post-apocalyptic scrambling for resources, which has enjoined me in spending vast numbers of consecutive hours either writing stuff up for clients (including a children’s educational book on communication inventions for Crabtree Publishing, more on that to come), or trying, desperately trying, to get a play written for the Tarragon Theatre’s RBC Emerging Playwright Contest. Attaching a $3000.00 price tag to any contest is ipso facto motivation for donating the sum of one’s creative energies, but beyond that, I’m just using it as a deadline, an anchor, something which will force me to do the actual physical labour of writing. As Dorothy Parker once put it, “I hate writing; I love having written.”

The new script (the name of which I can’t mention, lest I poison the integrity of the contest’s “blind panelist”) is almost finished (it should be, it’s due on Monday) & I have just begun to phase myself into my next creative project: directing Wesley J. Colford’s play Mature Young Adults for its upcoming run at the Atlantic Fringe Festival. Produced by the wonderful Aim for the Tangent, whose previous productions The Wakwoski Brothers (Best of Fringe 2012), & Genesis and Other Stories have earned them considerable critical acclaim & sold-out runs, MYA is a bit of an experiment in that I’ve never done the Atlantic Fringe (which is located in Halifax, Nova Scotia) before. Indeed, seemingly no one has. Aside from the fairly tortuous time we’ve had extracting information from the AF people w/r/t the actual dimensions & character of our venue, the publicity apparatus of the Halifax theatre community leaves much to be desired. Well, praise the Lord & pass the ammunition.

The production stars the playwright himself, as well as the lovely & talented Renée Haché, who performed in my play The Hystericon last month. A kind of contemporary response to David French’s Salt-Water Moon, the play explores the evolution (or devolution) of a young teenage couple in small-town Nova Scotia, as they struggle with sexual awakening, gossip, & the rigours of finding love in a thoroughly cynical world. At the behest of the Aim for the Tangent, I did a little Q &A, which should give you a nice idea of what the thing’s about:

Aim for the Tangent: What interests you about Mature Young Adults and what drew you to the project?
Alexander Offord: If you're any kind of consumer of culture at all, there are certain trends or evolutions in form that you've necessarily been saturated with, particularly in the last twenty years or so. Almost of all of these trends or forms reduce to what we might call "irony," which is to say the kind of  self-conscious, wink-wink-nudge-nudge-ing that one sees in TV programs like HBO's Girls, where day-to-day tragedy & self-reproach & inner turmoil are removed from the characters' experience & replaced with a carapace of dramatic self-awareness that is both a) the inevitable consequence of a generation of hyper-educated, internet-fed young people suddenly being driven to create art, & b) dangerously seductive in terms of being accessible& entertaining to watch. It also happens, at least in my opinion, to be at times seriously abrasive to the soul. The American critic Lewish Hyde once wrote, in an essay called Alcohol and Poetry: "Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage."
Mature Young Adults appealed to me because it is about unhip, uncool, unsexy subject matter. It is about the day-to-day experience of human beings who, above all else, feel. It is about two young people who are in love, old-school love, before whole notion was reduced to eye rolling and a misting of A10 cells with dopamine in the ventral tegmental area of the brain. If there is going to be another major aesthetic movement in the coming years, I suspect it might be a return to themes or characters that are easily written off as "sentimental." It will be a second-coming of characters who don't need to be admired, only loved.
To Wesley's credit, it's also one of a very small minority of plays which I read & didn't just see the playwright trying to convince the audience how smart he is.
Were there any challenges that come to mind (either working with a new script or working on a show about Nova Scotia or not getting to go to Halifax to see the end result...)?
AO: This depends on what is meant by "challenges." I try to excise difficulty from my creative process by working with people more talented than I. Yes, there were serious cuts made to the script; yes, there are always sticky points in rehearsal, but in truth, the biggest challenge in working with Wes & Renee is resisting the temptation to dick around too much. 
That being said, the venue itelf is causing me a certain amount of psychic pain, but to an extent that's the nature of Fringe. My kingdom for @#$%ing gobo... 
What's the best and worst thing about working in Fringe?
 AO: I have a whole rant I could do about this but I don't know of how much interest it would be to your readers. My only experiences thus far have been with the Toronto Fringe, so I can really only speak to that. I guess I would say that conceptually the Fringe is possibly the most important theatre festival in the country, in that it provides basically the only venue for emerging artists to not only a) produce their work on a budget, but b) actually get people to see the stuff. The Canadian theatre scene is so hellaciously underfunded that there is a real hostility to young artists from a lot (though not all) of the establishment. Fringe to certain extent obviates some of this restriction. 
The worst thing about Fringe really doesn't come from either its patrons or staff/volunteers, but from the reviewers. A sad reality is that far too many people decide to see shows based solely on the arbitrary tastes of a particular journalist. Which, whatever, critics are just doing their job & everyone has to eat & live. But the notion that the worth or existential merit of a work can be reduced to how many fucking "N's" it gets is pretty dispiriting. 
What's something you learned from your first relationship?
AO: That all grievances, no matter how small, must be aired. Fighting, or at least bickering, is very healthy in a relationship.
If you could ask a past girlfriend one thing, what would it be
AO: I have nothing whatsoever to say to any past girlfriend. Which should tell you a great deal. 
Why should people see MYA over other options in the Fringe?
AO: Because in ten years when Wesley's Artistic Director of the Tarragon Theatre, and Renee's been forced to hire servants just for the task of polishing her Doras, you'll want to be able to say that you saw them act in a shitty art gallery in Halifax for ten bucks. If you remember my name at all, it'll most likely be in some formulation of, "Oh yes, I saw his production of 'Aladdin' at the Norfolk County Theatre. It was a little slow, I thought.'"

 

 

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.

DSC02191 DSC02192 DSC02195 DSC02208

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.)

A Fragment

…though of course we ate it anyway. Why wouldn’t we? And we knew it was bad for us, make no mistake. Not, maybe, in the deeper, more quote-unquote informed way that we or at least I would come to know these things later, as an adult – I mean we didn’t know for instance that the word “brown” when describing food may as well be a place-holder for “carcinogenic,” probably didn’t even know what “carcinogenic” meant, probably indeed had only the vaguest understanding of what a tumour might be or even what death was – you know, capital-D Death, as in the end, finito, that’s all folks. But we did have at least have some notions of nutrition, albeit as provisional as you’d expect from eight- and twelve-year olds, such as for instance the relationship between carrots and good eyes, between a tall glass of milk and strong bones, or between the bitter green sludge of  our mother’s over-steamed spinach goulash and a putative musculature that never quite seemed to manifest. But in truth it was probably that they were bad for us that made them so appealing; one wonders if they’d have been half so enjoyable, so unctuously seductive, if they hadn’t boasted 242 nutrient-free calories a pop – I mean, however one might try imagine them perhaps julienned, perhaps crested on sprigs of arugula served au jus and splashed with mottles of balsamic reduction, the idea is, let’s face it, a sad karaoke of the bun-and-mustard dog. So we went to, father’s spatula – that stainless-steel Excalibur of caramelized pig fat and carbonic hamburger patties – scraping the AWOL Schneider’s Country Naturals from where they’d fallen on the deck and sliding them back onto our outstretched plates, snuggling each dog into its doughy bed sans hesitation, sans foresight, sans analysis of any kind, our gluttony punctuated only by the odd spritz of grease.

Dining sur le sol was emblematic of my father’s attitude towards not just food but in fact most consumer goods: toilet paper, kitchen appliances, TV sets, so on, and he had a penchant for redistribution after use, which in the case of the toilet paper meant frequent moppings of one’s tomato sauce-blotted lower lip with the same crumpled rag of tissue he’d carried in his pocket all day, the contents of which were unknown but hardly mysterious. The foothills of emptied and cleaned mason jars in my parents’ basement were small booby traps for the third-grader who attempted to spelunk his household’s depths without a flashlight. My mother’s evenings were often spent darning holes in dollar-store tube socks, my father chatting amiably on the telephone with neighbours and relatives…

— Say, a stereo set? Hell we’ve got an extra one, why don’t I drive it over tomorrow morning before work?

WASTE NOT WANT NOT, said the crocheted tapestry above the kitchen sink. The origin of this neurotic little phrase is difficult to trace, but never has yarn embroidery so haunted the memories of a man as this sign has mine. Most scholars trace it back to a 1772 letter written by John Wesley, the founder of English Methodism, chastising his brother Alexander for his (i.e., Alexander’s) mistrust of a fellow preacher, Peter Jaco. Of Jaco, Wesley writes:  “He will waste nothing; but he must want nothing.” So the original form of “Waste not, want not,” is commandment, not catechism, which is certainly how it felt in our house. An afternoon’s PB & J was always fully crusted, gristle from steaks and chicken wings were set in pots to be boiled for stock – and you damn well finished your plate; this whole “two piles” business that some of my friends’ parents did, in which the child is meant to pick one to pile of food to finish while the other is scraped into compost was simply not on in my household. Leftovers were kept to an absolute minimum, and where they were incurred, my mother would alchemically transform them into something else entirely.

In fact, the preparation and consumption of food in general lay for my family somewhere beyond nutrition and fuel, beyond even the standard dining-as-family-ritual, somewhere in the shadowy swamplands land of obsession. Days were constructed with mealtimes as rivets, and the activities that filled them – school, work, cleaning, reading, watching TV, etc. – simply existed to occupy the space between when you last ate and when you could conceivably eat again. No expense was spared; steaks were nearly always certified Canada Prime (with the occasional Triple-A, for guests requesting “well done”), chickens came big-breasted, and bacon cut a thick, meaty 0.46cm/slice. The hot summers of my childhood had the consistency of partially melted butter, they smelled of aforementioned wieners cooked over mesquite and the evenings ran sweet and sticky with melted ice-cream (HäagenDazs, by the way; my father would accept nothing less). Winters were done stove-stop and finished in the oven; tomatoes out of season? Not for my folks. Our rib-sticking spaghetti sauces were all imported San Marzano tomatoes and Californian garlic. This made the relatively hum-drum Schneider’s Country Naturals all the more special – so rarely did we indulge in campfire food that to waste them because of a simple spill was just not feasible.

I suppose it was for this reason that the oldest and perhaps deepest schism between my father and myself was largely due to the conjunction of a meal and a political choice; in fact in this sense you can see almost our whole relationship thrown upon the wall, a shadow-play, silent but for the piano score. I was a sixteen-year-old wanting either charm or tact, a statistically awkward 6′ 2″-tall, good grades, just a few months shy of emerging shiny-toothed from a six-year orthodontic chrysalis, and I’d just started dating a girl who was an inch taller even than I and possessed a far more splendid eggshell cheek, who was as they say une belle esprit and for whom I’d learned the half-hearted French you see bespotting the text here. I remember her sheaf of golden hair and the way her natural fibre underwear felt against my thigh; I remember the deep sense of having been engulfed entirely into some much larger animal, relinquishing sense-of-self entirely; my hand within her hand,  my tongue doing exploratory surgery within her oropharyngeal cavity. I was consumed, taken in, broken down and transformed.  A better hair cut. More sophisticated sneakers. A Ben Sherman shoulder bag in place of the backpack from Zellers. Then:

— We need to talk.

— Uh oh.

— No no not like that.

— No?

— No no.

— Then…what?

— I’ve decided…

–Yes?

— To become a vegetarian.

— Veg…?

— Vegetarian.

— Oh.

— I think you should become one too.

— Why?

— Because it would be something that’s so great to do, no wait sec so great to do together, think…

— But why?

— You know I was just…

— You don’t like meat?

— I guess I was just really hoping you’d do this for me.

Et voila. Sans hesitation, sans foresight, sans analysis of any kind. What can I say? I was young and in love; this was my matrix, my medium, it’s not that the bigger picture didn’t matter it’s just that I couldn’t even see it, I was blinded by the immediate, when you’re sixteen everything just feels so immediate. That said, vegetarianism was slow going for me at first; Wendy’s newfound fad to follow was not the dietary asceticism I enjoy now but a kind of watered-down locavorousness in which we’d only eat meat products “ethically produced” by local farms independent of corporate esurience (though, true, we never did manage to come up with a really consistent system of determining what constituted “ethically produced,” especially given that for every kilogram of animal protein produced, livestock have to be fed about 6kgs of plant protein, and 25 times more fossil fuels are required to produce a single calorie of beef versus a single calorie of corn, and given that about 925 million people in the world [or one in every seven] were even then starving to death; but these were realizations that would only come to me many years later).

We strutted through those early, heady days with a moral righteousness unleavened by wisdom or empathy for those whose ethical priorities diverged from ours. In the cloudless skies of hindsight I can see that a more sophisticated, more mature, more “ethical” young man than I would have sat his mother down at the kitchen table immediately upon making this kind of decision and respectfully explain to her in hushed, pastel tones that the meals which had been the glue and bonding agent of so many childhood memories were not being reproached, that they belonged to specific times and places and cherished pasts that would never be lost nor repudiated, and that the love and attention and thankless mothers’ work they represented were not just valued but prized, adored, honoured and admired, and that as mother and son moved down these new corridors of  degustatory difference both would always remember those bonds between them yet unbroken, yet cemented by unconditional love and respect beyond words, beyond food, beyond imagining.

This is not what I did…