Must-Read Theatre Blogging…

This is great, great, great…Ian at Theatre is Territory has published a simply wonderful interview with University of Minnesota theatre prof and Broadway alum Charles Nolte, who grandly holds court on the state of theatre, reminisces about the heyday of Broadway, and dishes hilariously on working with the likes of Henry Fonda, Jack Palance, and Charlton Heston (!). It contains the single greatest observation I’ve ever heard on my hero, Sir Ian McKellan, as well. Click on through, you’ll be glad you did.

This One Goes to Eleven: Brad Lepp

“My dear Minerva,
It was not the best of times, it was not the worst of times, it was Ottawa.”

On June 9th of this year, at 7:45 pm, Kristian Bruun as Frank Dickens (son of Charles), launched the first of forty cross-country performances of his play Dickens of the Mounted with this line. Beginning in Montreal and ending in Vancouver on September 16, Dickens quickly snowballed into one of the must-see Fringe sensations of the season, I was already hearing buzz about it during its next tour-stop in Toronto. The play is a creation of (the Toronto-based) Mr. Bruun and Brad Lepp, who also directed. It is an adaptation of the 1989 book of the same name by Vancouver humourist and playwright Eric Nicol (87), a wonderfully arcane story soaked in booze, charming prose, and Canadiana; of the sort that makes you remember that this country actually has a history to it, and that you’re allowed to be proud of it.

I was lucky enough to be in attendance for show #40, the last of the tour and coincidentally the same show attended by Mr. Nicol himself who, as it turned out, was seated in the front row not 3 seats down from me. He was introduced to us all by Mr. Bruun following the show and, through our applause and with the aid of his cane, rose to shake the hand of the man who had brought his book to life. It was a delicious moment, and one that I’m proud to have shared in. As Brad came down and joined them in what I’m sure was the beginning of a long discourse of mutual admiration, we all filed from the theatre feeling like we’d shared something precious that afternoon. Theatre rocks.

I went home and filed my review, then sent it on to Brad by way of a thank you. He was good enough to share his insights with us on taking his work through the entire Canadian Fringe circuit, and on theatre in general. Brad is a teacher, producer, director, writer, and dramaturge, working with over a dozen companies across Ontario and recently with Maple Leaf Theatre in Tokyo. He is currently the Theatre Coordinator at the Walmer Centre Theatre in Toronto, and is the Artistic Director of Beyond Chutleigh Productions.

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

Seated.

2.) In as many words as you see fit, describe the current state of Toronto indie theatre.

Fractured. There’s a lot going on. A lot of young ambition, struggling talent, and versatile artists. There’s a lot going on but most of it is unfocused. There are very few producing houses, and few companies ever make it to producing more than a couple of shows. There is little artistic growth, because there isn’t the money, support, infrastructure or market to warrant more ambitious larger productions. Energy is funneled into just getting by. Almost everyone has a “day job” so the air of professionalism suffers and, unfortunately, I think that is noticeable – not by the quality but by how we hold ourselves. So much of it is theatre practitioners doing theatre for themselves – and I’m not sure if that’s because we’re not connecting with a larger urban demographic, because we haven’t found our niche in our society or whether theatre has gone obsolete today (I hope it’s not the latter). And so all of this makes the struggle to create very draining and tiring. There are so many artists that just seem burnt out…until their next “must do” project comes along and they sound from somewhere deep within the spirit to push on.

That’s my rant. Sorry.

3.) Please compare Vancouver with the rest of Canada’s Fringe circuit.

This was my first trip to Vancouver so I was extremely excited about performing at the festival. I came to love the city, the areas we explored and so many of the people we met. Unfortunately it will always be in the shadow of the Edmonton Fringe, just prior on the circuit timeline, and so expectations of the artists have been raised. Of the festival, a lot has already been said of its struggles and mistakes. I understand organizations go through rough patches and need to try new ideas to revitalize and re-envision itself. It was more the attitude that we were getting from the festival (and this may just be due to some personalities, because we met many wonderful staff members and volunteers there), but the tone was one of being unapologetic – when they changed our performance times without telling us, when they moved our venue last minute, when they set up the competing Encore series, Encore audiences not having to buy memberships, etc. Why would an audience member take a risk, go across town to see a show, where they have to buy a $5 membership, plus ticket, when they can stay on Granville [Island] at the encouragement of the volunteers, and see a show without hidden charges? There were just a lot of frustrations, one after another, where the artists found it very difficult to remain positive and create good work.

There needs to be a sense of collaboration, between the festival organizers and the artists, that they are in fact working together, not the one against the other. This isn’t just Vancouver, other festivals as well have this split – in fact only Winnipeg and Saskatoon made any effort of sitting down and asking the Artists how things went and where they could improve. Specifically the Vancouver festival needs to support itself as a whole (put everyone on a level field) – either spread out to venues across the city, or move it all onto Granville Island. It also needs to do a better job of letting the city know what’s going on (same problem as with Montreal and Toronto).

4.) What is the responsibility of Canadian independent theatre?

An artist’s responsibility is to themselves, I think. To push themselves to always do the best work that they can. To be honest to themselves and to their audiences. I think theatre has an important role to play in our society, but independent or not, I think that’s the same – to explore our relationship to the world around us, to our environment, our society, each other, the human condition. To ask questions and to tell stories.

5.) What was it about this book that made you see it as a potential play?

My roommate left it on our coffee table one day and I thought, ‘isn’t that “neat”’. I wish it was something more profound. “Charles Dickens’ son was one of the first Mounties” There is the “hook” factor, the intrigue. Truthfully, ideas were already spinning before I had read it. But I wasn’t let down by the book – I was really drawn in by this historical misfit, who goes to the ends of the earth to try and find a place to belong, and still can’t get out from his father’s shadow. It had everything: action, comedy, drama, Canadiana. I’m a history nut, and so I loved the idea of fusing obscure history with intriguing storytelling. And of course it doesn’t hurt that you’re dealing with material from one of Canada’s great humourists; Eric Nicol, who is also a playwright, so I think it inherently has a dramatic flow.

6.) Describe your approach to developing the adaptation.

The adaptation was quite difficult, truth be told. It’s a longish book, full of interesting tidbits, political satire, and personal insight. But it was episodic in structure, so that was lucky. We really had to fashion our story line against this material, and cut away that which didn’t help move it along. So for us, we had to first begin with specifying what exactly this story was about. Subtlety is okay in novels, but not on stage. What was our arc? Where did our story begin and where did we want it to end off? What was the main message, premise or theme that we wanted to get across? After months of correspondence between Kristian Bruun (the performer and co-adapter) and myself, and long hours transcribing text, our first draft was 86 pages long. At 2 minutes a page or so, it didn’t take a genius to do the math and realise that we were in trouble. So we spent a week just sitting, reading and editing. Just when we thought that we couldn’t cut any more, we’d do a timed reading and realise we had to keep slashing. But that was good – it’s nice to work within confines – in a business of variables, its nice to have a constant to play off. For us, we knew it had to fit into an hour slot at the Fringes. We also knew that it was going to be a one person show – partially for practical purposes of touring – and because it allowed us to stay close to the letter format of the book. And so we rethought the scenes – what needs to be said, what can be conveyed with a gesture or a look, trying to move the letters out of the past tense into real moments on stage – this is an example of when it was very useful to have the performer involved with the adaptation process.

You know it was a real struggle to “kill the baby” as we referred to cutting draft after draft, but looking at the script now, I really can’t see what we would add back in. Its like you don’t realise you’re overweight until you loose the fat. We got it down to 28 pages, with a running time of 62 mins.

I think the reason I am proud of this piece is that in its adaptation and staging and performance it encapsulates many of my ideas and feelings about theatre. It told a clear story (we were one of the few fringe shows with a narrative, not a slight, just an observation); a range of emotions as it spanned from subtle tragedy to coarse humour; a certain fluidity of time, space and characters; it had little set, but used everything to its fullest, hopefully engaging the audience in the creative aspect. A reengagement of theatricality for storytelling.

7.) What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t before the tour?

How much talent is out there. I was blown away by most of what I saw on tour. By how simple a show can be – most of those shows had little or no set. I found it funny that our “minimalist set of 3 trunks and 2 planks”, was one of the largest sets on tour. About how much personality plays into performance. By how generous audiences can be. I have produced many shows before, but it was a good reminder about how much leg work goes into getting ahead. I have a deeper appreciation for the ‘shelf life’ of projects, and how to make those investments pay off. And of course, boil your pitch down to two lines, that’s all the time you have: “It’s the story of the worst Mountie in Canadian history, who happened to be Charles Dickens’ Son. (and if they are still listening…) It’s a true story. Based on the bestselling book by Eric Nicol. Its been getting great reviews across the country, playing right over there at the ________ theatre, and so please keep us in mind if you’re looking for a comedy.” I don’t want to think how many times I said those words…

8.) What can we do to better market our theatre to a new audience?

This is really tricky. I think it’s about educating our society, ensuring that they know that theatre is an inexpensive, entertaining and approachable option. So many large theatres just take it for granted now that they need to have an outreach and community development department. It’s now part of the way we do business. Get them young – put Art and, more importantly, Critical Thinking back into our education system. I think there are certain challenges and opportunities that present themselves with such an ethnically diverse urban population, and so we’ll see a handful of new leaders take the forefront of engaging these new communities. But ultimately independent companies need to work together, we need to have the organization and infrastructure in place so that companies, large or small, are supported and built to last, so that longer partnerships (artistic, financial, media) can be invested.

Media needs to let the city know what’s going on – but I don’t blame them, they inundated by hundreds of requests, and have only limited resources themselves. There is so much out there that we’re competing with, not only cinema and TV, but concerts, stand up, comedy, dance, opera, music. I know I don’t push myself and go support dance as much as I should. But that’s okay; theatre just isn’t everyone’s thing. As long as people have a ‘thing’, that they’re getting out there, engaged with an artistic industry, then I’m not too upset.

Ultimately what I found satisfying about the tour was bringing theatre down to basics, and that included marketing. Handing out handbills, pressing palms, meeting people, chatting with them a bit, asking which shows they liked, what they didn’t like, and making personal connections. I think this is where the future of our industry is, what we can offer that others can’t, a personal interaction between artist and audience. It reminds me of something I learned working with Maple Leaf Theatre in Tokyo – how much time and energy was spent wooing audience members. Artists would go for coffee and dinner with audience members, get to know them; but once they became your patron, they were very loyal and would come see everything you did. And that was very important, often getting you more work if you had a larger following. It might mean we have to work harder now, but ultimately that human touch will keep us connected to our audience.
But “I didn’t know there was a theatre festival going on” was something we heard often on tour, especially in Vancouver. Our billets visited the fringe the first time by seeing our show, and were so thrilled that they cancelled their vacation and instead went to 5 or 6 other productions. And we’d spend time afterwards talking about them, some were great, some a little disappointing, but like they said; for $10 what’s the risk? And they’re excited about telling their friends and going next year… sometimes people just need a little push to go, and human connections do that.

9.) What inspires you as a theatre artist?

Passionate characters wrestling with difficult questions. Honest, sincerely real moments.

Side note: What pisses me off is arrogant artists who think the sun rises and sets with Brecht, have a gratuitous approach and don’t respect the audience and their choices.

10.) What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Three writers I enjoy sitting down with:

John Mighton
David Young
Michael Frayn

Three titles I’m dying to do:

Shadowlands
Mary’s Wedding
Quiet in the Land

11.) What’s next?

You know you never ask an artist that. They usually cover the fact that they don’t really know, by spouting off two dozen whimsical projects that they once upon a time mentioned to another artist dreamily over coffee.

Sarah Kane is my Kurt Cobain

Up until last week I hated Sarah Kane. Thought she was anathema to the theatre and pretty much civilization in general. Well, as it turns out, I’m an idiot. An idiot who just learned a great big lesson in judging a book by a single chapter, and had his already firm belief in the power of live performance fortified. It’s been a good week.

I first came into contact with SK a few years ago while making my way through a compilation of established plays just for fun, as I am wont to do. I was having a good old time until I ran headfirst into Blasted, which was lurking somewhere in the middle of the volume. I innocently dove in and read on with growing revulsion. This play seemed to me not so much written as excreted, and caustically placed there alongside works of obvious distinction, no less. I felt as if I’d been ambushed, tricked into reading a nonsensical vomiting of someone’s problems onto paper. Surely no one had actually produced this…this…thing, had they? Fascinated by my strong reaction, I did a little research. Sarah Kane: b. 1971 Essex, d. 1999 by hanging herself in a bathroom at London’s King’s College Hospital. Leading member of the childishly monikered In-Yer-Face theatre movement in London that “shocked” the theatre out of its boring political rut. Evangelical upbringing. Lifetime depressive. Well, there you go, that explains it. I tossed Sarah Kane out of my life, which had no room for problem theatre, nor for filth for filth’s sake.

Fate disapproved, however, and brought Sarah back into my life. Over at the LSP, all the members of the ensemble are encouraged to bring in plays for group readings and production consideration at any time, and a couple of months ago one of the guys did just that with a work he’d become fascinated with. Ech. Blasted. Seriously? Fine. I suffered in silence through the read and most of the post-read discussion until, inevitably, came the dreaded “you’re uncharacteristically quiet Si-guy, what’s your take?”. My take? Vile, pornographically violent, heavy-handed, pointless, production heavy, heartless, simplistic garbage from an angry person with a selfish agenda. Thanks for bringing it in, though. Bah. Humbug. Moving on.

Stars aligned. Planes shifted. Portals opened, whatever. I was to review a play called 4.48 Psychosis, by Sarah Kane. Oh, yippee. The night arrived, along with pouring rain, a pounding headache, and the expected comps not waiting at the door. $40 lighter and 4 pounds wetter, I sit to await curtain, head in hand.

I walked from that theatre transformed. And saddened, and wiser than when I went in. Sarah’s final work is an anguished howl of pain and suffering that is utterly beautiful in the revealing of its author’s torment. The grace and ferocity of the writing is exquisite. A tortured poet who could not bear the life she had been given, she invited us into it with this piece of writing, gives us a private tour of the horrors of it, and then, with nothing left to write about, ended it. The juxtaposition of such a selfless act with such a selfish one is a jarring meditation on art that I haven’t yet begun to deal with, mostly because it scares the shit out of me. But I feel that I know a couple things now that I didn’t before: I’ve spent time in the mind of a clinically depressed suicidal and have an better insight and understanding of it (I move through the east side differently now because of it); I’ve seen the power of art forged from the truest, most private parts of the artist; and I know that one play is never a true barometer of the skill of a playwright. Won’t make that mistake again.

And I know that artists who speak their truth and write from their souls can live forever, no matter how short their time here.

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Windy City Wisdom

“Art is not a victim. An eighteen month old diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia is a victim. A family losing their homes because of war are victims. Artists are not victims. Non-profit organizations are not victims; though, if you read many fundraising letters, you’d think they were. Many believe the arts are dying, because we tell them that. Arts organizations have become a collective boy who cried wolf.”Jay Raskolnikov

I cannot put together a better argument for the importance of theatre blogging to our future than to show how easy it makes it to access essays like this. Pulling the reality of the responsibility and the truly selfless work required of this art form out of the outdated and hipster-intellectual-cred image that it has acquired is the single greatest benefit of this platform. With your help to pass this stuff along to those who you know that care about this stuff, theatre may finally lose its cerebral “mystique” and its misuse as an ego platform and start communicating to what it was always supposed to: the gut of the community.

Theatre is Dead, Long Live Theatre

Right, summer blogger break is officially over, as indicated by the pissy weather out of the dining room window, so it’s time to resume my diligent blogging duties, instead of hanging this site on the interview series alone. Thank you to everyone who checked in during the summer, which has been one of many revelations, theatre-wise. People, we need to talk.

The theatre here is stagnant. I’m not breaking any news here, and I know I talk about this all the time. As a matter of fact, lots of people here talk about it all the time. And talk. And talk. It’s time to do more than talk if this is ever going to change. It’s time, if you will, to act. So let’s break the problem down…

1.) What do I mean when I say that theatre is stagnant? There are several groups and companies in town that are working hard to put good theatre up, right? Indeed there are, God bless them. And we all have the same number one problem: how to get our houses as full as possible, so we can make a profit, so we can put up another play. I’ve yet to hear anyone complain that they keep turning too many people away. If we get enough people out to our shows on a regular basis, not only could we put some money back into our companies, but everyone involved could get paid for their time as well. Wouldn’t that be something? But the single hardest part of mounting a play is getting an audience of people that we don’t know personally in the seats and their money in the shoe box, that is, the enormous number of people who don’t have the word theatre in their list of entertainment options. The problem is not only getting our marketing in their face, but convincing them to spend the time and money on our little thing that they know nothing about, using only our enthusiasm. This is, incontrovertibly, our number one problem.

Now my key point about this issue is this: this is not a new problem. This has been the problem in Vancouver for years and years. And yet we keep plugging away, show after show, using the same marketing tactics and theatres and programs and street cards and posters and fundraisers…and theatre doesn’t get any closer to the mainstream, to a larger media, or into the consciousness of the city outside the choir stalls. We’re spinning our wheels. We’re running around within a model that doesn’t work, and it’s been given more than it’s fair chance. It’s time for a new model.

2.) What’s the new model? I have absolutely no idea. But, but, I’m pretty sure that the answer lies within the theatre community, or rather, strengthening ties within that community. It’s not that big. We’re not in direct competition with each other. And we all love theatre, with the kind of verve that can only be described as infectious. If we get behind each other, communicate with each other, and support each other, it will cast a net over the entire city that will create such a buzz that everyone will want to know what all the fuss is about. That’s how this city works, it’s fueled by trends. From Critical Mass to pole-dance classes, cool experience spreads virally here when people start talking about it. The groundwork has been laid for theatre to be Vancouver’s next big trend, it just needs us to push it out of the darkness and into the light, and it will stay there, it’s theatre for crying out loud, the greatest communion of humankind to its universe that’s ever existed. It’s bigger than my company, or your company, it’s necessary, in a way that no other form of art is. It gets us talking. Let’s start by talking amongst ourselves.

3.) Prove it. Fine. I will. I have personally had friends come out to our shows that have come up to me afterwards and said “dude, I’m gonna be honest. I only came out tonight because you’re a bud and I wanted to support your shit. But seriously, that was awesome. I thought it was going to be boring and preachy and over my head, but that ruled. That’s theatre? I will see anything you guys do.” Many friends. And I hear the same story time and time again from other theatre people I talk to. Vancouver is a latent theatre town, it loves it, it just doesn’t know it yet. Getting the word out to it is a responsibility we all share.

But really, the proof’s in the pudding. And the pudding last year came along courtesy of Hive, or as I call it; the future of Vancouver theatre. Please observe…

There it is, Vancouver independent theatre working in harmony to create what could be the single greatest theatrical happening ever in this city. The irascible Colin Thomas of the Straight had this to say: “Hive blew my mind. It’s one of the most exciting artistic events I’ve ever experienced…I relished everything I saw. This evening will be the stuff of legend.” (Click here for the full review.) The movement’s already begun.

Let me put it to you this way: if your company is comprised of 12 artists telling people about your play and they tell 20 people each, and half of them tell two people, that’s 480 people that have heard about your play. Now, if there’s 12 other theatre companies of the same number telling the same amount of people about your play (and you about theirs, of course), 5760 people that have nothing to do with you have heard about your little production, and the exponential buzz marketing starts from that number (which is completely arbitrary and produced from about the lowest figures I could justifiably use here). I’ll hand out your street card to 20 people, easy.

I don’t have any answers here. All I know is that I love what I do, and I’d like to do it for a living. I think it’s possible. What do you guys think?

This One Goes to Eleven: David Jordan

In taking on the unenviable position of Vancouver Fringe Executive Director, David not only managed to put together an outstanding festival in the face of a venue-disrupting civic strike, but he also weathered a shit-storm of controversy about the Fringe’s decision to try out a new idea to raise awareness and pay down its debt. Oh, the temerity – obviously there’s no room for experimentation and new ideas in indie theatre, let’s just keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. Yeesh.

Congratulations on a job well done, David, and thank you for all your hard work promoting the most essential and disregarded art form in Vancouver.

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

Recovering…from my recent bout of Fringe.

2.) In any amount of words, describe the condition of the Vancouver indie theatre scene.

I think there’s a lot of creative energy here – a lot of people suffering to put innovative work on the boards.

3.) How did you come to a post in arts administration?

I started out acting (Isn’t that what gets us all into this mess in the first place?), but later found my calling as a director. So I did a couple of degrees, directed a lot of plays and along the way I gathered experience in fundraising, grant writing, producing, publicity, and filling gaps…the Fringe was a natural fit for me. Its such a vibrant and essential part of theatre in Canada. I’m passionate about the role that the Fringe plays.

4.) What are the top 3 things you now know about indie theatre that you didn’t before heading up the Fringe?

I’m really still learning about the scene. In many ways the Fringe is part of and not a part of the rest of the theatre scene. I’m working to try and bridge the gaps.

5.) What was the biggest obstacle in mounting this year’s Fringe?

Getting sleep.

6.) What was your proudest moment at this festival?

Seeing a line up out the door for people waiting to buy beer at the Fringe Club…that and hearing the crowd respond to our first act at the Opening Night Gala from backstage.

7.) Any words of advice for prospective Fringe artists?

No. Anyone who participates in the Fringe comes to table with passion and determination. These are the essential ingredients.

8.) In terms of marketing, where can local companies improve throughout the rest of the year?

I think everyone can profit from cross promoting each other’s work – that’s what makes the Fringe wheel go around. I know it’s more difficult to organize outside of a festival, but word of mouth works. Theatre is old-fashioned that way.

9.) What would you like to see more of on Vancouver stages?

Spoken word. I think we have some world class talent here that I would like to see cross-pollinating with the theatre scene. I also love the proliferation of puppets that are working their way into plays.

10.) What are your top 3 theatre reads?

The Empty Space – Peter Brook. I can’t say how much that book affected my understanding of what theatre is and why we do it.

The Making of Modern Drama – Richard Gilman does a great job of contextualizing the 19th and 20th Century, which is where most of our theatre conventions, habits and obsessions come from.

Endgame – Samuel Beckett. A true masterpiece.

11.) What’s next?

2008 festival planning started last week.