New theatre podcast

Praxis Theatre is thrilled to present the first in a series of theatre podcasts that Toronto-based arts writer Alison Broverman is putting together exclusively for this blog.

This edition:

1) SummerWorks wrap-up interview with Michael Rubenfeld.
2) Nostalgia corner.
3) Broverman’s biggest regret of the summer.

This podcast is about 17 minutes long. Please have a listen and pass along any comments, feedback, or suggestions for future podcasts.

Theatre of joy

When enthusiasm trumps technique
By Alison Broverman

Hey, I’m back! I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “wow, this girl must have some kind of crazy dirt on Ian that he doesn’t want spread around. Why else would he keep turning his usually thoughtful blog over to her insane ramblings?” Well, part of our deal was that I’d never tell one way or the other. So you’re stuck with me again. And I’m not linking you up to any exploding cows this time.

Have you noticed the trend over the past few months of films celebrating the redemptive power of DIY art – Be Kind, Rewind and Son of Rambow are the two main examples, and Honeydripper dabbles in that theme as well, though the art in question is music, not film. In the former two films, amateur auteurs recreate their favourite movies with their own limited resources (and way more moxie than any studio has ever shown). In Be Kind, Rewind, when Mos Def and Jack Black are sued for plagiarism, they make their own movie instead, with help from the entire neighbourhood. It’s a powerful act of community, and everyone involved feels important and validated as they watch the screening. (I haven’t see Son of Rambow yet, but I assume it has a similarly feel-good ending. If you’ve seen it and I’m dead wrong and they all, like, die at the end or something, please let me know.)

And in Honeydripper an unknown (but stupendously hot) guitarist plays a really rocking set and saves Danny Glover’s bar from bankruptcy. Oh, just see it. It’s a beautiful film about how art will set you free.

Continuing the trend this summer is Hamlet 2, which comes out in August and basically looks like the greatest film of all time (at least since Waiting for Guffman). Go watch the trailer! Go go go!! Now! I’ll wait! Did you watch it yet? (This quote, incidentally, sums up my exact feelings for We Will Rock You: “It was stupid, but it was also theatre!”) I can’t wait. Why isn’t this movie opening RIGHT THIS SECOND?

Why won’t you shut up about movies already? You’re writing a post for a theatre blog. Yeah, yeah. OK. I won’t shut up about these movies, because they are all thematically connected to my point (I do have one, for serious): community theatre is good for the world.

What’s that, snobby little devil on my shoulder? “Community theatre is for amateur hacks who don’t deserve to be on a real stage.” Whoa. You stop that. That’s pretty harsh. Who “deserves” to be onstage, anyway? Theatre is empowering. Creating any kind of art is empowering, but performing on stage in front of a laughing, applauding audience is . . . well, if you’re reading this blog, you probably know something about it. There’s nothing like it.

The energy at a community theatre performance is really something special. Everyone in that theatre is so excited to be there. So excited that they’re doing it for free. A good portion of the audience know the performers and are so proud and delighted to be there. (Sometimes this happens at professional theatres too – ask me about Pirate Tim’s dad sometime.) At a community theatre production, even the audience has a lot invested in the show, which is not something you can say for most professional productions, where the audience has to be convinced to care.

I know. I was skeptical too until a friend of mine dragged me to the Civic Light Opera Company production of The Rink. Aside from all the adorably absurd details that you would never get at a professional show (like a 17-year-old – cast in a role meant for a 30- or 40-something – singing an earnest love song to a woman 30 years his senior), the unbridled enthusiasm of everyone on that stage was so refreshing and inspiring. Something emanated from the stage that I didn’t even realize I had been missing at professional shows: pure joy. (Plus, when the hell else are you going to see a production of The Rink?)

Even better is the high school play. The nerves and the hormones that are flying around your typical high school auditorium always make for a theatre experience that, if not exactly polished, is irresistible and electric. Unfortunately, you can’t go to a high school without knowing someone involved with the production. Otherwise you’re just some creep hanging out at a high school. (I miss having a little sister at Rosedale Heights! One year they did this awesome school-wide adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that somehow turned Wonderland into this incredibly powerful metaphor about the trauma and confusion of adolescence. It could only have happened at a high school, and it was such a unique theatrical experience.) Plus, only on a high school stage are you going to see a perfectly executed stage kiss, you know, with thumbs over the lips (I’m pretty sure that was because Romeo’s real-life girlfriend was not playing Juliet . . . )

Am I saying that quality should lose out to effort and we should stop going to professional shows in favour of the community theatre? Of course not. Quality and skill are very important to my enjoyment of a show, of course (now, sometimes these things are found in community theatre performances – the Alexander Players production of Guys and Dolls, which I saw last week at the Leah Posluns Theatre, had a few very nice surprises among the performances). But I do think that a good community theatre experience can remind us why we make theatre in the first place. Because it is damn good fun to put on a show.

Alison Broverman is a Toronto-based theatre artist and freelance arts reporter for The National Post.

10 questions: Alison Broverman

1) What the fuck is going on?
I’ve been laying pretty low for the past few months, actually, recovering from an intensely exhilarating summer (my first Fringe show! Yikes!). Writing about this and that, seeing as much theatre as I can, very quietly working on my second play. Oh, and a friend of mine and I recently started teaching 8-to-11-year-olds how to write plays, which is probably the greatest thing I have done in my life so far.

2) Do you have any unifying theories that inform your approach to arts reporting for The National Post?
No theories that can be summed up in a tidy little nutshell, but I do try to always be supportive of the artist or event in question without being fawning, and I try to design the story so it will inspire readers to go out and buy a ticket. One thing I find extremely frustrating about writing about theatre in Toronto is how repetitive it often feels: the same people doing the same plays all the time. I try not to encourage that by giving it ink. But I’m hopeful that it’s starting to change, though – a few younger, fresher voices are starting to make their way onto the city’s mainstages, and I hope that the trend keeps up.

3) What can independent theatre companies do to make their stories more appealing to local arts reporters?
Don’t be boring. Have a good angle. My editors love a good angle. And proofread your press releases. Good lord.

4) After spending years reviewing Toronto Fringe shows for Eye Weekly and The Post, how did it feel to mount your own show in last year’s festival?
It was terrifying, but really wonderful. I finally understood why artists treated me the way they did in the years I was working as a reviewer. I felt very exposed, but it was such a great experience – I realized that I want to create art more than I want to write about other people’s art. And ultimately, the show sold out its run and was chosen for the Best of the Fringe series, so that felt pretty damn awesome.

5) 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.”

6) How have your experiences with blogs and social media influenced your ideas about theatre?
I don’t know that they have, really. I would really like to see more theatre folks blogging, as Daniel MacIvor does, about their work, about what they think about other work they see, about the conversations they have. The problem with theatre criticism in Toronto, specifically, but in general, is that it’s so unilateral – I would like to see theatre blogs used (as you guys do here) to create more of a conversation about theatre.

In the Post every Friday I edit the Popcorn Panel, where three panelists – film critics, film lovers, whoever – discuss a recent film in a casual, conversational way. I WISH I could do the same thing for theatre – you know, every week round up a few people – a theatre writer, a theatre artist, a theatre student, whoever – and chat about a play. It would be so great to get theatre artists talking about each other’s work more.

7) If you could change one thing about mainstream media’s coverage of theatre in Canada, what would it be?
I’d hire a lot of young, enthusiastic (and mostly female – sometimes I feel like the only girl around) arts reporters who don’t yet feel like they’ve seen it all and who still think theatre is fun and exciting. And I’d start up that theatre version of the Popcorn Panel that I just talked about.

8) As a writer, what are you better at now than you were when you were younger?
Just writing. When I was younger I had a lot of big ideas that never went anywhere. Having a regular writing gig at the Post forced me to write more regularly, and faster, and my brain just got used to a higher output mode. I don’t think it was an accident that I finished my first play that year, when I was writing more frequently than I’d ever written before.

9) How much of your work is informed by a sense of anger?
Honestly, not much. Heartbreak, often, but not anger. At least, not yet.

10) Who are some of your favourite contemporary theatre artists?
I think Hannah Moscovitch is the best thing to happen to Toronto theatre in a long time, and I hope she keeps it up. Mabou Mines’ balls out production of A Doll’s House blew me away at Harbourfront’s New World Stage Festival last year. It feels redundant to say Daniel MacIvor, because who doesn’t think he’s the bees’ knees, but Daniel MacIvor. Oh, and this 8-year-old comic genius from my playwriting class last fall. He wrote the funniest line I have ever heard in my life: “She’s not my girlfriend, she’s a hobo!” And he also wrote a very moving monologue about being in trouble in the principal’s office. Watch out for him.