Review: Jordan Tannahill’s “Theatre of the Unimpressed”

Coach House Books 160 pp.  $14.95 CDN

Coach House Books
160 pp.
$14.95 CDN

 

Too late in Theatre of the Unimpressed does its author offer a defense of his thesis against the charge of hipsterism. By the time it arrives on page 123 of this 149-page essay in a chapter entitled “Beckett’s Children,” we’ve been treated to countless anecdotes of admittedly interesting-sounding performances few of its readers will have had the opportunity (to say nothing of the funds) to see, parties in obscure, Kensington Market bars, and even a few personal tales of sexual adventure. We’ve heard Mr. Tannahill (I’ve met Jordan once, but don’t really know him and doubt he’d recognize or remember me; having staged a show at Videofag, I know his ex-partner, William Ellis, a little better – anyway, I’d prefer in this space to distinguish between “Mr. Tannahill,” the author, and “Jordan,” the very talented and by-all-accounts lovely guy) effuse over the magic of actors who don’t know their lines, and devote several paragraphs to deconstructing what, exactly, makes Driving Miss Daisy a bad play – as if we needed to be told. His chosen title isn’t doing him any favors – “unimpressed” strikes me as definitional synecdoche for the affect of my (and Tannahill’s) generation. I found myself feeling throughout the book that it was not about a theatre of the unimpressed, but rather a theatre for it.

Mr. Tannahill’s protest against the charge is compelling:

I’m not interested in, nor am I articulating, a stylistic trend of the cynical or ironic, which   for me defines the hipster caricature. To the contrary, I find believe the Theatre of Failure is a profoundly optimistic and human proposal, one that reconstitutes failure as a hopeful iconoclasm. (p. 123)

There is a semantic issue to parse here – while “hispterism” as Tannahill chooses to define it does not at all map onto the idea of a “profoundly optimistic and human proposal,” certainly the neo-hipsterism (post-hipsterism?) of McSweeney’s or “New Sincerity” fits the bill. After all, the aesthetic of All Our Happy Days are Stupid had much in common with the light-as-air superficiality of, say, a Wes Anderson movie, complete with the earnest indie-pop songs by an artist too cool for you to have heard of.

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In Defense of “Boring” Theatre (a riposte to Anthony Neilson’s 2007 piece)

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.

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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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“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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