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.

 

Part 1: In which I check my privilege, then discuss the problems with checking privilege.

According to The New Yorker, the term “privilege” as commonly used in context of “white privilege,” or “male privilege” or “hetero-privilege” was coined in 1988 by a scholar named Peggy McIntosh, in a paper called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” I’m not sure this much elucidates the sudden-seeming catapult of the language of privilege into the mainstream (and it is mainstream – there’s a BuzzFeed quiz on the subject for god’s sake). I for one am pleased and encouraged that more and more people have begun to wake up to what ought by now to be obvious: there are deep and systemic and institutionalized advantages given to white, heterosexual males.

But there are problems with how this language is being used and it’s worth talking about. To be clear: I am not a privilege-denier. I am not Tal Fortgang. Or for that matter, John Tory. So here’s the check: I am white, of Dutch and English heritage (two imperial powers), I’m a cisgender male (for those unfamiliar with that admittedly artless neologism, it means simply an individual who “identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth,” which perhaps begs the question of what is meant by “identify” and “assigned,” but more on that to come), and I’m a heterosexual. I’m an atheist, raised in a secular, middle-class family. Both of my parents worked white-collar jobs. They paid for my education. They would be able and willing, should I ever need it, to lend me money. As things go in today’s society, I have positively won the lottery of life. I’ve never experienced what I could meaningfully describe as true loss or hardship.

So no, I don’t feel “discriminated against” or in any real way traduced; my beef here has nothing to do with my feelings. No one’s ever told me to check my privilege, but I would if they did. But the mostly-positive “check your privilege” phenomenon has been subsumed into a social media-driven culture that has distorted and retarded the conversations it was designed to inspire in the first place (the mouth-frothing over “trigger-warning” pseudo-science is only one symptom of this). As the Torontonian theatre company Studio 180 posted on Twitter yesterday:

studio 180 tweet

Yes, but why also do we keep talking about it as if it were some kind of inalienable property like being tall or having blue eyes, a – forgive me – human stain, instead of what it actually is, which is a system created by people that can also be altered or destroyed by people?

In other words, it seems to me that the imperative to “check your privilege” has, through the peculiar matrix of social media, increasingly become an end in and of itself, divorced from any real political teleology. As this extremely good Rabble.ca article notes, “privilege-checking” ought to be just the modern counter-part to what was once referred to as “consciousness-raising” – i.e., alerting those who have profited from systems of oppression (or privilege, if you prefer) to the very fact that those systems exist, and how that profit might be colouring his or her perception of the world.

This is language that was once used by activists, people who were genuinely concerned with specifically effecting political change. Activists, or at least good ones, think in terms of “goals” and “tactics.” To a person inclined to actually care about changing the lived experience of human beings on earth, principle is not always the point – the point is, what is the best way to make people change their behavior? Sometimes, a protest is a good tactic – other times, it isn’t. But a protest isn’t worthwhile just because it’s a protest, or just because it’s in honour of a cause worthy of a protest.  So for example, Occupy Toronto ended the occupation when it ceased to be effective – when public opinion was beginning to sway against them. That’s a good thing. Now they continue their work in subtler, perhaps less sexy ways that are designed to have a more specific impact.

Social media, however, has spawned a generation of what can only be described as “armchair-activists,” people who have been so totally saturated in the meme that they have begun to internalize the language without being, it seems, attuned to the language’s purpose. I am such a one. I admit that freely and to my shame. I have flirted with activism – have attended a few protests – but I do not devote nearly as much time to social justice work as I should.

“How do I know that the majority of people who consistently call others out on their privilege on Facebook and Twitter aren’t true activists?” I hear you demand. “Who the hell are you to make that call?” I know because if they were, there’d be literally thousands of people who take to the streets when a major protest occurs, the ranks of Occupy TO and the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, to name only two, would swell – but there aren’t, and they don’t.

This is hard to write intelligently about, because most of what I’m referring to occurs on social media fora, and so the evidence is almost exclusively anecdotal. Let me provide just one example, culled from my Facebook feed (and I almost never use Facebook, so it’s one hell of a coincidence that I found it). Although it was posted in an extremely public forum (no one using Facebook should have any illusions about “private conversations” unless they’re specifically using the private chat function), I’m blocking out the names (in different colours to differentiate writers) because I don’t know either of the people involved, and frankly, I just feel uncomfortable posting them. I’m also omitting the context of the conversation; it’s really beside the point (if you must know, you can ask me). I’ve highlighted sections I think are particularly worth noting. Bear with me, the “clipping” tool on my outdated DELL means I have to post this in pieces:

Facebook1Facebook2Facebook3

It doesn’t matter who’s “right” or “wrong” in this exchange. And I chose this example because (unsurprisingly) it’s a particularly extreme case that illustrates the difference between calling-out privilege as an act to perform for its own sake, and calling out privilege as a tactic to actually make a difference in the world.

Black sets the tone of the conversation by unilaterally deciding which issues are available for conversation, and which aren’t, a theme they end up developing with admirable frankness towards the end. Blue, however we might feel about him, is at least understandably flabbergasted – he’s being told not just that he’s wrong, but that he’s not allowed to participate in the conversation. When he asks, point-blank, for the definition of “cisgender,” he’s told “You can educate yourself. I’m not here to hold your hand.”

This seems to me absolutely characteristic of the attitude of much of the post-New Left, and it’s echoed in every blog post rejecting Emma Watson’s UN speech, or every time one is told, “It’s not my job to decolonize you.” It is the fundamental difference between “raising consciousness” and “calling people out.”

Look: nobody with a brain in their head denies the principle that Blue should have enough of a clue to spend two seconds looking up a word on Google. Nobody denies the principle that men should care about women’s liberation irrespective of its benefit to themselves. The principle that we are individual beings responsible for our own education, enlightenment, and actions is easy to affirm.

But people who care about changing the world in practice understand (or ought to) that as a tactic, leaving others to their own devices and hoping that their consciousness is raised by, what, afflatus is at best ineffective, and at worst, gives those blinded by privilege full permission to put their hands in the air and say, “I tried, but they didn’t want to talk to me.” Far from “calling them out” on anything, it actually lets them off the hook.

A hallmark of the New Left – the political wave that gave us the Civil Rights Movement, that spawned the best of second-wave feminism, that brought us Harvey Milk and Martin Luther King Jr., brought us Friedan, Greer, Alinsky, Steinem, Chomsky, Baldwin, and many more – was typified by activism in the truest sense. Actively going out of one’s way to educate people, whether by hosting talks in church basements or to three people in a living room, writing and disseminating a radical press, or printing and distributing leaflets, was considered the de facto job of anyone interested in effecting change. If it isn’t “my job to educate you” – well, then, who the hell’s job is it?

Don’t misunderstand me – the accomplishments of the post-New Left are many, and admirable. I’ve remarked on a few of them above. But the Internet now has made it so easy for anyone with a keyboard to have a megaphone. It requires virtually no work or effort. I’m aware of the ironies of writing about this on yet another blog – but that’s my point: I’m addressing this blog to the audience of people who read it and others like it. If that seems tautological, that’s because it is – I have no illusions, as so many others seem to, that people in positions of power and influence will read my blog and be swayed by its content. Worse – how radical can you possibly be when BuzzFeed appropriates your language in order to sell you things?

The myriad blogs and Twitter feeds dedicated to the daily commenting (and that’s what it is, not activism but comment) on privilege, oppression, and politics are really fulminating into an echo-chamber; how could it be otherwise? If, like Black, you believe the only people allowed to discuss these issues are those affected negatively by them, how can you possibly believe you’re going to reach anyone other than people who already agree with you?

Which brings me by a commodious vicus to the theatre. But first:

 

Part 2. A Digression, in which the language of “inclusiveness” reveals itself to be more-or-less broken.

I’m a writer, by trade and by disposition. I get pissed off when people say things like “myriad of,” or “comprised of.” I know this is grade-A certified snobbishness, but then, I’m a total snob, so that oughtn’t to be much of a surprise.

Words matter. So do their definitions. And for a movement as rife with neologism as the post-New Left, the specificity with which words are used is doubly important. The language of “inclusiveness” is something progressives have always embraced, but, in the proliferation of isms and identities and sub-identities of identities, it has been forced to evolve an ever-new and obscure set of colloquia, the likes of which are, to the uninitiated, totally baffling. Some of these make good, common sense; if there is to be “transgender,” it follows logically that there ought to be “cisgender.” Others are not so intuitive.

In the Rabble.ca article I linked to above, there’s another link to something called the Safe Space Network, which I think is as good an example as any of the kind of thing I’m talking about. The site appears to be more-or-less defunct, perhaps because – and perhaps tellingly – one of the moderators resigned her position because she “no longer felt respected.”

Herein is the essential problem with the lexicon of “inclusion”: not the words themselves, but the unavoidable reality that as the number of potential identities increases, the incompatibilities between worldviews begin to make themselves felt. As the feminist wiki GeekFeminism notes in its entry on Safe Spaces:

  • Safe spaces often have intersectionality[sic] problems, for example trans women often report that they find considerable transphobia in spaces which are supposedly safe for women and feminists.
  • Maintaining a safe space through education and moderation can make the space very challenging and confronting for the owners of the space. Women in particular often find that this work is expected of them and that no effort will be made to make the space safe for them while they maintain it as safe for others.
  • Safe space sometimes excludes people with dependents or carers, for example a strict women-only space might exclude carers for boys and men who can’t leave them, or a woman with a full-time carer who isn’t a woman[sic].

Whether one agrees with it or not, there is certainly, for instance, a school of feminism which rejects transgender or transsexual women that is at least as intellectually robust as its opponents; in fact, one can be fully in support of transgender rights while still being unresolved with respect to the philosophy that underpins them. It would be intellectually dishonest to pretend that there aren’t extremely complex metaphysical issues at stake when we talk about what it means to be a “man” as opposed to a “male,” where exactly the construction of gender ends and where sex – as defined by chromosomes – begins. These aren’t matters of politics, but of metaphysics and science, and to discount them on the basis avoiding “challenge” and “confrontation” is simply dodging the issue, no?

Or consider that the Safe Space Network places a ban on “Otherkin hate.” For the uninitiated (as I all too recently was), “[A]n otherkin is a being born into the wrong body. Not just with the wrong parts, but as the wrong species: people who identify as otherkin believe that they are a wolves, or elves, or really any kind of being, born into a human body.”

Now, such views are totally harmless, and I fully support the right of anyone to view themselves in any way they desire. But to say “I am actually a wolf, not a human,” is a metaphysical proposition that can either be supported with sound logic, or not. What does it actually mean when someone says, “I identify as ___”? What phenomenon, or action, is the verb identify actually describing? Is anyone prepared to answer this question? And is it really “hate” to reject unsound metaphysical or scientific propositions? Must I accept the existence of “souls,” “spirits,” or “essences” without any expectation that I be provided with a sensible account of what, actually, these things are? Is it really “hatred” to simply ask how someone can claim to literally be something that doesn’t exist, like a dragon or a video-game character?

These are genuine questions, and they require genuine answers; moreover, they apply to the totality of identity politics – not just the otherkin fringe. But the circular logic of “inclusion” and “safe spaces” not only denies that they are valid questions, but also seem to condemn anyone willing to ask them as engaging in act of “hate” or “oppression,” blinded by their “privilege.” In other words, “inclusive” language is increasingly prohibiting discussion on the very issues with which it most urgently has to do.

Like some kind of eerie post-New Left Fight Club, the First Rule of inclusive language is: Don’t Talk About Inclusive Language.

 

Part 3. In which I finally get to my point, and explain what any of this has to do with the theatre.

I’m going to break from habit and start this time with a personal anecdote.

This summer I premiered my play Potosí at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Having entered the script on a whim, I’d won the New Play Contest, and there was a certain amount of buzz around the thing that helped a great deal in getting the kinds of houses we got.

I don’t know that I can defend this, but I would contend that Potosí’s success was atypical as far as Fringe shows go; in fact, were it not for the boost in publicity that the New Play Contest gave us, I doubt it’s a production that many would have attended; there’s no self-pity in my admitting that, nor is there any judgement of Fringe audiences. Different kinds of festivals attract different kinds of theatre-goers with different kinds of expectations.

Despite good sales and critical success, there were still people – some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn’t – who either in public or in private accused my work (and by extension – it felt, though I may be projecting – me) of being racist, sexist, or both. (It might be worth noting that all of the people who leveled the racism charge were white). I wasn’t at all surprised. I had no illusions about the work; in fact, I wrote the script in full anticipation of that debate.

I was disappointed therefore when none of the people who leveled these accusations were willing to discuss the matter publicly, despite repeated invitations to do so. Part of the whole point of script was to encourage dialogue. One individual told me they objected to the staging of rape full stop, and condescended to direct me to an article explaining why. Most commonly, they echoed one reviewer when he asked: “[I]s it exploitation to feature sexualized violence so prominently in  a show in which the victims of said violence are either unseen or presented as equally reprehensible as those who perpetrate it?” Their answer, it perhaps need not be said, was in the affirmative.

Enough about me (sort of). As readers of this blog will know, in February of this year, Spider Web Show published an essay by Ottawa-based playwright Darrah Teitel critiquing Michael Healey’s play Proud, a meditation on Stephen Harper. Ms. Teitel found the play transcendently sexist, and described in explicit terms exactly why. Michael Healey responded in the comments section, and I contributed my own thoughts here.

And of course, recently, Spider Web Show, in conjunction with the National Theatre School and HowlRound TV, live-streamed a long-table discussion on the state of Canadian Theatre, with speakers including Sarah Garton Stanley, who moderated, Michael Wheeler, Marcus Youssef, Annabel Soutar, Djanet Sears, Ryan Cunningham, Paul Thompson, Philip Akin, and Mel Hague, along with a group NTS students.

What do any of these things have to do with each other? It is my contention that they reveal a fundamental problem with our thinking about how to conduct criticism in this country – and by criticism, I mean not just discussions of how the art works itself, but also of the place of that art in a broader political and cultural sense.

Much like the phenomenon of “checking privilege,” the theatre community’s increasing propensity to “call out” productions on racist, misogynistic, or otherwise discriminatory content has ceased to be connected with anything resembling a purpose, and has instead become just de rigueur, that which is done for the sake of doing it. Missing from the conversation is the fundamental question: if a play is sexist, what is the specific reason for pointing it out? No one, so far as I know, not Darrah Teitel, not Kelly Nestruck, not the people who objected to Potosí, has ever said that the plays with which they take political issue shouldn’t be staged (any of these people will correct me if I’ve misread their views). So what are they saying?

Again, this is about tactics and goals. Either we should be limiting the number of politically incorrect shows on our stages, or we shouldn’t. Either it’s morally acceptable to stage the filthiest, most racist and sexist trash imaginable, or it isn’t. If it’s wrong for a play to be racist, if it constitutes an act of “hate” or “oppression,” then it ought to be subject to the same debate we have when we discuss any other hate-speech issue. (I’m going to mention in passing here that I’m with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in opposing hate-speech laws altogether.)

Personally, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a theatre community that uses the Oakes Test to assess art. That’s me.

But if – as I suspect is more likely the case – the urge to “call out” content we find politically disagreeable is not an urge to censor that content, then what is it? I don’t at all object to people writing passionately – and in public – that a show is racist, sexist, or homophobic, or whatever. But unless this discussion is framed by a much more specific political objective, it just feels empty. What conversation are we trying to have? What is the specific change we are trying to effect in the world? To raise consciousness? But in this context, what does that look like?

I more-or-less fully support the political agenda of the post-New Left. I believe in an inclusive, just society. But like the fundamental incompatibility of liberalism with fundamentalist religion, there is a fundamental incompatibility between the moral imperatives of “inclusiveness,” and free artistic license that the culture so far has done nothing to address. We have heretofore chosen to Hear No Evil and pretend, like Barbara Hall, that “no right trumps another.” This seems to me an untenable position in the long run.

It’s easy to see how whatever underlying ideology possesses people like Black in the Facebook conversation I posted above has influenced our artistic practice, as well. Consider the enormous proliferation of “confessional” works, or count how many times in the livestream above phrases along the lines of, “I want to do shows that speak to me and my community” are used. It doesn’t matter that plays like The Gay Heritage Project should have effectively killed our ability to talk about “my community” with a straight face; we appear to be approaching an age of artistic solipsism – where the only thing we can present is ourselves, to other people like us – or risk being “offensive.”

How is this much different than hundreds of years of theatre for white people? Is the solution really to balkanize our aesthetics into ever-smaller “communities” and sub-“communities” until, like the broken lexicon of “inclusion,” we collapse into infighting and squabbling and the theatre becomes even more insular and convolved and self-referential than it already is?

Look: theatre is already marginalized; it is absolutely, overwhelmingly dominated by lefty people who – to greater or lesser degree – basically all agree with each other. Is there anyone who seriously thinks that a play satirizing Rob Ford is going to be attended by anyone who would conceivably vote for him? In such a context, it’s no longer “speaking truth to power (or privilege)” to write a play in which Stephen Harper is portrayed as a Machiavellian sociopath, and the major female character as some kind of avatar of feminist truth. The result would merely be a roomful of audience members who are able to nod sagely, in unanimous agreement that they don’t like a politician none of them voted for in the first place, and get to go home and congratulate themselves on how moral they are.

If that’s not what the critics of plays like Proud or Potosí are asking for, what are they asking for?

Another problem: like the endless hordes of bloggers writing yet more posts about white, male oppression, apparently under the delusion that white males in favour of patriarchy are reading them (or even care), the indie theatre community has somehow managed to convince itself that it’s radical simply by virtue of the fact that it’s indie. The great myth of Canada’s indie theatre community is that we are the source of cutting-edge, “disruptive,” or otherwise ground-breaking work; we’re not, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know we’re not. “Immersive” theatre is done on Broadway. Queer Shakepeare? Please. Recontextualizing Strindberg from Sweden of the 1880’s to England of the 1940’s? Let’s be real: none of these come close to matching the degree of innovation, political daring, or formal experimentalism that characterize works that are regularly put on by World Stage, or Canadian Stage, or even Buddies in Bad Times.

In fact, from a purely political perspective, the most radical theatre companies operating at least in Toronto today are the populist, forum-theatre companies like Mixed Company, who are following the tradition of Augusto Boal and Paolo Freire and actually doing the work of raising class-consciousness in underprivileged communities. But who would deny that these companies aren’t marginalized, treated with the same condescending tone of voice that inevitably gets evoked when someone brings up, say, “community theatre”? These are the jobs that actors take in the interim, until they can get parts in “real plays.” Deny it if you can.

I mean really, when we talk about all the “radical theatre” that the “institutions won’t touch,” what are we talking about? Morro and Jasp?

A caveat: I am not at all saying that indie theatre is bad. I don’t personally think radicalism or innovation are prerequisites for quality in any work of art, and I can enjoy a conventional fourth-wall reality play as easily as an abstract Robert Wilson piece. It’s the indie theatre community at large – given voice by the various “representatives” at, say, the long-table discussion – that seems to be consistently positioning itself this way, to its own detriment.

So when Paul Thompson characterizes institutional theatre – apparently without irony – as “the enemy” while simultaneously confessing to having worked with them regularly throughout his career, I’m just simply left baffled. And nothing at all is helped when, in the livestream mentioned above, Ryan Cunningham makes claims about the realities of theatre that are demonstrably false (no major Canadian theatre company has had the same artistic director for thirty years, with the notable exception of Ken Gass; I believe Christopher Newton’s tenure at the Shaw is the next closest), or goes so far as to dismiss a perfectly sensible remark from Prof. Holger Syme simply because he’s university professor.

As Prof. Syme himself wrote,   holger1

When people discuss the theatre these days, I see lots of political anger for the sake of political anger, indie-ness for the sake of indie-ness, overwhelming cynicism, and a crippling sense victimhood. I see no one providing meaningful, specific accounts of what we want the theatre world in this country to be, or why it should be like that. We have few real goals, and, as far as I can tell, nothing by way of effective tactics.

The myth of the supposedly “conservative” institutional theatre and supposedly “radical” indie theatre is counter-productive, self-aggrandizing, and, in short, totally bogus. This isn’t the fault of the Stratford Festival; it’s our fault, and we have to correct it.

So let’s challenge ourselves:

  1. What do we want theatre in Canada to look like in 10 years, not just in terms of its infrastructure, but also in terms of its content?
  2. How are we going to get there? What can we do now, in specific terms, to immanentize this goal?

This essay is beginning to implode under the weight of its own length, so I’ll leave off here. I have a few specific Whats of my own, and few Hows as well, but I’ll save them for another post when I can commit the time to adequately cite the research, data, etc.

But for now, I want to hear from you: What are your Whats and Hows? Am I wrong about “calling out” productions? Do you have a defense of “inclusive” language? I write this post not to deliver imperatives, but to instigate a proper and rigorous conversation; I’m not interested in ideology unless it’s informed by specifics.

Let’s all get real.

 

 

14 Comments The Left, the Theatre, and the Myths We Need to Stop Perpetuating

  1. David Allan Stein

    I find all of you tediously prolix. Babbledy, babbledy, babbledy, boo. Make your points succinctly, and they will be read.

    Reply
  2. Sarah Stanley

    Hey Alexander,

    Thanks for your response. Damn! I feel beaten down by time and circumstance. I would like to get back to this argument but there are so many new ones, ever on the rise.

    I am not strong in the riposte dept. But I am interested in training to become stronger. Why? Because I very much agree that engaging in active discourse helps. It helps in every way.

    But I continue to worry about the vicissitudes of time.

    In the short term, I see that it is my nascent written rebuttal skills that stand between me and communicating a good point. It has to be this lack, else-wise… I am confounded as to how you were able to arrive at a conclusion that I was against you questioning big issues in the theatre. Not at all. I was – however – really unsettled, and remain so, because you invoked Hitler to open your argument. How is this useful – except as I suggested -for shock purposes? Was this your intent? I am honestly curious to know.

    Finally, thanks for reading the thesis. It is slim. But not so slim, I hope, that you were not able to see that I value Failure Theatre. Period.

    As the dust settles from this great original post -thanks for taking the time to write it and to share it with the blogosphere – I am newly annoyed by what I believe to be a systemic problem with attention and span. It used to be called attention-span. But now I see that, through the very successful campaign on non-stop distraction, it is very difficult to keep a back and forth going for longer than a few days.

    In an ironic twist that returns to bite me, I was big on Die In Debt (a company that I really cut my teeth on) being conceived of as a theatre “of and for distraction”. I wish this utterance had not played out in quite the way that it has.

    As a final note. It is rare to get people to comment on blog sites anymore. Kudos to you. But I wonder if you have access to editing the posts that are sent to your site? I ask because I have had to live with all manner of typo and grammatical horror show (thanks for not commenting) that I let slip through my fingers onto your site.

    Best to you Alexander and please send me your script. I would like to read it,

    Sarah

    Reply
    1. AlexanderAlexander

      Believe me, Sarah, no one is more aware than I of the time-commitment factor; there is a reason this blog only gets updated once a month or so.

      I guess the only way to address your concern about my use of the phrase, “Big Lie,” is that it frankly didn’t occur to me that you – and, yes, others – would take such offense to it. After all, we use phrases like “peanut gallery” and “sold down the river” without overmuch concern for their sinister origins. But I was wrong, and I removed it for that reason; not because I was worried that it offended people, but that it distracted them from the substance of my argument.

      I do have editing capabilities but I’ve avoided using them so that I can’t be accused of “censoring” anyone – I haven’t noticed much by way of grammatical snafu, but I’ll keep an eye out!

      Thank you for your engagement, Sarah – it is always a pleasure.

      Reply
  3. Daniel Karasik

    Hey Alexander,

    Just a quick note to say thanks for this interesting read, and I agree it’s too bad that your Potosi critics didn’t go public with their thoughts. Maybe one or two of them still will, in reply to your essay here? It’s not too late.

    In general, I think it’d be helpful if those who “call out” oppression would do so in a spirit that offers the accused some empathy and charitable doubt (e.g. at least considers the possibility that no harm was meant) and grants that the accused has a right of reply.

    Take care,

    Daniel

    Reply
  4. Glyn Bowerman

    I think you’re conflating criticism with censorship. You do it quite thoroughly, and articulately, but it amounts to the same argument as the Internet Troll: the idea that free speech precludes any kind of offense being taken to a given remark.

    “Know your audience,” was my parents common refrain, whenever my big mouth got me in trouble. This is especially important for an artist attempting “challenging” work, or seeking to create a dialogue. Charges of white privilege, or misogyny are part of that dialogue. You’re free to create what you want, and people are free to take offense. If you feel some criticism is unfair, fine. But if the balance of reactions to your piece seems to be that it repulsed more people than it engaged in thoughtful debate, then the offending bits are counter to your stated goals. If you’re serious about those goals, then you will take the offended parties at their word, instead of writing them off as reactionary, or being political for its own sake.

    In Toronto, know that your audience is extremely diverse, and that diversity is rarely reflected on stage. And these various, marginalized, “sub-communities” exist because their members created a space for themselves. They pretty much had to, since none of the established creators, indie or otherwise, were in a hurry to invite them to play in their sandbox.

    I don’t see the existence of so many communities-within-communities as doomed to devolve into infighting. From where I stand, these companies, with specific goals, have intersectionality built into their mandate.

    The theatre community, as I see it, isn’t policing itself. But, as an artist, if I decide to lob a politically and/or emotionally-charged hand grenade into the audience in the name of starting a conversation, I need to be prepared for the direction that conversation takes, take my lumps, and decide where to go with the next stage of development.

    Reply
    1. AlexanderAlexander

      Hi Glyn, thanks for your comments.

      I actually don’t think I am conflating criticism with censorship at all, and I did specifically write that I don’t think the intent, or desire, of the kind of criticism under discussion is to censor. In fact, I also specifically encouraged this kind of criticism, but under the rubric of an actual teleology. In other words, it’s not that the criticism is made, but that it appears to made for its own sake, without consideration for how or why its being made, that I think is problematic. If you think that it isn’t, I’d love to hear why. I also never remarked that I felt the criticism was unfair, or even wrong, nor was the “balance of reactions” to my play negative (it was overwhelmingly positive, with the exceptions noted).

      The specific question I asked is: if we don’t want to censor (which you and I would agree, no one wants), what do we want? This is the question that the culture thus far as failed to answer (or even, it seems to me, acknowledge). I think there is an answer to it, and you perhaps allude to that answer (or one of them) when you mention that the diversity of audiences is not reflected on stage. I agree completely, and nothing in my essay advocates for an increased presence of white, able-bodied straight white men in the theatre. There is (or ought to be) a meaningful discussion to be had about the extent to which politico-aesthetic content in plays informs or is informed by the political infrastructure of the theatre community. I’m not sure that increased diversity would necessarily obviate the fundamental concerns of my essay, but it might, and I’d be interested in reading more about it.

      I find the idea that artists should take offended parties at their word without any expectation that the issue is at least up for discussion excessively bizarre. Merely observing that a piece of theatre offended me is not criticism – it’s comment, and it’s not really helpful (either to the artist or to the culture). It’s the kind of thing one can read on Twitter in droves.

      Let me clarify something, because others have expressed similar concerns: when I wrote “Potosí,” I knew fully and consciously that it could be interpreted as racist and possibly sexist, and that those interpretations would be valid (which wouldn’t make them more valid than any other interpretation). But I chose to write it that way for that very reason; I wanted to provoke a discussion about what it is, specifically, that might make us feel uncomfortable about the way these characters were portrayed, and what that says about us, in turn. What I was disappointed by – and again, this is what I wrote in the essay, not, as you imply, that I felt somehow traduced – was that few were willing to even have that conversation, and were more or less comfortable with simply saying “x is sexist,” and that the fact that I didn’t immediately understand why (or thought the issue was more complex than that) was indicative of my privilege (which, hey, it might be, but it seems rather beside the point).

      So when you say that I (“you”) “need to be prepared for the direction that conversation takes,” you seem to be missing my crucial point: the “conversation” doesn’t exist, at least not meaningfully, and not on a large enough scale.

      Reply
      1. Glyn Bowerman

        It’s possible I missed the point of your essay. Points sometimes get by me. But my point was not to criticize you, or your work. I considered (and regret not) including a disclaimer that I didn’t see Potosi. (I did see, and thoroughly enjoyed, Hystericon).

        I wrote “I” [Glyn, or hypothetical creative type] instead of “You” [Alexander] because I have come up against these dilemmas myself. I did assume, maybe in error, that the impetus for this essay was the offense people took to your work. But all creators are going to have to deal with similar issues eventually.

        Since I am also a white, male, cis, straight – let’s just say all kinds of privileged – I’m not the ideal person to address certain aspects of your argument. However, as someone who has tried, and often failed, to be a “good ally,” I can offer some perspective on that front.

        Firstly, I would reject the idea that charges of insensitivity, or racism, sexism, or what have you, is not “criticism.” You can call it “feedback” if that’s more palatable, but it is a legitimate response to a work. When I receive that sort of criticism, I’m often desperate to know why, because “hey, I’m a good, left wing, artsy guy. I’m on your side.” This puts a marginalized person in the totally unfair position of being a token representative of a given group. This is aggravated by the fact that, I can pretty safely assure you, this isn’t the first time someone has tried to put them in that position. Some people take it upon themselves to speak for marginalized groups, in detail, and in environments that are often hostile to what they’re trying to express [see Desmond Cole explain white privilege on Sun TV]. For others, it’s simply exhausting. And it probably isn’t their first rodeo.

        As well, while I admire the desire to create a conversation, most people want to know that it will, in fact, be a conversation that takes place, and not something more insidious, or just plain pointless. A space has to be created, where people feel both compelled, and safe to interact in that way. And that’s a difficult space to create. Especially when they have no say over the framework of that discussion. Maybe I have no interest in having a teleological conversation about a visceral, but by no means illegitimate, reaction to an experience.

        You ended by setting-out goals. As I said, I think that’s a good place to start. You can’t control an audience’s reaction, but you can take stock of stakeholders while creating, and take feedback seriously while developing. If the overall goal of the very big tent of Toronto Theatre should be to create these conversations: there needs to be a safe and/or productive place to have this conversation, everyone needs a place at the table, and everyone needs to establish the framework of this conversation, collectively. Otherwise, what’s the point, and who would bother showing up?

        And I say this with all due respect, and no personal sleight intended.

        Reply
        1. AlexanderAlexander

          Glyn, apologies for the enormous delay getting back to you. Wowza, how the time can go.

          I suppose you and I would just need to disagree on what we characterize as “criticism.” I do prefer “feedback,” though I’d still reserve “comment” as my favourite of the three. Criticism, to my mind, implies a sustained, thoughtful argument reinforced by evidence. Else, what is the difference between, as Sarah Garton Stanley observed, the kinds of “criticism” to which you refer and the kinds of “criticism” offered up in the average, vacuous Richard Ouzounian “review”? Simply claiming that this or that is true about a work is not really worth much, as far as I’m concerned unless those making the claims are willing (and able) to offer something that at least resembles a rationale for that claim.

          I see and hear what you’re saying about offering a “safe” environment for such a conversation to take place, but among one the central worries I address in the essay, is that language (and therefore, logic) of such “safety” is fundamentally flawed. If we’re going to identify those who politically disagree with us as engaging in act of “hate” or “oppression,” I fail to see how such a “safe” place can be maintained, unless it’s drained of the very debate it’s supposed to facilitate. Thoughts?

          And for the record, no personal sleight taken. Snark is what blog comments are for, don’t you know!

          Reply
          1. Glyn Bowerman

            Maybe “safe” is too dramatic a word. Maybe I mean “productive, rewarding, and inclusive.”

            The common retort, when someone is describing a lived experience, is “you’re not being rational.” That kind of imposed criteria for “legitimate” discussion is limiting, and alienating. And I think it’s counter to your stated objectives.

            Firstly, because I think there is a difference between the visceral, and the logical. Logic is comforting, because there are rules. Reason is a convenient conceit. But the rules of logic don’t allow for the subtleties of the visceral. And I think those subtleties are what really captivate us, when we are experiencing, or creating art. So we write that sort of reaction off at our artistic peril. It’s similar to the CRA asking us all to file our income tax statements in interpretive dance: it’s the wrong vocabulary for the task at hand.

            More practically, I really related to your concerns about the theatre community preaching to the choir. There is a typical theatre goer, (I sometimes worry the audience is really just full of other theatre-makers). I often feel like we’re all in a big circle, patting each other’s backs. But, by expecting the sort of criticism and/or engagement you’re asking for, you are limiting the participants of any discussion about a given work, or theatre community, to people who have been trained to speak that very specific language. Many, very intelligent people would be lost in that conversation. They might be able to school us on thermodynamic equations, or planting a garden, but not everyone has a copy of Eric Bentley on their night stand. If we really want new faces in the audience, to avoid the cannibalistic, insulated, and exclusionary nature of the theatre scene you described, we have to surrender control over the framework of any discussion we hope to have. We have to be open to people expressing themselves in a vocabulary we aren’t familiar with, or that makes us uncomfortable.

            I worry I’ve taken up too much space in this discussion, so I’ll stop here. But I have enjoyed the debate, and I’ll check back to look for developments.

            Cheers!

  5. Sarah Stanley

    Hello Alexander,

    Hard to know what all to respond to but, I will begin by saying that I am sorry not to have seen your show this summer. I am therefore unable to assess it similarities or differences to Michael Healey’s Proud. Given this, I will not speak to this part of your post.

    Given the length of your post I have only time to respond to a few of the many points.

    And were I to have more time I would expand on how I believe “time” (or the story that there is not enough of it) is being used as a form of social control and that it is winning. It acts as censor and short-hander, both, to more engaged discussion of the kind you crave.

    I can be succinct about one point. I work within an institution and believe that I am that institution. I am independently minded, I make interesting, unique, and occasionally very affecting and effective work, and while I sometimes struggle with the requirements of working successfully as part of an institution… I not only believe in the one i am affiliated with, but I also believe in the many small institutions that often don’t recognize that they are an institution. I define it here as a:

    1. a society or organization founded for a religious, educational, social, or similar purpose.
    2. an established law, practice, or custom.
    https://www.google.ca/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&rlz=1C5CHFA_enCA558CA558&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=institution%20definition


    Because choice acts as a pathway to action I think I will focus in on the specific use of German you use to refer to “the big lie” of Indie Theatre’s disruptive stance. I was unfamiliar with this phrase and so, after a jaunt out unto the WWW, I can report that the first thing that popped up was that this phrase was coined by Adolph Hitler, to blame the Jews for their blaming a German army officer for the loss of WW1. Now the sources are questionable…it was wikipedia, after all…the first entry to pop up on the search http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_lie

    Anyway, posturing aside, your inclusion of this phrase really sucks. I mean, I agree with a lot of what you say, and I admire the care you take (and lengths you go to) to frame your arguments. But, I have to say, while there is a lot to be perturbed, exhausted and a bit saddened by in your rant, this particular usage of “The Große Lüge” was the most disturbing. And perhaps this was your intent. To find someone who might take umbrage with this, someone who might actually say: WTF? So here I am. Why, oh why, would you feel the need to invoke Hitler? Why, oh why, do you place fascist utterances among the admittedly powerless left leaning theatre peeps… when there are much larger, much more serious societal concerns to focus on? Fascism is a word on the rise. Is it your intent to draw attention to a notion that we are internalizing fascism? Is it your observation that we are afraid, and are therefore doing the work of the government by silencing ourselves through quips as opposed to really fighting? I am hopeful that you will share some of your thinking here.

    I wish I had the time, or the speed, or even the inclination, to write at length in response to your care-filled and frustration-fuelled post. But in reality I don’t, on all three counts and here is why. I agree with you that the theatre, and more specifically what I call Failure Theatre — (you can read about how I define this by going here http://qspace.library.queensu.ca/bitstream/1974/7781/1/Stanley_Sarah_G201301_MA.pdf [page 22] )—is not disruptive. But Indie theatre is different from Failure Theatre and I think it is still having some impact. Proud, Concord Floral, Seeds, Winners and Losers are all good recent examples of this. These are indie theatre pieces made by indie theatre makers. But these are also prime indie creators who are of the establishment and therefore well placed to critique it. They do make change happen and we are lucky for them.

    But it is the groups that cannot get a seat at the dinner table, your example of Mixed Company is as good an example, and they make the kind of work that slams directly into a large problem with your post. On Twitter today you re-asked the question as part of this exchange:

    @melaniehrymak @sarahgstanley No argument there, but not the Q I ask in my post: what is the *specific* goal of calling out offensive plays?

    Offensive plays is problematic. I hear you speaking to the word “offensive” from your position. But I can tell you that a lot of work is deemed offensive by Richard Ouzounian because it offends his sensibilities. It is dismissed on the grounds of taste. His “bad review” is rarely considered “calling out”. Often there is a lot of quiet agreement and hope that the “offending work” will simply disappear. I choose Ouzounian, but he is only representative to a host of similarly minded reviewers. Marjorie Chan(@magicalmudge) – artistic director of Cahoots Theatre – was able to catch hold of this recently in her post about criticism. http://www.cahoots.ca/2014/03/23/a-closing-thought/

    And I have to say that I hear something in your text that belies the privilege in how you are defining “offensive plays” I would ask you consider, again, how you are framing your terms, and moreover, to look deeply into the possibility that you might just really be asking why more people don’t want to join your revolution. (your maxi-sized colonial and neo-colonial western hemispheric, neo-liberally infused solipsistic revolution) I mean no offence when I say this, and I shine light on my own carapaces when I think of it in this way. But you have left me to wonder whether or not the solipsism you see in other(s), ie. companies endeavouring to fire cultural shots across your bow, is more likely a solipsism in your own artistic pursuits? A solipsism that is dressed up in the language of: “the way things are or ought to be as positioned by the academy”. The small community groups that you scoff at might just be the artists who are trying to help you see this.

    A theory, like any other.

    Reply
    1. AlexanderAlexander

      Hi Sarah,

      I have so much to say and so much to engage with here and my time for writing is running out! I will answer you in full as soon as I can.

      In the meantime, I do want to say that on further reflection, the ‘Big Lie’ reference was needlessly gratuitous, and I’ve removed it. No excuses, and apologies.

      More later,
      -Alexander

      Reply
    2. AlexanderAlexander

      Hello Sarah! So:

      The only real similarity between Proud and Potosi was in the kinds of reception they received (though Proud, I can assure you, made a lot more money); anyway, I was using them more as illustrations.

      Notwithstanding my misuse of German phrases (the result, I admit, of too much time spent with William Gass’s The Tunnel), and believe me, indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus, I’ll take a second to quibble with your objection: “Why, oh why, do you place fascist utterances among the admittedly powerless left leaning theatre peeps… when there are much larger, much more serious societal concerns to focus on?” Well, yes, but one may as well ask why do theatre at all, when one could be building bridges in Nicaragua or nursing the sick in Liberia? I write about these issues with the, shall we say enthusiasm that I do because I work in and love the theatre, as we all do; I suppose it’s worth remember that this, too, is a privilege.

      Thank you for sending your Master’s thesis, it was an interesting read. I find particularly fascinating your definition of Failure Theatre, since it indicates a more general gulf between you and I, and how we define “indie.” The community to which I’m generally referring tends to comprise small companies producing work on a shoestring budget in storefront theatres in self-exploitative conditions; this matches uncomfortably well with how you characterize Failure Theatre, and I sort of have to reject the epithet, mostly because I myself make Failure Theatre as you describe it, and that really is rather depressing.

      The works you list – Winners and Losers, Proud, Concord Floral, Seeds – are indeed excellent and some of them are, yes, truly “disruptive” in terms of formal experimentation and political content. I mention another in my essay – The Gay Heritage Project. But they’re also works that have been produced by – even if they did not originate in – major institutional theatres, as you confess. “Indie creators who are of the establishment” strikes me as a contradictory phrase, though I kind of know what you mean. But surely we can agree that the “indie theatre” in the sense I’ve just indicated and the sense you use are very, very different? Might there be an inkling of “privilege” in how you differentiate between Indie and Failure Theatres?

      Anyway, one thing I was most fervently not trying to do was launch an attack on anyone, indie or otherwise – or scoff at anyone, either. I was merely trying to make clear that the antipathy so many artists have to the big institutions on aesthetic grounds is not really valid, and shouldn’t be given much credence. But that’s a relatively minor point.

      Another thing I was not trying to do was start a “revolution,” certainly not a colonial/neo-colonial/neo-liberal/solipsistic one. I must say I can’t really see from where in my version of the text you educed that. I did observe that in the context of a theatre world whose audiences largely belong to the liberal left, plays which espouse liberal values are not necessarily going to be challenging or disruptive. To say that therefore I’m advocating in favor of sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory plays strikes me as a little uncharitable (I mean, would you really deny this?). The point of my essay was that we should be doing more to think critically about how best to resolve these two obvious tensions.

      At no point did I claim we shouldn’t be calling out plays for their political content – in fact, I said exactly the opposite. As I noted to Glyn above, and I can quote from the text if you like, I actually encouraged the kind of criticism that made these observations. What I opposed in the essay – and continue to oppose – was “calling out” productions in the way people “call out” people on social media; in a context that is divorced from a clear political or even aesthetic objective and that leaves no room for discussion.

      I suppose a succinct way of putting it is this: too often, I see “calling out” a work being treated as the end of the conversation. I think it ought to be the beginning.

      I would also like to clarify something, because it’s hugely important and I fear I’m being misread: I was in no way scoffing at Mixed Company, I was doing the opposite. I was pointing out that the most politically radical theatre being performed today often doesn’t take place in theatres, where people pay for tickets, and isn’t subject to the attention of critics and Dora jurors, and it’s often being done in the kinds of conditions that might even qualify it for your Failure Theatre.

      I’m not sure I follow the train of argument you take from Mixed Company to Richard Ouzounian…when you say, “…they make the kind of work that slams directly into a large problem with your post,” I’m not sure what kind of work you’re referring to or to what particular problem you’re alluding. Certainly, I don’t think I can be accused of defending Richard Ouzounian (or even of being particularly nice to him). And while I could quibble with Marjorie Chan about whether or not “imagistic” or “episodic” theatre really constitutes a departure from a euro-centric tradition (Caryl Churchill has, after all, been doing it for decades, and Büchner, Strindberg, and Wedekind were doing it before her), I see your point about Richard O; but then, I’ve complained repeatedly that his style of criticism is deeply problematic and damaging to the art form, both in print on this blog and elsewhere in public. It’s really a bit of a stretch to imply that I’m blinded by privilege in this way; my record of speaking against the kind of reactionary criticism that obtains in the mainstream speaks, I think, for itself.

      As to whether or not the state of things would be much improved if we considered an Ouzounian-style pan “calling out”…possibly, but then, the phrase “calling out” was developed as part of the post-New Left vocabulary to describe something very specific; the two are similar in ethos but perhaps the distinction is still useful, no?

      I agree that “offensive” is really a pretty bad word to use in this context, but notice that I only used once in the essay; Twitter being what it is, it’s difficult to call it “politically problematic in content.” We can argue about nomenclature, but I think my fundamental questions would still stand: why is there a general reluctance to question the usefulness of “calling out” as a political/aesthetic tactic? Why is there a general reluctance to ask, if it is a tactic, what is its goal?

      And to be sure, the solipsism is not, as I said in the essay, in the people “firing cultural shots across [my] bow.” Again, the point I was trying to make was that I was disappointed with the lack of such cultural shots. The solipsism to which I’m referring is reflected in the Facebook conversation I posted – if the only people allowed to discuss oppression are oppression’s victims, how is that anything other than solipsism, especially given how many different kinds of oppression – and kinds of victims – there are?

      Reply

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