Theatre manifesto blogging for dummies


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

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

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

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

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

The passion of the blogs


A look back on a good year in the theatrosphere
By Simon Ogden and Ian Mackenzie

Time to put 2008 to bed? Good idea. But not before we take one last look at the year that was in theatre blogging. And what a year it was! From epic online dust-ups to Internet-wide collaborations, here’s our list of last year’s greatest moments in theatre blogging:

The Empty Spaces – Or, How Theatre Failed America.
The American monologuist Mike Daisey’s scathing editorial for the Seattle-based The Stranger newspaper argues that American theatre has been irreversibly damaged at the hands of corporate commodification. It quickly becomes the most widely discussed theatre essay of February.

The Great “Value of theatre” Debate.
For one day in March, the Ohio-based blogger Matt Slaybaugh of TheatreForté organized a theatrosphere-wide discussion to answer one simple question: “What is the value of theatre?” More than 32 different blogs from around the world weighed in on the topic that day – and yet surprisingly few common themes emerged. That theatre’s online diarists could not reduce the craft to tidy soundbites is welcome evidence of the art form’s complexity.

The SummerWorks “Expression” video controversy.
The Toronto-based SummerWorks Theatre Festival promo video depicts some of the city’s most highly regarded women playwrights acting like bimbo valley girls – up-talking and saying “like” a lot. “Expression” sparked an all-out brawl among Toronto’s theatrical intelligentsia. Some called it demeaning, some called it transgressive, others called it smart marketing. But no one called it late for dinner.

Professor Scott Walters “retires” from theatre blogging.
After a lengthy monologue explaining his Tribes model of running a theatre company, and some highly personal bare-knuckle scrapping in his comments section, the resident professor of the theatrosphere calls it quits again in May. He’s back posting within a couple of days; posts sporadically for a few months; and then officially reboots his blog again earlier this week.

The proliferation of the Canadian theatre blogs.
Although theatre blogging exploded in the U.S. a couple of years earlier, 2008 was the year theatre blogging officially took flight in Canada. Here’s a quick, incomplete survey of the current landscape:

And the list keeps growing. Thankfully.

Canadian artists rally online over $45 million goverments arts cuts.
The Canadian arts community unites against Stephen Harper’s Conservative government following its controversial $45 million cuts to Canadian arts programs; sets the national theatrosphere ablaze – including dozens of reprints of playwright Wadji Mouawad’s scathing response to Harper and the birth of the arts advocacy group Department of Culture.

Content is king for a day.
Well, several days actually – after Tony Adams drops a post called “Content” in which he wonders aloud why no one on the Internet ever discusses the content of their shows. The topic has legs.

The age of the guest post.
Theatre is territory and its west coast sister blog The Next Stage host a series of guest posts that help inspire their writers to think outside the blog:

Don Hall gets divorced.
The usually irascible Don Hall blogs about the dissolution of his marriage, morphing the normally incendiary Angry White Guy in Chicago blog into a tender and affecting piece of Internet theatre.

The Globe and Mail gets its theatre blog on.
After showing all of England how to theatre blog (by founding the Guardian UK’s theatre blog roundup Noises off), J. Kelly Nestruck returns home to Canada to fill the prestigious national theatre critic slot at the Globe and Mail. He promptly starts a Globe theatre blog – Nestruck on theatre – and seals the deal on theatre blogging’s legitimacy in Canada.

Canadian theatre critics invite unprecedented dialogue with artists.
Notorious Vancouver theatre critic Colin Thomas challenges theatre artists to change their status quo and engage him directly about his opinions online – none do (yet). J. Kelly Nestruck does likewise.

How Mike Daisey failed American Theatre.
“The Daisey” goes head-to-head with American Theatre Magazine.

The theatrosphere unites to say goodbye to Harold Pinter.
Legendary American playwright shuffles off his mortal coil and goes on to join the choir invisible; the chorus of the theatrosphere sings his praises down here.

Well, it’s clear that our list could be twice as long and still wildly incomplete. Lest we forget Isaac Butler’s oddball Hair Blogging, George Hunka’s syllable-heavy Organum series, Matt Freeman’s awesome Star Wars fixation, Nick Keenan’s constant innovations, James Comtois’ horror film posts, Leonard Jacob’s prolific flamboyance, Paul Rekk’s island of insight, Adam Thurman’s paradoxical mission, those anonymous ponderings at 99Seats, Travis Bedard’s extreme connectedness, Alison Broverman’s fashionesta quipping, or Chris Wilkinson’s succinct reporting of this whole fine mess . . . oh theatrosphere, we hardly know you and yet we bleed for your love.

Suffice to say, 2008 was the year that many will remember as the year theatre finally made a successful transition to digital.

You can also find this here.

Digging for theatrosphere gold

In no particular order, four pieces of theatrosphere gold:

  • The good people at Umbrella Talk interview Canadian master Daniel MacIvor.
  • A new Toronto theatre blog: Emerging Art Productions.
  • Vancouver’s Lyric Stage Project is marketing its upcoming production with this intriguing campaign.
  • Chicago-based theatre advocate Don Hall continues his painfully honest series of posts on divorce.

Any more? Please paste your best theatrosphere post links into the comments section below.

Don Hall on theatrical discourse

Chicago-based playwright and theatre blogger Don Hall weighs in on the theatrical discourse debate, laying down his case for a rougher, more honest approach:

“All of this boils down to two important yet diametrically opposed notions:

  • most theater people just want affirmation and aren’t really interested in criticism, constructive or otherwise;
  • we all claim to want honest evaluation from our peers (‘So what’d you think? Be straight with me…’).

“The result is often a call for ‘more civility’ amongst artists and less brawling and how that translates is that if you don’t have anything nice to say, it’s better to keep it to yourself.”

Some good insight here, even if you haven’t been following the various theatre blog scuffles he recounts. Full post here: Is Being “Civil” Just Another Way to Shut People Up?

10 questions: Don Hall

1) What the fuck is going on?
Oil production has peaked while the consuming of it increases so future generations are fucked; the President of the United States couldn’t beat me in a game of Scrabble; the WGA is on strike so there will soon be nothing but Who Wants to Give a Rich Guy a Handjob? and Project Air Traffic Controller and America’s Next Top CPA on the air; someone, somewhere, is adapting a Paulie Shore film into a Broadway musical and I want them hurt; and the population is in a constant state of fear-motivated consumerism.

On a personal level, I have a day job that I completely dig, my wife is a sexy genius, and I’m physically in better shape than I’ve been in since college. So, apart from the planet going straight to hell in the fast lane, life is Disco.

2) How do you feel about Chicago’s contemporary theatre scene?
I have mixed feelings about our scene.

On the “Glass is Half Empty” side, the municipality is embracing the Broadway “Big, Splashy, and Kind of Stupid” model in efforts to boost tourism at the expense of the Off-Loop scene that is the heart of Chicago Theater. The theory from some is like Reaganomics – if people come to see Wicked and Jersey Boys then they’ll get a taste for theater and some will naturally trickle down to patronize the smaller, smarter artists. Like Reaganomics, that’s just a bunch of wishful horseshit.

The reality is that the City spends millions on the downtown structures and ignores any physical plant needs of the vast, overpopulated non-Equity scene and that scene has to keep moving further and further from the geographic center of what folks consider “Chicago.” On top of that, the City continues to underfund arts education and, as a result, the arts are not a regular part of most kids’ daily life. They then fund theater companies who spend much of their creative energies replacing the basic arts educational programs with often sub-par plays and hokey performances by groups who, in the large part, aren’t representative of the quality of work to be found in the city.

And, whether our city wants to admit it or not, Chicago is a fucking “Sports & Bar” Town. Theater is a once-a-year treat because you gotta spend those bucks on getting shit-faced and puking at a Cubs game.

On the “Glass is Half Full of Rosy Liquid” side, while we have far too many wannabe artists in the city, we likewise have a higher-than-average brilliance quotient – playwrights churning out superior work every day, some of the best actors, improvisers, stand ups, sketch comedians, and musicians on the planet are honing their crafts right here in Chi-town.

With a constant stream of mid-sized festivals (The Rhino Fest, the Around the Coyote) and large showcase festivals (Chicago Sketchfest, Bailiwick Director’s Festival) combined with the relative ease of putting up a show anywhere and a (unfortunately dwindling) history of excellent theater journalism, Chicago may not have replaced New York as the theater capital, but we’ve narrowed the gap considerably.

3) Why do you identify your skin colour in the name of your blog: An Angry White Guy in Chicago?
There are two answers to that one.

First, years ago, I created a show (that Jen directed) called An Angry White Guy Reads the Paper. In essence, it was a combination of an Armando Diaz long-form and The Living Newspaper of David Shepherd.

I was a character (the AWG) who came out on his porch to get his Chicago Sun-Times and have a beer and a smoke before going to work at the scotch tape factory. The audience was my illiterate neighbor, Phil. I would read random items from the paper to Phil, rant and rave about the state of the world and then an ensemble of six improvisers would riff off of my vitriol. We went back and forth like this for an hour. It was a blast and we had a pretty decent following of regulars come week after week. When I started my blog, it seemed natural to use that character as a launching point.

Second, the image of an angry, white American male is steeped in the stereotype of the hyper-conservative, NASCAR-loving, redneck gun-lover. I like tricking those guys into coming over to my blog and being surprised by my leftist, artsy point of view. I’ve received a fair number of hate emails because of that.

Also, I don’t think there is anything wrong with identifying your race. I’ve been accused of being racist for simply pointing out that I’m white, which is plainly stupid. Racism is the belief that other races are inferior in some way – stating my own race isn’t pejorative to anyone.

4) What are you angry about?
Stupid. Stupid makes me angry.

Voting for a president who you’d like to have a beer with? Stupid.

Banning smoking because Communism fell and we all needed another enemy is stupid.

Dumbing down our educational system by making it more about taking tests than learning and then complaining about how thuggish, drunk and vapid kids are is stupid.

Legally Blond The Musical? – stupid.

Doing NOTHING about Global Warming? Myopic and stupid.

Not impeaching our corrupt Executive Branch but investigating Baseball? S-T-U-P-I-D.

Defining basic sadness as clinical depression in order to boost anti-depressant sales – stupid AND corrupt.

There’s a lot of stupid out there. All you have to do is open your eyes and be amazed.

5) 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.

6) How have your experiences as a theatre blogger influenced your ideas about theatre?
The experiment that began as my blog was mostly to give myself a reason to write every day. I tried the private journal route but I found I needed a sense of urgency and obligation to write as well as I could AND to generate things to write about that were more interesting than my daily grind. So, I started the blog.

Since then I have opened up a world for me that was surprising – I correspond (in one form or another) with theater cats from all over the globe and get some insight into what’s going on artistically in regions thousands of miles away.

As for how it has influenced me – it has given me the opportunity to try out some of my underlying ideals on the computer screen and get feedback from those who are either getting ready to walk the same walk as I, are currently on the same road, or have been where I’m at and have insight to where I’m going. That sense of universality and community is invaluable. I can’t say that it has changed much of my own artistic output, but it has made me a bit less knee-jerk when contemplating something I’m involved in.

7) What kinds of stories does American theatre seem to consistently neglect telling?
Stories that legitimately reflect the lives of every day people.

Why is Law & Order so fucking popular? I think it is because it reflects the things that are happening around us every day. Documentaries have exploded in recent years. Why? Because they address the things right in front of our faces. The Office is so compelling because it pretty accurately reflects the people in our lives (and is blisteringly, painfully funny).

Theater is mired in history and fantasy and the stories of the elite and the downtrodden but rarely deal with meat and potatoes life. Where are the Clifford Odets of today? In this way, Scott Walters has it right in that the only characters we see that hail from Middle America and the South are either spoofed yokels, noble savants amidst the close-minded townfolk, or serial killers. Where are our John Steinbecks?

8) What are some of the more common marketing and PR mistakes you see being made by other theatre makers in Chicago?
I’d say the most common mistake is using the existing corporate model as a basis for which to operate. That model was created 50 or 60 years ago and is in big trouble. Cookie cutter marketing is lost in the shuffle – to effectively market something within the din of advertising and promotional noise, you gotta do something out of the ordinary or be relegated to “one more fucking thing being sold to me.”

Think big, think creative, think about *almost* breaking the law to get the information to the people you want in your audience. Specify and conquer. Anything less is just tepid noise that will promptly be ignored.

9) Why is Michael Moore a true American hero?
Whether you like his methods or not, Moore uses the nominal pulpit he has to champion those who have no voice. He speaks the truth as he sees it and, in doing so, attempts to shed light on our decaying and near-dead Democratic Experiment in hopes of reversing the cancer of complacency and self-interest that fuels our apocalypse. And he almost single-handedly reinvented the documentary film genre to meet the demands of the YouTube generation – you think we’d be seeing Alberto Gonzalez heckled online or The Daily Show without Roger & Me?

10) As a writer, what are you better at now than you were when you were younger?
Believe it or not, I think more before I commit something to screen or paper. I’m also a bit more skeptical of my own bias when launching a diatribe.