Taco Tuesday at a tiny pub on Front Street, 2019. I’m sitting with three beautiful strangers who are also participating in the Director’s Lab in Toronto. The show starts in 25 minutes and our pints are still half-full. We shave off hot-button topics between mouthfuls of the cheapest things on menu. Indulging in the fear and tension of testing each other, we’re excited for the company. The clock is ticking and we’re ravenous in the dance of getting-to-know. We tip the waitress as much as we can—not nearly enough—and tumble into the street, a light and raucous chorus with the city spinning its approval around. Our bags rattle as we run into the theatre lobby at the exquisitely last second.
The usher asks us to remove our backpacks and we suddenly notice thin beads of taco-fueled joy dampening our skin. We’re sent down a short bending hallway, unceremoniously vast and industrial, leading to a heavy door that matches. On the other side is one of the biggest rooms I have walked into in a long time. There is a romantic pathway of candles that hug the wall from the door and lead through the darkness to a miss-matched array of furniture under a high tent of fairy lights. We’re suddenly moving slow and can hear our own hearts.
The silent crowd picks a place to sit, a stool or ottoman, a park bench or pouffe, and faces each other in a grand staggered circle. About a month from this moment Ronnie Burkett will be inducted into the Order of Canada for his work in puppetry. I’d never heard of him. He arrives formidably dressed in a great hooded habit, facelessly reciting something about love, elevated and melancholic. It feels like it could be from Milton or the Torah. But, admittedly, I’m still tasting my taco from the moment earlier and feel a bit too dazed to catch up. Once the thickness settles—of my belly and the performance, quickly, simultaneously—we’re allowed into Ronnie’s eyes and the intimacy of his more living-room voice.
He invites us to form a line across the performance space. “This is the most important walk you will go on today,” he says, “and the most important walk of my life.” The procession is suddenly scary-exciting. At the end of our short procession is a great open chest: one handmade puppet each. He has instructed us how to animate these particular hand puppets. There are different ways of doing it but, with your index finger in the head and your thumb and pinky extended into the hands, when you hold your puppet up its very bones sign to the world, “I love you.”
Each with their own unique head, face, and personality, our puppets can nod and bow, they can dance, they can shake hands with other puppets, and they can hug. We’re invited to indulge in their dexterities. My puppet hugs another and I feel the bones of my I-love-you hand wrap around a stranger’s. It is more intimate than I had felt in a long time.
My puppet is old and sad. His thin jaw gently slacked and his eyebrows droop down at either side. Others’ are older and younger; the room fills with twice as many genders and identities as it had when we first sat down. A sea of their pale clothes and little heads fill my eye-line across the space like hundreds of eager sentinels fixated on Ronnie and his puppets, performing the story. As the show goes on I realize I’m not watching it at all, my puppet is. What’s more, that by engaging in the show through the eyes and ears of my ever-attentive puppet, I’m able to enjoy it more ruthlessly, less judgmentally, with a sudden and strange kinship to the puppets that are performing and to all the tiny spectators around.
Am I performing—in this moment—is my puppet performing? It begins as a ridiculous and nearly gross show. Cartoonish carnies selfishly manipulating for their own jollies. I look at my puppet and his slack-jaw that was so endearing a moment ago signifies the willing soma of a selfish sexual indulgence. This sudden grossness is made all the more meaningful by having unified myself with the puppet so thoroughly the moment before. Or is this closer to the truth: am I looking into a mirror of sorts and it’s me who loves the lewdness of these crude characters? Between the puppet and I, who is a projection onto whom? And, through this performance, what am I discovering about myself?
The show won’t allow me to indulge in these thoughts for long. New characters are introduced, held up by strings that are delicate and beautiful. Their smallness creates intimacy. Their faces and postures communicate decades. The poetry of their dialogue makes me feel precious again.
This whiplashing rollercoaster of a play fictionally portrays the danger of a world where reading and writing are illegal. In order to love each other across great distances the illiterate create and send forbidden messages through a gentle gatekeeper, made mystic by her inaccessibility, elevated alone on a cake-like throne. The storytelling is messy and vast, precious and unpretentious. And we, the audience, are constantly asked to take part.
We are invited to control the performance’s soundtrack, taking turns to haphazardly place vinyl on an amplified turntable (keeping us down-to-earth with its pops and cracks). We carry our puppets across the room to surround the sensitive tenderness of one tiny scene only to find that our chairs are taken by other members of the audience. We circle the story, as it progresses, in a quiet game of musical chairs. We are touched, willingly and kindly, in a perfect respite far away from earlier scenes’ vulgarity. We are challenged to speak out and interrupt a climactic injustice near the end of the play. And then we feel complicit when we do not. We are invited to speak and we are indulgent in silences.
I am my puppet. Absolutely. And I imagine Ronnie would agree, he is his. Through the story’s range out of bawdy clownishness, to poetic elevation, and slow startling intimacy, to a punctuation of guilt and violence, we hold ourselves up to each other, constantly: I love you. And, through the story, containing all the glorious mess that love entails.
10am the next day, the thirty-or-so artists participating in this year’s Director’s Lab circle our chairs in a rehearsal studio at the Tarragon Theatre. We start our day with a broader continuation of the previous night’s dinnertime chats. Already exhausted by the burning questions brought to each other but thrilled to keep soldiering them through. How do we build accountability into our rehearsals? How integral is immersion to an audience’s experience and what counts as immersive? Holy shit, you mounted that spectacle with only one week of rehearsal? Well done! Then Ronnie Burkett arrives for his Q & A and we applaud the perfectly sleepless aging gay as he crosses to his chair.
His simple human charm is a big part of the success of his performance. And he brings it with him, sans-puppets, today. We learn how he works: monk-like, waking up in the wee hours for years at a time to build his puppets by hand. While building, he develops a sense of the performances they’ll inhabit—the feel, the topics, who the puppets may be, how they’ll weave together—long before anything is rehearsed or written. Then, once the characters are built he’ll rehearse the new production in, what seems to me, a frightfully short period.
True to many world traditions of puppetry, he is generous with information. It is custom to pass it down through practitioners and maintain a philosophy of openness. He keeps a library of literally thousands of books on the subject, lending freely to younger artists. While tools are tools and materials mere materials, the incredible preciousness of his process is clear by the alighting youthfulness that animates him.
Free from the bustle of Toronto sunshine, the early hours provide a sense of unification with the traditions he invokes. His deceased mentors have the silence and the darkness to be welcomed there … there is room for these ghosts to appeal to the larger history: the millions who have traded poverty for their vocation; noble histories of past performers risking death to secretly entertain under Nazi occupation; the accessibility of object-driven and mask-theatre holding the mantle of performance art during historic austerities; the universality of puppetry in nurseries and classrooms across the world; the younger artists Ronnie supports and inspires right now … can all gently wash around a room when it is four o’clock in the morning. This is where the work begins in puppet-building. To him, a puppet is a shape of an idea in motion, witnessed. Like any wonderful idea, a puppet is both complex and simple. A puppet takes time. I find myself entertaining the morbid thought of who will inherit this sacred studio when he dies.
He talks about audience integration. There is elbowroom within his performances for the needs of the moment. He aims to meet the audience where they are at. “In jazz, a musician must honour the text but play wildly with the melody.” One of his pre-show rituals is to spy on us. This gives him a sense of where he can go with the evening’s performance. Who he can rely on to help take the night where it needs to go and who might need help along the way. He has the quietly charismatic trappings and sensitivities to ask the audience to only do authentic things. Authentic—but highly specific. And they always do.
“There are plays,” he gripes conspiratorially, “called immersive but what really happens is the action gets interrupted so you can follow a young actor somewhere and then you have to watch the play while sitting on the floor of a barber shop or something. That’s not immersive. That’s just watching actors from a dusty floor.” In his show, we aren’t immersed by the space so much as we are by the shape of the storytelling itself.
Ronnie is only sixty-two years young but fifty years into his vocation. At this stage, he tells us, he is only now achieving the things he is searching for in an audience-performer relationship. He insists that puppetry is high art that works best when it is low art. But still kisses the floor before working in a new venue. This is impossibly communicated in his performance. That skill to unlock a certain connection with the audience, truly integrating them with a high-level of hidden and nuanced subtlety, he says, is only sincerely arriving, fifty years in to the job.
In the next breath, “I’m going to have surgery on my hand.” Years of this work have taken their toll on his body. The moment of achieving these quieter successes takes it away. “I maybe have 22 more good years if I take care. I’ll keep working until the last second. It’s going to hurt.” Then, as if we all agree, he says “it should hurt.”
It’s 1 o’clock in the morning again.
What I love about visual art that literature can’t do is how the viewers’ experience of it may exist outside of time. You can peripherally process a shape on one part of the canvass while looking at a shape on a different part of the canvass and, as your synapses connect the two, have already moved your attention to a third area without thinking about it. You don’t move your eyes across canvassed oil pigments the same way you do across a line of written text. I used to think, perhaps from the romanticism of knowing little about its mechanics, that music was the most affecting art form for its capacity to surpass logic and language and jump straight to emotions. But, if art, the same can be said of scent. Music is too similar to poetry, literature and theatre in this respect, it only occurs in time. I wrote a poem inspired by Rousseau’s The Dream in which I tried to emulate its freedom from a linear viewer experience. One of the things I love most about that painting is how it can surprise you: you don’t know what you have already been processing until you have looked at it more closely. In this way, certainly, the viewer’s experience of it exists in time as well. However, by the repetition of similar shapes scattered across the canvass, Rousseau draws you in to the arrival of recognition by allowing your brain to process the images before you are aware of them. Layered within that process, the painting’s invitation to the viewer to be aware of separate elements to interchangeably different degrees all at once, is much closer to how people think than language is. Most of the time, we don’t think linearly. My thought process is typically shaped more like a shadowed map than a sentence. If a composer or a writer used Rousseau's technique to attempt to make their audiences’ experience nonlinear in this way, it would have the opposite effect. Callbacks and repetition, in these mediums, serve to help us build a maturing relationship with the content and therefore remind us of time’s passing. In my poem from the painting, I attempted to try this by separating stanzas from right to left as well as from top to bottom—a device in contemporary poetry which I usually despise for its tendency to dilute, to me, the writer’s experience of the impulse of the poem. I wanted to make it ambiguous as to where a recitation of the poem should begin the stanza on the right in the middle of the stanza on the left or after it. Or if the two stanzas should be recited in tandem, their lines leapfrogging and interchanging. Had I been more ambitious, stanzas on the right would contain more detail or story but I didn’t want to confound the reader with extraneous details—or myself for that matter. Without a correct answer about how the stanzas are to be arranged I attempted, and failed, to make this poem like the painting that it praises. Or like a painting, in general. I also paid homage to the painting’s use of repetition. However, with an effort to banish the experience of time passing I compacted the repetition, placing words immediately next to themselves rather than calling back to them from a distance, attempting to stall time rather than highlight it. Ultimately, perhaps because I learned poetry from within conservative literary traditions, I felt the need to build towards this structure and then to denouement from it, supporting it with—pun intended—a frame. But, alas, doing so ensures that any whole experience of the poem occurs in a linear beginning-to-end like music and stories must. I haven’t slept well enough lately to presently pull from a properly exhaustive catalogue but to my knowledge there are few popular works of art, outside of painting, that occur in the audiences’ experience in the nonlinear way that thoughts do. Samuel Beckett certainly attempted it throughout his career. His short plays, Not I, Rockaby, and Footfalls come to mind. But in order to approach that experience the pieces had to be brief in content. Being brief, of course, they lose the full potential of their hypnotism. I think this is particularly true to a present-day audience that has already been touched by these works even prior to seeing them. By having a second character in Not I however, a tall vague human figure shrugging its shoulders in the distance, Samuel Beckett might have succeeded. The existence of that figure has a rationality but its conjecture in context with the rest of the piece in performance is not rational: it’s emotional. Like dreams, like music. The beauty of this is that the figure is neither dramatic, like most western theatre, nor literary. It succeeds, perhaps, because it is visual. To call you back through time for a quick simile: it’s like Rousseau’s canvass. Unfortunately, that figure is completely omitted from most contemporary productions of the play. The opening sequence to Apocalypse Now comes close as well. But again, that’s a visual use of a visual medium. Sarah Kane wrote dramatically active performance text. Fight me, she did. But in an interview with Dan Rebellato she famously demonstrated a way of toying with structure which separates plot from story through fragmentation. Just as theatre itself—because time itself—cannot be experienced as a whole but as a moment, Sarah Kane’s representation of a self arrives fragmented, lacking a whole, and therefore separated from its own story. In writing, she achieved this in her in-yer-face play, 4:48 Psychosis. Lacking in Kane’s trauma, I hope that my poem is a little more palatable to the sensitive spirit. I’ve only ever seen a student production of 4:48 Psychosis so I may not have been exposed to its broader traditions of staging. But I’d posit that, for the first while, the audience will be fighting the text to arrive at a linear experience of it while Sarah Kane insists them away from such traditional notions. How would you relieve the audience of such unnecessary labour in a traditional theatre staging? You would have to Artoud it: surround the audience with it on all sides, make it impossible to search for a beginning-middle-end right off the top so that the audience can live inside the character’s experience of herself, fragmented. Like thoughts. My poem, obviously, is completely incapable of immersing the audience because a poem is two-damn-dimensional. Visual art, however, manages it all the time. Or, as the case may be, manages it outside of time. Not always well. But you don’t have to do things well to achieve them.
I’ve only just sent my poem to a literary magazine to receive the very first in its official litany of rejections. So, no, you can’t read it yet. Thanks for your curiosity though.
I have the tremendous privilege of harbouring new original work that has yet to see an official audience. I have the even greater privilege of trust and support from other artists along the route of creating it. I am grateful.
There are five Title Pages below (not even all my works-in-progress). Clicking any of these pages will lead you to a new tab containing an introduction and a short excerpt of that piece.
For your personal roulette, one of these contains a video from an archival performance of an early draft, another contains the whole entire dang'd script, some are possibly "finished," and others are many many drafts away from that ... but which ones will they be??
I'm not terribly interested in reconfiguring unproduced plays into digital art as so many others are doing at the moment. However, as the pandemic has shut theatres and caused devestating lay-offs to literary managers the whole world-wide, as artistic leadership is undergoing a major shift from coast to coast, as I have been sometimes able to choose family life over "important" career moves ... I suddenly feel the brazen freedom to share.
I hope you enjoy these brief excerpts from my not-yet-premiered plays.
Wondering About Children Placed in Factories in Other Places, Meditating on our Human Need to Busy our Hands, and Doting on How the Former Kills and Latter Creates Growth Growth Growth
Upon receiving the Metcalf Performing Arts Prize, creator-performer Sunny Drake decided to gift some of his earnings to two artists he admires as a way of building a "yes" in a vocational practice that is filled with so much "no." To my knowledge, these artists made no requests of his money and, it seems to me, his unsolicited shout of endorsement is as meaningful as any much-needed funds. He then encouraged other artists to do the same.
Because I live and work regionally I am constantly hungry for the creativity, community, and recognition of other artists. I was therefore extremely moved by Sunny's example. There is a bit of purity to the work that can happen in regional environments when the artist's best source of inspiration is often their own life. Here is a place where we have something very real to share and, most ironically, fewer people to share it with. We don't always feel like we're part of something bigger than ourselves when the inverse is usually true. Recognizing each other for this is vital.
The only prerequisites I fashioned when deciding who to reward by passing on the "yes challenge" is that the artists, while Canadian, not be primarily tethered to the Toronto theatre scene and that they not be very recently recognized by more formal awards. Despite the narrowness of those stipulations, however, I find myself wishing to support more than two people.
I've also been thinking about G.B. Shaw a lot since my master's degree. He wrote these big juggernaut plays, published theory to match his practice, supported his community by writing reviews, and helped spearhead the existence of the National Theatre in London. Naturally, we can't all be Shaw, but more and more I find myself thinking that selfless administration and community development are vital elements to an artistic vocation. Perhaps that is partially why I was so inspired by the Artist Yes Challenge.
Unfortunately, I don't have the financial support of the Metcalf Foundation (at least not right now 😛). And part of the point here is that the life of an artist is often close to poverty. So, rather than spending my family's precious income on these artists I admire, I'm gifting them each with a book I've loved from my own private library.
Without further ado, here are the four artists I wish to honour today:
I met Bó Bárdos when I was at my most-emerging. We were both hired to work with InterArts Matrix where, in my first proper acting gig, I felt like a tiny mute fish wagging between multiple modes of expression. Bó was profoundly welcoming, giving me the confidence I needed to rise to the project. This is true to her personality at all times: if a room requires just a little more love and joy, invite Bó. Naturally that personality does her worlds of good on stage as well. I think Bó is primarily a musician but her appetite to work inter-disciplinarily usually has me thinking of her as an actor. On her website she speaks to art as being a "sacred responsibility." I cannot overstate how strongly I feel about this. There is a great selflessness in approaching the work through this lens which can be clearly felt by those privileged to engage and participate in it. I mostly only see Bó these days if I pop into the MTSpace Theatre's office where she's been known to scrape away at a keyboard in administrative support of the company. It is already meaningful for our small/growing region to retain a talent the great size of her's without her also giving back to it by daylighting for one of our few local theatre companies.
For the Artist Yes Challenge I am gifting Bó my copy of issue 7 of Canthius Literary Magazine. I bought it on a wonderful day. Perhaps, in a way, I chose this because I don't know her as well as others I'm "yes-ing" right now. But because the magazine's ethos focuses on contemporary identity politics, because the work therein is so beautifully accessible, because this particular issue celebrates community so well, ... to me, it is all about discoveries. There is nothing quite like a welcoming horizon.
I've been close with Janice Lee for over ten years which means I've been privileged to watch her grow in her art and her voice. Since the very beginning she has been a constant mentor and champion to other musicians, artists, actors, and poets. Janice's work is multifaceted and difficult to peg down. She speaks of herself as a "folk artist" meaning that her work is "of the people." She is ruthless in her ability to be simultaneously whimsical and bitingly political. In both cases, intentionally accessible. I've watched her slowly and fearlessly claim her Korean heritage before growing audiences as she matured out of the cultural-whiteness of her once regional environment. A profound, inspiring, and certainly difficult journey. A constantly prolific performer and creator, it strikes me that Janice often puts more energy into raising the floor for other marginalized creatives. When serving as the City of Kitchener's Artist in Residence she used the opportunity to point away from herself and highlight some of the best parts of the community. She helped originate and build the MTSpace's Young Company, cofounded my region's queer film festival, Rainbow Reels, taught poetry and performing arts who-knows-how-many-times in rural First Nation communities, she leads workshops on anti-racism and micro-aggressions for BIPOC youth, and is presently on tour with accessible ticket prices. She is prolific as a creator as well as a leader. And she has bolstered each step of the way with staggering investment. The thought she has put into her work, and to living her politics with sincerity, is too rare. She speaks the truth, she is constantly learning, she deserves the best.
I am giving Janice my copy of Mouthpiece by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava. As a highly performative political text, Mouthpiece is a close sibling to Janice's creative work. It both guards and celebrates femininity, never loses complexity in those themes, and plays with an extremely heightened aesthetic without ever breaking into obscurity.
Like so many others, Nathaniel Voll is an under-utilized talent in our region. He is an actor, writer, and arts educator. Like mine, his creative career-trajectory is gently slowed by focusing on fatherhood. The few times that GreenLight Arts has shoved Nathaniel and I in the same room, however (me behind a laptop, him on a bare floor), I've felt supported with the confidence that my writing will be well-honoured and my flubs well-ironed. He provides a great ease in working through the shortcomings and errors that development rehearsals unearth. As the most-emerging artist of the four I'm "yes-ing" I've seen great maturity from Nathaniel when these roles are reversed. As a writer, he responds to critique and suggestion with respect and ... sometimes a lot of new pages! Nathaniel went from a leadership role at KW Youth Theatre to being GreenLight Arts' Education Manager and then to working with Theatre of the Beat as a Restorative Justice Facilitator. There he leads drama education, new play development, and production with the incarcerated population at the Grand Valley Institution for Women. With the help of some deeply-giving and incredible others, Nathaniel helped benchmark the first-ever collective-creation developed between a professional theatre and incarcerated women in Canada. What a task!
I'm giving Nathaniel my copy of Out of Line by Tanis MacDonald. This book is about finding hope, community, and direction as an artist who sometimes feels isolated by living and working regionally. Because the book celebrates our region, specifically, it provides a welcome touchstone to say yes, I see you! It is peppered with anecdotes to make us better teachers and a sense of access to the Canadian literary scene.
I don't know Liz Whitbread terribly well. When I first moved back to Canada after my MFA I was searching for voices on the subject of the Canadian theatre ecology. Hers stood from the crowd. So I was naturally charmed and even a little intimidated when our collaborator Kendra Jones cast her in the development-workshop of my play. Of all the magnificent actors in that ensemble, Liz was the most dramaturgically forthright in a way that I very much appreciated. After the labour of her feedback in development, it was a joy to watch her fall in and out of character with her entire breath and body, with playfulness and subtlety. At this time she had just been working as Communications and Administrative Coordinator at the Theatre Centre. As an administrator, Liz has helped to elevate the Toronto Fringe Festival, Seven Siblings, and Lost & Gone. But she left Toronto to continue making opportunities for others in Winnipeg where she is now the Assistant Artistic Director of Sarasvati Productions. There she is championing women's voices in a very real way. She also now assists programming and touring new work with a necessary contemporary political edge. Her devotion to maintaining and developing a strong instrument for craft is clear and enviable. But her career trajectory shows a devotion to supporting and uplifting the deserving artists around her with careful and creative leadership. I'm grateful that Canadian theatre has her.
I'm giving Little One by Hannah Moscovitch to Liz. For its darkness and it's humanity, this is a wildly formidable play. To honour Liz's skill as an actor, this play provides two great roles with a tremendous and understated poetry to them. While this particular play doesn't need Sarasvati productions, it speaks directly to their mandate in a way that raises expectations of everything around it. I believe Liz will help raise great plays like this one in her career as a leader.
I am so tremendously privileged—and just as excited—to be participating in Director's Lab North next week. The application package was a series of simple questions. Here is my response to one of them. I'm failing myself as someone who likes to think of himself as a maker of political theatre. But we must be critical in identifying what our work accomplishes and what our goals and our mandates really mean. I think also that to be either political or an artist means to never be satisfied. Well, shit.
In this time of seismic change around the world, is it our responsibility as theatre artists to promote change and if so, how?
Yes and no. I’m sure I share the thought with most other contemporary practitioners that theatre, being so much work for so little money, should only be done if it is for something significantly bigger than ourselves. Of course, by the same equation, perhaps the less altruistic perspective is the only one that doesn’t shed artists away into poverty, day jobs, or other obscurities.
We need accessible art who’s only goal is to be fun or moving or beautiful so that more people can share a language and cultural investment with more challenging, aesthetically progressive, and political work. However, across that spectrum, I have nearly zero room for narrative arguments that set out to support their communities’ existing perspectives. If we’re not always promoting change—okay. But we should never promote stasis. Theatre is alive and so should we be.
This is how I dance around the question because, ultimately, what does it mean to promote change and how do we even know we’re doing it? I think theatre is a weaker catalyst for movement than we tell ourselves it is. That being said, emotional narratives told through connection create empathy. And, over a softer longer time, empathy is the only thing that really matters.
There is no land-acknowledgement I know how to make that will generate sincere justice.
I grew up in Elora, Ontario. I never tell people that without suffixing: it’s a wonderful place to grow up. The Grand and Irvine rivers join in a publically-accessible, tree-lined limestone gorge up to 22 meters deep. It’s steeped in carefully celebrated history and, when you’re a lonely hiking homeschooler, deeply swarming in lore. The rivers meet where, every local knows, a young Native woman jumped to her doom after learning her darling white boy was killed fighting against the American frontier in 1812. Perhaps more of a Victorian melodrama than recorded history. Sometime in the two centuries between then and now, her picturesque deathbed served the small industrializing settlement as a garbage dump.
In my undergrad at the University of Waterloo, close to the banks of the Grand, I was privileged to take a dramaturgy course in tandem with a divisive land-claim dispute further downstream in Caledonia Ontario. My class underwent research and production dramaturgy for the development of a new play about the land-claim. We visited the disputed territory, wedged like a doorstop between the Oshwekan Mohawk Reserve and the developed town of Caledonia. We spoke with the Elders protecting the land, a postage-stamp of strangely flattened farm fields paved and scraped with cul-de-sacs and unlit streetlamps that frame the empty promise of large-scale residential development, now dried by wind. They were generous to teach us all kinds of things. About the land, the river, the Haldimand tract, and even simply their cultures and individual identities.
The event and the education we received are both richer than can be stated here. I think the scholarly writing on our exploration and performance is still forthcoming. The Haldimand Tract runs 6 miles (roughly 10 kilometers) on either side of the Grand River. It was assigned to the Six Nations by the Crown in October 1784 as thanks for participating in the American War of Independence, a recompense for territory lost south of the Canadian border. It is Native Land and there is a paper trail to prove legal ownership.
The creaky brick house I grew up in was built by the first manufacturer of the disk plow. His factory, now romantic ruins, ran on a hydroelectric dam which stands on the Grand River a few hundred meters from the front yard. My siblings and I spent many hours roleplaying stories and catching crayfish in the dam’s century-old chute. Only a few minutes downstream begins the gorge and a little further down begins the provincial park where you can enjoy the majestic beauty of the Grand River for $48 a campsite. Of course, the locals know their way into the park and we took to inheriting the river by our skinned knees, fights, smells, sexual awakenings, and everything in between. It felt entirely ours.
The play that my dramaturgy class eventually rehearsed and performed was written by Gill Garrett, using multiple sources. I shared a role that represented the woman living across the road from the land claim dispute. Her home was surrounded by old anger sparked, a flaming road-block, militarized police officers, white supremacists bussed in from other cities, young Native men tearing through her property on ATVs … she couldn’t exit her driveway without entering what was sometimes made to look like a war zone (though it was quite welcoming when we saw it). Under the din of an angry family-member imploring her to choose a certain side in the dispute, she defiantly baked a pie. She walked her fresh baking down the driveway to the incendiary street. A gift to the First Nations protestors. Neighbors make neighbors pies. Performing her tiny story every night I cried.
What moved me playing this part was, perhaps, a culmination of the whole complex event and a selfish route to understanding it. But I was also, of course, so in love with her ability to preserve a sense of personhood with a simple gesture of companionship. It was lost on me at the time that her gesture came in the form of a very old, endlessly celebrated, particular pastry so commonly attributed to white/settler culture. The irony now strikes as both ugly and beautiful.
I’ve often heard of First Nations’ relationship to the land as religious and sacramental. A rhetoric that imperfectly stumbles through settler’s language to explain something that cannot be totally understood.
Two summers into parenthood, my wife and I went on a little road trip. Sitting behind the wheel I trusted her navigation, having no idea where the road was winding us. I don’t drive much and had never been through this part of Ontario before so I sincerely didn’t know where we were. But when we crossed the Grand River I could feel it in my gut. It was as if all the water in my blood pressed against my skin to reach through the car and return to the river. This was my river. Wasn’t it?
My physiological recognition of and longing for the river forced new questions we should all be asking: how do those feel who have been torn from it? Or torn from another territory, given this one, and watched it become excavated and developed in the proceeding generations? If this river is so much of who I am, who are they?
The Oshwekan Mohawk Reserve we visited when learning about the Caledonia land-claim dispute spans a maximum of 6 miles, 10 kilometers, from only one side of the Grand River. It is hardly any bigger stretching north to south along the bank. The Mohawk Nation there aren’t originally native to Ontario. They were displaced out of New York State after the War of Independence. Some were refugeed to the Canadian border at the time but, why the Crown chose the Grand River, exactly, is beyond me. Before then the river was Iroquois territory. And before then it was Attawandaron.
I don’t understand the history as well as I’d like to but I think it’s worth noting that the First Nations’ effort supporting the British in the American war was led by a Mohawk, Joseph Brant, who had already devoted a great deal of his life to fighting British and colonial claims to Native land in New York State.
Today the Six Nations of the Grand River are the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, and Tuscarora. Some of the Haldimand tract was purchased from the displaced Joseph Brant by settlers, taking ownership and founding what has become places like the City of Kitchener. But, of course, it was the purchaser’s assumption that Brant could speak for all six of these nations.
To me, our responsibility to this land exceeds it’s acknowledgement. And the historic narrative of it’s “original caretakers” is too complex for a soundbite to contain. I think part of any land acknowledgement, as we’ve been giving them, should contain the knowledge that settlers will never meet the First Nations where we left them. Despite my blood’s tug to the river, we’ll never fully understand.
The Dish With One Spoon Treaty, already used elsewhere, was a late addition to most of the Haldimand tract in 1792. Taking this already ceded territory into a treaty which recognizes both First Nations and Settlers as caretakers was excused by an unapparent mapping error when offering the Haldimand Tract to Brant and the Six Nations. An act of colonialism. The Dish With One Spoon Treaty represents a partnership wherein all parties who share a land respectfully conserve it for each other under self-governance. That is to say, the local Six Nations and the settlers are supposed to govern themselves beside each other but independently. With only one spoon between us--we are supposed to share. Notwithstanding the late placement of the treaty onto the Haldimand Tract by settlers, we can acknowledge that the existence of the treaty itself is an act of generosity from the original caretakers. As for the conservation part of the treaty, I’m not convinced we’re doing our part.
As my whole body can tell you, driving across the Grand River on a little road trip, the importance of this tract and the treatise surrounding it, cannot be overstated.
A middle-aged white woman came to see our play. She claimed to be practicing Native Spirituality but, unsurprisingly, didn’t seem to arrive with any of the First Nations people in our audience. When I told her that my Catholic guilt caused me great struggles as the experience taught me more horrible truths about our relationship to the First Nations she became angry. She wanted me, as a Catholic, to deliver the children back home from their residential schools. Give the generations of deceased back to their own communities. How could anyone do that? How can anyone repair that damage? I wept in a stranger’s arms. She did not.
Is that what justice looks like? When we make our land acknowledgements before the plays we produce, what exactly are we offering and accomplishing? We know that we lack the language to fathom what the land actually means. Besides, what does “acknowledgement” progress? What do my tears? Her anger? The children are still gone. The river is developed.
The two-row wampum pictured above, in part, represents the Dish With One Spoon Treaty. It is a picture of a river (the Grand River, sometimes perhaps). The two purple lines represent Natives and Settlers travelling separately on that river. The first white row represents peace. The middle row represents friendship. The last white row represents eternity. Among these, the two travelers never intersect. We do not disturb each other. We do not understand each other. We share the same river.
I co-produced a few evenings of original theatre in Kitchener last winter. The inevitable discussion about our land acknowledgement evolved into a long conversation between myself and one of my collaborators. We asked ourselves these questions. It means one thing if our land acknowledgement awards us with a feeling of absolution from settler guilt. But it is an entirely other thing if our acknowledgement complicitly gives that feeling to our audience. That too is a form of colonization.
Making white noise out of the land acknowledgement might be better hoped for than the neoliberalism of supposing absolution from it.
What do we owe the people who’s languages have been taken away? Who have been stripped from their lands and rivers for multiple generations? Whose children have died in residential schools? The very least we can fathom, after colonial insistence on it here, is a return to the two-row wampum and the Dish with One Spoon. The tiny size of the Oshwekan Reserve at Caledonia, pressed into a small puzzle-piece of the Haldimand Tract, tells us that we have not been honoring these relationships.
For me, as a settler, the only tool I have to appreciate how land is tied to identity is through my own. Which is why I rattle-on about it above. In these ways, however, it is also not my own. This is a problem we’ve forced ourselves to share and will for generations.
Unless losing our own homes and our own place in these treatises, unless becoming uprooted like the Mohawk Nation was, the only way to honour them, argues my collaborator around last winter's show, is to have two equally powerful figureheads leading our country in collaboration and opposition: a Prime Minister and a Native Leader. Side by side, equal in power, equal in representation. Imperfect but progressive. It represents the promises we made when we forced the Dish with One Spoon onto the already ceded Haldimand Tract. It represents collaborative conservation and self-governance from sea to sea. And the inconvenience it suggests pales in comparison to the history that demands it. Until then, our land acknowledgements are nothing. Until then, and even after, we cannot be free of our colonialism.
UPDATE: This was written and posted before the Final Report on our National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Much more important reading than my blog. You can access it HERE. Please do.
My first memory of theatre is practicing it. The three youngest of my big Irish family homeschooled with other giant families in our region. We were tied together outside the school system by a priority for religion in our formative years. I would have been under ten years old and my group varied within five years of that—which is a wide range for that age. We created plays for our parents to see. There was never a playwright, rarely a director, and if there was, they always decentralized their authority for the benefit of the ensemble. In some sense, we were scared of each other. But also, not at all. True to the risks I run in my professional life now, eager to impress each other more than anyone else, everyone had a strong creative input and our audiences were always smaller than our ensemble.
We were magnificently contemporary. It was the mid to late ‘90’s and we waffled between cartoonish imitation, dead-pan humor, imagined set designs of baroque scale, and thought of plot as something completely separate from character. There was a series of skits which married humour to the sacred by presenting arbitrary improvisation games to the lives of the saints as a costume pageant. There was a morality play—we’d never heard of the morality plays—about the neutral good of peanut butter and the chaotic evil of Jack’s bean-stalk-giant. We found as much joy in comedic theatre sports as we did in representing the sanctified deceased for God.
We dressed up as saints for Hallowe’en too, usually in a bathrobe, and took turns telling their stories. Sometimes this necessitated the kind of full character development that I ask my students to undertake in their acting classes today. What are the symbols associated with your character? What do they want? How are you like them? How are you not like them? What intercession can they bring to heaven on our behalf? It was a party. When I learned, years later, that medieval European theatre was partially reborn in Catholic Churches I was tremendously gratified.
My earliest memory of being unmistakably in someone else’s audience was Camelot at the Stratford Festival. My family and I loomed over the whole amphitheater from the cheap seats. I wouldn’t have known at the time that this was an unusually huge space belonging to an unusually well-supported festival. It had the social prowess of a hockey game and the timid poignancy of church. I remember feeling the sense of arrested electricity that followed the Act-One closing number. And I remember having the wherewithal to wonder how a bunch of singing grown-ups were mechanically capable of providing that feeling to a whole audience at once. I like to take this as a sign that I was destined to be a theatremaker: interested in deconstructing how a moment of artifice becomes real so that I could understand and build it myself.
Or maybe that curiosity can be attributed to the fact that I was surrounded by 2000 upper-class white people making every effort to keep the sweat of their joy from tarnishing their Sunday best. If theatre sets out to celebrate complex feelings, that would be the one Catholic Mass and the Stratford Festival excel at to magnificent measure. Don’t show it. Unless, of course, you’re trying to impress the neighboring pew.
At that time in my life, there was good spirituality and bad spirituality. Just as there was good theatre and bad. Good spirituality involved the unfinishable pursuit of purity through the prescribed path of the Catholic Church. And, credit due, it is a carefully crafted path. The Catholic route to heaven is laid out with convenient simplicity while demanding enough from it’s pilgrims to wrinkle your skin. Just like all the best things in life, to be sure.
It is good catechism to say that, regarding virtue and sin, to try is to succeed and to not try is to fail. Whether, in this case, art imitates life or the other way around, I can’t be sure. Either way, it’s not the language Catholics usually use around good and evil. The Commandments and the Beatitudes lead our understanding of what is good and what is not-good. There is a staggering amount of theology on Love. And, one of the Church's best-kept secrets, the seven pillars of Catholic Social Teaching: dignity of the human person; call to family, community, and participation; responsibility to uphold human rights; option for the poor and vulnerable (I take that crude and othering rhetoric right out of the catechism); the dignity of work; solidarity of justice towards peace; stewardship of God’s creation.
On the whole I’d suggest that we’re failing triumphantly.
To say that a very specific group of actions are intrinsically good or not-good, ignores the actual details of morality. I know that, if you care to dig for them, Catholicism has answers. But we don’t dig for them. Our leaders and teachers don’t. For example, if life is sanctified and holy but theft is evil, then what is stealing for the purpose of survival? I simplify. And yet, this is the language we use. However much better the actual theology might be, the language that provides Catholic theology to Catholics constructs how we go about practicing faith. It is for this reason that almost every Church I’ve entered is mostly comprised of happy middle-class white people. It is easier for the privileged to be not-bad than it is to actively pursue good.
Stay with me here. The Commandments are a list of don’ts. The Beatitudes are presented as states-of-being. Since these are preferred to the Pillars of Social Teaching, compared to theatre, it would seem Catholic morality doesn’t care about action and pursuit and movement at all. I had an excellent performance pedagogue in my undergrad who would remind us to keep breathing through our exercises. “As soon as you stop breathing, you’re dead,” she would say. To try is to succeed and to not-try is to fail. As for Catholic morality, it doesn’t seem to be breathing
This isn’t a criticism of Catholicism itself. It’s a criticism of how it is practiced. And we knew that full well. Which is a big part of why we started homeschooling. We knew that it wasn't enough to be--we wanted to do.
Along the way we staged a backyard production of Sophocles’ Antigone. This wasn’t one of our pageants. It was directed by a homeschooling mom who had studied drama. The author was esteemed by a loftily traditional translation that, if we weren’t homeschooling around it, would have been beyond our years to understand. We were attracted to this particular text because it maintained and defended our worldview. We were interested in the integration of church and state and felt strongly that a failure to elevate a mystical morality through public policy would, as Creon’s Seer warns in the play, invoke “furies from death and heaven.”
To be absolutely clear, whatever you grow up knowing is ordinary to you. This very-real threat of daemons didn’t feel scary or cruel. It was just the structure of reality. Having a place in that reality provided an amazing source of purpose and therefore often even comfort.
We bolstered our rehearsal of Antigone with a year-long unit on Ancient Greece. Our homeschooling curriculum was incredible. It brought us to study architecture, geography, civics, art, language, technology, and literature. We read an age-appropriate translation of The Odyssey. We built models of Ancient Greek weapons and buildings, topographical maps, we employed historical battle strategy in our hockey games. We philosophized on the meaning and shortcomings of democracy. We made incredibly intimate and personal self-portraits from techniques of ancient art. All in the pursuit of producing a play that would conserve our world-view. I think this was my grade six or seven, I can’t be sure.
For production, we built masks and cytons (which are not togas) and our parents erected a ten-foot set, imitating the architecture we had gotten to know so well. We went to a nearby community production of a more modern translation of Antigone then dissected it enthusiastically and ruthlessly. The intensity of examination we brought to our production gave theatre it’s importance. Putting on a play was an expression that demanded as much attention, even self-sacrifice, as religion. Everyone’s work was entirely answerable to everyone else. And, in order to do it like the pros, we had to know everything! These are the building blocks of all noble pursuits. Even if the goal is ugly, it’s endeavor demands magnificent triumph—secret and broadcast—through imperfect practice and into realization. The route to heaven is difficult and familiar across disciplines.
Rehearsals included our own input on how the chorus choreographed their movement. One choice invoked a tearfully impassioned disagreement between my brother and I. I wanted us to cross our arms and unfold them on the line “beloved brothers.” He wanted us to open our arms and then fold them on the same line. Such drama. Art and religion are magnificently more precise than their reputation suggests. In both cases, the more insignificant a difference there is, the more important it becomes. This is why I gripe. What got us through the gnashing of teeth was the humble disposition demanded by our religion. In this case, my beloved brother’s more than mine.
Somehow, the director who agreed to work on this did not share the dogmatic zeal that drew us to the text. After the show my parents hosted a dinner party for the families involved. Two rooms away us kids continued to imagine and imitate early historic conquests until hearing the gradual growth of raised voices from the dining room. We knew full well that the adults of our homeschool group adored each other so the heat of the argument was arresting. Our director was completely on her own: two glasses of wine into a sea of well-intentioned Christian-conservatism. And she wasn’t gifted with the Christ-required humility to breathe and nod her way out of an argument. Judging by the size of it reaching our ears, we became disappointed to assume that our fearless director might have been, evil of evils: in favor of abortion, perhaps! Or maybe she “believed in” euthanasia. Or, God help her eternal soul, what if she wasn’t perfectly heteronormative? Mixing the admiration we had for our director with the realization that the world is so wide, I must have aged a year in those moments. For the better, I think. That was the last time she worked with us.
Much later, I ventured to bring it up with the dad who had taught us Homer that year. Apparently they had busied their dinner party with praises for her work on our production. Of course, to suggest that some art is good, even great, means that other art is not. The dining room wasn’t arguing hot-button topics of political morality at all. I’m told she couldn’t reconcile the notion that some art is better than others. How could you compare one creative expression to another? I’m told she was stalwart: by virtue of something being art, it is immune to any arbitration in it’s quality.
There is a reason acting is called acting. It is not standing still. And always breathe, if you stop breathing … If that account of dinner is true then it seems to me that our non-Catholic theatre director was more aptly fit for the job than anyone realized at the time. We must define our goals, criticize them, actively dig for the traditional routes to those goals, and then have the wherewithal to appraise successes that might not be consistent with the original goals. Indeed, one of us was more correct than the other regarding what we should do with our arms while saying “beloved brother” (me, obviously, ha!). Some art is better than others. Some religion too. We had to actively move through the motions to understand it though. Not stand still. The struggle between my beloved brother and I is all part of it.
There’s a lot I miss about attending Church. Stasis isn’t one of them. I’ve always hated walking into a room full of people who, by my attendance, are free to assume they understand me, my politics, my morality, my spirituality with it’s false lack of struggles. Theatre, on the other hand, provides the same ancient tradition, the dignity to humanity, participation in community, the responsibility to human rights, the “option” for the vulnerable, work, solidarity of peace and justice, stewardship of our space … or does it?
Ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, good theatre is tougher to define than good morality or even good spirituality. Despite the ancient history, theatre isn’t a plowed field of scholarship the way religion is. Because it is active and breathing, theatre is still figuring itself out. And, because it is still figuring itself out, it is closer to attaining some better approximation of those seven pillars of social teaching. It breathes. It acts. It lives. It tries. It fails. It fails better. Which is, perhaps, the true reason I have grown to prefer it. Religion isn’t doing these things. It could, perhaps. Could it?
I live in a small city that is more or less half way between Toronto and Stratford. Once in a while the earth might crumble on the deep edge of Shaw’s footprint here too.
Two of our fewer-than-five professionally producing theatre companies have work in Toronto this season. MTSpace, who has been touring more and more as they grow, just brought their highly aesthetic Amal back from the RUTAS Festival while Paradise tours in the Middle East. GreenLight Arts are wrapping up their show Will You Be My Friend at TPM in Toronto this week. They will have a co-pro with Tarragon later this season as well.
Our individual talent leaves the city fairly often too. After building KW Poetry Slam, co-producing a queer film festival, and performing and teaching like crazy for years, Janice Lee is a pertinent example of artists making an exodus. Countless others have given home less of a chance than Janice did. And I’ll be honest: coming back here to raise a family after my MFA was not the best career-move I could have made.
There’s a long and divisive saga to tell in the Region’s road bumps, failures, and nearsightedness in it’s attempts to retain a progressive cultural sector. And a lot of local frustration, I think, on every side of that conversation. Today, our audiences are small, our criticism is rare or nonexistent (though trying!), and our venues are chronically overbooked or prohibitively expensive.
But situated as we are, so close to Canada’s largest classical theatre companies, I think that audiences and artists alike want to see a certain production value represented in the work that happens here.
Here is a message to my local peers: I don’t care if the curtains are red or if the lobby is carpeted or if you can fly elaborate backdrops into a tower. I care about artful urgent storytelling. Put it in a rusty tin can and I’ll be happy if the play and performances are capable of making that tin can feel important.
Our proverbial godparents would agree: Shakespeare did not write for venues like The Festival Theatre or The Barbican (quite the opposite, importantly). Peter Brook gave the MTSpace their namesake when he told the world all they need is an empty space, and my own practice is more and more concerned with Jerzy Grotowski’s importance of the actor …
Of course, I’ll eat my words as the play I’m writing right now is turning out to be quite “big.” But rather than trying to fix our community why not fix my play?
I’m saying all this after reading an article about audience etiquette which piqued my recent thinking about creating art that is capable of fitting into a given container—rather than the other way around.
After producing a play inside a bar, I was just turned down an overly-ambitious application to the Chalmers Fellowship so that I could develop a kind of theatre which gives space for the audience to drink and sing and pick their noses. Unwrap those noisy candies, fart, and chat. (My proposal was impossibly big so I’ll adjust and re-apply later.) My little collective is named after a bonsai tree: something which, in nature, grows to the size of it’s container. Theatre artists work hard for their audiences and not the other way around.
Everything, however, still needs a little seed and soil …
As we struggle to find an empty space for cultural development here in Kitchener-Waterloo, I’ll argue the following to the grave: the container itself is not enough nuance to say anything that hasn’t been said. Immersive or site-responsive theatre, like post-dramatic theatre, has been around since Cro-Magnon started telling each other stories. It is just another vessel like those that Broadway and The West End have to offer. They’re all only any good according to how you use them—not that you use them.
Last spring GreenLight Arts produced my play, Touch, inside an artificially enclosed storage space behind a start-up inside a previously abandoned post office. It wasn’t easy for the audience to have to stare at each other as they sat about eight feet across in the round. But, importantly, Matt White’s careful direction built that element into the theatricality and meaning of the storytelling. To me, that intentional and artful use of limited means is perfect.
The question is -the problem- how do we grow? Where do we go from there?
I don’t love losing our best talent to bigger promises in bigger communities.
But change is percolating. And Kitchener-Waterloo is growing. Fast. Both in terms of population and gentrification.
Whether this change is progressive or regressive, artistically speaking, we have to create our city's own work. Of course, trying to be creative with a lack of accessible performance spaces, we will eventually be forced to repeat the same kind of theatre again and again. (I mean, the same could be said of Stratford, Toronto, and Broadway ... )
So! As our city grows, what do they want to see? What does our audience want to come to? How do our politicians want to be represented?
The ultimate point here: this city has forced us into the dexterity to really give them whatever will best utilize the resources available.
What do you want? What do you want? More of the same?
As for us artists, let's please not forget that, whatever the answer, we're sufficiently skilled to make it magnificent.
I had been thinking about opening night of Stratford’s Season with The Tempest for weeks or more. I was desperately excited to share a giant room with people I admire and then catch up with a few dozen well-dressed friends and acquaintances.
As we approached the Festival Theatre I naively thought that the crowd of bejeweled culture junkies filling the street was some kind of red carpet to-do. There was a pipe band tattooing across the grass, after all.
But a friend found us to tell there was a bomb threat and that the show had been canceled. I think of (Canadian) theatre as such a small and tightly-niche industry that it immediately felt absurd that the Stratford Festival’s season opening was important enough to be stopped by a bomb threat.
I’d go so far as to say that the general mood among the nearly 2000 displaced theatregoers was more amusement at the absurdity than fear or despair. At least from my vantage point.
I’m sorry to disappoint the radical who called it in but, Canadian theatremakers are all so damn busy that I think many were secretly thrilled to have a night off. Since I’d shined my shoes and clipped on some cufflinks for the night-out, since the weather was so miraculously heavy and light, since half of your favorite people in the country were less than a block away, what could one do but find a patio and pour a few dollars into the local economy?
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to witness it but I’m sure you heard tale of Martha Henry carrying the Prospero staff out of the theatre with her and then gracing her community with a speech from the play at the bar. Or of a group of students reading the play out-loud to each other in lieu of the performance.
During this little gift, I’m absolutely certain, the administrative heads of the festival were hard at work finding themselves—so to speak. From ticket refunds and transfers, unfulfilled catering, unfulfilled private donors, a closed Box Office on what may be it’s busiest night of the year, … I imagine the financial toll of the bomb threat might have scratched into seven figures for the festival.
I held fast to two other playwrights I’m honoured to adore and we found our own quiet table and (like everyone else in a way) set to work. Not at writing, obviously, but at discussing, fixing, inspiring, and helping. The mortar around the bricks of the craft. It keeps me standing and I’m so grateful.
There were a lot of people I was looking forward to seeing after the show. People I certainly would have seen. People I think of often but rarely ever see. People I want to smile, and hug, and share great news with. But, notwithstanding the loss of the performance itself, I probably had a much better night. A simpler night—but a necessary night.
Making theatre can be so disparaging. We constantly challenge ourselves to be vulnerable and then put the fruits of it in the way of many forms of rejection. But last night proved the inevitable: if you take a community that professionally moguls an expressive life from the ruins of their passion, and blow them with the most spectacular rejection, they’ll find a way to celebrate it.
I am, sincerely, sorry to report this to whoever called in the bomb. I’m sure they had their reasons. But thank you. We know what we're made of. But you gave us the reminder. We're made of a deep-seeded and relentless love. For the work and for each other. Thank you.
In the meantime, as the Stratford Festival’s creativity is challenged to recuperate, now is the time for you to buy a season subscription to your favorite theatre. They’re all doing their wild hard work for you. It’s all for you.
There are openings happening for Artistic Direction at:
Manitoba Theatre Centre
The Canadian Stage Company
They all want candidates with a certain length of experience leading a certain size of budget (as apposed to candidates who's most coveted skill is assembling the best team for artistic excellence). This is because arts funding is insufficient in this country.
As you read this, keep in mind that a major theatre in Berlin was recently occupied by protesters because they were concerned that the new leadership (formerly leading Briton's TATE Modern) was too commercial. TOO COMMERCIAL, I TELL YOU. I suppose the famously efficient Germans prefer development and mobility in risk. Bless their hearts.
With at least three major theatres basically looking for the same rare candidate, one of three things can happen:
- One of them will hire someone from Europe or America who already had basically the same job or
- A "retiring" AD will sidestep into one of these openings, effectively keeping the same job, or
- Someone will take a risk and offer a vertical move upward to a promising young(ish) Canadian.
More importantly, as pointed out to me by my friend Kendra, if these institutions limit themselves to hiring within the posted job descriptions, the only candidates to consider are mostly old white men.
I've got nothing against old white men. I plan to be one soon. But I hope that I'll be working hard and well under the leadership of someone who's experience and worldview is more urgent, more progressive, and more reflective of our precarious wobbles out of colonization.
If the large institutions that represent so much of our cultural voice took a risk and hired someone who has never managed a certain-sized budget, then they would be able to create opportunities to the identities that have never had them. I'm not talking about tokenism. I'm not even talking about representation. I'm talking about enriching Canadian art itself by diversifying the voices allowed to speak it.
And, as has been stated throughout the ether, hiring from outside the country communicates a lack of faith in ourselves.
Young(er) people are ready for the role. We're full of energy. We're not jaded by politics. We have fresh ideas. And we know how to be frugal. We know how to be frugal!
As a matter of fact, also pointed out by Kendra, Steven Schipper was only 32 when we was appointed AD of MTC. And Thomas Ostermeier only 31 when we started leadership at the Schaubüne (but then again, that last one's Germany, so ... ).
Of course, its not just young white men that I'm chiefly endorsing here. That's understood, yes?
I get it. Canada just lost the Magnetic North Festival due to financial constraints. We need a "sure thing" to take the helm. It comes back to our funding structures. And perhaps a cultural disinterest in being challenged.
But, finally, old white men are being challenged. At least a little bit. Maybe that has something to do with the timing of this exodus from artistic leadership. It is time to raise new voices. It is time to develop new audiences. It is time to widen the mirror that culture provides.
It distills to a single question: are major institutions like CanStage and MTC more interested in maintaining their own strong ballast above shallow waters or are they more interested in deepening the waters so more can sail through? Forgive me, I'm a writer so I think in metaphors. Let's try this: are they more interested in maintaining their own (financial) growth with someone whose done it all before or more interested in developing our national (cultural) growth with someone who should be doing it now? Which is it?
Edit: The Guardian posted this article since I wrote this blog. Regarding having some faith in ourselves, the heart of my worry is that Canada still has to learn from the experiences relayed here.
Edit again: The Canadian Stage Company posted their job description for the position more recently than this blog was blargh'd. It makes me happy and you can read it here.
I originally posted the following onto the social media pages of InterArts Matrix after a conversation about it with Isabella Stephanescue.
The decision of Coach House Books to suspend poetry publications will be more impactful than I think we will be able to measure. They're one of few Canadian publishers who print their own titles. This means that they provide an immediate mobility for authors to reach readers and are able to support authors ostensibly faster than other routes to paperback. And although poetry is rarely lucrative for anyone, it also means that authors can sometimes get paid faster for their work (something which we are extremely passionate about here at IAM).
Editorial Director, Alana Wilcox cites our "twitter world" for the changing direction of poetry in Canada. This is what worries me.
If you haven't noticed, I love twitter. But, although it gives us access to a million different communities and perspectives, it represents only one thin layer of our culture. Surely we can't ignore it after the astoundingly swift success of local poet, Rupi Kuar.
If I may, my criticism of Rupi Kaur's poetry is that it is young. Not a bad thing by any means. She is a young writer and I'm first in line to celebrate that. But she has such an ocean of room to grow. Also something to be celebrated. The problem of this has to do with the avenues of her success. She developed her readership on instagram where bite-sized, quickly digestible, poetry is Queen. Her lyricism and deceptively simple use of imagery do her all kinds of favours. But the medium that she developed her voice in did not encourage a close or vast interrogation of structure. In poetry "structure" means so many things!
I use her as an example because her age and her medium have created an entry point for so many non-readers of poetry to become readers. And writers! It's a great day for poetry! But as poetry (and Rupi, deservedly) enjoy this freakish hey-day the full gamut of the literary medium starts to disappear. Especially as the new readers she draws have little other context to discover the scale and variety of the canon.
Coach House Books' decision to put poetry publication on hiatus is not only a disservice to writers who now have nowhere to grow beyond literary magazines and their instagram accounts; it is a disservice to new readers who will now have less to discover.
Any artistic medium needs many rungs on the ladder to success. From a recital in your living room, to the platform of social media, to your first grant, to The New Quarterly, to Coach House Books, and then off to becoming The New York Times Bestseller, or what-have-you. That Rupi jumped from social media to NYT Bestseller does not mean that other writers will. Nor does it mean that they can, especially as granting bodies that make writing and publishing possible often don't care how many twitter followers you have.
Naturally, Coach House Books is a business and they need to keep the lights on. If their poetry publications are sucking more resources than providing then it must be time for a change. This might be an indicator for bodies like the Canada Council for the Arts to deeply interrogate their recent changes.
Coach House Books' first publication was a collection of poetry. They have published some of Canada’s most important and influential poets, including BpNichol, Gwendolyn MacEwan, Michael Ondaatje, and Anne Michaels.
Without Coach House, we wouldn't have access to writers like those. Nor would they have access to us. Because, frankly, their work is too robust to receive the attention it deserves if left to die on social media. As Wilcox says, we live in a "twitter world." And I love that world. I really do. But social media doesn't pay anyone for their work. It doesn't keep a hard copy for posterity. And it doesn't invite you to take time and slowly digest a piece of literature that deserves it.
Surely this "twitter world" is a reason to circulate poetry with a heavier gusto than to put it on hiatus.
We are being severed from a promising generation of writers and readers. I hope Wilcox finds better answers.
Is the poppy a symbol for remembrance day because of John McRae's poem? Or did he highlight the poppy over the fields because it was already a symbol?
I ask because it's not a very good poem.
For about ten years now I've felt conflicted and uncomfortable every remembrance day. I remember, a little less than ten years ago, attending the cenotaph at Waterloo City Hall where they had tanks and jeeps present, as well as soldiers, police, cadets, and veterans. The only unarmed of these groups were the veterans. Everyone else had their guns. I remember standing in the cold, looking around at the spectacle, wondering why the hell everyone showed up. Was it to mourn dead soldiers? Was it, really?
That year I wrote a controversial poem which you can find in my 2013 book, InSight (shameless, I know).
We read McRae’s poem every year as a recruitment campaign for the military. “Take up our quarrel … the torch be yours …” All Canadians memorize these lines before they’re able to totally understand what they mean. And then, if we are treating the poppy as a sacred symbol on account of that poem then the meaning of the poppy is the intention of the poem. “If yea break faith with us who die / we shall not sleep …” It’s a recruitment campaign.
Today is tremendously important. We must remember war. We must commemorate the dead. We must respect those among us who still suffer on account of their military service. But must we wrap it in a flag and feed it to our children with the unapologetic speed of bullets down their throat?
While taking time today to reflect on the shame and sorrow of war, please keep in mind that the anniversary of November 11th is a lie. We told ourselves that it was the war to end all wars. And, credit to the generations before us, I’m sure people knew this was a lie as they told it to each other. Of course no single war could end all other wars. But we maintain that lie by holding fast to the anniversary of the “end” of (a) war.
And then, celebrating what we muse as war’s ultimate end, we read McRae’s sloppily rhymed poem to tell each other that joining the military is an honorable life decision. That training how to kill people is somehow respecting those who were murdered by soldiers. It's backwards.
I struggle to help some people around me understand the work that I do. I am an award-winning playwright with an MFA from one of the top schools in the field. At any given time I have multiple projects on the go. I have been magnificently fortunate. But when I search for the language to explain what I do, the world seems to turn beige and retracts.
There is a much bigger conversation to be had around what the arts take from society and what they contribute in turn. This article is for the layperson. To begin to understand my perspective, here are some brief truths to start from:
Artists can make budgets
A short while ago a successful entrepreneur I know posited that private investors struggle to support the arts because artists don’t know how to build a robust budget plan. At the time I nodded my head, I think, trying to absorb the perspective of those with more financial power than myself. But, if you’re a professional artist, I’m certain you’re uncomfortable with my silence in this regard. That is because we make a new budget for every project that we do. I’ve written three in just the past couple months.
Leaders in the cultural sector know how to make small project-oriented budgets as well as large multi-year operational budgets. Otherwise, naturally, we wouldn’t have galleries or theatres or symphony orchestras.
Importantly, and probably what my friend meant, we make a very different kind of budget than a traditional entrepreneur does. I’ll talk about that further down.
But let’s unpack the last two bullet points at the top.
Commercially-driven producing models such as the Drayton Entertainment theatre franchise receives no public funding (as far as I can sleuth). This is because they present productions that have been developed elsewhere—often a long time ago—and proven commercially successful for financial gain elsewhere, by other companies, as well. To mount these productions Drayton does not have to hire artists for a development period to create the art and they do not have to hustle to convince their audiences to come see something unknown. This is a great model because it employs countless actors and technicians, it creates a gateway into theatre art for apprehensive audiences, and it brings Broadway-like shows to rural communities. Brava!
However, naturally, if all theatres produced with this model then there wouldn’t be any content to produce. Or, at the very least, it would all become exactly the same.
Arts organizations that focus on the development of new work typically have to split their income three ways: government grants, private donations, and ticket sales. Ticket sales almost always make up less than a third of any theatre’s budget. This includes such “giants” as the Stratford Festival, Shaw, and Soulpepper, as well as fledgling little upstart ensembles like my own little collective.
It is already beginning to make sense why the cultural sector does not thrive in the capitalist model. An organization might theoretically benefit from raising ticket costs (like Waterloo Stage once did here in my home city). But then they run the risk of alienating their patrons and, effectively, losing money (like when our Waterloo Stage permanently shut-down). So we apply for government subsistence.
When I do a creative project I’m usually employing between three and 10 people. A majority of the funding that I apply for pays for their time and expertise so they can put bread on the table. They are almost always underpaid. Very little of the funding I apply for goes to expensive-looking elements like fancy projections, web-content, costume design, etc. Most of that stuff is the fruit of a returned-favor or an in-kind donation.
Isabella Stephanescu, the Artistic Director of The InterArts Matrix, puts it simply: “artists are money-poor but resource-rich.”
So why are my artist-employees underpaid?
Public funding in Canada has a healthy level of competition. There are more artists applying for funding than there are dollars to distribute. This means that we have to create projects that target the wishes of those funding bodies. Which is easy enough and often a wonderful morally just thing. It also means that, in general, we have to create projects that are cheap to produce. There’s a reason I wrote a one-woman-show during my master’s degree.
The other, more affecting, byproduct of competitive arts funding is that we usually receive less money than we ask for. I’ve never received more than 66% of what I’ve requested from a public funding body. Hopefully that’s only because I’m a wee 30-year-old artist-baby still learning how to make it happen. But, then again, being 30 puts me in one of the OAC’s priority groups …
This is where the skill of creating a robust budget comes in. In order to apply for any public funding we have to submit a detailed budget plan. The sum of expenses (most of which is a handful of fair wages) has to equal the sum of capital (much of which is public funding). After the budget is built and only 60% of the applied-for funding received, the numbers will no longer cancel each other evenly.
Naturally, there are ways of anticipating this in order to still pay everyone fairly. I can build a gratuitously expensive production element into my budget plan and then omit it once the funding arrives so that there remains enough to pay everyone fairly. But this is hard to anticipate and creates false demands around what you envision your project to be.
Why doesn’t the government allocate more funds to it’s cultural budget?
The short answer is because it isn’t sexy to politicians.
Let’s again return to my bullet points at the top of the article.
£850million is not insignificant. Contrary to popular belief there can be a monetary return on culture. This stat, however, comes from a country with more public arts funding per capita and a population of ticket-buyers and investors who are more culturally prepared to support the arts. Canada doesn’t have the same depth of tradition to export culture as successfully as the United Kingdom.
Art and culture are also a vital element in creating a rich local economy. I hope to produce a play inside an independent business soon (stay tuned). That business will benefit from patronage directly supplied by my audience. Even cultural events more traditionally outside of independent businesses create a return to the community. They employ people, they bring traffic to city centers roughly around mealtime, the develop tourism, etc!
Cultural events are also an important part of industry retention. Citizens want something to do. The more employable members of a community—those with a greater spending power—have no reason to remain in a city that is not enriching them.
Of course, more funding would, in time, supply us with that depth of tradition required to lucratively export culture like the UK does. Perhaps the gap between our current reality and that possibility has a lot to do with the incorrect assumption that money disappears once it is invested in the arts.
Could the government invest more in art and culture?
I struggled to find a digestible comparison of government subsidy by sector that even bothered to include the arts. But this five-minute video provides an elegant account of the budget Trump proposed during his electoral campaign. It shows us how much the Obama administration allocated to each sector against how much Trump’s administration does. So, conveniently, you can see a budget on the political left (or centre, perhaps) as well as the political right. Arts shows up as you approach the 4-minute mark. I strongly suggest you watch it.
In other words, yes. Yes, I believe governments can afford to invest more into art and culture.
It boils down to a question of how government wants artists to be spending their time. My friend Viktorija Kovac, artistic director of Cosmic Fishing Theatre, generously encourages my creative practice by saying that if I spend my time not writing plays, then we all lose. Thanks, Viktorija. Unfortunately, I’ve put triple the time into being an arts administrator than into being an artist over the past two years. That’s because I need to be paid for my contribution to society; I need to put bread on the table.
The biggest single reason I’m sitting down to write this is that my brain is struggling to bounce between projects and write the appropriate applications for the appropriate opportunities. I need to lay it all out or trim my workload in order to create more focus. Or get this gadfly off my neck …
Wait, how are artists spending their time?
That’s right. I’m not creating art nearly as much as I am enabling it. The tragedy is that doing the crucial work of enabling it is usually unpaid effort. I typically get paid when the administration done in my “free” time is successful. And it isn’t always. Let that sink in.
This is part of the reason that you’ll see a lot of artists supporting the idea of a Universal Basic Income. The most recent edition of Good Work News argued that a Universal Income provides opportunity and incentive for precarious workers (34% of the workforce) to stabilize into better contributions to society. Artists don’t need that incentive because we already have it. We would contribute so much more to society with a socially-guaranteed safety net underneath of us. We would create more culture and we would have broader audiences.
There is also an argument that, with automation and the continued disappearance of blue-collar labour, our economy will soon demand a Universal Basic Income in order for the healthy functioning of every private sector but innovation.
I thank God for the tactless upset of our more-senior artists. When the National Arts Council announced that they are allocating their incredible funding increase that came with Trudeau’s government to digitization, there were shots fired. Canadian cultural hero, Michael Healey, had an almost regrettable field-day on twitter.
We are not opposed to progress or innovation in our ancient field. In fact, we trip over ourselves to provide it. The controversy is that we discovered that what little money supports our field is also threatened by increasing digitization. We are the same as everyone in that respect and it is terrifying.
Oh, lowly be the feckless state of culture in this aspartame-beige universe.
Not so! Please don’t misunderstand me!
The people who work for arts councils and funding bodies are full-aware that their income is more comfortable and reliable than the people they support and, therefore, continue to “show up” to the job with such a gusto to make any entrepreneur blush. It’s not their fault that they can only give me two-thirds of what I need.
Thanks to a healthy mixture of public funding and private support Canadian theatre has invaded Broadway beautifully this year. Come From Away is making millions. Soulpepper took a Critics Pick from the New York theatre scene. Independent Canadian productions regularly bring awards back from the United Solo Festival or the Edinburgh Festival. There are success stories and, to some degree, I am grateful to be one of them.
Let’s just not take for granted: they needed the financial support in order to get there. More importantly, we don’t always need to get there. As long as your local artists are supported, so will you be. Canada has an incredible mass of amazing artists. If you’re not seeing them then, be assured, there’s a reason for that.
But I’m not interested in that kind of work.
How do you know?
I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that a major theatre in Berlin is currently occupied by protesters who set out to reclaim the building from its administration because the citizens are concerned that the programming is too commercially driven! This is happening as I write …
Public funding enables art that does so much more than capitalism demands. And I am grateful to live in a country that has a little.
So, Ciarán, are you poor?
I am so rich in so many ways. I have been magnificently fortunate. And I am hell-bent on sharing my wealth with you. That is why I've been taking up the space in my brain usually reserved to write plays, perhaps too much, with thoughts about developing my city's cultural sector. I want to make this a place where someone can be an artist and not have to do much else with their time. I admire the Symphony Orchestra for hiring so many full-time musicians! Perhaps the best way I can do that for my city is to simply write plays. But it's impossible to know. And I'm still a little fledgling. Thanks for asking though.