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.

img_0035

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.

img_0020

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.

10 questions: Evan Webber

evan-picture

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.

evan-v-printer

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.

evan_webber

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?

10 questions: Gordon P. Firemark

1) What the fuck is going on?
Everything, nothing, and all points between.

The Theatre business in America has been booming . . . Broadway grosses have been hitting all-time highs, and new shows are coming out of Los Angeles, Toronto and numerous other cities. We’ll have to wait and see what happens with the current changes in the economy . . . The last couple of weeks have been scary for everybody.

2) What’s the most challenging part of being an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles?
Traffic.

3) What are some of the big stories in theatre law in the U.S.?
Box Office is up.

Costs are up.

Financing of theatre is getting trickier.

Labor strikes and threatened strikes have kept us all on pins and needles for the past year or so.

Directors claiming copyright of ‘stage directions’.

The Urinetown cases.

Producers of small productions are grabbing up subsidiary rights. Other, larger theatre companies are making the decision to leave subsidiary rights on the table.

4) Do you have any unifying theories about American law and its relationship to the arts?
Unifying theories? Huh?

I guess I’d have to say it this way: “Good art benefits from freedom.”

Our legal system is centered around the protection of freedoms. Key among the rights protected in our system is Freedom of Expression. Without this freedom, many great plays wouldn’t have been created, for fear of reprisals from government for the ideas expressed. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for good art to be created in a repressive society, but it’s just easier when government stays out of the way.

Recently, we’ve started to see some encroachments on freedom of expression, and these are points of concern. Most significantly, I’m thinking of City and State anti-smoking laws being extended to theatres, so actors can’t smoke on stage.

Here in California (and elsewhere), there’s also been some talk about banning incandescent lighting. This would put a big crimp on the artistic use of light, at least until there’s more innovation on the technology front . . . which I guess is a good argument either way.

Still, I think anytime you see a “ban”, it’s got the potential to be a significant limitation on freedoms. We have to tread very carefully.

5) What are some of the key copyright issues to keep in mind for bloggers?
Copyright protection belongs to the “author” of the work. In the context of blogging, this means that the blogger owns the post (provided it’s not copied from somewhere else), and the layout/design of the site, but comments may belong to the commenters. Terms of Service should be clear about the scope of license granted to the blogger. Also, bloggers should be careful when ‘quoting’ or ‘paraphrasing’ other material found on the net. Be sure to re-express the ideas in your own words wherever possible. Using photos and graphics found on the net is a particular pitfall. I’ve recently seen some folks get into hot water with stock-photo agencies. Be sure to get a license for every image you use.

6) Who owns this interview?
Good question. I think, since I’m writing these answers, I own the copyright to them . . . but it’s implicit in the nature of the situation that I’m giving you a license to publish my answers in your blog. The real question, then, is what ELSE can you do with this material? What if you want to turn your blog articles into chapters for a book? Republish in a magazine, your theatre’s programs, etc?

I think the answer is, you have to ask me for each re-use.

It would be different if we were sitting together or on the phone, and you were recording the interview, or taking notes, etc. Then, you’d be the “author”.

7) Why does theatre deserve public funding?
Theatre deserves public funding because it serves several valuable functions in our society. One function is historical. Theatre is an art form that helps preserve a ‘snapshot’ of the playwright’s (and presumably a portion of society’s) view of the world at the time it’s created. As later generations study the plays and musicals of today, they’ll learn how we were thinking about the issues of the day, and hopefully learn from what we’ve created.

Another function is the preservation of minority voices. I think it’s important for controversial and unpopular views to see the light of day. Public funding of the arts (not just theatre, but all art forms) allows this to happen when private funding is scarce. Public funding of ideas allows for the continued vitality of the marketplace for ideas.
8) How similar is entertainment law between Canada and the United States?
I think the similarities far outweigh the differences. Entertainment has become a global industry, and entertainment law is really international in its scope. Most of the legal principles entertainment lawyers rely on are the product of long-standing principles in most legal systems, or have been established by treaties, and other international organizations. The rest of what entertainment lawyers rely on is a depth of knowledge of the industries and markets in which they work.

9) What’s one of the most common legal mistakes you see smaller, independent theatre companies making?
Making “cuts” to the text of a play they’re producing under license. Most of the time these licenses don’t allow for any changes whatsoever.

Another has to do with financing. Commercial theatre financing is done through investments . . . but most small producers don’t follow the rules when soliciting investors. Unfortunately, the rules are complicated, but they’re there to protect the investors, so we have to follow them. On the non-profit side, it’s simpler, but still sometimes tricky.

10) From your experiences working with artists in all fields, how much truth have you found there to be in the notion that artists are somehow naturally flakier than other kinds of professionals?
I think it’s more accurate to refer to artists as craftspeople than “professionals”. To folks in other businesses, Artists may seem “flaky”, but most artists are very disciplined in the way they practice their crafts. The real disconnect arises from what I think of as the ‘artistic temperament’. Many artists are so consumed by, and immersed in, their art, that they lose sight of the ordinary expectations of society, day-to-day things like sitting down to pay your bills, returning phone calls, attending to “business” matters. For some artists, I think these kinds of activities drain important energy away from the creative “flow” that’s important to making good art.

That’s why there are agents, managers, business managers and lawyers (like myself) who help artists by taking care of the “business” so the artist can stay in that creative “flow”. The most business-like decision an artist can make is to recognize the need for a team of professional advisers.


Read more from Gordon Firemark at his website: Law Offices of Gordon P. Firemark.

10 questions: Steven Schipper

1) What the fuck is going on?
We’re in deep prep for the 09-10 season. We like to have a penciled version done by Labour Day. We spend the next few months making countless changes toward a final version that comes with a balanced budget that goes to the Board for approval (the budget, not the playbill) in January. On the surface, we’re gearing up for the present season, which looks great on paper and should maintain the momentum we’ve got going.

2) What has been one of your most memorable professional moments since joining the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) as Artistic Director in 1989?
Representing hundreds of my colleagues at Winnipeg-based director/actor Robb Paterson’s bedside in ICU at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital in 2002. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and expertise at Sunnybrook, he’s since made a miraculous, if not fully complete, recovery (from bacterial meningitis caused by listeria), and the aforementioned colleagues and I are blessed to continue to work and play with him.

3) What’s the secret behind the MTC achieving record subscription and attendance rates for its 2008 season?
MTC achieving record subscriptions (20,428) and attendances (256,255) for its 2007-08 season is just a step along the way toward MTC achieving its vision, which is, “MTC’s theatres and our province will teem with artists and audiences sharing in the act of imagining.”

Our secrets are based on the values of our founders, John Hirsch and Tom Hendry, along with those of the laypeople of Winnipeg who helped them create MTC.

Our secrets may not be applicable to another theatre company, which is to say, different secrets might work just as well for different theatre companies.

Most of what follows I’ve learned from others. I first heard “a play is the shared act of imagining between artists and audiences” from Garland Wright, former artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Some of what follows is original, but of course, even what’s original is based on ideas I’ve learned from others. Our secrets are as follows:

A play only happens when artists and audiences come together in a theatre to share in the act of imagining. All the rehearsals, even the dress rehearsal, when all the sets and costumes, props, sound and lights, are in place, when the actors are at what we call “performance level”, that’s still a dress rehearsal for an event we call a play, which only happens when artists and audiences come together in a theatre – it can be an auditorium as well appointed as MTC’s, it can be as rudimentary as Moliere’s “two planks and a passion” – to share in the act of imagining.

Plays happen in the moment. A play may be described in a text, or videotaped, but both of these are facsimiles, not a play. A play ONLY happens when artists and audiences come together in a theatre to share in the act of imagining.

Many ideas and philosophies can be extrapolated from this understanding of what a play actually is. The first is that the quality of the play will be determined by the quality of both the artists and the audiences. It isn’t enough to develop artists, i.e., playwrights, actors, directors, etc. If we want the best theatre we must also develop audiences, through the articles in our programs, behind the scenes tours, development of students attending our theatre, eclectic playbills, etc.

MTC has been able to utilize our understanding of what a play is to determine the priorities for our theatre, which are foremost, and equally, artists and audiences. Another way of putting this is that the secret to MTC’s success is that we’re team players in a team art form, and our team at MTC prioritizes artists and audiences foremost and equally.

We like to say artists and audiences in that order because we sense that it’s appropriate for artists to lead, but we’re also aware that the key is in the equal balance between the two – that it’s not 51% for artists and 49% for audiences or vice versa – that we shouldn’t pay lip service to our commitment to audiences by choosing art solely for artists’ sake, nor should we be so market-driven that we allow audience surveys to make the final decision about which plays we will produce.

Since a play only happens when audiences and artists come together in a theatre to share in the act of imagining, the essence of theatre is like a molecule with two atoms, those being artists and audiences.

The artists we refer to aren’t restricted to the ones we see on stage, i.e., the actors. All the designers, artisans, everyone who participates on the artistic side in the preparation for the event we call a play is part of the artistic process. The Box Office staff who answer the phone and speak to ticket buyers will contribute to the event we call a play, by helping us manage expectations. The House Manager and concession staff also contribute through their service to our audience, again, preparing the audience to be in the best possible frame of mind in which to “create” the play, to be the best possible audience it can be.

And an audience like MTC’s, that has experienced such eclectic programming at such consistently high standards over its 50-year history, will necessarily be a more sophisticated, enthusiastic audience and better able to create better plays.

Acting happens in the moment. Referring to Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue, that written in iambic pentameter, Michael Langham, former Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, referred to it as “the living thought – white-hot, freshly-minted off the brain.” Every word is a discovery, a revelation. Never does a character figure something out off-stage and enter only to declaim it. The playwright always meant for the actor to discover the thought in the very present tense. Think of “To be or not to be, that is the question.” If Hamlet figured this out previously, and comes on stage to deliver what he’s already figured out, that’s deadly. The living thought requires actors to discover the ideas and words in the moment.

What Shakespeare realized, and what holds true for acting today, is that for an audience, there’s nothing more engaging than getting inside another human being’s mind.

“Truth is beauty, beauty truth.
That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

– Keats, Ode Upon a Grecian Urn

These lines from Keats’s poem inform our choice of plays at MTC. We don’t think any one kind of play is more beautiful than another. We think every play that contains TRUTH is equally beautiful. A musical comedy like GUYS AND DOLLS isn’t any less beautiful than a great tragedy like KING LEAR. Similarly, plays that reflect the squalor of human existence can be beautiful if they contain an essential truth.

Once again, human beings find truth to be innately engaging. One hears often that the truth is very powerful, and it’s truth’s power that we harness on stage. It’s truth that engages an audience to look longer at a painting and read deeper into a poem. The fluffiest comedy and the most substantial drama are both equally beautiful if they reveal a truth that resonates with us as human beings.

A play is the most effective way we know to create a more loving, peaceful world.

Although the stories we tell in theatre are usually about conflict and what makes each of us different, because playwrights know that these stories are the most entertaining, when audiences and artists come together in a theatre to share in the act of imagining, we’re building bridges between people based on what we all have in common.

4) How important is it for the Manitoba Theatre Centre to present work that reflects the province’s ethno-cultural diversity?
It’s of paramount importance for MTC to both reflect and inform the community we serve.

MTC Artistic Director Steven Schipper and Artistic Co-ordinator Melinda Tallin
share a desk and, for photos like these,
squeeze in as many MTC staff into their office as possible.

5) How much of the MTC’s work is currently dedicated to presenting the work of the region’s First Nations people?
It’s never out of mind. Our next production of one of our region’s First Nations people will be Doug Nepinak’s The Life of Ruth.

6) How would you describe the overall health of the theatre industry in Manitoba?
The not-for-profit theatre scene in Manitoba is vibrant. As part of our 50th Anniversary celebration, we determined to showcase every other professional and non-professional theatre company in the province, so as to celebrate 50 years of theatre in Manitoba. We offered each company the opportunity to speak to our audience at Opening Night, to feature a self-written article about their company in our program, and we provided display space for their photos in our lobby. The professional companies that participated were:

The community groups and amateur companies that participated were:

7) What was it about Keanu Reeves’ acting style that made you think to invite him to perform in the MTC’s 1995 production of Hamlet?
I was aware of Keanu Reeves’ passion for Shakespeare, that he worked on soliloquies as part of his prep for film work. Because one never programs Hamlet without beforehand figuring out who will play the title role, I thought Keanu would make the most exciting choice.

To this day, of the dozens of productions of Hamlet I’ve seen, his is the only one I never slept through, and the only Hamlet for whom I cried at the end because such a vital soul of limitless potential was dying tragically young. Some of that might have been the music underscoring the moment, and of course, the director, Lewis Baumander, deserves much credit.

My only regret, and I attribute it to my lack of experience at that point as an Artistic Director, was not providing the company more than five and a half weeks rehearsal, which included a week of student matinees. In hindsight, we should have rehearsed for at least seven weeks, had the same week of student matinees, as well as a week of general public previews before opening. Keanu was understandably just a bit nervous on Opening Night, and I take full responsibility for putting him in that position. I would remind your readers that British theatre critic Roger Lewis for the London Sunday Times who saw a performance during the run wrote, “He is one of the top three Hamlets I have seen.”

8) If you had to recommend just one person to fill the Artistic Director/Producer vacancy at the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto, who would it be?
I’d like to say Gail Asper, only that might make her unavailable to eventually serve us all as Prime Minister.

MTC Associate Artistic Director Robb Paterson and Steven Schipper.

9) How do you feel about the quality of theatre criticism in Canada, generally?
It’s all good.

10) How would you describe “Canada’s national theatre” to someone who wasn’t familiar with it?
Having lived through a childhood in the care of foster parents, having achieved independence through our adolescence, we’re now young adults and the world’s our oyster.

10 questions: Your Truly Theatre

Ranji David and Nandini Rao.

1) What the fuck is going on?
Interactive Theatre by Yours Truly Theatre. Tired after a series of shows in a month.

2) What’s the best thing about the theatre scene in Bangalore, India?
Formation of newer groups, newer formats, newer performance spaces, and newer audiences.

3) What kind of work does Yours Truly Theatre make?
Theater forms and formats that are experimental in nature, keeping Interactive Theatre as a boundary.

4) How much of the theatre that’s produced in India is in English?
It differs from city to city. Some of the metro cities have a larger section of English theatre compared to the towns and villages in India.

5) Is Shakespeare an important part of contemporary Indian theatre?
In India the focus is on issue-based stories. Yes we see quite a bit of Moliere’s plays, which are adapted to Indian styles, not to mention productions of western writers as well.

6) Who are some of the most influential theatre makers in India, both historically and currently?
Ratan Thiyam (he is compared to the likes of Peter Brooks), Ebrahim Alkazi, Habib Tanvir, Amol Palekar, Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Badal Sarkar, and Arundhati Nag.

7) Are there any themes or subjects that seem common to theatre that’s being produced in India?
Family-based subjects seem to be something in common.

8) How popular is theatre among the younger generations?
Not as much with the advent of TV and cinemas.

9) If you could change just one thing about theatre in Bangalore, what would it be?
Make it viable and profitable for theatre companies to survive and make world class theatre.

10) Why is theatre important?
As TV and Cinema gets into the living of humans across the global, theatre must give what other media cannot: an intimate, engaging and highly satisfying experience.

10 questions: Greatest hits – Volume VII

Mike Daisey

1) What the fuck is going on?
The wheels of time grind inexorably forward; our culture intensifies and multiplies, growing more complex as it fragments, while the corporatization of all things is the clear watchword of the age. We say what we say faster and make connections more quickly, but the time to make the leaps is the same – we’re running out of bandwidth, in the dark fiber infrastructure of our collective minds. We live in an age of empire in a time when even the idea of empire is becoming anachronistic, a time of vast injustice that differs from all the other ages of vast injustice only in the new skill with which we mechanize the injustice. We live in a time when it is easy to be faceless, almost required to be egoless against the great crush of people, but where surveillance is clearly growing to be a way of life. Also here is faith, love, honor, loyalty, friendship—the best elements human beings have to offer, still blossoming and blooming against the grain. It is a very interesting time.

Paul Braunstein

2) Do you have any unifying theories that inform your approach to comic acting?
There are no rules to comic acting, obviously timing is everything, but sometimes the opposite is funny and sometimes the obvious is funny. But truth is important, and humans are flawed, imperfect creatures and the good comic actor gets that. So there I said there are no rules and then went on to say a bunch of ’em – that’s funny!

3) 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.

4) How connected do you feel to Filipino narrative traditions?
I feel deeply connected and enthusiastic about the new narrative traditions emerging from young Filipino-Canadian and Filipino-American artists today. As the offspring of a post-colonial society, and what my sister, Caroline, has labeled the “first post-modern culture”, modern Filipinos bear no identity outside of a colonized one.

Hundreds and hundreds of years of colonization by the Spanish, the Chinese, the Japanese and the Americans erased the Philippine Islands’ rich history of tribal traditions which have only recently re-surfaced through anthropological studies. These traditions have been embraced and re-interpreted by a new generation of young Filipino artists in North America eager to piece together a history and a culture they can truly and proudly call their own.

Examples of this at work are local Filipino-Canadian filmmakers’ The Digital Sweatshop’s film Ang Pamana: The Inheritance, which draws from age-old Filipino mythological creatures set within a modern-day Filipino-Canadian context; another local Filipino artist, accessories designer Melissa Clemente calls her designs an “interpretation of folk dance costume focusing on art forms from the mountain regions of the Philippines.” Len Cervantes, a spoken word artist, borrows from ancient Filipino poetic forms such as balagtasan (a form of debate and verse) and tanaga (a set rhyme and syllabic scheme) in his work.

For more information on Filipino-Canadian artists doing their thing, see the Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts + Culture, a local youth-centred facililty that provides a space for young Filipino-Canadians to explore their identity and roots through the lens of arts and culture.

Cole J. Alvis

5) How much of your work as an artist is informed by your experiences living in rural Alberta?
It was relatively easy for me as a gay man to escape to Toronto and find an accepting populace within the theatre community. But something that pricks my conscience every so often is how little I’m doing for the next generation of queer individuals growing up in the village of Duchess, AB – population 978.

I’m in talks, presently, with Buddies in Bad Times Producer Jim LeFrancois about a project he’s coined Reaching Out To Rural Canada, wherein a troupe of queer artists with a camera leave the comfort zone of inner-city TO and assess how to connect with communities outside of our diverse urban centre.

6) What is your case for optimism?
I’m not optimistic. I think we’re in terrible times and it’s only going to get worse.

7) What quality do you most dislike when you see it in other artists?
Laziness of thought and unearned ego. That’s two. If you’re going to have ego, you better well deserve it. There are a handful of very opinionated artists in this community who are producing some of the most unintelligible, thoughtless dreck imaginable. I mean, really, do we need to be producing plays about porno? Really?

I had somebody once actually pitch their production of Julius Caesar to me by telling me about the fight scenes and how life-like and amazing they were. Um. So, that’s what’s important about Caesar? The fights? Please. I’d rather see a bad play that is actually trying to communicate something interesting than a good production of a play without a soul.

Also, there are a series of brilliant people who are creating lazy art because they can. Because we will reward that art despite its weaknesses . . . and so, instead of these people actually trying to say anything, they say half-a-thing and collect the rewards anyways. This too also upsets me.

What is the intent of the work? Why are you writing this? Why are we doing this? If the answer is “to be awesome” or “to get attention” or “because I’m the best” or “because I’ve tricked everyone into thinking this is about anything” then there’s a problem. Unless you’re 14 or 15 years old. Then, it is absolutely appropriate to write about how awesome “fucking chicks” is . . . and even then . . .

James Cade

8) How well did your education at the National Theatre School of Canada prepare you for the realities of being a working actor?
Well, when I attended NTS, Perry Schneiderman was head of the program, and he had really brought together a great group of teachers and guest artists. I believe theatre school is very much a training ground for actors to experiment and work intensely on Classical theatre. That being said, it is very much a bubble, a sanctuary where you can fail as an actor and not have it affect your reputation. But because they set up this sanctuary feeling for the students the down side is they do not prepare you much for the realities of going out into the world and working as a self-employed artist. Perhaps that should change.

9) How do you feel about the quality of theatre criticism in Toronto?
I don’t read reviews.

10) What’s one of your fondest memories from your time as an actor at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival?
I was doing As You Like It, which was an amazing experience on its own as I was the guitar player for the music which was written by the Barenaked Ladies. And say what you will about the band but they are a bunch of blue-collar dudes that are just happy to be where they are. An example: We were at a media release party and I was interviewed numerous times answering the most asinine questions possible like, “what kind of underwear do you wear?”, etc. I couldn’t help the bewilderment. I went up to Jim Creeggan, who is the bass player for the band, and asked him how he put up with it, and he had the most fantastic answer: “If we put up with this for an hour or so a week, we get to make music for a living.” Jesus, that put things into perspective.

Well anyway, I was also the understudy for Touchstone for that production. So one student matinée just before Dan Chameroy (he was playing Amiens, the singer) and I were about to go on for our first song, Nora Polley, the stage manager, leaned in and said “Stephen Ouimette is losing his voice, you’re probably going to be on for act two.”

So for Touchstone all the fun bits are in Shakespeare’s act three and on. I mean I was operating in understudy mode: “just get through it, keep the show going,” but it was exhilarating. It was an amazing feeling.

The show ended, and although I had done a bit of fake-speare throughout, forgetting this line here of there, it was very fun. Curtain call came, and this is the dream quality of it . . . when I came running out onto that magnificent Festival Stage and 900 kids stood up to clap I nearly fell over.

10 questions: Leonard Jacobs

1) What the fuck is going on?
Man, I’ve been hoping you’d ask me that question for just about forever. Doesn’t that make me pathetic? Yeah, that makes me pathetic, but I love your blog. What was the question? Oh, right—well, gearing up for the New York International Fringe Festival, actually. I’m reviewing 22 shows and contemplating trying to find post-show cocktails via IV drip. Funny thing is, I’ve been using that IV-drip joke for years and then I heard about the Clinic Bar in Singapore, so there goes that idea. Anyway.

2) What’s your favourite image from your new book and why?
That’s a very difficult question to answer—and I’m not saying that by way of evasiveness. There are 240 images in the book and many have never, or only very rarely, been published—maybe a third to half of them.

When I was researching the images, I’d come across something seemingly unique or unusual and I’d just sort of leap out of my skin with excitement and fall head over heels in love with it (and sometimes heels over head for the ones that really flipped me). But then, you know, research goes on and the moment would pass and I’d stumble upon some other image and then I’d fall in love with that one.

However, if you were to put a gun to my head and demand I pick just one image as my favorite, I might choose Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, page 205. There are a number of other images of Taylor from Menagerie that are well known and have been published a lot, but this particular one blew me away—the way Julie Haydon, who played Laura, is looking at Taylor makes me wish, just as so many others have said, that I could have seen that play the first time around, live and in person.

3) Aside from information about the productions themselves (costume, sets, cast), what do the photos reveal about the spirit of the times these people were living in?
Depending on the photograph, sometimes they reveal a great deal about contemporary American mores. That’s totally too much responsibility to place upon a mere photo, but here are a couple of examples of what I’m getting at:

Early in the book there’s a shot of Lydia Thompson, who was—pardon me for being sort of reductive about it—the founding queen of what we think of today as burlesque. In the photo, she’s poking completely bare-shouldered out of a wicker basket. This is the late 1860s and early 1870s—revealing a hint of leg or ankle was, you know, evidence of moral degeneracy and whatnot. But there she is: “Look at me, boys!”

There’s also a photograph of Henry E. Dixey, who starred in a “burlesque extravaganza” called Adonis. And he’s standing beside a pillar looking, well, terribly Greek (but not really), and, for lack of a better phrase, terribly faux-neoclassical. Just as the image of Lydia Thompson—and also a photograph elsewhere in the book of another Rubenesque diva, Lillian Russell—tells you something about 19th century Western ideals of female beauty, the image of Henry E. Dixey tells you something about how male beauty was perceived, as if the idea of something called Adonis doesn’t imply that anyway.

There are also quite a few images of men and women in staged scenes that play upon, in subtle and unsubtle ways, the battle of the sexes. You look at them and you think, “Wow, she couldn’t vote.”

Another element that conveys “the spirit of the times” is the use of light and shadow. There are some awesome ones in that vein: a shot of Burgess Meredith (today remembered for playing the Penguin in the 1960s TV series Batman and the various Rocky movies) starring in a Maxwell Anderson play called Winterset; and also an image of Eddie Cantor, his eyes bulging in that over-the-top, comic way he had, his foot half off the floor, daring the photographer to click the shutter.

4) Why is it that theatre seems to resist easy iconography?
Yikes, that’s quite a presumption, hm? I’m actually not sure it’s true, but it’s a curious argument. I guess I’ll approach the question from a variety of POVs. I could argue that, in fact, there are many iconic images from theatre: the gold lame-wearing A Chorus Line kick-line; Cats’ glowing eyes on a pitch-black background; the vomit-inducing, ubiquitous mask for Phantom. Although all of these, for good or for ill, are, um, vomit-inducingly commercial and obviously more topical, more current than what I think you mean by iconographic.

So if you’ll let me, I want to take your question out of the strict realm of commercialism and look at iconic theatre images in terms of culture on a macro level—to get us away from any discussion of logo design and saturation marketing, blah blah blah. Have you ever seen the cover of Frank Rich’s memoir Ghost Light? I’d say the ghost light is tremendously iconic—people know what it is, even if they don’t necessarily know what it’s called, what it’s used for, or what the superstition and lore around it is. I’d even go a bit further and suggest that marquees—that dreamy old saw about seeing one’s names in lights—is an icon of theatre, or at least it connotes it.

I know from your Praxis blog that you’re taken with the idea that the image of Shakespeare connotes theatre, and that’s impossible to disagree with. But then again, we’re talking about a Western idea of theatre in the first place. What would an iconic image of Noh be?

One last thing—I think stage iconography might be tied to geography. If we’re talking about the West, there’s Times Square, say, or maybe the West End. Or maybe that’s just the obnoxious native New Yorker in me doing the nationalistic shimmy.

5) In your role as national theatre editor for Back Stage, have you come across any overarching characteristics or aesthetics that seem common to a “national American theatre”?
Sure, though these are things that weren’t necessarily driven home to me by my work at Back Stage. There’s kitchen-sink drama, for one. I mean, below this question I see you have a question about groan-inducing clichés, so maybe this discussion belongs there, but it’s a pretty constant and fairly exhausted aesthetic and yet a lot of American playwrights turn to it, again and again and again. There’s also the epidemic of one-person plays—my book has this really great photo of Ruth Draper, which is the person and the time to which a certain amount of our solo-show-itis can be traced.

I also think there is clearly an emerging political-theatre aesthetic. There hasn’t really been anything like one since the 1930s or maybe the 1960s or 1970s, but there’s a real explosion going on. In America, I think there has be a quality of unresolved, unaddressed social fury to spur on political theatre—although there are always powerful isolated examples, as someone like Tony Kushner might suggest. America is such a disaster in terms of social and foreign policy and class and income stratification that finally it’s generating enough heat to manifest itself on stage.

I think one other overarching characteristic of a “national American theatre” is an over-reliance—in the commercial marketplace—on realism, the Method, and such. American actors, if they want to be successful, have to position themselves to act on film and on TV, and for obvious reasons there’s a real premium placed on “in the moment” awareness. Not that there’s something wrong with the Method, blah blah blah, but it is kind of annoyingly and often boringly American.

Oh—one last thing: I’d argue that the national American theatre is the nonprofit system, despite all its icky and awful dysfunctions as Mike Daisey has been saying. It’s a mess, but it’s ours.

6) What are some of the most groan-inducing cliches of contemporary American theatre?
My publisher will hate me for saying this, but the biggest one is that Broadway is the be-all and end-all of the American stage. Maybe it was at one point, but it really isn’t in terms of aesthetics. It is in terms of marketing, though, which is a shame.

7) How do you feel about the quality of theatre criticism in New York City, generally?
You expect me to answer that? I’m screwed if I answered that and screwed if I don’t.

8) Do you have any unifying theories about the artist-critic relationship?
Yes! Do you know for how many years I’ve been hauling out this quote from Peter Brook’s The Empty Space? It’s really very simple: critics have a responsibility to consider being practitioners from time to time. The absolute worst thing in the world is a critic who has never once even tried to do the thing he or she is criticizing. That’s lazy and dumb and backward and imbecilic and it’s basically pretentious and hypocritical and it totally undermines their authority, if you want to use that word, although a better word might be credibility. In 2002 I wrote a feature for Back Stage in which I interviewed a slew of critics, including Robert Brustein, who work as practitioners. Here’s what I wrote at the start of the piece:

At the same time that revolution hung in the air during the turbulent political year of 1968, a revolution no less potent was being advocated by Peter Brook in his book, The Empty Space. As part of his well-reasoned list of cavils and concerns about the theatre, Brook chose to examine the most despised and derided theatre person of them all—the critic.

He didn’t denounce the critic. Instead, he articulated a philosophy that some considered daring and others attacked as heresy. He said the critic should be “part of the whole, and whether he writes his notices fast or slow, short or long, is not really important. Has he an image of how a theatre could be in his community and is he revising this image around each experience he receives? How many critics see their job this way?”

Then he answered his own question: “It is for this reason that the more the critic becomes an insider, the better. I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening. I would welcome his putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself.”

9) What can theatre bloggers do to make better use of the form?
Act like critics and stop willingly and deliberately segregating themselves from everyone else. This whole nonsense about marketing departments of nonprofit theatres inviting certain bloggers to see early, early previews—I’m talking weeks before press openings, long before the actors are ready to be reviewed—is crass and demonic and totally destructive to the art form and the flimsy justifications that some of these theatre have for what they’re doing is full of more bullshit than a steaming pile of poo. They know which bloggers are or act like real critics—or could be if they had the balls to stop fashioning themselves renegades or whatever badge of honor-bashing they think they’re up to. They should press to be on press lists, they should demand acceptance from the rest of the critical community, and in certain cases they should be given tickets for the same first- or second-night performances I’m invited to, and they should take themselves and the criticism they write more seriously. Of course, not all theatre bloggers write criticism, and that’s fine, too.

My issue is with the bloggers who are like, “Oh no, those are professional critics and I’m just little old me with my little blog.” Please. Bloggers create and develop terrific and important platforms—and they’re going to become more important as time goes on and they know it and I know it and you know it. Bloggers who act like critics should be expected to comport themselves by the same professional standards that everyone else is expected to meet. Not doing that isn’t just a question of amateurishness, by the way. It’s a question of why some of them are engaging in a process that hurts the life and work of people who ought to be considered their fellow artists? Mind you, they’re not going to listen to me, which is fine.

10) As a whole, how well are American theatre artists dealing with the country’s major political stories (for example, the Bush administration, terrorism, and the war in Iraq)?
Mixed. There’s a lot of awesome documentary theatre out there—I think it’ll be the dominant alt-genre of the next 10 years. So in that sense American theatre artists are dealing with it head on. If we elect McCain, there will probably be even more of it because everyone will be unspeakably demoralized. The only thing worse than McCain that could happen to America—and its theatre artists—is another catastrophic terrorist attack.


Read more from Leonard Jacobs at his blog: The Clyde Fitch Report.
 

10 questions: Michelle Ramsay

Photo by Kelly Clipperton.

1) What the fuck is going on?
Right now, I am in Australia coming off the Honouring Theatre tour with Native Earth Performing Arts. We were in Rotorua and Manukau, New Zealand as well as Perth, Australia. It’s a rough life.

2) What does it mean to you to win this year’s Dora Award for lighting design in the independent theatre category?
I am really pleased to be recognized for this particular design. It was one with which I was extremely happy, and if you know me, you know that doesn’t happen very often. In many ways it was an easy show for me to design. It was very clear to me, early on, how I wanted the show to look and I think I achieved it.

Theatre Rusticles April 14, 1912 – photo by Michelle Ramsay.

3) What was it, do you think, about April 14, 1912’s lighting design that won the confidence of the Dora jurors?
The design was intended to be quite visceral and I think it is easy for people connect to that. I wanted to have the audience immerse themselves in the world that we were trying to create. I also hope that they saw the work that all of us put into the show to create a cohesive design overall.

4) How would you describe your collaboration with the show’s director, Allyson McMackon?
I love working with Allyson. This was only my second show with her but I think we work well together. She and I talk the same language and have similar design aesthetics. When I say, “Foresty disco” or, “Dreamy MGM,” she knows exactly what I mean even though it might be gibberish to anyone else. She is clear with her thoughts early on but also open to other ideas that may come up. She also understands my fucked up sense of humour. That helps.

Theatre Rusticle’s April 14, 1912 – photo by Michelle Ramsay.

5) Do you have any unifying theories that inform your approach to lighting design, generally?
You have to believe what you are designing. If you can’t defend your design choices and concept ideas to yourself then you won’t be able to convince anyone else. How you achieve that is different for everyone. For me, simplicity is really important. If you can light a scene with one or two lights rather than 15, then do it. I’m not great with realistic lighting. I would rather have the audience feel the emotion and the mood of the scene than get every detail of time and place.

6) What are some of the big trends or movements in contemporary lighting design?
I’m not really hip with the kids so I’m not sure about big trends or movements. What I see now is a lot of people heading towards projection-based designs to augment the set and lighting. Some of it is done well; most of it isn’t. I think it could be a really exciting way for lighting designers to work but I don’t know enough about it at this point to utilize it myself.

LED technology is becoming important as well. I’ve seen it in a lot of industrial and commercial applications. I think there is an immediate need for alternatives to our current power-hungry fixtures. So, I am interested to see what manufactures come up with for the poor theatre folk to help replace some of the lamps that we are currently using. Of course, that will take a good number of years before I see it in the spaces in which I usually work.

7) If someone wanted to build their own theatre space, what is the minimum lighting setup you’d recommend?
I don’t want to give a blanket answer as it may lead people down the wrong road. It can depend on so many factors: How big your space is, how much money you have, and what type of performances you will present. It’s really important to work with someone that can help you do this properly. People that could help include designers that are likely to work in your space and a technician or technical director that has hands-on experience with the equipment that you are likely to buy. Don’t rely on the suppliers too much, as they don’t necessarily know the specifics of your situation. It is also important to test the equipment you are going to buy.

Theatre Rusticle’s The Stronger – photo by Kelly Clipperton.

8) Any tips on how to put together a well-lit show on a small budget?
It is important to try to keep it simple and be prepared. Whether you are working on the tiniest show at the fringe or on a larger show, you will always be limited by time and money. It’s essential that you and your director are both on the same page by the time you get to the theatre. The more homework you do before you get to the space the better off everyone will be. Use alternative instruments if you are able and if it works for the show. I find practicals, especially in small spaces, can be really lovely.

9) What are some of the questions about theatre that are on your mind these days?
Are we becoming a culture of mediocrity?

10) How much overlap is there between theatrical lighting design and residential lighting design?
Lighting affects the atmosphere of any room (as most people understand), so in that I would say there is some overlap. However, a lot of the work I do in the theatre is with timing and the levels of the lights fading up and down. All of this occurs once the lights are in the air and focused. It would be like giving a painter just the paint but nothing to put it on.

10 questions: Rae Ellen Bodie

Photos by Keith Barker.

1) What the fuck is going on?
The 2008 Fringe, that’s what! That and some bike-riding-sun-soaking-good-times now that the summer is actually here.

2) What has been your biggest creative challenge in preparing to act in GromKat’s production of Bluebeard at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival?
My own resistance. By its nature, Bluebeard demands a big emotional commitment, and some days I just don’t want to plummet all the way down to the bottom of the well, you know? So I have to kick my own ass a bit from time-to-time, stop whinging and get on with it. There’s also the challenge of the play itself. It’s a fairly new play by a new playwright, a really dense bit of business, and we’ve had to do some mental gymnastics as a group to sort out exactly what the story is. There’s also the challenge of working in an all-female cast with a group of slightly crazy, strong, passionate actors. It’s Estrogen Fest 2008 some days – but I love it.

3) Does the play arrive at any conclusions about parents who try to “keep their children safe by isolating them in their community”?
I don’t think the play arrives at any conclusions, but certainly generates discussion and questions.

4) Why do you think audiences are so attracted to apocalypse narratives?
Because we are living in the end times, my friend! Read your Oswald Spengler – you’ll see! Between Reality TV, Peak Oil and Paris Hilton, we are going DOWN!

Seriously though – I think our attraction to apocalypse narratives has very little to do w/ the idea of an actual apocalypse. The fantasy of destruction and renewal appeals to us on a deeply personal level. Some of us can’t accept or come to grips with our own imperfections, so we want to see the destruction of those imperfections played out in the theatre and films that we see, the books we read, and the TV we watch. That often involves the ultimate, for-all-time battle between good and evil.

5) How much of your current work is informed by your experiences living in Alberta?
All of it. I do call Toronto home now, after a decade of being here, but I’m an Alberta-girl through-and-through. I lived in Calgary (which was a small city when I was growing up there), spent summers on the farm, and grew up surrounded by mountains and rivers and big sky. My longing for the beauty and expansiveness of Alberta is always a part of my work.

6) What was it like to work with director Bruce McDonald on the set of Queer As Folk?
I love me some cowboy, so working w/ Bruce was great! He’s got the hat, he’s super easy-going and he runs a very chill set. Not to mention he was the only director I’ve ever had who, in my audition, asked me how my day had been, what was going on – just took an interest in who I was and what I was about. That’s rare. I got to work w/ him again on “This is Wonderland” and the experience was just as lovely as when we shot QAF. And finally, three words: Hard. Core. Logo. Bruce could have told me to play everything cross-eyed-with-a-limp and I would have said yes.

7) How do you feel about Shakespeare?
Meh. He’s no Bruce McDonald.

8) How do you feel about the quality of theatre criticism in Toronto?
I try not to pay attention to it too much, especially when I’m in a show, but I do love Jon Kaplan from NOW Magazine. He’s unbelievably supportive of Toronto’s independent theatre community while at the same time fair and honest in his criticism. He also has extensive knowledge of everything that’s played in Toronto for the last thirty years, so I trust what he has to say. On the other end of the spectrum, the “I loved it/I hated it” variety of criticism that exists in certain quarters in this city gets me down. Bitchy, mean-spirited or ass-kissing editorializing is not constructive or intelligent theatre criticism.

9) What are some of the questions that are on your mind these days?
I wonder what the reviews will be like for Bluebeard?

10) If you could change just one thing about theatre in Toronto, what would it be?
More SAVOURY snacks at the big houses – enough with the cookies and ice-cream bars already!

10 questions: Shaun McComb

1) What the fuck is going on?
“What the fuck is with the Yorkshire dialect?” is what I want to know. It is as hard to pin down . . . I am cramming at the moment trying to get my mouth around this dialect for my first rehearsal of The Secret Garden on Tuesday. I am playing a twelve-year-old earthy boy named Dickon. Come on – it’s not much of a stretch is it?

2) What’s the best thing about your upcoming Toronto Fringe show Rum and Vodka?
Besides the script being a tight little number and such a pleasure to work with I would have to say that Matt Gorman is the best thing. If he wasn’t the best thing, we’d all be fucked. Rum and Vodka, being a one man show, there isn’t much else to rely on other than that sorry sucker who is up there talking for an hour. Matt is a very honest actor; not only is he honest when he speaks but he is honest with his process as an actor. He never tries to fake anything he is not.

3) Do you have any unifying theories about directing that you’re bringing to this production?
In the program for Rum and Vodka I wrote a little something about directing for the first time. I wrote something like “good directing is hard to pin down but bad directing is easy to nail.” The more I think about theatre, the more I realize how open to adapting you must be. You are the boss as director and your troops are always changing, so as a director you must adapt to the army that you are given. Some troops are good at digging trenches and some troops are good at killing the enemy, but you always have to be sensitive to the actors’ strengths and weaknesses and make sure they are in a place to explore both.

A director is only as good as his actors are, and the actors are only as good as the rehearsal environment allows them to be. It is the job of the director to put the actors in the best possible rehearsal situation so that they can feel free to explore all of the good, bad, beautiful, and ugly without consequence or judgment. I have been in rehearsal with many directors that I think wish they were directing puppets. They want the players to only live out what is in their head.

Lives are here in the room with you, use them, you know; that’s perhaps my theory about directing.

4) What’s one of your fondest memories from your time as an actor at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival?
I was doing As You Like It, which was an amazing experience on its own as I was the guitar player for the music which was written by the Barenaked Ladies. And say what you will about the band but they are a bunch of blue-collar dudes that are just happy to be where they are. An example: We were at a media release party and I was interviewed numerous times answering the most asinine questions possible like, “what kind of underwear do you wear?”, etc. I couldn’t help the bewilderment. I went up to Jim Creeggan, who is the bass player for the band, and asked him how he put up with it, and he had the most fantastic answer: “If we put up with this for an hour or so a week, we get to make music for a living.” Jesus, that put things into perspective.

Well anyway, I was also the understudy for Touchstone for that production. So one student matinée just before Dan Chameroy (he was playing Amiens, the singer) and I were about to go on for our first song, Nora Polley, the stage manager, leaned in and said “Stephen Ouimette is losing his voice, you’re probably going to be on for act two.”

So for Touchstone all the fun bits are in Shakespeare’s act three and on. I mean I was operating in understudy mode: “just get through it, keep the show going,” but it was exhilarating. It was an amazing feeling.

The show ended, and although I had done a bit of fake-speare throughout, forgetting this line here of there, it was very fun. Curtain call came, and this is the dream quality of it . . . when I came running out onto that magnificent Festival Stage and 900 kids stood up to clap I nearly fell over.

5) What is the Toronto Shakespeare Company?
The Toronto Shakespeare Company is a large initiative that I have begun to put into swing, which begins in September with the formation of the Young Company, in which I will be working with grade 11 and 12 students who are interested in attending theatre school in the future or who are just interested in acting Shakespeare.

One of the many things that I think Toronto lacks is a resident Shakespeare company. There are so many fantastic actors in this city that are classically trained that are working joe jobs and going out for Molson commercials, and I believe that classical work could be produced in this city that could compare to other international companies, even within a shoestring budget. The problem with this city’s view of Shakespeare is either you go to Stratford and spend the mega bucks or you bring a bottle of wine to the park and listen to half the play while you neck with your fiancée.

On the other hand, one of the questions that I have tossed around is whether or not people really give a shit about Shakespeare at all. I don’t know. Has Shakespeare simply become the actor’s indulgence? I don’t believe so. The other night, watching the CBC Othello, listened to my father in law go from saying “Shakespeare is dull . . . ” to “did he really just kill her!? No way!” The plays are good, and most major cultural centres have a resident Shakespeare company for a reason. Why don’t we?

Unfortunately, with the nature of funding these days (’nuff said), I must begin this initiative from the educational level on up with the advent of the Toronto Shakespeare Young Company. I enjoy teaching very much, and am looking forward to proving that working on Shakespeare can not only address the most deep concerns in regards to acting but can also help young adults learn to step forth with communicative confidence.

There is much to be said about the Toronto Shakespeare Company and if you are interested in supporting the initiative in any way please email me.

6) Why Shakespeare?
I fancy Shakespeare. I think if you get out of the way, Shakespeare can teach you how to act. The clues to acting Shakespeare are not to be applied, they are to strip.

7) What did you learn from working with Ed Norton and William Hurt on the film The Incredible Hulk?
I don’t want any misconceptions here, I didn’t do much in the Incredible Hulk, it was my first time on a film set ever. I think that was what was shocking above all because it was a huge production with sometimes up to seven camera crews all shooting at the same time.

Of my days on that show, I was only on set with Tim Roth twice. Ed Norton is a fantastic actor, and William Hurt was one the actors that I grew up idolizing, but Tim Roth was by far the most inspirational, he never took anything seriously, yet when you would watch the play back he was the most complex in the face. It is always a game of make believe, whether you’re on a $75 million set or whether you are putting up Stranger for $10 grand, your job never changes, you are making believe. And I felt for Tim he was just having a gas being mean and shooting the guns.

What did I learn? I don’t know, perhaps no matter how big the production, your job is the same.

8) What are some of the questions that are on your mind these days?
“Is constantly questioning everything a waste of time?”
“If I stop questioning will I ever learn anything?”
That might sound pretentious . . . but it’s not meant to be.

9) How do you feel about the current state of theatre criticism in Toronto?
Criticism is difficult to pin down. I have opinions all the time that my colleagues and friends fight me on, and I enjoy the fight, it is a discussion that is sometimes just as valid the piece of theatre that you are discussing. The problem with the printed criticism is that it makes conclusions and cancels out the possibility of discussion . . . I guess that is why I find printed theatre criticism a joke and laugh at how seriously it is taken.

We all have opinions and sometimes, say, after I listen to an album a couple of times and then listen to others’ opinions, my tone changes from ‘rubbish’ to ‘brilliant,’ and what’s great about the true nature of criticism is that it is cell splitting. I have never been in a show that I thought was ‘good’, and I feel that even if I said so I would be putting myself in the dangerous territory of ‘preciousness,’ and thus closing myself off to the more important, which is the theatre of discussion.

I, at one time, worked with Shirley Douglas who had very strong opinions of theatre criticism in this country. She felt that theatre critics played a more than important role in the future of Canadian Theatre and have the power to shape the arts funding of this country and to increase the tourism industry of this city. If they praise, then the government will believe there is something worth investing in, and then the people will come and the ripple effect will start to wave and cash will be spent, making this city the arts mecca that it deserves to be. But critics must do their job and print their opinions. And I mean come on, who wants to read glowing as opposed to cutting – cutting is a much better read, it’s much better theatre.

Perhaps Ms. Doulgas is right. But as printed critics, they are paid for their opinions, and yet no one is paid to believe them . . . so they are doing their job but are we doing ours?

10) As an actor, what are you better at now than you were two years ago?
In auditions, I am better at trying not to be the person I think they want to see, and just being me. Fuck it, you know. If you don’t think I am interesting then they can go about their business and I’ll go about mine. I work hard and I respect that, I shouldn’t expect others to respect the same things I do.

I think the best thing that I have learned as an actor is that acting really doesn’t mean that much. The best thing about acting is that you can easily walk away from it any time you want and that someone else is always waiting right behind you. Acting is safe in that way.

10 questions: Nina Lee Aquino

1) What the fuck is going on?
It’s the 5th annual Potluck Festival. The only festival in Canada that’s dedicated to developing works by Asian-Canadian playwrights.

2) How have you developed as an Artistic Director during your time with fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre?
I became bossier.

3) Are there any themes that are common to the work being presented in fu-GEN’s upcoming Potluck Festival?
None whatsoever. True to the potluck concept, each playwright really offers a unique “dish.”

4) What were some of the major challenges involved in turning this annual one-night-only event into a six-day festival?
Money, people, space, time and finding food to feed people for six days.

5) How do you overcome the static setup of a traditional play reading to make it into something that feels exciting and dynamic for the audience?
We make it kinetic.

We have a kick-ass festival “set” (design by Jackie Chau) that’s there for the readings. We also have a wonderful lighting designer to provide support for the directors and to spice things up a bit for the reading. Each presentation gets tech. Time/rehearsal as well – so it’s more than just park-and-bark style.

It’s amazing what you can do with music stands on stage.

6) How well are Asian-North Americans being served by and represented in contemporary Canadian theatre?
Not very well.

That’s why fu-GEN exists.

7) How does the company find the balance between on one hand working from a specific and exclusive ethno-cultural framing (e.g., producing only Asian-North American playwrights), while on the other hand advocating for a greater multiculturalism?
We produce Asian-Canadian playwrights because no one else is doing it. And our stories are just as important and relevant as the rest of Canada. We’re here to remain visible and present in the Canadian diaspora. So that people can go, “ah, that’s Canadian, too.”

We’re developing Asian-Canadian theatre artists to diversify the Toronto theatre community. So that when somebody from Stratford or Shaw see a fu-GEN show, they can see Asian-Canadian talent and go, “oh, i want to work with that designer or actor” and then they do. It can happen. It’s already happening.

Fuck balance. Never think about it. I just do my job.

8) How do you feel about your production of People Power earning four Dora nominations?
Feels good.

9) From your experience working with fu-GEN’s board of directors, what advice would you give to an independent theatre company looking to establish its own board?
Look for good people. People with loads of money helps, too.

10) How do you feel about the quality of theatre criticism in Toronto?
I don’t read reviews.

10 questions: James Cade

1) What the fuck is going on?
Don’t ask me, I’m just an actor.

2) How has UnSpun Theatre’s production of Minotaur developed since it was first performed at the 2006 Toronto Fringe Festival?
Well, we had quite a few table sessions discussing the script before we headed into rehearsal. We laid the old script open to all our criticisms and abuse, and Chris Stanton and Alison McElwain would head off and return with a new version. Which we would read, praise, and abuse once more. The major changes have been the addition of two seminars from the TAs to help set the mood of the piece, and of course the ending, which none of us were too happy with from the original version. We also worked hard not to lose focus on the story of Kieran and Nora, and to make sure we were always returning to them.

3) Does the play arrive at any conclusions about ghosts?
No, in fact, we kind of go out of our way to avoid conclusions all together. The root of fear is ignorance – not knowing what’s in the dark. I always find a scary movie loses something when it begins explaining to you why the killer kills. However, a quote I came across from a ghost-debunker when I was originally hunting around for inspiration for the play has kinda stuck with me in relation to the play . . . he said “people are haunted, not places.”

Promo video for UnSpun Theatre’s Minotaur – with James Cade.

4) What are some of the stage-specific challenges of working in the horror genre?
First off, I don’t think it’s a whole lot different than pulling off other kinds of theatre. It’s still all about timing and specific staging, the way a very physical comedy is for instance. However because we use a lot of hand held light on stage we have to be very specific and aware of how the illusion is working.

5) How would you describe Chris Stanton’s approach to directing this project?
Oh god . . . where do I start . . . how do you work with a man that breaks out into Meatloaf ballads at the top of his lungs and then runs onto stage to show you how to have sex with a ghost? No, in all honesty I am blown away with Chris as a director. He is wildly creative and is always taking a project to the next level, to bring audience members things they haven’t ever seen or experienced before. He is incredibly respectful of his actors (being one himself) and really creates a collaborative environment in the rehearsal space. Be forewarned though . . . he’ll start singing a song about his coffee, for no reason, that will stick in your head for days.

6) How well did your education at the National Theatre School of Canada prepare you for the realities of being a working actor?
Well, when I attended NTS, Perry Schneiderman was head of the program, and he had really brought together a great group of teachers and guest artists. I believe theatre school is very much a training ground for actors to experiment and work intensely on Classical theatre. That being said, it is very much a bubble, a sanctuary where you can fail as an actor and not have it affect your reputation. But because they set up this sanctuary feeling for the students the down side is they do not prepare you much for the realities of going out into the world and working as a self-employed artist. Perhaps that should change.

7) As an actor, what are you better at now than you were two years ago?
Letting go of my training. Being calm, confident, and eager to perform.

8) What are some of the questions that are on your mind these days?
This question’s too stressful . . . it’s like trying to come up with a witty Facebook status.

9) How do you feel about the quality of theatre criticism in Toronto?
[breaks out in cold sweat] I. Love. Critics. Actually I got to meet Jon Kaplan the other day for the first time and he was an incredibly approachable person and has been very supportive of the Scooby gang at UnSpun. I do read reviews, good or bad. I think it’s helpful to build up a thick skin. Reviews only really bother me when the criticism can’t help the artist in anyway.

10) Why is theatre important?
I don’t know if it is . . . telling stories is important. However you want to do it.

10 questions: Michael Rubenfeld

1) What the fuck is going on?
First Burma, and now the earthquake in China. Seems like the earth is trying to get rid of us humans.

2) Does your new play, My Fellow Creatures, arrive at any conclusions about “the nature of adult men who love children”?
Conclusions? No. But it does ask the audience to perceive these men as living, loving, breathing human beings rather than as evil or psychopathic. I don’t really believe in conclusions. I believe that the questions get more and more complex the more we choose to ask them. I also believe that humanity is often driven and destroyed by contradiction rather than celebrated. I also think there are conclusive answers to all questions. I’m also as full of shit as I am knowledgeable. We all are.

If someone tells me that they’re attracted to a child and wants to have sex with that child, who am I to judge them? Do I think its wrong? Yes. Absolutely. Do I know why I think it’s wrong? Yes. Should I judge someone for having this instinct? No. I don’t think it’s helpful.
I would stop them if they actually tried to go through with that act – but I think it’s also quite crucial to go further into understanding why an adult would want to have sex with a child – where that instinct comes from. Nature vs. Nurture. Is nature nurture? Pedophelia and the desire for children has so many more layers of emotional complexity than we give it credit for . . . which is also, more or less, the centre of everything I write about, and what keeps me moving forwarding in the world. Going deeper. Asking more questions of humanity. Getting to our source – which, for everyone, is usually connected to love.

3) What research was involved in figuring out how to deal with the play’s more taboo themes?
There’s a lot of material surrounding Grecian and Roman societies that condoned certain man/boy love. There’s also a pretty intense group called the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). They petition for equal rights to men who love boys. There are a great many people who cite pederasty as a sexual preference, similar to hetero/homosexuality. There was also the Gerald Hannon (ex-Ryerson Journalist) letters, advocating pedophelia. And, if you pick up a newspaper, there’s practically a new case daily. The Michael Jackson trial was pretty prevalent in the years prior to beginning the piece, as was a guy named Cory Newton, from a small town in Ontario, who was on trial for molesting many, many children. I was also influenced by films like Mysterious Skin and Sins of the Father.

4) How does this piece fit in with Absit Omen’s mandate?
Our mandate is to ask large questions that challenge our perceptions of social order. Our perception of these men is pretty narrow, in my opinion. I would never condone any of their actions, but what I believe we often fail to see is that often, at the heart of their actions, is an intent to love, and not an intent to harm. The piece is important because once we start to see these people as men, and try to understand their actions, we may be able to actually do something about it. Writing something off as evil or all bad is a simple and, I believe, ineffective approach to effective problem solving.

5) How much overlap is there between your approaches to writing, directing and acting?
Plenty. I direct how I wish I to be directed as an actor – with rigour and special attention to specificity and story. With intelligence and awareness. With a sense of collaboration. I find myself getting frustrated by how often productions have a feeling of arbitrariness and generality. I find that good plays are often very poorly interpreted because of a director’s obsession with conveying their vision, which ultimately overrides the vision that is already in the script. A good script reveals all. As a writer, I create work for actors. My acting background has helped train me to create work that, I think, actors really love playing.

I also think that the work can be much stronger if you understand how to translate your own writing for actors and for the stage. I believe MacIvor and LePage do so well because they can play all the parts, rather than just one. There is much less potential for the work to be lost in translation.

Also, in film, most of the best work is being written by those who are directing them. I can’t quite understand why that doesn’t happen more in theatre.

6) What quality do you most dislike when you see it in other artists?
Laziness of thought and unearned ego. That’s two. If you’re going to have ego, you better well deserve it. There are a handful of very opinionated artists in this community who are producing some of the most unintelligible, thoughtless dreck imaginable. I mean, really, do we need to be producing plays about porno? Really?

I had somebody once actually pitch their production of Julius Caesar to me by telling me about the fight scenes and how life-like and amazing they were. Um. So, that’s what’s important about Caesar? The fights? Please. I’d rather see a bad play that is actually trying to communicate something interesting than a good production of a play without a soul.

Also, there are a series of brilliant people who are creating lazy art because they can. Because we will reward that art despite its weaknesses . . . and so, instead of these people actually trying to say anything, they say half-a-thing and collect the rewards anyways. This too also upsets me.

What is the intent of the work? Why are you writing this? Why are we doing this? If the answer is “to be awesome” or “to get attention” or “because I’m the best” or “because I’ve tricked everyone into thinking this is about anything” then there’s a problem. Unless you’re 14 or 15 years old. Then, it is absolutely appropriate to write about how awesome “fucking chicks” is . . . and even then . . .

7) What have been some of your biggest challenges as the new Artistic Producer of SummerWorks Theatre Festival?
The learning curve. I’ve produced some successfully shows in the past, but the workload for the festival is pretty shocking. I feel like I’m learning a new lesson each and every day.

Also, remembering that when I have an idea, no matter how good it is, it has to then be implemented, which means MORE work on top of the work I already am doing. That’s a difficult one to negotiate, because there’s lots that I want to do, and I am the first to admit that my ambition sometimes gets ahead of what is actually humanly possible.

Lastly, I’d have to say the negotiation of power, and finding new relationships to diplomacy. I had a couple people send me fairly insulting, accusatory emails when they didn’t get into the festival, and while I had the instinct to be reactive, my job description now involves having to spend more time accepting certain new ways of needing to handle certain situations. Which, ultimately, has been a great blessing for me. I am understanding more and more why some people may have thought I was a dick-head when I was younger . . . or perhaps they still do. That’s okay, though, as I’m fitting much more comfortably into understanding what it is I am doing and why I’m doing it . . . what my own personal vision is. There’s been a real freedom to coming to that sort of conclusion.

8) What was the jury looking for in deciding which shows to produce at this year’s festival?
First and foremost was intent. The point of the piece. What the artist is trying to say, and why they are saying it.

Also, the aesthetic of the work. We talked a lot about where we saw piece fitting. Often, we chose work that we did not see fitting anywhere than the SummerWork Festival. That is not to say that the work would not work at the Factory or Tarragon, but we certainly are targeting an urban audience with our festival.

There were also a series of really well written plays, but it feels like, sometimes, there are a lot of writers who are more interested in how clever and witty they can be rather than putting thought into what the hell they are actually trying to communicate. A play can be very smart, but if I ultimately don’t care, then I ultimately don’t care.

I have always seen the festival as a home for alternative, diverse and provocative work, but most importantly, I want the writers to actually give a shit about something – rather than just write for the sake of getting to write, or for the sake of getting their name out there. If you’re going to write a love story, you need to be aware that there are millions of love stories . . . and just because the story is close to your heart, you need to ask yourself “why is this particular love story more interesting or different than any other?” If you can’t come up with that answer, you need to be putting more thought into the intent behind the work.

It’s also important that people are coming to the table with a precise vision and also that the work fits into an urban setting. There is some work that we review that is quite wonderful, but we felt would work better in other venues.

And, lastly, sometimes it came down to sheer numbers. We accepted only 33 local shows, and received almost 180 submissions.

Bruce Willis and Michael Rubenfeld on the set of Lucky Number Slevin.

9) How do you feel about the quality of theatre criticism in Toronto?
I think its confusing. I’m not sure what the role of a critic is anymore.

I don’t know how critics make their decisions on what is good or bad. There are some in this city who seem to think that criticism is about finding the most eloquent ways to tell people that their work is garbage. This is frustrating to me, and actually breaks my heart a little. Artists put their souls into their work, and there are some critics in this city who seem to think it appropriate behaviour to attempt to humiliate artists in their reviews when they don’t feel like the work meets their standards.

Good art is often about compassion for the human condition. It is a wonder that reviewers are in direct opposition to that very idea. I’m not quite sure how, as an artist, to negotiate that. There is also so much subjectivity in art. When critics become cruel, or bullies, it does not foster stronger, more interesting work . . . it only puts fear into the hearts of the artists who will often sometimes then try and create work for the sake of reviews, and not for the sake of art.

10) How do you feel about the state of the Canadian theatre industry, generally?
Industry? That’s funny. The idea of theatre as industry. Maybe we should be thinking of it more like that. I sort of think that it really doesn’t have any chance at all. We need an Off-Broadway house in Toronto. We need a place where top shows from seasons are taken and play for extended runs. We need shows like Scorched, East of Berlin, Bigger Than Jesus, Blood Claat, (new MacIvors), etc, to have unlimited runs, so that people will actually have the opportunity to see the shows that are considered the best in our country and in smaller theatres.

There are way too many limitations. It’s insane, really. My Fellow Creatures is running right now . . . and it kind of doesn’t really matter if the reviews are strong, but the run is not long enough to actually garner any attention. By the time people may have heard about it, it will be long gone. This is the usual model.

People don’t go to theatre because it is too risky, and in this city, people don’t have time to be bored. We need some independent rich people who love theatre to help us out. Seriously. Put together a season of the best work from the previous year, co-produce with the companies who originated the work, do a profit split, and put Toronto Theatre on the map. Shows win Doras, and then, nothing. Take the Dora-winning shows, and remount them immediately. I bet people would come. We need more smart business in the theatre.

10 questions: Greatest hits – Volume VI

Mac Rogers
Photo by Saundra Yaklin.

1) What the fuck is going on?
We are witnessing the Schiavo-ization of theat – wait, wrong cue-card . . .

Sorry, I’m goofing off because the question freaks me out. I don’t know what the fuck is going on. I want there to be one spot I can look at and see the whole thing, but there is no such spot. This was something I loved about the recent film Cloverfield, that the glimpses of the monster were metaphorically true to what I experience when I try to look at the world around me, or even at myself: there’s a leg – oh – wait – there’s the jaws for a second – there’s the eyes – wait, there it’s going around the corner and I barely saw anything! I can’t see what’s happening while it’s happening. There’s too much work, too much need for entertainment and sensation, too many places to be.

I’d actually be relieved if folks in comments didn’t share this feeling with me. It would make me feel like I could see a shrink or go on meds and make it go away. What I’m afraid of is that this feeling may be shared.

On the upside, I live happily with my partner in Brooklyn, last year was the best artistic year of my life, and there’s fun projects and hopes on the horizon. I have great friends, great colleagues, a great family. I live in an amazing place, a converted auto-body shop. It’s huge. (It won’t last. East Williamsburg or whatever you call it is just about to go through the roof and then we’re all out on our asses.)

2) 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.

3) What is your fondest memory of being on stage?
My favourite memory of being onstage would have to be bombing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City during the Del Close Marathon in 2003. The marathon itself is the ‘big show’ of improv and I was there with my troupe, Tonto’s Nephews.

Leading up to the festival we had been getting some interest from CBC and the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, as well as some other television development stuff. The fact that we were an all-Aboriginal Comedy Troupe was appealing apparently and there had been talk that some NBC Diversity people were going to be watching us at the festival to see what the hype was about.

To make a very long, boring story short, we went and we sucked. We had an amazing time slot, the theatre was full,

“. . . in the first row of the audience sat
half of the cast of
Saturday Night Live.”

and in the first row of the audience sat half of the cast of Saturday Night Live. We went out there and made ourselves look like fools. No one was listening onstage, two of our ‘stars’ bullied and trudged their way through their storylines, and the whole show crumbled – it was 30 minutes of shitty improv. I don’t even remember if we got any laughs.

When I got off the stage, I went straight to the back of the room, and by chance I ran into Horatio Sanz. He knew I was steaming mad about being bullied off stage during the improv set and he pulled me aside and for about an hour he told my what he liked about my style, we talked improv and where it’s going, and we teased a bunch of drunk UCB ‘chicks’, or, ‘groupies’, and it was an incredible time.

Sucking that badly onstage at such a huge comedy festival was a humbling performance moment for me. Everything I had worked for to get to that day exploded in my face. After I left the theatre I went for a walk to Central Park, sat under a tree, and started to think about what would become MooseGuts Theatre.

4) How do you feel about the idea that American theatre has – to its detriment – become centralized around New York City?
It’s always been centralized around NYC – that has never really been to our detriment. NYC is a great town with great artists. The focus on bigger and bigger houses, more and more money, has done the damage and NYC is also the capital of “Selling your Mother for the Highest Price” as well.

Broadway is a bloated, celebrity-driven whore overtaken by Disney and Sony. Somewhere along the line, the money-lenders realized that if you dressed up a high-concept turd with enough flash and dazzle, enough stage gimmickry and had a Hollywood star perform in it, they could make the fast turnaround buck. NYC has given birth to so many good things for American Theater but the good things are now being over-shadowed by the money-grubbing greed factories looking to shill the tourists. When the accountants become the producers and the artists, in a drive to create “mass art,” write plays that are increasingly less complex but highly entertaining, the art as a whole suffers.

The truly unfortunate thing is that it works and everybody wants to get some of that golden pie. So you get Cirque du Soliel in Vegas and Broadway in Chicago and the Guthrie “Megaplex.” The big glitzy horseshit that passes as theater in these monstrously large organizations obliterates the new and the original. When originality is stomped on and buried, the outlook gets pretty grim for all but the hacks responsible for “destination shows.”

It is easy, however, to throw blame at the snake-oil salesman of Broadway and thus paint all of New York with that broad brush. New York has a rich history of great theater and deservedly so. There are also scores of New York artists that are not a part of that system, churning out countless plays and musicals that don’t buy into the corporate model of Deadly Theater. Most importantly, New York has a culture of theatergoers – it is a part of the population’s regular list of “Things to Do” and that can’t be said of most places west of the Apple.

5) What does it mean to you to become a member of the Order of Canada for “contributions to the success of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, and for helping to foster a vibrant national theatre scene?
Becoming a member of the Order of Canada happens to other people; it never occurred to me that it would happen to me. The fact that I knew some of the people who were members was enough. I pinch myself and, of course, like everyone else (of a certain age) who has received an honour, I wish my parents were around to witness it. “See, dad, even in the arts, you can be acknowledged.”

Working at Tarragon has been almost a total joy. I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have worked so long at a theatre that has maintained its fundamental focus even as it grew and adapted to the changes going on around it. Luck has a lot to do with it and maybe an ability to see a good thing when it’s placed in your path. When I started at Tarragon – in 1972 – professional theatre as we know it today was still a work-in-progress. Just by being a part of it, you were “helping to foster a vibrant national theatre scene.”

6) When you look at the landscape of contemporary Australian theatre, how much of it seems to be built on (or make explicit reference to) the country’s Aboriginal performance traditions?
Not much. There are some excellent Indigenous theatre companies and artists: Stephen Page’s Bangarra Dance Theatre is probably the best known internationally, and there is a strong contemporary tradition of Indigenous theatre, with shining talents like the director and playwright Wesley Enoch. But it doesn’t integrate with the mainstream theatre conventions as much as you might expect.

Why that is so is extremely vexed. Some of it is about the understandable sensitivity Indigenous people feel about cultural appropriation, and the reluctance of white artists to step on those sensitivities. To say this is a complex area is somewhat understating it…!

7) How do you feel about a theatre critic’s power to make or break a show?
A critic should not have the power to make or break a show, but unfortunately audiences are extremely cheap and lazy and are all too happy to give them that power. I have been really dissatisfied with how theatre criticism works in this city for quite some time now – the ego surrounding it is so, so huge, and no wonder. In a job like that, where you’re paid to be judgmental, it’s easy to turn into an asshole and develop an inflated sense of your own importance. The challenge is to maintain your modesty and realize that the most important part of your job is to create a tangible record of an ephemeral experience and, maybe, introduce your readers to something new and wonderful that they might otherwise have dismissed. Anton Ego, the ominous food critic in Ratatouille, has a monologue at the end of the film that sums up exactly how I feel about criticism:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends.”

Erika Batdorf
Photos by David Leyes.

8) What advantages does poetry have over other modes of narration?
Levels, layers . . . I love levels. I want my work to exist on many levels. I want the audience to have a rich and complex meal. Story is lovely – but for me – I need the mystical, the organic movement of a tree in the wind – so that the audience can’t go, “Oh, I get it, that’s how it ends. It is about a man who . . . ” I want them to question, get a little lost . . . I want to move closer and closer to something that is NOT just words – but is something that can really only exist on stage, live . . . But is not just movement design or raw emotion. I want it to have an elegant container that grows organically from the content.

9) What is pub theatre?
Really, simply put, theatre in a pub. In the UK and Ireland, pub theatres tend to have one resident company (usually indie). The theatre space is a well-appointed black-box often on the second floor of the pub. Productions frequently transfer out to other venues after initial runs. Many of Conor McPherson’s plays debuted in pubs.

Historically, The Public House has acted as the centre of the community. This was a meeting place for the people. With its gritty, sawdust coated floors, The Public House gathered local voices in a shared space.

Ideas and performances are exchanged in this dynamic intersection of theatre and community.

10) During your time as Artistic Director for Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre, did you arrive at any conclusions about theatre and its relationship to at-risk communities?
Yes. So much TYA is trying to show kids the way the world should be. They paint a politically correct perfect picture. But I think kids at risk, in areas such as poverty, or bullying, or abuse, can see through that crap. I think two kinds of theatre work for communities at risk:

One is to do good theatre that acknowledges their truths, and helps them to discover courage in themselves, and maybe that theatre should come right into their community.

The other way is to make theatre available that gives them a fabulous time, sitting in a big house, with all the bells and whistles, and great acting/singing/dancing/writing . . . a good story that transports them, without patronizing them . . . you know, ENTERTAINMENT!

10 questions: Darren O’Donnell

Photo by Lisa Kannakko.

1) What the fuck is going on?
Mammalian is going through a rapid transition and expansion. We started working with new producer Natalie De Vito last August and the way the company functions is evolving.

Rather than producing discreet shows, where we bring a team together to work on something for a finite period of time, we’re now conceiving the company as an atelier and working more like a design firm, with a range of projects at different stages of readiness, some projects finished and ready to tour, some still in development and almost all of them available for the company to cannibalize, with components swapped in or out, scale adjusted, production elements added or reduced, participants tweaked or thoroughly recast, etc.

I think of the company as the main project; Mammalian Diving Reflex is the show, all the smaller units are ours acts, as in circus acts.

The projects have different leaders on them, people who can travel with them so that we can be creating work on a variety of continents at the same time. We have a Vancouver-based project producer, Hazel Venzon – who produced Haircuts by Children in Italy – a Montreal project producer, Zoë Stronyk and our collaborators – Rebecca Picherack and Stephanie Comilang in Toronto who also lead projects.

The size of the institutions we’re starting to collaborate with are becoming larger and Europeans are starting to commission new work especially for their locale.

We’ve become the Art Company in Residence at Parkdale Public School and we’re piloting a project this spring, Parkdale Public School vs. Queen West, which we’re hoping to make permanent.

Parkdale PS is where we developed some of our most successful stuff – like Haircuts by Children and The Children’s Choice Awards – and we want to continue that relationship. Part of the problem with touring is that you lose touch with your home, especially if, like me, you’re single and childless. Making a long-term creative commitment to 700 kids in my neighborhood gives me and the company a really nice goal that is relatively detached from all the careerist and usually tedious thoughts that always bubble in my head. While still, ironically, producing some of our best work.

Diplomatic Immunities. Photo by John Lauener.

2) How have you developed as an Artistic Director since founding Mammalian Diving Reflex in 1993?
A lot of stuff has changed. I started with scripts that I wrote and directed, then I started to share the directorial and dramaturgical responsibility with Rebecca Picherack (who you really should interview), sometimes leaving all the directing up to her, sometimes not. Now we don’t direct the shows, we coordinate various aspects – we even credit ourselves as coordinators not directors.

In 2003 we started the Social Acupuncture wing of the company, where we create more interventionist participatory work and the demand for that work has exploded, particularly from overseas and in the visual art world.

The work we do with kids, which started before Haircuts by Children has also been a big change, and really informs our process. I think it’s important to understand that the choice to work with kids was certainly artistic but it was also – in no small part – a business decision. Good work created in collaboration with children is rare and very much in demand.

The biggest change has been in the way the company as an entity functions and is conceived. The artistry happens in the realm of production. Rarely are we in a rehearsal hall, shielded from the tedium of the minutia of producing the work, that minutia – all the logistics in developing a work – is the work, making it much less tedious. Like I said, I think of the company as the show, as the art.

3) What is “ideal entertainment for the end of the world”?
It’s just a funny tagline for the company. We want to be clear that we are creating entertainment and that we believe the world (as we know it) is coming to an end.

Haircuts by Children. Photo by John Lauener.

4) What is neoliberalism and what are its shortcomings?
That question is best answered by an expert like David Harvey, I would be just regurgitating the stuff I’ve read by him and others.

Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism is good.

Here’s an interview with him.

5) How interested are you in helping other artists make civic engagement central to their work?
Very.

6) How much of your work is informed by a sense of anger?
All. But informed by other stuff too like joy, hilarity, play, love, surprise, etc.

Photo by Lisa Kannakko.

7) What is your case for optimism?
I’m not optimistic. I think we’re in terrible times and it’s only going to get worse.

8) How do you feel about the idea that Canadian artists, generally, are stuck in an identity politics paradigm – an obsession that prevents us from dealing concretely with issues such as war and governance in our work?
Identity politics inform so little of the work I see. There’s a small percentage of the work that is informed almost entirely by identity politics, but it’s really in the minority. And it’s usually those artists who are the most interested and skilled at dealing with questions like war and governance.

9) What are some of the questions that are on your mind these days?
Most of my concerns these days are about running the company during our growth spurt and how to balance all the demands, what to turn down, what to take on, etc.

The atelier model we’re adopting is very interesting to me, I like having projects that can be dismantled, bits of which are used on new projects, stuff expanded and contracted as need be.

I’m very excited by the potential of passing responsibility to project leaders who can work independently and, eventually, begin to develop their own projects.

10) If you could change just one thing about theatre in Toronto, what would it be?
Theatre in Toronto is perfect.