10 questions: Tyrone Benskin

1) What the fuck is going on?
Lots of stuff is happening right now. We are in preproduction for our Mainstage show, which has a Toronto connection: d’bi young’s blood.claat. It opens on the 26th of March. We also have our Fall and Spring Discovery readings, which are part of a new play reading initiative we’ve started.

We also have our YouthWorks Performance Training Program running during the winter into spring.

2) What do you like about being the Artistic Director of Black Theatre Workshop (BTW)?
Not sure if I’ve figured that out yet. It was something I really didn’t expect and quite frankly was unsure as to whether or not I could do this. So I’m just now getting over the fear factor and the “what the fuck am I doing” moments. I think it’s all kind of heady, especially with a company like BTW that sort of carries a heady mandate. So do I like it? I’ve learned to respect it and am growing into liking it . . . make sense?

3) Are there any overarching themes or ideas that are common to the work being presented in Black Theatre Workshop’s current season?
I try to wrap my season into a theme. This year it’s “reclamation.” Reclaiming of stories, history, identity; self. Our poetry jam was themed “Nap-turality” – that historical discussion surrounding Black hair and Black Identity. Our Fall Discovery reading was Cheryl Foggo’s Heaven, set in 1927 Amber Valley Sask., in the Black Settlements that had been there for the previous 20 years. blood.claat challenges the perception of women and womanhood from a Jamaican perspective. Come Good Rain – dignity and survival in the face of political and social self destruction.

4) How well are Black Canadians being served by and represented in contemporary Canadian theatre?
That’s a huge question? Should Canadians of African descent and their stories have to wait ’til Black History Month to be seen on Canadian stages? Should they only be seen in their theatres? Should any group that is considered diverse only be seen as a marginal entity?

Black Theatre Workshop, and myself by association, looks to making BTW and the work that we do as open and inclusive as we now see so-called ethnic food . . . another choice on a wide menu. This doesn’t mean that we filter or water down our content for accessibility. On the contrary, we go full tilt and invite anyone that wants to be challenged to come along.

Are we served? I would like to see more of us and our stories on the so-called mainstream stages. I would like to see other cultures coming to see our stories on our stages . . . lots is being done, but there is always more to be done.

5) As an Artistic Director, what does leadership mean to you?
This is a creative medium, even in its administration. I think a good leader allows those that work with them to shine. Add their creativity to the project. Of course there will always be a time to pull rank, but even then I think the reasons have a better chance of being understood and appreciated if it wasn’t preceded by a whole host of shut-downs.

Besides, if I can’t get my colleagues and staff on board with my ideas . . . who the hell else am I going to be able to convince?

6) How much of an audience is there in Montreal for English-language theatre?
This is a very common question from non-Montrealers. The English theatre scene here is remarkable, vibrant and kick-ass! We have more small theatre companies per capita than many other places in this country. This is my opinion, of course, but kids getting out of school, actors who want to work with other actors, absolute strangers don’t have an issue with getting together and forming a company to produce a play. Many of these companies go on for a number of years. We have a very supportive and encouraging community here. We go to each others’ shows, call each other for help – advice. Help each others’ producing efforts through co-productions, etc.

It sounds like a great big incestuous love-fest and in some ways it is. But it also challenges us to do good work, because the next guy is.

That said, we are grossly underfunded . . . but then what company isn’t. And we are all fighting for the same audience in many cases . . . but we share a belief that our presence and culture is important to the true nature of Quebec.

7) Do you have any unifying theories about theatre and its relationship to community?
Nothing as lofty as theatre can change the world . . . although it can, but I think English Canada can take a clear lesson from our Franco Brothers and Sisters. Driven to save/preserve their culture and eventually take it to the next level, art and the community joined together and virtually created its identity and its expression to a point where they have their media heroes who get butts in the seats that then make the money to create, produce and disseminate who they are or how they wish to be seen. Hell they created a why where they are simply seen.

For some reason the money behind the creatives have issue with creating a “star system.” Quebec has proven over and over again that this is the way to box office success.

On a purely community level (forgive the previous tirade!), I think theatre and the theatre players are the modern day village storytellers. We talk of the ills of community and the odd and humorous idiosyncrasies. We reflect the many relationships we experience through our lives and make us think. We make us feel pain, joy, vindication, shame, fear, guilt and all of the many feelings and emotions that can be generated. Hey! Community Therapy! I’ll have to remember that!

8) How much of your work is informed by a sense of anger?
Not so much anger but incredulousness, I guess. A common refrain in my office is, “How could people not know this?”

Just like how we shut down when someone is in our face screaming, anger just makes me do stupid things. I think the Black Experience and the “struggle” is different now, as different for the next generation as it was for me in comparison to my parents. Pretty Zen, huh?

9) Are there any emerging Canadian artists that you are particularly exciting about?
Oh Yes! Adrienne Irving, Peter Bailey, Tamara Brown (actors), Mike Payette (director). I’m also excited because I am seeing more than one or two young people in theatre schools.

But we can’t ignore the contributions of this current generation, such as Nigel Shawn Williams, the great Yanna Macintosh, Alison Sealy Smith, Djanet Sears, Andrew Moodie . . . myself!

And those who came before us: Walter Borden, Errol Slue, Anthony Sherwood, Winston Sutton.

There is a direct line that can be traced from them and earlier (Percy Rodriques) to those who are here now and those to come.

10) Why is spoken word an important part of the Canadian theatre landscape?
I think it reconnects us to the simple beauty of words . . . which I think is what excited Shakespeare. No trappings, no gimmicks – just words. I also believe that within the African Diaspora there is a sense memory of the power and import of the oratory. He carried the stories and thus the history of the tribe in his stories. The importance of the spoken word has always found expression in every era and generation from the preacher/orator at the pulpit – can I get an Amen – to the peacocking rhymes of the MCs and rappers, to the spoken word pundits. All of them, when hot, can get you to say, “Amen.”

Who knows, maybe this is the next theatre wave or at least the next source of the storyteller.

Icelandic theatre?

Time Out New York theatre critic David Cote has posted a sneak peak of his upcoming feature for Theatre magazine – a piece on Iceland’s burgeoning theatre scene. A sample:

“So the country is stable, affluent and educated. There is a healthy theatergoing culture, but a self-sustaining experimental scene still needs to be nurtured. Iceland has not produced its Robert Wilson, its Wooster Group, its equivalent of Off-Off Broadway, or even its own exportable mainstream playwrights. Its productions hardly ever make it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Le Festival d’Avignon.”

An informative overview of a national theatre. Check out Cote’s full post on Icelandic theatre here.

Has evil triumphed in our time?

In our recent interview with her, Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch brought up the following five questions:

  1. Has evil triumphed in our time?
  2. What form will the revolution take?
  3. To what degree are we responsible for the other people in our society?
  4. Is nationality still the locus of identity?
  5. Does art have to be a formal experiment to be a good piece of art?

Anybody want to take a stab at these? Any thoughts would be most welcome.

10 questions: Hannah Moscovitch

1) What the fuck is going on?
I’m writing a lot.

2) Why do you write plays?
Oh I don’t fucking know.

3) Do you tend to feel satisfied with your final drafts, or do you obsess over what could have been better?
I’m always engaged in refining my work. I’m holding off on publishing one of my plays because I want to continue to work on it. Some of the plays I’ve written I know are complete so I don’t obsess over those ones.

4) How do you feel about the idea that Canadian theatre panders to a “cultural elite”?
Panders to a “cultural elite” as in “intellectual elite”? I hope theatre does that. I tend to like the theatre that assumes as a premise an intelligent audience. I think we often pander to the Euro-centric financial elite, is that the question?

There’s a historical relationship between the affluent classes and the artist and that hasn’t changed. And theatre, as it arrived in Canada, is a European art form. It’s hard to shake that off.

5) How much of your work is informed by a sense of anger?
The satires I’ve written are.

6) How interested are you in the marketing side of the theatre business?
I’m interested in the way my work is being represented, and what demographic the marketing and publicity is targeting. I produced my own work for the first years of my career so I marketed and publicized it myself. I pay attention to it.

7) Would you prefer to be known as a “revolutionary” or an “evolutionary”?
I don’t know. I write the work. It’s the work and not me that determines which of those I am. I may have a sense of what I’m trying to accomplish with my work but I don’t think it’s for me to decide questions like that.

8) What’s one of your fondest memories of your time in the 2006 Tarragon Playwrights’ Unit?
It was a clever group of people. I liked our first meeting as a group. We talked about the projects we were going to work on during the Unit. We were very distinct. I was impressed by the fact that we all approached the work in a markedly different way but that we were all able to articulate our approaches so intelligently.

9) Who are some of your favourite contemporary Canadian playwrights and why?
John Mighton, George F. Walker, Judith Thompson, Daniel MacIvor. Because I admire their art.

10) What are some of the questions that on your mind these days?
Has evil triumphed in our time?
What form will the revolution take?
To what degree are we responsible for the other people in our society?
Is nationality still the locus of identity?
Does art have to be a formal experiment to be a good piece of art?

The value of theatre? Wow!

Ok. That was impressive: Theatreforté’s “What is the value of theatre” discussion-prompt snowballed into a theatrosphere-wide tsunami (apologies for the mixed metaphor) – and at last count there were 32 blogs that tackled the topic yesterday, and countless conversations falling from those posts. All of this adding up to an embarrassment of insight.

Here at Theatre is Territory, we’ve been trying to put together a comprehensive list of quotes – for posterity, but also to try to look for unifying theories in all of this.

For your reading pleasure, here is a list of the “value” articles we know of so far:







If we’ve missed any, please drop us a note to let us know, and we’ll add it to the list.

What is theatre good for?

Members of the theatre blog community across North America are putting their collective blogs together today in an attempt to answer one of our industry’s most pressing and elusive questions: What is the value of theatre?

Organized by Theatreforte writer Matt Slaybaugh, here’s an outline of the topic that’s been sent around to theatre bloggers:

“We need to figure out what it is that theatre does well and better than other art/entertainment forms. And then we need to figure out a positive way to describe those things to people who do not already identify themselves as theatregoers. Ideally, we’ll describe things that most theatres have in common, regardless of the differences in the content of their productions. Some suggested topics: community, group experience, theatre is local, theatre is sensually rich.”

Here are the blogs that have so far agreed to throw their hats into the ring:

Here at Theatre is Territory, we don’t have a cohesive response prepared. Instead, we’ve decided to observe the discussion over the course of the day, and create a list of quotes culled from those posts.

Here are the quotes (updated throughout the day):

  • “Theater exists only as long as it is in motion, and then no more. Each moment is a death, and that process mirrors our natural processes, and makes theater the most fragile of the great arts . . . but it is also what makes it the least commodifiable, and as the corporate age grows stronger and more prevalent, this lack of commodification will become recognized as its greatest strength.”
  • “The theater is a place of exploration. It’s a place where resonance can be discovered in unexpected places. It’s a place of active entertainment in a world of passive entertainment. It requires – and rewards – a certain level of imaginative involvement.”
  • “One theatre I know has distilled its three primary values into three talking points, capturing them small cards wallet-sized cards that can be easily pulled out mid-conversation when precise verbiage is needed and precise supporting facts and figures are warranted. Every Board member has one. It clearly distills the value that they want to convey, and together, by singing the same songs in the same language, by consistently using the same three “key messages” as media trainers would say, the entire organization is working to build critical consciousness in its community. Let’s carry it further: if we really want to make that difference, it’s time to make those cards not only for every Board member, but for every actor. Every technician, every administrator, every custodian in our employ. No matter what the media does or doesn’t do for us, we have the power to build the consciousness from the bottom up.”
    Matt Slaybaugh quoting Ben Cameron
    Today we blog about value
  • “Theatre is impossible to experience passively, and therefore it is our sharpest instrument to carve out change, whether social or personal. Its direct relevance to its community and the communion that it elicits is the reason that theatre has been around, literally, forever. It brings us face to face with each other, and ourselves.
  • What is the distinct value of theater? A one-on-one idea exchange with little to no distractions. And clean restrooms. Does labeling it thus entice the guy who prefers to watch an NCAA ballgame at a bar to get up off the barstool and go check out some live Thea-Tah? I’m doubtful.
  • “Theater is valuable because it is an event, limited in its availability, that generates a communal experience. During the time we are watching a story unfold we are all in it together. The laughter is deeper and the tears are earned and heartfelt. And during that time, we are reminded that we are human and that, in the big scheme of things, on this planet, we are also in it together.”
  • “I think the real question is, how do we entice people who would not normally partake in theatre, to give it a whirl? People have to value things for themselves. We can’t make them care about it. What we can do is make it honest and worthwhile. If it’s cheap (and I mean metaphorically, not economically) and easy, then it’s disposable. It’s up to us as artists and companies to make the show, the performance, the design valuable and justifiable.”
  • “Theater requires nothing. At heart, it needs no stage (for all the world’s a stage, no?), nor does it need props, costumes, or even lines.”
  • “The challenge is for artists to tell the truth, and create a work of art that lets others share their truth. Telling the truth is a high challenge, and it requires high skill to engage it, and the result is joy, flow.”

  • “Theatre is simply one more way in which we experience the world. We slow it down, break it a part, present it as a re-enactment, through the lens of some creative impulses.”

    Matt Freeman
    The value of theatre

  • “Fellow peers engaged in the creation of theatre become the truest audience, like the spouse who witnesses in personal detail the struggles of our life. We are an ethical as much as an aesthetic enterprise. We rehearse our ‘to be or not to be’ not in order to better act on stage, but to better live within our community.”
  • “Theatre is sexier. Watching live bodies and live mouths, live lips moving on stage is sexier. A woman standing in front of you fully clothed is better than a bikini-clad TV phantom.”
  • “The true value is in the people who create it. Those who communicate and share stories. The true value, that which separates theatre from film, netflix, iPods and the internet, is in the people connecting with the audience. It is a difficult thing to describe, even more difficult if there is little proof in existence of what theatre can be.”
    – Jay Raskolnikov
    On value

  • “. . . the beauty of live theatre is the communal aspect of the shared entertainment experience. Sure, we can sit down to watch television with our friends, and we can certainly enjoy the same movie with an audience of strangers. But live theatre is the one singular opportunity we have to enjoy the telling of a story that evolves from one night to the next, often due to the audience’s response to the magic and artistry being performed live and in front of us.”
  • “Theatre invites its audience to use its imagination in a social setting.”
    – Isaac Butler
    A value of theatre

  • Theater is not more valuable than other art forms. Only insufferable theatre geeks believe that it is.”
  • My point is that the value that theatre provides is almost always a deeply personal one. So maybe instead of trying to pinpoint a particular set of values for theatre we should just emphasis that theatre has VALUE.
  • The value I place in theatre as a creator is simply the value I place in my ideas. Im unapologetically Wilde-ian in my view of art. The community will embrace what the community enjoys. I will embrace what I enjoy. My version of embracing also includes creation. I dont make theatre to express the value of theatre, I make theatre to express the value of what I want to express.”

Please feel free to jump in with questions or comments, either here (in the comments section), or at any of the other theatre blogs list above (or beyond).

FINAL UPDATE: For our full list of posts on the blogosphere-wide Value of theatre discussion, click here.

A little piece of Toronto theatre history

In a recent post called Theatre Kultur, New York-based theatre blogger Nick Fracaro reflects on his time spent in Toronto’s independent theatre trenches during the 1980s:

“In the early ’80s we were living in the alternative theatre and punk scene in Toronto. Headquarters was at the Cameron. Paul Sannella was both bartender and owner. He managed and ran the place (not) exactly as the tribe model Scott at Theatre Ideas has been proposing. Michael Hollingsworth and his theatre Video Cabaret lived upstairs.”

This is a fun and insightful read, especially the parts where he compares contemporary theatre audiences to retro-look, factory-faded jean jackets.

Check out the whole post here.

10 questions: Greatest hits – Volume V

1) What the fuck is going on?
What the fuck is going on? Everything and nothing. The Royal Shakespeare from Stratford is in town giving us The Seagull and King Lear in repertory at the Guthrie.

What the fuck does Trevor Nunn think he’s doing, casting Nina with a novice who plays Nina as a spastic high school twit in Acts One, Two and Three, and then compounds the problem by presenting her in Act Four as even more spastic and twittish? Is this condescending snobbishness on his part? Does he think we don’t know what the fuck this play is all about? Or what?

He compounds the problem by casting the wrong actor as Trigorin, giving him the wrong costumes and facial hair, and requiring him to be even more the juvenile hippy than Constantine. You can’t have two rabid teenagers in The Seagull competing for Nina’s affections, let alone Mother’s. What a travesty. Thank God one of our local critics took the Great Unassailable Nunn to task. Don’t encourage me. I could go on for hours . . .

I see Lear tonight. Sir Ian gave his usual performance as Sorin, more or less demanding our laughter with his full range of ticks and fruity asides. Has he been dieting on his reviews? Vide The New Yorker piece by John Lahr. His onetime lover gave up on Sir Ian, complaining it wasn’t much fun living with an animated theatre poster.

What the fuck else is going on? George Grizzard is dead. I told him a year ago he should give up smoking. Broadway now more than ever has abandoned itself to high schoolers, mostly female and quasi-female.

“George Grizzard is dead. I told him a year ago he should give up smoking.”

I first went to New York at Christmas time in 1942/3 as a kid of 20. In six days I saw Howard Lindsey and Dorothy Stickney in Life With Father, the Lunts in The Pirate, Katherine Cornell, Judith Anderson and Ruth Gordon in The Three Sisters, Tallulah Bankhead, Fredrick March, and a kid named Montgomery Clift in a brand new play Skin of Our Teeth, William Prince in Eve of St. Mark, Ezio Pinza in Boris Godanov at the old Metropolitan Opera . . . Then I went to war. And you ask me what the fuck is going on today?

2) What does feminism mean to you?
Wow. This is a really big question. Feminism for me is about bringing the stories of women to audiences. To create more female-driven stories and more female roles that are exciting and complex. To tell stories that haven’t been told because they were taboo or hushed in the past.

Feminism isn’t just about equality for me. It’s about the beautiful diversity that women add to this life. Women’s stories are men’s stories, children’s stories, stories of countries and cultures. These stories must be celebrated and debated. Personally, I feel that there are fewer roles for complex female characters in theatre, television, and film than there are for men. It’s getting better, but growth is slower than I wish for it to manifest.

3) What can contemporary Canadian theatre makers do to further inform themselves about our country’s First Nations performance traditions?
We MUST have a sense of shared space and bear in mind that the first people who lived here are relevant to our lives because we all live on land that was in their care for a long fucking time. Ironically, we put so little value in the spoken word when it hasn’t been documented. Oral tradition is a huge part of all First Nations, and yet the theatre community largely thinks Canadian theatre began with imitating European structure. It’s time to stop allowing the curriculum to shape our understanding.

Philip Graeme
Photo by Tony Hoffmann.

4) Do you have any unifying theories that inform your approach to making theatre?
I constantly remind myself that I have to choose to allow myself to be bold, be brash, be brave, be physical, to remember that every utterance is a character’s act of survival, and that the stakes are always life or death. In the program notes for Peter Brook’s 1968 production of The Tempest at the Round House there were a series of fundamental questions the production set out to examine. The questions are: What is a theatre? What is a play? What is an actor? What is a spectator? What is the relationship between them all? What conditions serve this relationship best? Ultimately, I believe these are the only questions worth exploring.

5) What is poetic theatre?
Theatre that attempts to find clarity through ambiguity. Not verse theatre. Nor prose theatre or journalistic theatre. It is theatre that treats the text as a score, and treats the gap between actor and audience not as an obstacle to bypass, but as a medium through which multiple meanings can emerge. There’s a difference between shining a light directly into the audience’s eyes, and having it pass through a prism.

6) As a writer, what are you better at now than you were five years ago.
Everything, I hope.

I know I work harder than I did five years ago. I do know that.

The rest, I don’t know, I can only hope . . . life is a flawed work in progress.

I hope I’m smarter, more mature, more caring, more responsible and a better citizen than I was five years ago.

I hope I’m a more dependable friend to those I love and care about than I was five years ago.

If I can do those things and work hard, then the writing should take care of itself.

I can’t control whether or not someone digs my work or wants to produce it or even likes it, I have no control of that.

So I work hard as I can and try my best to speak to the truth.

That’s why writers and artists and musicians and poets exist, I believe.

To speak truth to power in a manner most excellent.

7) What qualities do you look for when committing to the development of an emerging artist?
For me personally, I look for someone who has something different to say and can articulate what it is they are striving towards. I look for someone who is at a point where interactions with other artists or with dramaturgy or direction are welcome and not struggled with. And finally I look for originality in ideas, in voice, and in presentation.

8) Do you feel that the CAEA is currently living up to the spirit of its mandate?
For Council, that is the most important question of all.

Our mandate comes from the owners of Equity: its members. The mandate is not a static thing. Theatre changes, the world changes, and members’ needs change. The only way for us to keep on top of a living mandate is to regularly consult with the members.

To that end, we have just concluded a major survey of our membership. This will tell us what our mandate is going forward, how we are living up to it so far, and what we need to do to improve.

Although complete results are not in yet, what we have seen so far suggests that we are living up to our mandate in the areas that the members commonly regard as the most important. Beyond that, they would like us to improve in providing some of the “soft” benefits of membership, such as advocacy, advice, and various resources. Please be aware that I have just condensed 1,500 pages of results into two sentences. It is a much, much more detailed picture than that.

9) What does post-modernism mean to you?
Revealing the sometimes-hidden content in form and vice-versa.

10) How well are Black Canadians being served by and represented in contemporary Canadian theatre?
what is contemporary theatre? If you mean the mainly publicly funded, mainly media supported, medium-to-large theatre houses, clearly there are not many black people (meaning womben and men, however womben especially), or first nations people or many other people of colour or differently abled people). the reason for this is clear – longstanding legacies of colonialism and imperialism (racism, sexism, classism, etc) dating back to the very stealing of canada from first nations people.

that being said, my own understanding of contemporary theatre is theatre that is being created now, today, which is happening all over; which does get some media support. If this is what you mean then I definitely feel that black canadians are both being served and represented because we are creating our own theatre and have been since we have been in canada, both as enslaved afrikans brought over on ships and as new immigrants choosing to come here voluntarily.

I am becoming less pre-occupied with being served by the former definition of ‘contemporary canadian theatre’ and more concerned with creating it. I feel that that is one of the solutions I can offer. therefore I feel that indeed in creating the stories that I am telling, I am serving canadians and am representing myself.

a major part of the reality is that as human beings we seldom relinquish power or share it simply because that is the ‘right’ thing to do. usually something has to be at stake or a gain on the part of the power-holder has to be identified. for me this has always meant removing myself from scenarios that may compromise my ability to have power over myself. Self-determination is essential in identity, self-esteem and community building.

I feel that as people in general we are responsible for telling our own stories and creating the means by which to tell them. there are some serious concerns around funding and access, however like I said these will not disappear over night so what do we do in the mean time? wait? no. we create. we live. we dialogue. we change ourselves and our families and our lovers and our friends. and we do not give up our power over self by waiting for power holders to share power. we simply create another reality in which we can find self-empowerment and positive self-reflection and collective dialoguing about change; tell our own stories. I am also less concerned about having these dialogues in the vacuum of acting/writing for theatre and more concerned with having them across broad socio-political-economic circles because these systems are old and entrenched so changing them needs a complex inter-connected circular approach.