Tuesday, August 6, 2013

After Dark, August 6, 2013

...and why we want it
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

It began with an interview between the Globe and Mail's J. Kelly Nestruck and Soulpepper Theatre boss Albert Schultz.

The salient quote from the article, is this: 
"...when it comes to challenging audiences the way Canadian Stage’s latest artistic director, Matthew Jocelyn, has done of late, the impresario [Schultz] seems to be of two minds. 'The fact is that companies are struggling just to survive and find an audience – the way not to get them is to do weird-ass shit,' Schultz says at one point. But later he bemoans what he calls the 'museum tradition' in Ontario theatre: 'There’s a preciousness about the way we approach certain texts that I think, both as a director and an actor, I would love to see change and shaken up – and I don’t just mean in this company.'"

A most fascinating Twitter conversation followed among Michael Wheeler, an artist and theatre activist, Michael Healey, the renowned playwright, and Holger Syme, a professor of theatre literature.

When he reads something (a season brochure, an article like Nestruck's) he gets the bee out of his bonnet by writing.

Let me tell you what I know about Mr. Syme. I suspect as a teacher he's pretty good because I know as a writer he's brilliant. One of the great vulgarizers, his blog has some of the most lucid essays I've read on the state of theatre, particularly in Toronto. When he reads something (a season brochure, an article like Nestruck's) he gets the bee out of his bonnet by writing. 

He has written about Soulpepper before but this time he puts it in a nutshell:
"Perhaps Schultz — if he is actually talking about Canstage — has Jocelyn’s more adventurous efforts, like Fernando Krapp, The cosmonaut’s last message, or The Game of Love and Chance, in mind. Calling any of those things 'weird-ass shit' strikes me as extraordinarily vanilla, though. And is it even true that there’s no audience for weird theatre? Although I’d say Toronto rarely sees anything that’s even approaching weird-ass-shit territory in terms of form, we get plenty of 'weird' content: every other SummerWorks show would surely qualify. But those don’t seem to lack an audience."

And later:
“...'weird-ass shit' is a pretty perfect definition of what distinguishes art from commerce or kitsch. Art is weird. It’s challenging. It’s meant to reshape your perception or your thoughts. It’s unsettling. It refuses to conform, in big ways and small. And sometimes, it’s just shit. Because along with the refusal to conform comes the right to fail. You can’t have art without failure."

What all the discussion on Twitter finally led to is the lack of subsidy for new and young creators and it is precisely these creators we want to succeed because, as Syme notes, "...our theatre is shockingly, depressingly, and ultimately detrimentally middle-aged."

I think of all the productions which stayed glued to my brain. At the time they were all "weird-ass shit". A Woyzeck with puppets, a play about a teen murderer where the young actor wandered about the audience with an axe, a solo about a phone sex operator...

And money? Yes, money is a huge problem. But let me share an anecdote. I interviewed a lighting designer about a brilliant show she'd just done. She laughed and said, "I can only imagine what I could have done with a much bigger budget." I thought about her answer for a long time and realized that what set her big-theatre works apart from that small-theatre gem was imagination. She was an artist who could solve that problem of lack of money with talent.

Ultimately the lack of great "weird-ass shit" is a lot about money, but it's biggest asset - what makes it weird-ass, and surprising and sometimes astounding - is that it is imagination in its rawest, most electric and electrifying form.

For me that is what theatre is about.

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