Sunday, September 4, 2011

First-Person: Rick Miller on the meta-realities of his HARDSELL

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. 
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.”

“Breakdown inevitably leads to breakthrough”
Marshall McLuhan

I’m the father of two girls.  I’m also the father of many shows.  Though my biological offspring will always trump my creative offspring, they are intimately connected, always informing each other.  For better or for worse, my life and my work are like intertwining threads of my DNA, and how much control I have over the evolution of each has been a constant preoccupation for me. 

Lepage’s process struck a chord with me: it seemed so much more reflective of life and the natural world.

In 1992, I was in my 2nd year of architecture at McGill.  A teacher brought in a guest speaker named Robert Lepage, a theatre creator who I had never heard of at the time.  To illustrate his creative process with Theatre REPERE, Lepage drew two dots and some arrows on the chalkboard.  One dot represented a show like “Phantom of the Opera”, where all the energy, time and resources are applied inwards to a pre-destined product.  In contrast, his company applies its energy, time and resources outwards, taking the creation to unknown, exciting places.  

Lepage’s process struck a chord with me: it seemed so much more reflective of life and the natural world.  Several years later, I even based my architectural thesis on it, and everything I’ve created since then (both with and without Lepage) has more or less evolved along these lines.  In retrospect, this free-flowing, never-ending process seems rather strange for a confessed control freak like me.  But I now realize that what allows us the freedom to evolve and explore internally is a great deal of external control: a ticking clock, a watching eye, a loving hand.

Sometimes I feel as shamelessly partisan about myself as Stephen Harper is about the Conservative Party. Everything is a sell. Everything is marketing.

These themes of evolution, freedom and control have resurfaced in my latest solo play HARDSELL, co-created with Daniel Brooks.  He and I had some success with Bigger Than Jesus, which I’ve now performed all over the world in many languages.  HARDSELL was about another kind of religion: the religion of marketing.  Specifically, it was about ‘The SELL’ and ‘The CELL’, and how we seem to have evolved into these ‘cells that sell’ in order to survive.  As a theatre artist, I spend most of my days trying to market myself and my shows.  Sometimes I feel as shamelessly partisan about myself as Stephen Harper is about the Conservative Party. Everything is a sell. Everything is marketing. 

HARDSELL tries to break through this culture of illusions by breaking down an individual and his place in the world.  That individual, bien sûr, is moi.  Playing mirror images of myself – righteous Rick and cynical Arnie – I try to face inconvenient truths about my complicity in the brutal world of the HARDSELL, a world without boundaries where everything and everyone is a commodity for sale.  The play begins with Rick sermonizing about how 

“corporations spend billions of dollars to buy the services of some of the world’s most educated and creative minds, who then focus their considerable skill and attention on isolating and penetrating our minds, and the minds of our children, so that when these children grow older they will become, like us, consumers of the products provided by corporations, no matter what the ecological, biological or psychological consequences.”  

Later, Arnie confronts Rick: “But isn’t your company WYRD Productions also a for-profit corporation?” 
To which Rick replies,

“Yes!  Because I want to be in control.  I don’t want a board of directors telling me what I can and can’t do.  I don’t want to spend 3 months every year begging for corporate sponsorship or sucking up to government granting agencies for a few thousand bucks when I could make the same money doing MacHomer for a weekend in Albuquerque.  I choose to stay in control of my life and my business and not to be anybody’s puppet.  I own 100% shares of my for-profit corporation, and my board meetings are me staring in the mirror and deciding what I want to do next with the money I make.  This is not an anti-corporate, anti-capitalist show.  I’m a capitalist.  I believe in the flow of capital, in trade, in freedom of choice, in competition, in incentive, in entrepreneurship, in responsible private ownership, in individual empowerment…  I believe that the profit motive does not prevent good from being done in the world.  But when quarterly shareholder earnings matter more than the interests of customers, of employees and of society at large, we have a big fucking problem.  When America’s leading industry is the manufacture, distribution and packaging of bullshit, we have a big fucking problem.  When the financial sector has sucked away most of the world’s money and talent and thrown it into a big casino where vultures trade in death and destruction, we have a big fucking global problem.  This is not a fucking game.  Left to their own devices, unaccountable, unregulated, uncontrolled, the only word most corporations knows is ‘more’.  Growth for growth’s sake.  The ideology of the cancer cell.

Arnie’s cynical voice then sinks Rick into a kind of existential crisis: what does personal freedom mean in a world without external control?  The world of the HARDSELL has no ticking clock, no watching eye (unless it’s a hidden camera) and certainly no loving hand.  What can we do with our “hour on the stage”?  Does it matter?  Does anything matter?  

 Everything I struggle with in reality somehow weaves its way into my creative work.

You may be wondering what this has to do with theatre, but as I said before, my life and work are reflections of each other.  Everything I struggle with in reality somehow weaves its way into my creative work.  With Bigger Than Jesus, Daniel and I had a relatively clear perspective on the subject, and that clarity is manifested in the writing and performance.  With HARDSELL, however, the subject often felt out of control, as did the show.  Why? Because in this mesmerizing world of marketing, we can never truly have perspective, as we are never on the outside looking in; we are cells that sell to survive.  

In this latest evolution of HARDSELL, Arnie is defeated – a cynic stuck in his ‘hard cell’.  Righteous Rick, meanwhile, manages to break through with some clarity and hope.  His choices – my choices – have consequence and I still have some measure of control over who I am and how I live in the world.  I can choose to find meaning, to create community, to be a good father, a good husband, a good neighbor, a good citizen. I can choose to hold governments accountable with my votes and corporations accountable with my dollars. I can choose to be an inspiration to others and cause as little damage to the world as possible.  And I can reach out to you, the theatre community, and encourage you to take control of your work, especially when arts funding is more and more threatened.  Add a ticking clock, keep a watchful eye and place a loving hand. And once you’re in control… sell, sell, sell!

RICK MILLER is a Dora and Gemini award-winning actor/writer who has performed in five languages on five continents. For 3 years, Rick hosted ABC’s hit primetime series “Just for Laughs”, and Entertainment Weekly has called him “one of the 100 most creative people alive today”.  As artistic director of WYRD Productions, he has created and performed shows such as Art?, Slightly Bent, Into the Ring and the worldwide hit MacHomer.  The two latest WYRD Productions have been co-creations with director Daniel Brooks and Necessary Angel: Bigger Than Jesus and HARDSELL.  Rick is also a frequent collaborator with Robert Lepage, having worked on such plays as Géométrie des Miracles, Zulu Time (co-created with Peter Gabriel), Lipsynch and on the film Possible Worlds.  Most recently, he starred as Brian Mulroney in the satirical film “Mulroney: The Opera”.  Rick lives in Toronto with his wife Stephanie Baptist and their 2 daughters.  

For more info on HARDSELL or other shows, please visit the Wyrd Productions site or contact Rick Miller.

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