10 questions: Marjorie Chan

marjorie-standing-white-shirt1Photos by Norman Yeung.

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.

“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.

Twitter theatre?

Three questions for any theatre people out there who are using the social networking tool Twitter:

1) How does Twitter help you be a better theatre professional?
2) How do you find other theatre people on Twitter?
3) Who would you recommend Twitter to?

Come to think of it, any thoughts on Twitter and its relationship to theatre would be awesome and of interest.

Everything I know about theatre today I learned from blogging

Branding the independents
By Simon Ogden

When I started my theatre blog in March of 2007, I had no idea there were other theatre bloggers out there, much less an organism called the theatrosphere. For real. It honestly didn’t occur to me. I had only just found out what a blog was in the first place, and I was incredulous that you could have one of your own for free, and it seemed like a pretty effective cattle prod to force me to write.

I decided on theatre as a subject because I had concurrently formed a small, independent theatre company in Vancouver and I very much liked talking about it, so I figured I’d talk about it to . . . well, I didn’t really know who, just . . . the internet, um . . . people, I guess. I had literally zero idea how to get anybody that I didn’t already know to read this blog thingy that I was starting. Does anybody out there on the internet possibly give a shit about theatre, never mind my opinions on it and the life of my little unknown company? Probably not in the least. But, being both a theatre nerd and a word nerd, in I dove.

My site is now read by thousands of people a month. So apparently people give a shit. This is an important note if you are at present considering starting a theatre blog, and even more important if you are considering a career in the theatre.

I remember how, soon after I wrote my first couple of posts, I thought it might be fun to do a (probably futile) google search for ‘theatre blog’, just, you know, in case. Imagine, if you will, being the only Star Wars freak in your entire elementary school, and then being sent to Star Wars summer camp. (Why wasn’t there a Star Wars summer camp, by the way?) To my exhilarated delight, it turned out I was showing up way late to a party. A big, loud, rowdy party where the guests were as likely to bust out into a brawl as to make out for 5 minutes in the hall closet. And the first new friend I met at that party – the first hit on that google search, as a matter of fact – was Theatre is Territory. Ian and the Praxis crew instilled in me the importance of joining the discussion, starting some of my own and making personal connections to attract attention to my own site, my own ideas. They taught me the importance of getting smart about marketing.

The party has cooled down quite a bit since the summer of my initiation, and a pervasive air of solidarity has settled over the active theatre blogs. Through all the discussion about stuff like the role of the critics; contemporary v. classical; the sanctity of stage directions; etc; etc, there has emerged a dominant binding topic amongst those of us in cyberspace who choose to discuss the trials and tribulations of staging independent theatre, namely: how the hell do we get more asses in the seats?

Now, I know theatre has been dealing with this forever, but now people in Toronto are talking about it to people in Australia, who are then talking to people in London, who are carrying on the conversation with people in Iowa. All before breakfast. So now at least I’m sure that it’s not just my company or my city or even my country that’s having a hard time with this particular problem. Okay, great. What’s next? We’ve named the Big Problem, how do we fix it?

Let me be clear at this point: I’m not talking about filling seats as a way of making money for your company. Nor am I talking about getting your art into the heads and hearts of as many people as you possibly can. I’m talking about doing both simultaneously, with equal weight. The vast majority of us want to make theatre all the time, yet most of us have to hold down some tepid day job that pays the rent.

Between my day job, and my work with the blog and my theatre company, I work an average of 70 hours a week. And mine is a song that I hear sung all over the theatroshpere. Crazy, right? Why can’t indie theatre be our day job? Because, simply put, there isn’t enough of a demand for it. And it’s not society’s fault, it’s not the media’s fault, it’s not the fault of the dreary economy. It’s our fault. Simply put, we haven’t done enough work as an industry to create the demand. We’ve put marketing so far down the long list of priorities that it’s been reduced to a few-weeks-before effort to sell the next show.

Our job at this stage in our development, Independent Theatre, is not to sell our next show. Our job is to use that show to sell our brand of entertainment. And to do that we have to sell each other’s shows as well, with no prejudice, judgment or competitiveness, until the routine of checking out the small-house theatre listings is burned into the consciousness of our respective communities. And if politics are an issue amongst the companies in your particular community, they’re going to have to be the traffic of the stage alone for a while. What do you say?

Simply put, it’s getting smart about marketing that is the key to our evolution. As artists we’re doing fine. Astonishing, even. As business people we suck. We’ve got grossly overworked Artistic Directors handling the creative and the business side of things. We’ve got production budgets riding on one piss-up fundraising party. We’re spinning wheels when we need to fly, and there’s never been a better time to take off. In a tight economy we represent the best entertainment quality for the least amount of money. Period. So we must stop marketing only to our friends, our families, to other artists. 10 minutes on Facebook will take care of that. We must have a dedicated marketer on the staff of every single show who does nothing but sell that show (and thereby the industry), to the community at large outside of the choir, to all those citizens who are always telling me, all the time, that they don’t go out and see theatre because they never hear about it. We need to find more people to tell them about it. And in all probability the third or fourth time someone from our community tells them they should go see a play, they will. There you go, 15 bucks in the bank. And that’s how it’s going to work guys, $15 at a time. So yes, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, because unfortunately, our predecessors in indie theatre didn’t do enough of it. I’m sure they were great artists, though.

I now hold the opinion that the theatre arts at our level should function as a business, not as a charity. I do not think we’re a charity, although at one time I did, but I’m pretty sure I was being selfish. Health, education, social services, environmental protection, human rights, developing nations . . . these are charities, and people who are able should freely give the organizations that represent them money, and ask for nothing in return. But us? We’re selling a product, make no mistake about it, and the good news is that we not only have a great product, we have an essential product, one that’s been around for centuries and will always be around. The product is sound, as long as the artists in your company can spend all their energies on the art side of things. It’s a product that an enormous amount of people will be happy to spend an hour and a half and $15 on. We just have to ask them. All of them.

I have arrived at these conclusions by working steadily in theatre for 9 years and listening to and taking part in hundreds of conversations every single day with my peers from around the planet, right here on the internet since March of 2007. I have no formal business training. I’m a theatre artist, a bartender and a blogger. But now, for better or for worse, I’m also an arts marketer. Because some of us have to be, much more of us have to be, if any of us want to be solely theatre artists giving the art that found us the love and attention it deserves. If the theatroshpere is any indication, there are a lot of us who do. Give a shit, that is.


Read more from Simon Ogden at his blog: The Next Stage.