“Theatre is everywhere – most of it is free”

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

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

Great stuff. Check out the full interview, here.

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.

Everything I know about theatre today I learned from blogging

Branding the independents
By Simon Ogden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vancouver has too many cheerleading critics . . .”

The good people over at The Next Stage theatre blog have conducted and posted a wonderful interview with Vancouver-based theatre critic Colin Thomas (Georgia Straight).

There’s even a choice piece of Toronto bashing as told to Colin by Daniel MacIvor:

“Daniel MacIvor told me once that he likes premiering work in Vancouver because audiences here are so on-the-ball and because we’re not nearly as snooty as the folks in Toronto.”

Oh, snap! Please read the entire interview here.

A wake up call for the West

Vancouver-based playwright and theatre blogger Simon Ogden has thrown down an inspiring call to action for the “latent theatre town” he calls home:

“. . . we keep plugging away, show after show, using the same marketing tactics and theatres and programs and street cards and posters and fundraisers . . . and theatre doesn’t get any closer to the mainstream, to a larger media, or into the consciousness of the city outside the choir stalls. We’re spinning our wheels. We’re running around within a model that doesn’t work, and it’s been given more than its fair chance. It’s time for a new model.”

You gotta read the full post, here: Theatre is Dead, Long Live Theatre.

10 questions: Simon Ogden

1) What the fuck is going on?
Oh, left work early to ride my bike to the farmers’ market to buy organic heirloom tomatoes and an amusing pinot on the way to the beach to smoke some hydro and debate olympic spending vs. the homeless “problem”. You know, Vancouvery shit.

2) What’s the current state of independent theatre in Vancouver?
Some crews have been taking turns pounding it on the chest and it definitely has a pulse, although it’s still a long way from running a marathon. The dangling carrot of the invading American TV/film industry and their buckets of cash keep most actors from considering the importance of creating a viable theatre, or from considering theatre at all, really. A lot of theatre that pops up here is the fed-up-with-commercial-auditions vanity piece – usually a LeBute or a Mamet – that contains the scene that they totally rocked in class, man, that’s thrown up for a week, poorly marketed, and never heard from again because, damn, theatre is hard work, man. Not that that’s really a bad thing, mind you, good on ’em, but it’s more of a diversionary exercise than a resuscitation attempt. Meanwhile there are several companies in town that have been putting a lot of time, energy, and love into edge-cutting and relevant stage. The foundation has been laid, as it were, now it’s time to start construction. If I may mix my metaphors.

3) How do you navigate the tricky political waters of being a theatre artists and a theatre critic in the same city?
Yeah, that’s a tough one, and to be honest, I’m still figuring it out. I went back and forth quite a bit on the decision to start critiquing, in the end it became another way to get theatre into the public consciousness, which is a big part of my personal mandate. The readership of Beyond Robson, the city life/news blog I work for (our sister site, Blog TO, does some excellent theatre coverage for the smoke by the way), is the same 20-35 demographic that we want to get into the theatres, so it made sense to start running play crits. I go into some detail about this on my blog, but in short it is my opinion that we need to understand that, while we as theatre artists may wish that our work be considered sacrosanct by virtue of our spent time and passion, the fact that we’re charging money for it makes it a consumer product, and as such we are accountable. So critics are invaluable to our audience, like it or not, and we need to develop a thicker skin about criticism. Be able to ditch the fragile ego bit and accept what is valuable in a review and discard what is not. It’s just an opinion anyway, and hopefully it’s an informed one from someone who loves the theatre, like I do.

And so, as a navigational aid, I have set myself some strict parameters. Number 1: complete honesty. Number 2: I will not review any production that I have professional ties to. And number 3: always be constructive, never destructive. I recently went to a play with the intention of reviewing it and honestly, it was so bad on so many levels that I couldn’t bring myself to tear it down as much as I would have in order to fulfill mandate #1. Seriously, it was the kind of theatre that stops people from ever going to theatre again, but it was free to the public and as such no good could possibly have come from the vitriol I would have spilled, so I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Maybe that’s cowardly, I don’t know, but that’s the grey area between artist and critic that I live in right now, so so be it.

4) How much of your work is informed by a sense of anger?
What kind of stupid fucking question is that? You’re lucky you live on the other side of the country Mackenzie, or I’d punch you right in the face.

Actually, my first hit was: anger? Me? Whaddya mean, I’m not angry…am I? And of course, a look back at my body of work to date reveals that there’s levels of anger in the genesis of all of it, which, upon further consideration, is as close an approximation to my personal definition of the true nature of art as I have ever considered. The play I’m working on right now, set in a bar, is entirely about the consequences of anger, as a matter of fact. Revelatory, thank you.

5) How do you approach writing dialogue?
I actually consider dialogue the easy part of playwrighting, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of unnecessary trepidation around it for new writers. We all know how people talk, we’re immersed in natural conversation every day, those rhythms are part of our cellular structure. I just transcribe what the characters are saying to each other in my head and when I hear me talking instead of them, I stop writing. And when I’m really stuck, I simply flip to a random page of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or check my Overheard in New York feed for a refresher course in how to write dialogue. I find the hard part to be structuring surprise, which to me is what a satisfying theatre experience is all about, at all stations: writing, acting, direction, lights, soundscape, and audience interplay. Great theatre is all about little surprises.

6) What quality in other artists do you most dislike when you see it?
I’ll give you three of them: ego, ego, and oh, I going to have to go with ego here. Show me generosity of spirit and action and I’ll show you great art. I do not care how wonderfully wonderful and beautiful and talented you are, because the story you are telling doesn’t care about those things. On stage you are in the service of the other actors, who are all in the service of the story, which is in the service of the community. You wanna know how to tell if someone is a great actor or not? Watch how well they listen when they’re not regurgitating their memorized words.

7) What have you learned about your community through your experiences as a theatre blogger?
That for the theatre community here, the internet as a marketing tool is a strange, irrelevant animal. I was inspired to start a theatre blog by this post by Darren Barefoot, a prolific local blogger and marketer who wrote and staged a fringe play on a whim a few years back. And if you google “Vancouver theatre blog” right now you’ll get pretty much . . . me. The international theatre blogosphere is fantastic, however, sharp, controversial, articulate, it’s become a brand new form of theatre in its own right, actually. But seeing that the key to a healthy theatre is local communication, that really does me no good here. I’ve heard the argument that new technology is at odds with the very convention of the theatre, but that’s kind of the point, we’re going to have to evolve to survive. Blogging is not a technologist’s medium, it’s a writer’s medium, and theatrists in this town have to embrace that, as well as internetworking (I may have just coined that), just as so many other specialized interest groups have. I wrote one post on BR about skateboarding and got 14 comments, I’ve written 10 theatre posts and gotten 4 comments. Let’s talk it up out there, people! Hey batta, swing batta!

8) How do we attract more non-artists (such as accountants, producers, lawyers and marketers) to our industry?
Well, we could – I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out – ask them? Before our first production we called up Paul Armstrong, a local indie film and music video producer, and asked him if he would consider coming down to meet the crew and hearing a pitch, and he is now not only our producer, but he shows up for every script reading and workshop session we have. He hasn’t made a dime off us yet, poor chap, but he has faith.

I think theatre is an art form that non-artists love to be identified with. Its image is one of social consciousness and commentary without radicalism (I’m speaking here of its perception, not necessarily its reality), and as such it’s perfect for organizations looking to “give back” to the community. They’re also looking for the write-offs too, don’t forget. We need to exploit theatre’s art-cool image to our fullest advantage, and professionally approach these offices in town that have expertise in necessary production areas that we, as artists, simply don’t (or shouldn’t, for that matter). If we can get stage managers, fundraising venues, and poster designers to donate their time and assets, why can’t we get an accountant to do so as well?

9) What does feminism mean to you?
As with any movement whose goal is human parity, be it gender, ethnicity, class, or sexuality based, I’m saddened that it’s still so necessary. I fancied myself a feminist playwright at one point, based on the work I was turning out, until I realized that just writing stories sympathetic to women doesn’t make one a feminist, and to wear that badge without a commitment to full advocacy is merely paying lip-service to what I in truth consider to be a self-evident truism, not a battle I chose to fight. I feel very fortunate to have been raised and educated in so tolerant a household and community that I can be a true individualist, to be able to judge each book by its story, as it were.

10) As a writer, what are you better at now than you were five years ago.
Malleability. Here’s the best advice I can offer to aspiring playwrights: find yourself a small group of actors whom you trust and consider brilliant and workshop your script with them. During this part of the process let them be loose with your lines a little and allow them to bring their honest reactions to what’s coming towards them. Give them scenarios to improv, ask them to act out stories from their own experience that relate to the work, trust them with your baby. You’ll be astonished at the universal truths that will emerge, and you have but to record them (and take all the credit in the bargain).

Confession time: I have transcribed whole monologues verbatim from actor’s improvs, magnificent material that I am nowhere near talented enough to come up with on my own. We as theatre artists are a mirror to the world around us, not within us, and as playwrights let’s face it, we’re merely keeping minutes.