Seven things I learned about theatre in the past 10 days

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There are many things to know about theatre. Maybe one day I will know them all. For now, I am satisfied with the following seven things I learned about theatre in the last 10 days:

1) The bit in Glengarry Glen Ross where Alec Baldwin comes in to scream obscenities at all the salesmen was written for the movie – and is not in the play.

2) Daniel Brooks prefers not to do interviews via email.

3) Canadian playwright and actor Marjorie Chan thinks that questions that relate “identity performance” to “theatrical performance” are pretentious.

4) There is a thing called “Twitter plays.”

5) Shakespeare is still boring as hell.

6) The theatre blog market is becoming saturated with high-quality offerings. Those of us who are hoping to retain or acquire market share without putting in the work might not drown, but we ain’t going to thrive neither. You don’t get a prize just for being alive, as they say.

7) The contemporary electronica group Massive Attack once did a soundtrack for a 1965 Samuel Beckett film called, Man Next Door. It’s reminiscent of that Pink Floyd-Wizard of Oz mashup Dark Side of the Rainbow – minus the awesome.

So that’s me all caught up. Do you have anything you’ve learned about theatre in the past 10 days that you’d like to share?

10 questions: Marjorie Chan

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1) What the fuck is going on?
What the fuck is going on when Miss Universe visits Gitmo?

What the fuck is going on when robots are created to mimic child-like behaviours?

What is fuck is going on in Kim Jong Il’s head?

I ask myself this all the freaking time. The world is a freaky, freaky place and often beyond my comprehension. All I can do is try to understand it, in any way that I can. For me, that often means an artistic investigation. Right now, the result of my questioning of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 is my play, The Madness of the Square.

2) What attracts you to theatre as a narrative form?
I like the immediacy. I love the intense experience of being in the dark with strangers, sharing that experience with the performers on stage. It’s still uniquely alive and vibrant and connected in our increasingly disconnected environments. I am attracted to the emotional catharsis and impact possible as a story-teller that is different from a film. Yes, I may have had emotional reactions to a movie, but did I share it with 200 others at the same time? I feel that the shared experience has a different quality that is perhaps more powerful.

3) Why did the Chinese military use tanks to clear student protesters from Tiananmen Square in 1989?
Perhaps a question for the Chinese military, and not for me. From my research, I would say that the Chinese government had had enough. The students and other protestors had created enough of a statement that even foreign leaders were publicly commenting, which was deeply embarrassing. The government was clearly no longer in control of the square. A show of mourning on the students’ part had escalated over months into hunger-striking, protests of 1 million people and mass worldwide press coverage. The government wanted to put an end to it.

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4) How much of your work is informed by a sense of anger?
Not much, in fact. I am driven more often by heartbreak.

5) When you’re looking critically at the work of developing or inexperienced writers, what are some of the shortcomings that tend to stand out for you?
Structure. Telling a story. A compelling reason for the story. I think the last one is the most important. Structure, and simply telling a story are technical things that can be taught. But to have inspiration, to have voice? That is far more elusive for many writers. When working with emerging writers, it is often more exciting to me to come across a writer whose work is rough around the edges, but articulates a clear need or impulse as opposed to a clever, well-crafted piece that has little or no impact.

6) What’s one of the most unpopular decisions you’ve ever made as a writer?
It seems I make many unpopular decisions as a writer because for both my first two plays (China Doll and A Nanking Winter), I have had virtual strangers come up to me and ask me to desist, and to decry that my subject matter is inappropriate. Indeed, for A Nanking Winter, I had my own producers continue to ask me to compromise my material before opening night. For The Madness of the Square, no one has yet approached me, but perhaps after it opens I will have a different answer for you.

7) How much does your experience with theatrical performance inform your approach to your day-to-day identity performance?
I don’t understand this question. Or I am willfully ignoring it because:

a. I don’t see its relevance;
b. I think it is pretentious; or
c. I really don’t understand what you are asking.

8) In terms of industry politics, what are some of the taboos or sacred cows of Toronto’s theatre scene?
Not many people in the industry are prepared to admit that a lot of work, hiring and commissioning comes from something resembling nepotism. People like to hire people that they get along with and whose work they are familiar with. This is understandable from a fiscal standpoint – if one has to take a financial risk, one tries to mitigate that risk as much as possible by hiring a known. This leaves a lot of talented people without work or even the opportunity to get their foot in the door. As an industry, we need to own up to this fact.

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9) How much are you interested and involved in the marketing and promotion of theatrical productions of your work?
I have come to realize that as an art form that relies on a public component, a theatre play with no audience is simply rehearsal. So, yes, I am involved and supportive of the marketing and promotion of my plays. There is no theatre without an audience.

10) What kinds of questions do you like to ask other people about their work?
I like to ask specific questions of process, but I am quite wary of theory talk. While it is interesting, I believe that most artists find their way with a process that works for them, and them only. Unfortunately, with theory often comes absolutes and right and wrong ways of doing things. And I believe that kind of thinking kills creativity and art.

Chicago theatre history 2.0

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Chicago-based actor, writer, and “budding technomancer” Dan Granata has launched a new theatre blog that promises to dig deep into Chicago’s theatrical history.

From the “About” page:

“It’s about the stories, on stage and off. It’s about the audiences. It’s about the conversation that’s been going on long before we got here and will continue long after we leave.

“In short, it’s the making of theatre in Chicago. And who makes it. And how. And why.”

Good idea. Check it out: Theatre that works.

Binary and theatrical narration

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Performance
You have read the books. Taken the classes. Scratched the lottery tickets. Soaked your feed. Checked your watch. Tied your shoes. Broken down the boxes. Painted the walls. Changed into something with higher contrast. Photographed the room. Recorded the important bits in your notebook. And committed the rest to memory. The only thing left to do is get up there and show your mother how it feels.

Production
What is the smallest measurable unit of production a theatre company can manufacture? And how much would a ticket cost?

Theory
Every element of every story can be complemented with a binary: The story is told, or it is not told; The central character is good, or she is evil; She is morally ambiguous, or she is morally certain; The setting is clear, or the setting is unclear; She has super powers, or she does not; She is alive, or she is dead; It is winter, or it is summer; The events are true, or they are false; The story has begun, or it is finished; Etc. There may even be multiple opposites for a given element. For example: the room is bright, or the room is not bright – or the room is dark. Since there are limitless binaries, stories that place emphasis on those kinds of relationships tend to do so by highlighting just a small number of the possible opposites. This limitation is necessary because a story told exclusively through binary contrast would be an infinite and unintelligible ping-pong game. Such as Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menance.

10 questions: Evan Webber

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Photo by Stu Wiber.

1) What the fuck is going on?
Small Wooden Shoe has just opened Dedicated to the Revolutions, and I’m thinking quite a lot about that. And there’s a depression and so on.

2) What’s the big idea behind the ongoing Small Wooden Shoe series “Dedicated to the Revolutions”?
We’re examining the peculiar narrative of Western Progress through a text that Jacob Zimmer was taught in grade eight: a list of seven revolutionary moments that changed the world. So we’re talking back to the list, and asking questions, and thinking about how that story makes our lives what they are.

3) How does art differ from science in its approach to understanding the world?
They’re both ways of describing the world, and ways of approaching what might be true. As such, they’re both immeasurably useful and dangerous. Science appears more systematic regarding its truth-making, but I’m not sure if that isn’t a veil. The more work we do, the less I’m able to tell the difference.

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Photo by Ömer Yükseker.

4) When historians look back on the “Information Revolution” what do you think they’ll say was the most notable change that occurred?
Fermi’s paradox is about intelligent life in the universe – why, if the universe is so big –  aren’t there other ‘intelligent’ beings, like us, who’ve tried to communicate? The answer might be information technology – civilizations only reach a certain point before they blog themselves to death, leaving the stars lifeless and dark.

5) In your work as a writer and performer, how concerned are you with the tension between specificity and universality?
I’m not very interested in universality. It’s too arrogant. I think it masks a very legitimate fear of how massively different everything is. Specificity moves you into this fearful zone where things are more interesting.

6) What was one of the hardest decisions you’ve ever had to make as an artist?
Admitting that a relationship is not working in the way one intended is legitimately hard, but people have to do that all the time. It has nothing to do with being an artist. Being poor is hard too – but many people are poorer than artists. Being a human is quite hard, but being an artist-human is an extremely enjoyable, privileged modification.

7) What do you think makes the Antigone story such fertile terrain for playwrights?
It’s another story about the West; it’s like Dedicated to the Revolutions in that way. It’s good at talking about the relationships between families and states, and conceptually, it inoculates the one with the other. It also feels true because it exposes the strain of conservatism under all radical positions, when they exist in time. It shreds up easy ideologies and vacuity alike, and it reminds us that some evils are necessary – which we all know, I think, pre-consciously, but which we sometimes forget.

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Photo by David Hawe.

8) Of the approaches to acting you studied at the National Theatre School of Canada, which were for you the least helpful and why?
The strategies for collaborative, devised performance, were the most exciting and fulfilling and also the least helpful because, for years after, I thought that I knew the right way to make theatre.

9) How much does your experience with “theatrical performance” inform the way you approach your day-to-day “identity performance”?
Acting and creating performance is a good way to practice forgetting yourself, while still being with other people, and being attentive to them.

10) What are some of the questions that are on your mind these days?
How can people do things together? What is a person responsible for?

“Theatre is everywhere – most of it is free”

Vancouver-based theatre blogger and playwright Simon Ogden (The Blogtender) gets the Umbrella Talk interview treatment over at MK Piatkowski’s One Big Umbrella blog. A sample:

“I have a dream about Black Box theatres dotting our communities like convenience stores (convenience theatres?), each of them telling their own stories. As theatre grows again into a common language we should begin to discuss the mechanisms and politics of our larger communities, our cities, our provinces, our countries, the world.”

Great stuff. Check out the full interview, here.

What can theatre learn from the Harvard Business blogs?

Is it wrong for theatre artists to love the Harvard Business blogs? You decide. Check out a few recent posts:

From that last post: “A start-up company’s controller watched the CFO lie to members of other departments and subsequently began to doubt the CFO’s sincerity. He began looking for a new job with a boss whose intentions he could trust. In that instance, lying cost the company a valuable employee.”

Insights like these could go a long to helping emerging theatre companies find their corporate feet. Or maybe, when it comes to great theatre, art and commerce don’t mix?

More standing on books for World Theatre Day

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World Theatre Day was fun. Standing on Books for World Theatre Day was fun, too. They are standing on books in Chicago, Texas, Toronto, Vancouver, Vancouver (again), and Australia.

Is there a chance you could be persuaded to stand on books for World Theatre Day? If you’re up for it, just take a picture of yourself standing on books and email it to the World Theatre Day blog. Your photo will automatically appear on that blog, and then we’ll add it to our WTD ’09 commemorative poster. Easy fun.

Send your photos here. Why not?

Theatre manifesto blogging for dummies

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There’s nothing like a prescriptive list to ignite the passion of the blogs. This week, the blogs have been having their way with theatre manifestos:

1. New York theatreist and blogger Matt Freeman’s posts How to Write a Manifesto about the State of the American Theatre on your own Blog! “Theatre is an art, not a product to be sold. This can be said 105 ways. It’s up to you to discover them.” Don’t worry. He’s joking. God!

2. Chicago-based theatre blogger Don Hall writes a scathing response, while acknowledging that he knows it’s a joke but he’s taking it seriously anyway: Manifestos. “Even when I’m joking back, it sounds angry. Nothing I can do about it.”

3. Brazlian master Augusto Boal’s World Theatre Day manifesto makes the rounds in advance of tomorrow’s festivities: “Theatre is not just an event; it is a way of life!” writes Boal. “We are all actors: being a citizen is not living in society, it is changing it.”

The world needs more theatre manifestos. Maybe it’s time to dust off that public declaration of principles you’ve been saving for a rainy day? Share it in honour of World Theatre Day? Post it on your blog. Or send it here and we’ll post it on this blog.

Twitiquette for theatre tweeps?

Is it just me, or is Twitter the most outrageously uptight social media tool ever invented? It starts with a simple question: “What are you doing?” But Twitter quickly reveals itself to be a minefield of unwritten rules, exclusive jargon and career-damaging etiquette traps.

Following this hunch, I hopped on my Twitter account yesterday and asked some theatre tweeps “what’s your number one piece of twitter etiquette?”

A sampling:

  • Don’t tweet during a play. I know people are trying to make that the next big thing (aren’t they?), but just say NO.
  • Be conversational. For instance: What have you seen lately? Are you planning on Shirley V.?
  • Provide at least a pinch of value with every tweet.
  • The conventional, unwritten rule is one ‘heads up’ tweet per blog post.

Sounds like good advice. But what happens to Twitter users who aren’t up on the latest Twitter etiquette? Will they be banished to the land of the great unfollowed? Or, worse, will their colleagues simply sit in quiet judgment of their ill-mannered Twitter friends?

On the topic of Twitter etiquette, the Vancouver-based theatre blogger Simon Ogden has said: “Twitter etiquette is evolving all the time, that’s for sure.”

He’s right. I just hope I can evolve with it.

Maybe this Twitiquette primer will help.

10 questions: George Hunka

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1) What the fuck is going on?
It depends I suppose on who the fuck you ask.

Since you ask me: Raising a daughter, trying to keep body and soul together, keeping the wolf from the door. Aside from that, filing the right legal paperwork to finally get the theatre company off the ground, finishing up old projects, starting new ones.

2) What’s your favourite thing about being a theatre writer in New York City?
That there’s so much to write about. My main interest is in iconoclastic, experimental work, and New York attracts so many talented practitioners of it. It’s also the home to many artists I’ve admired since my youth, and they continue to work here. You could easily go to a different show each night of the year and, if you’re careful about it, see an extraordinarily rich palette of work.

This begs the question (which you don’t ask) of the worst thing about being a theatre writer in New York. And that is that there is so much to write about. You could just as easily go to a different show each night of the year and despair of the art form at the end of it.

I decided some time ago to write only about work that I admire, that I find personally thought-provoking in some way. There’s no shortage of theatre writers in New York, in the blogosphere and out of it. I imagine all the bases are covered somehow.

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3) Why is your blog called “Superfluities Redux”?
The name “Superfluities” came about after I read Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Nock was a particularly acidulous American writer of the early 20th century, most of whose work is justly neglected. But he was an interesting figure: a radical pacifist, describing himself as a “philosophical anarchist.” For a number of reasons – some good, some not so good – he’s become identified with the paleoconservative movement here in the United States. It indicates, though, that politics is not a spectrum really but a Moebius strip: the extreme right resembles more and more the extreme left. And vice versa.

In Memoirs, his last book, Nock wrote about his disillusionment and alienation from the culture in which he found himself in the 1940s; he claimed that the values he held were regarded with increasing indifference. I am much less of a misanthrope than Nock was, and I have no truck with conservative or paleoconservative values, but I have sympathy for that kind of individual figure. The trick is to be comfortable away from the crowd, an odd condition for such a collaborative art as theatre, but there you are. You have to find the power, the imagination, the courage within yourself and the work of others you admire. It’s lonely work at first, but as a result, you eventually meet the most wonderful figures engaged in similar projects; the more you attempt, the more it is recognized.

The trick is to be
comfortable away from
the crowd – an odd condition for such a collaborative
art as theatre . . .

And theatre too, at least my conception of it, is increasingly at the periphery of the culture, increasingly an expensive “superfluity,” given the ease of inexpensive access to various media. So it continues to fit.

“Redux” was just tacked on when I moved the blog from one hosting location to another in 2007. It provided continuity, but also marked a slight change of direction.

4) What’s the goal of the series of blog posts you’ve written under the Organum heading?
No goal. That assumes that one will come out of such a project with a product of some kind.

The “Organum” is a means by which I, and anyone else who’s interested, can follow my investigations. So it’s a series of provocations to myself, of excavations of those amorphous sensations that surround theatre and the culture around it. Because both are living things, constantly in flux, there is no final end, no goal. The entries may be various in themselves: arguments, contradictions. They’re all poems in some way written to the theatre – a theatre so far unseen, of the imagination.

On a more mundane level, yes, the Organum and its entries can be “used.” I use them to sharpen my thinking about this project of theatre I’ve dedicated my life to. Some teachers, I know, recommend it to their students; there’s some possibility of a book soon. And I have many readers, many of whom I also admire, who tell me that they enjoy the work. So it’s also a means of reaching out to those artists and writers who share elective affinities with what I write.

But it’s not a textbook, a recipe book. Plays will not emerge from it as delicious meals emerge from the use of a cookbook. If anything on that score, they are more a theoretical base from which the practical work is built. Nor are those plays necessarily “finished.” Brecht called his plays “Versuche” – experiments, tests. Mine are the same.

Interestingly, “organum” has two dictionary definitions. First, it’s the name for a form of early polyphony in Medieval music. Second, it’s a variant of the Greek word “organon.” Merriam-Webster defines “organon” this way: “an instrument for acquiring knowledge; specifically: a body of principles of scientific or philosophic investigation.” Both apply here. An instrument, then, and not that knowledge itself, which emerges from the theatrical work, the “test,” instead.

5) How have your experiences with theatre blogging influenced your ideas about theatre?
They move in parallel. When I was reviewing for the New York Times, I was more interested in theatre as consumable product. But over the years I became less and less satisfied with this idea of theatre, and this dissatisfaction was recorded at “Superfluities” and “Superfluities Redux.” I became more comfortable – as I suggested above – with operating at a distance from contemporary theatrical culture (by which I mean both its productions and its critical culture, in both the Broadway and the “indie theatre” arenas).

I was surprised by the amount of hostility the expression of this dissatisfaction produced. In so far as I was trying to define my changing perspective, I needed to do so in contrast to, and often in antagonistic opposition to, that theatrical culture. What it ultimately demonstrated was how gossamer-thin, how illusory and fragile, the ideological basis of that culture is.

I do hope that, with the “Organum,” I am shoring up the foundations of that new theatre I hope to make. Time will tell.

6) How concerned are you that the use of large, complicated words in your writing will prevent some readers from understanding your ideas?
I’m not concerned about this at all. Because I’m struggling with some complex feelings and ideas, I need precision – the use of exactly the right word, at the right place, at the right time. And I don’t make these words up, you know.

I don’t think it’s the words themselves that prevent readers from “understanding.” I think it’s the ideas that they find difficult rather than the vocabulary I use (which, honestly, is not beyond the capabilities of a bright high school student, I think). In fact, I think just the opposite is true – that the vocabulary assists some readers to understand my ideas which otherwise would remain difficult, because I do aim for precision.

7) What does theatre look like when you strip it to its essential elements: “the living body and the spoken word”?
You can easily imagine it for yourself. While we don’t know much about the Elizabethan and Jacobean stages, for example, we have a vague idea that it was primarily language (specifically, poetic and lyrical language) and body that created the dramatic world. Of course there were effects – the deux ex machina, offstage sounds, and most especially costume (which is, after all, a decoration of that living body) – but these were utilized in support of the world that the bodied language created.

“Theatre minima,” as a production aesthetic, is as old as the theatre itself, nothing new. More recently there have been examples of it all over the world, including Grotowski and Artaud (neither of whom entirely abandoned language in even their most radical work, Grotowski’s gestures and Artaud’s screams notwithstanding). All I hope is to bring language a little bit more to the center of this project. The realistic and naturalistic drama tended to relegate it to the sidelines.

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8) What is one of the most unpopular decisions you’ve made as artistic director of Theatre Minima?
Since theatre minima is at this point a two-person organization, I can’t say any decisions have been “unpopular.”

9) Of the things you’ve written recently – any format – which is your favourite and why?
I rather liked an essay I wrote on the Rothko Chapel recently; it’s online, here.

My wife Marilyn Nonken was there to perform a Messiaen work with Sarah Rothenberg, and it provoked a variety of responses in me. I think I was able to set them out quite well in that essay.

Otherwise it’s always the most recent work that is the favorite. “What She Knew,” a play I wrote at the Albee Foundation a few years ago, is a version of the Oedipus story from Jocasta’s perspective, and I hope to see that on stage soon. And I’m finishing a screenplay based on “Antigone” which I hope will go into production this year.

I’m starting to work on two new plays. The first is a long-planned version of Lenz’s 1776 play “The Tutor,” a fascinating comedy about the rise of the middle class during the Enlightenment; it ends with the hero castrating himself. The second is a play about Jonestown, which seems to me to have a Shakespearean sweep – the story resembles those of Shakespeare’s problem plays and romances rather than his tragedies. But it too is a remarkable example of the dynamics that exist between religion and politics, sex and power. And as I say, an extraordinarily broad canvas on which to work. And uniquely American, which presents a new set of ideas for me to consider.

10) Looking back on your body of theatre theory work so far, what are some of the common themes or ideas that emerge?
The key theme is that the individual human body possesses amazing possibilities for experience. That pain and suffering are unavoidable, but that this pain and suffering are so closely tied in their extremities to pleasure and ecstasy that it frees the imagination to consider new worlds, new possibilities for compassion and love.

To be dissatisfied, angry, mournful with the world
as it is – that’s the only real impulse we have to change it.

Postcapitalist culture, which has given rise to a new sort of neobourgeois collectivism, seeks, in its attempt to eradicate pain and draw all experience into something to be consumed and marketed, nothing more than the death of that imagination, and the closing off of those possibilities. Individual imagination undermines the urge to communal satisfaction. With satisfaction comes a sort of death as well.

To be dissatisfied, angry, mournful with the world as it is – that’s the only real impulse we have to change it. And change, to most, is a fearful, fearful thing. In inventing ourselves, as always but especially now, we have to risk everything to gain anything.

The new Clyde Fitch Report

clyde-fitch-reportHave you seen the new home of the Clyde Fitch Report? This is New York theatre writer and Broadway historian Leonard Jacobs‘ widely read blog, relocated and relaunched – with a revamped “arts and politics” focus and the promise of new voices of dissent.

Of the relaunch, Jacobs writes:

“For 30 months and more than 1,200 posts, I was the sole writer and editor of The Clyde Fitch Report. With this site, however, my role is to be one of many voices that reach out from across aesthetic disciplines and across the political spectrum – be it art forms about which I know little or political viewpoints to which I do not subscribe. For this site – this nexus of arts and politics – welcomes all ideas that appear in this momentous crossroad.”

The relaunch is a collaboration with veteran blogger and technologist Marc Almendarez. You can find it here.

Performance. Production. Theory.

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Thought I’d warm up the new blog with some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts:

Performance
A nice new pair of shoes can transform how a person performs their class identity – especially if they feel that they somehow straddle the line between two classes.

Production
The production apparatus – whether it’s related to theatre, publishing, or manufacturing – is as much the end product as the end product itself. In other words, a shoe factory is one of the primary products of a shoe factory.

Theory
I tend to prefer reading film theory over theatre theory because I think the mainstream film theorists have done a better job of building a pseudo-scientific framework around their ideas. So maybe film theory is more inclined to offer quick and easy prescriptive solutions to problems such as narrative. Theatre theory, though much older, tends to seem a bit on the loosey-goosey side, which probably means that it’s actually more evolved than film theory.

Theatre is Territory 3.0

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Hi there.

Thanks for stopping by the new home of Theatre is Territory. As you may know, this blog got its start under the wing of the good folks at Praxis Theatre. We had a good run together, but all things must pass – and so the time has come for both me and this blog to move on from Praxis.

For its part, team Praxis will continue to blog on the channel you already know and love: praxistheatre.blogspot.com. Please go shower them with love and money.

As for this blog – I can promise you three things: Performance. Production. Theory. That was the big idea back then, and I think it’s still a pretty good place to start.

And with that comes the return of the “10 questions” interview series. Check back this Friday for the series relaunch, featuring one of the theatrosphere’s most prominent and outspoken sons.

There will be guest posts, too. If I’m lucky, maybe Simon Odgen of The Next Stage will craft one of his paradigm-shifting guest posts. Alison Broveman? MK Piatkowsky? Scott Walters? May I lean on you again for inspiration and wisdom here?

Anyway, that’s what’s happening. I’m not sure where we’re going, but I hope you’ll stick around so we can continue the conversation we started here.

In the mean time, why not bookmark this page? Add it to your RSS reader? Update your blogroll? Whatever you want.

Thanks.

Ian Mackenzie