This One Goes to Eleven: Michèle Lonsdale Smith

Michèle graduated from the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in the late ’80s. Since then she has devoted herself to her craft in every aspect of its forms, as actor, teacher, director, writer, and producer. She is the co-founder and artistic director of Lyric School of Acting and Lyric Stage Project, with whom she just finished directing the company’s first two plays. She recently adapted A Winter’s Tale for the stage from a screenplay which she co-wrote and helped develop, and which was awarded Outstanding Canadian Feature at the ReelWorld Film Festival in Toronto this past May.

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1.) Describe your present condition in one word.

Uninhabited.

2.) What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t before directing these plays?

That there’s so much more to know, to say, to do.

3.) What is the responsibility of today’s theatre?

I don’t know the answer to that in general terms. I know what I would like my theatre experience to be. Engaged in a LIVE moment-to-moment visceral spectacle that stimulates my mind, body, and spirit and takes me to a new world I’ve yet to experience, only a few feet away. In the process, to be surprised, even jolted, entertained, and to have my (our) condition mirrored back to me no matter how ugly or dark and find beauty, joy and inspiration there.

I believe we’re smack dab in a renaissance of theatre globally. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking and in reality the theatre is, and has always been, in a state of flux, I don’t know. But in any event, I dream of seeing as many people going to the theatre as easily and as matter-of-factly as they go to experience other moving art – movies, television, concerts. So I suppose it’s incumbent on all of us (dare i say duty) to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

4.) What was your biggest challenge in forming a theatre company?

The will to keep going.

5.) Where will Vancouver theatre be in 5 years?

The dream of course is that we will have ourselves a little village of theatre spaces and companies sprouting everywhere, and one day find ourselves in the midst of a vibrant and indigenous version of off-broadway. There’s certainly a sense that it’s on its way there.

6.) Posit the artist’s value in our current society.

Mandatory. Limitless. Life-changing.

7.) What is the balance between the artist and the critic?

I think the critic has to be an artist. And not a frustrated one. But one who sees his/her writing (review) as a piece of art and therefore, we hope, has some degree of integrity. If you believe the critic to be an honest and intelligent one, and that his/her motives are truly about the elevation of a certain standard, then it doesn’t matter… negative or positive – is it constructive? Does it help in the growth of an artist’s future work? But you know, like most artists, I loathe 99% of all critics.

8.) Do you have a unifying theory on actor training?

I think actors have to learn to teach themselves to grow. the success of an actor’s development is wholly dependent on how well they know themselves and the world around them, how much they love to learn, and whether they’re constantly evolving as human beings. Life is the best teacher an actor will ever have and it’s forever at their disposal.

And so I believe the best formal actor training mimics this process. It supposes that the actor is intelligent enough to cultivate his/her own theories, technique and depth of heart over a lifetime, and should do so while working with many teachers, many techniques, whose ideologies are fundamentally based in truly experiencing oneself (ones humanity) within all of it. In the end, that gives us an original actor, a unique voice… an artist.

9.) What are your top 3 must-reads for the developing actor?

Impossible to name just three. Here are just seven. Of course there are many more dissertations on acting development and a million plays and millions of books that seemingly have nothing whatsoever to do with acting. I don’t think an actor can read enough….of just about anything. If the book you’re reading is about life…it’s about acting too.

. The Art of Acting by Stella Adler
. Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen
. A Dream of Passion by Lee Strasberg
. Sanford Meisner on Acting by Sanford Meisner
. An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski
. To the Actor by Michael Chekhov
. The Intent to Live by Larry Moss

 

10.) What is the relationship between TV/film and theatre in terms of the actor’s ambition?

This of course is highly dependent on the individual actor and what his/her dreams and career goals are. I think often actors are motivated by the allure of the medium of film and television, rather than the work they actually get to do within that medium. Certainly, an actor’s exposure can be incomparable in film/TV and much much more money can be had. But the work experienced by an actor on stage often rivals most work, most actors will ever experience from film and TV.

I think theatre is a necessary component in an actor’s repertoire and growth as an artist, and I believe it’s necessary to continue to work on stage throughout a career, regardless of how much or how little TV and film the actor has done… “a li’l bit of this, a li’l bit of that.”

It occurs to me that some of whom I consider to be the best film and television actors working have an umbilical-chord kind of attachment to the theatre.

11.) What’s next?

The beach.

This One Goes to Eleven: Ian MacKenzie

Welcome to the inaugural edition of a continuing series on The Next Stage. When I started this blog back in March my intention was to offer a glimpse behind the curtain of a neophyte theatre company mounting its first production, a chronicle of our formative period to hopefully drum up some interest and inspire conversation of a kind that I had been looking for on the craft of stage art today. What I have found since is that there are a lot of people who want to join in that conversation; smart, talented, and passionate people with opinions that deserve to be heard. This interview series, then, is the natural evolution of this site’s objective, and its intention is to motivate even more discourse, debate, and enthusiasm for the contemporary theatre by hosting the ideas of artists devoted to its perpetuation.

The idea for these interviews is one that I borrowed (well, stole, actually). I was thrilled to discover that there are many other theatreists using this medium to communicate ideas, and they taught me a lot about its potential for cultivating a larger community of theatre ideologists. In this regard I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Theatre is Territory, the Praxis Theatre’s blog from Toronto, whose 10 Questions series became an immediate addiction for me and continues to provide illumination on the current state of theatre. It seems only fair that the author of the site and the inspiration for this series be the one to kick things off over here on the West coast edition. Ian MacKenzie is the director of marketing for The Room and a true man of letters.

Ian MacKenzie

1.) In one word, describe your present condition.
Hypoglycemic.

2.) In as many words as you’d like, describe the present condition of Toronto indie theatre.
There’s a tremendous sense of optimism among independent theatre makers in Toronto. Our peer group is starting to win more grants and awards, we’re making better work and securing prestigious internships. At the same time, many of the community’s ideas about theatre are maturing. We’re getting more access to resources. And it looks like we’re finally in a real position to start challenging the status quo. All signs that a new generation of theatre makers is coming in to its own.

One thing seems clear: what worked for the previous generation of theatre makers is not going to work for us. The golden era of Toronto arts funding is over. There’s more competition than ever for consumers’ arts-and-entertainment dollars. And there’s a brave new world at our doorstep that we need to try to make sense of in our work. There’s lots to be done, for sure. But I think people are doing a great job of responding to these challenges.

There’s also a trend toward inter-organizational collaboration. Toronto’s various independent theatre companies are sharing actors, resources, ideas. It feels like we’re listening to one another and developing a model for doing business that is relevant to the realities of our situation.

In terms of arts funding, Toronto is at the bottom of the barrel. (Toronto’s per capita contribution to arts is just $14.64. Compare this to Vancouver’s at $17.71 and San Francisco’s at $86.01.) But, whatever, we’d be fools to let that stop us.

3.) What is the major obstacle in Toronto to the popularization of indie theatre?
A lack of specialization. We’re a group of generalists trying to sell our wares in an economy that privileges specialists. I can see how it happened. Theatre attracts artists – who are, by their nature, creative. We like to make things. So we make our own posters and programs, do our own marketing and PR, produce our own shows, throw fundraisers, do our own makeup and costumes, design our own sets, run our own lighting boards and video projectors . . . and pretty soon there’s no time left to focus on the tasks we were originally trained to do. The work suffers – the shows do poorly – and then we’re back at the beginning again, designing posters for the next show nobody outside the community is going to see. Sometimes it’s easier to do it all yourself than it is to run around finding trained specialists to cover your organization’s basic needs. But this is short-term thinking and it’s no way to run a business.

There is a host of reasons and explanations as to how we got into this predicament. And it’s probably well worth talking about them. But my primary interest is in figuring our way out of it. How do we attract accountants and trained marketers to our industry? Why do we assume that lawyers and producers aren’t interested in working in independent theatre? Have we tried talking to them recently? I think the onus is on us to answer these questions and to reverse our community’s drift toward professional generalization.

When we start to nail every aspect of the production cycle, we will win the full engagement of our communities – and a new legion of spectators and participants will follow.

4.) What is the role of the critics in the proliferation of a theatre movement?
From what I understand, theatre critics are writing for their readers, not the artists whose work they’re critiquing. So as far as theatre artists are concerned, the role of the critic is to market their show. It’s a shame that it’s come to that – and I think it’s become a more adversarial relationship than it needs to be. I hate the idea that the critics are going to make or break your show. It’s a straw man. Make a good show, market it well, and it will matter to you a whole lot less what the critics say.

On the other hand, mainstream theatre critics, generally, could be doing a better job of championing the little guy of independent theatre. We need reviews of our shows, sure, but we also need arts reporters to bring news of our other accomplishments and failures to a wider audience. Some critics do a great job of this. Others seem stuck in an outdated, review-based model of arts reporting.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to generate buzz surrounding our own work. Once we’ve assembled our armies, the critics will have no choice but to react and report back to their readers on the status of our staggering genius.

5.) What do we, as artists, owe to the theatre scene in terms of choice of content?
Art exists to challenge the status quo, I really believe that. So in developing content, art makers need to think about influence, we need to explore new ideas and, I think, the work needs to be guided by a sense of compassion. That’s why we don’t kill kittens on stage. You may be able to make an art argument for it, but it’s simply not a compassionate thing to do. So we find another way to say it.

If we’re challenging the status quo (whatever that means to you) and letting compassion be the tie-breaker on close artistic calls, we’re doing our jobs. It’s a form of pragmatism and I think we owe it to ourselves.

6.) What is the relationship, if any, between TV/film and theatre in Toronto?
That’s a huge question. I don’t have a cohesive answer for it. The production methods of these forms has some overlap, especially for actors. I know theatre actors get paid relatively well for appearing in television commercials. But I’m at a loss to come up with any unifying theories on this right now.

7.) Where will Toronto theatre be five years from now?
In the early bloom of its renaissance.

8.) The blogosphere is a potent new weapon in our battle for patronage. Discuss.
I hope so. Blogs can be an effective way of communicating complicated messages in an easily digestible format. The theatre community has fallen short in terms of really opening up theatre and theatre ideas to the general population. Look at film – everyone’s an armchair film theorist. But people who aren’t regular theatergoers simply don’t have the language to talk or even to think about theatre. This lack of language alienates them from the form. Blogs can deliver theatre language and ideas to a wider audience, which helps improve theatre literacy, generally, which, in turn, makes people more likely to come to our shows and give us their money.

9.) Through your immersion in the blogging community, what do you know about theatre now that you didn’t a year ago?
Pretty much everything. Praxis Theatre’s “10 questions” interview series gives me the opportunity to follow lines of inquiry that I simply did not have the resources (or the inclination, for that matter) to follow previously. So I ask my peers, “Do you think conservative, right-wing politics are somehow fundamentally at odds with the arts?”, for example. And I thank God they have an answer, because if you’d asked me that a year ago, I wouldn’t have had a clue.

Also, reading other theatre blogs has opened me up to whole new worlds of theatre-related discourse. I read about a dozen theatre blogs regularly and probably another dozen intermittently. So, if you detect a note of dogma in the tone of my writing, it’s probably because I’ve absorbed so many new ideas this year – I’ve had to find concrete ways of organizing them in my head.

10.) What are your top three must-reads right now?
I read for a living, so the idea of wading through pages and pages of long-form copy on my spare time doesn’t really turn me on. I do a lot of shorter-form reading online:

I. Scott Walters at his blog Theatre Ideas. He’s a drama professor at the University of North Carolina and one of the first theatre bloggers I came across. I’m a sucker for his professorial tone. Also, I didn’t go to school for theatre, so having access to a good drama professor is a real pleasure and a competitive edge. This quote from one of his recent posts sums up his offering nicely:

“Most theatre artists don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to graze in all kinds of books, and write, and ponder. They’re just trying to keep their heads above water! To my mind, academia ought to be the R&D for the theatre. We should be trying things out, coming up with ideas, documenting performances, and spreading the word about what is new and exciting. And we should be putting this into readable, accessible forms so that the exhausted artist can grasp the ideas easily (as opposed to the jargon and obscurity in academic journals, for instance). To me, blogging is a great way to do that.”

II. David Cote at his blog Histriomastix. It’s become a bit of a theatrosphere cliché to mention David Cote in the same breath as Scott Walters – they’ve publicly traded barbs on numerous occasions. But watching a couple of heavyweight, contemporary theatre thinkers going at it online is a sight of considerable spectacle. Sometimes I feel like Gilligan standing between the Skipper and the Professor while they’re arguing. I’m like, “He’s right. No, he’s right. Oh, you’re right, too.” And then the Skipper hits me with his hat and says they can’t both be right.

David Cote is a theatre critic at Time Out New York. His writing has a directness to it that has had a big effect on my own writing. I, like many young writers, started out with an abundance of confidence and a scarcity of skill. As the years passed – and I grew to more appreciate the challenges of being a good writer – my confidence waned, and the hollow tones of apologetic diplomacy crept in to my voice: “Here’s an idea, you know, but it’s not the final idea – I mean we could change it if you want.” Cote inspires me to reconnect with directness – and maybe to shelve the diplomacy every once in a while. His ideas about theatre are presented with clear-minded insight, creative flare and a sometimes-brutal honesty.

He’s also a question-heavy writer – “Where’s the political theatre?” – a trope I’ve shamelessly adapted for my own writer’s toolbox. Because, you know, questions are the answer.

I had the pleasure of interviewing both Walters and Cote recently, and in both cases, I was blown away by their generosity (of time and ideas), facility with language, and passion for theatre.

III. The letters section of my local arts weekly, Now Magazine. I don’t laugh much, but sometimes letters to the editor just make me howl. People are so clever!

11.) What’s next?
An aggressive campaign of compassionate localism. Whatever your battles are – the appalling practice of factory farming animals, declining theatre attendance, global warming, tasteless oranges – chances are they have something to do with the 20th century’s unprecedented centralization of power.

The debate between capitalism and communism is over. Capitalism won. The great political argument of our time is between centralization and decentralization – global and local, if you like (that’s John Livingston). This, incidentally, is why theatre is poised for its renaissance: It has a natural resistance to commodification, which prevented it from being centralized in the first place. (Unless, that is, you follow the argument that film is the natural evolution of theatre, in which case theatre has been successfully commodified and practitioners of its traditional methods are doomed.) So theatre, in many of its forms, remains a remarkably local pursuit.

I’m optimistic that theatre can be a major player in unifying communities and asserting a localist agenda in which average artists are recognized with fair compensation for their contributions to the local economy and the greater good.

So what’s next? We all need to step up, start buying locally manufactured goods when possible, stop commuting so much, stop letting geo-political borders determine our levels of compassion and engagement, and commit to making our communities as local as they can effectively be. It doesn’t mean turning our backs on the benefits of globalization, just making sure we fight tooth and nail in pursuit of the greater good.

Papa’s Got a Brand New Blog

Are two blogs better than one? I guess I’m about to find out. I’ve been accepted to the writing staff of Beyond Robson, a candid street level newsblog site that must be widening its readership, as they’ve hired a bunch of us newbie writers over the past week. (We’re actually on a probationary term, I’ve got 3 posts to prove myself. No pressure. Glurk.) The site aims to report on events and concerns that are beyond the scope of the major media outlets, which, given the steaming piles of fertilizer that pass for dailies in this town, should leave an ample supply of material to choose from. I’ve actually been reading it regularly for some time now, it impressed me early on with its advocacy of indie theatre, it features fair and informed reviews by writers who sound like they actually wanted to be there. So you know what I’m going to be using my new soapbox for. Mwah-ha-ha-ha…all part of the plan…

Seriously, if you’ve got a play to promote let me know, I’d love to consider it for BR. Send me an email at Simon(at)beyondrobson(dot)com with the details. The demographic of the site is the same one that we want to coerce into seeing more theatre, the 20-35 year range. Which, I just realized, puts me a year too old for my own demographic. Which is okay I guess, I already go to the theatre.

Beyond Robson is part of a national company that has similar blogs in Toronto and Montreal by the way, if you want to check out the respective street scenes there.

Theatrical Catechism

I’ve been thinking about the responsibility of the theatre a lot lately. Or rather, our responsibility as theatre artists. I think I get theatre’s obligation, it’s to entertain and educate, and in that order, right? It’s the question of what each of us owes to the medium and to its audience that’s got me to net-hopping for opinions. Unsurprisingly, there seem to be about a billion differing view points on the subject, ranging from the need to politicize the theatre, to making it hip for the youngsters, to, well, just about everything in between. It’s obvious that this is a highly contestable issue, not to mention completely subjective, so I’ll narrow down the parameters of the question: what is our responsibility to theatre to make it more accessible, so as to extend its reach beyond the existing audience? To make it trendy, if you will. Given that every playwright, producer, or company is doing work that expresses the issues and commentary that they wish to communicate to the world (which is, in my view anyhow, as good as any a definition of an artist), how much consideration to material should we give in order to reach beyond the choir? Or, to put it simply, what the hell do the people want from us?

Number 8 in Scott Walters’ recently published ten-point directive [see the third link above] states that “there is a place for preaching to the choir” in theatre in order to strengthen and reinforce its values, and that their song would then become propaganda for your cause. But the choir is going to love your sermon no matter what the subject, and with a full throat sing on-key regardless of its content, because that’s their job, they’re the converted. I’m interested in the song of the congregation, the ones that don’t actually have to be there, but show up because they’re curious. If we can make them sing, albeit perhaps a little leery and off-key, then we might be approaching the responsibility of the public stage here. But first we’ve got to get them into the pews.

I think we have to write/choose material that is of our time, material that speaks to our experience now, be it observational relationship humour or biting political criticism, whatever floats your boat. We don’t have the luxury of a guaranteed box office buzz here that allows us to put up all those standards that the choir loves to belt out, we’re not going to baptize a new generation of theatre lovers on Streetcar or Godot or True West. These are great plays to be sure, and I get it if you’ve been dying to play that part since that scene in class when it touched something so deep inside of you that you knew that you just had to enact it one day, but until we find a way to get the workaday residents of this city off the couch and into the small theatres, we really are just preaching to the choir, and that is simply not going to be enough to make a popular theatre culture viable. I posit that great writing and committed performance isn’t enough to do that unless the subject matter strikes enough of a resonant chord with today’s audience to make them come back for more. All the great playwrights became great because they were commenting on their own period (yes, sometimes through historical allegory), and that is what made audiences line up for their next play. It’s time to stop riding on the coattails of past glories until we become glorious ourselves. I really want that to happen soon, because I’m fast coming up on the right age to play Eddie in Fool for Love, and I’ve always wanted to play that part.