…and now a word from my new editor:

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Toronto-based humans and theatre makers Ian Mackenzie and Simon Rice (both of Praxis Theatre) have started a new blog called The New Optimist.What’s it about? Good question. Check it out and see.

The blog’s editorial department also includes Vancouver-based playwright Simon Ogden and Dubai-based photo-journalist Megan Hirons.
Apparently, everyone has agreed to swear a lot in their posts. So that should be good.Check it out here.

…any questions?

“The revolution in theatre needs to happen at the business end of the stick: an army of Arts Admin rebels so furious with the injustice of the current creaking theatre apparatus that they lead the march to a new model. A model that empowers artists to ask the kinds of questions we need artists to be asking. And theatre can retake its rightful place as a valued moral compass for the communities it serves.” – Ian Mackenzie

There it is ladies and gentlemen, three sentences that answer any questions you may have regarding how to move ourselves forward. They are lifted from a Theatre is Territory comment thread discussing Praxis Theatre’s 101 Sentences About Theatre series. Please check out the rest of the comment here, Ian’s wisdom on our future is simply essential reading.

This One Goes to Eleven: TJ Dawe

TJ is probably the hardest working man in Vancouver independent theatre, and undoubtedly one of its most talented. His one-man shows are consistently sold out at the Fringe, both here and internationally. An acclaimed performer, writer, and director (One Man Star Wars Trilogy, among others), he was given the Jessie Richardson award for Best New Play or Musical in 1998, which is just one of his many theatre and comedy related awards. He shows no sign of slowing down.

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

Recharging.

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

Small. Underfunded. Struggling. Gutted by the everpresent need to stay available for an audition for a mustard commercial. Gasping for an audience. With the notable exceptions of the PUSH festival and the Fringe. So there’s hope…

3.) How does the health of the independent theatre here compare to other cities across Canada?

A little feeble. But everyone says that, across the country. I’ve never heard a theatre person in Canada (independent or otherwise) say “the scene here is thriving! There’s work and funding and audience enough for everyone! And there are so many excellent plays being put on!” Canada’s generally not a nation where people go to plays. Why is it so absurd to imagine two roommates sitting on the couch after a hard day’s work, saying: “Man, I’m exhausted.” “Me too.” “I need to blow off some steam.” “Yeah.” “I know! Let’s go to the THEATRE!!”? Answer: because so much theatre is irrelevant. Or dull. Or both. Theatre’s doing fine in francophone Quebec, though. They have their own hugely well known actors. And directors. And writers. And comedians. And people actually go see them. Regular, normal people. They genuinely want to, and look forward to it. They have their own popular TV shows and movies, too. So it’s possible! It’s happening within our own country!

4.) What effect do you see the Fringe having on indie theatre throughout the rest of the year?

Not much. How many fringe shows get remounted? How many companies that produce a fringe show do anything the rest of the year? The fringe lets you do it cheap and easy. And brings in an audience. Proving there is an audience. And there are people capable of doing good work. Why can’t we do that the rest of the year? Hard to get funding. Hard to find spaces. Hard to bring in an audience. And why aren’t people from the bigger theatres recruiting people from the better fringe shows? Are they? Maybe they are. The Back Kitchen Release Party made the Arts Club mainstage season. Lazy Susan had a remount in the Here Be Monsters festival. The Drowsy Chaperone is still running on Broadway. The One Man Star Wars Trilogy is still touring the world. It can happen. But I rarely hear whispers of there being artistic directors and agents and producers going to see fringe shows. There are pretty sharp lines dividing levels of the theatre world’s hierarchy. Maybe that’ll get better. How? Same answer as the answer to the next question.

5.) What does indie theatre here need to be doing to popularize itself with Vancouverites?

Knock people’s socks off. Produce work so powerful, so good, that people can’t help but grab their friends by the lapels and demand they go see it. I’m still naive and idealistic enough to believe talent and quality can break through the thickest walls.

6.) Can you quantify your approach to playwriting?

I try to be interesting. Do something that hasn’t been done. Something that would keep me engaged if I were just some guy walking in off the street. Something you don’t have to be a theatre insider to get. Keep it simple. Tell the truth.

To answer the question from another direction, I harvest thoughts and conversations. I find regular experience and the things that naturally come out of people’s mouths much more interesting than guns, vampires and political conspiracies.

7.) More gifted comedy writers and actors are produced by Canada than any other nation. Why is that?

We’re a nation of outsiders. We grow up in the shadow of the most influential culture in the history of human civilization up to this point. We’re raised on American movies and TV, showing us aspects of life that often don’t apply to us, advertising products we often can’t buy, wowing us with contests we often can’t enter. We’re wooed with a dream that doesn’t necessarily apply to us. Makes us outsiders. Artists are outsiders. Comedians are outsiders. Comedians in the states very often come from minorities for the same reason.

8.) Any pearls of wisdom for someone trying to make a living through stage work?

Be in it for the long haul. Do what you can on your own, without waiting for someone to let you work. Find like-minded people. Put up some kind of regular gig. Get in front of audiences, even small ones, as often as possible. Explore your ideas. Come up with your own stuff. Do something unique. Self-produce. Tour the fringe. The more you do the better you’ll get. The more you see the more you’ll learn. Examine why you’re in this in the first place. Is it to make money or to create art? If you had to choose between the two, which would you take?

9.) Given a time-traveling DeLorean, what would you tell a young TJ Dawe just setting out on his career?

Find artists whose work means something to you – writers, directors, actors, musicians, composers, painters. Then get your hands on everything they ever did. Even the bad stuff. Look for patterns. Get a sense of how their brains worked. Read biographies of them. Look for interviews online. Find out who their influences are. Do the same with them. Keep this up for the rest of your life.

10.) Besides The Power of Ignorance, what are your top 3 reads for the aspiring theatreist?

Anything that inspires you as an artist. And that’s a highly personal thing. Three books that have inspired me are The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, John Barleycorn by Jack London and The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. Another huge one: The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Riso and Hudson. It’s about personality types. Brilliant. Changed the way I look at life.

11.) What’s next?

My new solo show is called Totem Figures – it’s about personal mythology – which faces, which stories, which ideas, which physical details would be on your own personal Mt. Rushmore, your own Sgt Pepper’s album cover (or in this case, mine). I’m touring the fringe circuit with that, Orlando to Vancouver. I’m also involved with four other touring fringe shows. It’s gonna be a motherfucker summer. And I’m trying to write something full-length, with an actual cast. Busy days.

Dishpig, a Pick of the Fringe play from last year that was co-written and directed by TJ, is running at the Havana until  January 19. See the Listings section for more details. 

This One Goes to Eleven: Galen Olstead

Welcome back gentle reader, it is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to a true Vancouver theatreist, Mr. Galen Olstead. Furthering his life-long commitment to theatre, Galen is the artist relations manager at the gorgeous Kay Meek Center in North Vancouver, a relatively new facility that boasts a 500 seat Main Stage and an intimate 200 seat studio theatre. He was kind enough to offer his view on the state of the union from the other side of the Lion’s Gate…

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

Simmering.

2.) In as many words as you choose, describe the current condition of Vancouver theatre.

In the midst of a sea change; I see a number of the prominent players moving on. The East Cultural Centre and Vancouver Playhouse have both undergone creative/administrative shifts. This can also been seen at the provincial level in theatres such as the Belfry which recently has undergone a turnover in Artistic Directorship.

The scene currently offers what I feel is a disproportionate number of remounts. Where are all the writers? It’s probably more the case that I need to get out more.

3.) What trends do you see emerging in North Van theatre?

The North Shore seems to be split between three mainstage theatres, each making significant choices about their style, and in turn are beginning to define themselves in significant ways.

Family entertainment is definitely drawing the largest audience. While the North Shore has a vibrant theatre and Arts community, it caters to a family centered community bias.

There does however seem to be a smaller focus on developing work that appeals to a more explorative audience. Presentation House in particular stands out as the venue that is helping to bring original/alternative theatre to the North Shore.

There’s a personal hope that with the arrival of Ian Forsythe we will see the arts here begin to be focused on a larger scale. At the very least it shows a real commitment from the City/District of North to step things up a notch.

4.) In terms of choosing material, what should Vancouver theatre be
concentrating on in order to attract a new audience?

I think it should just be all the things it actually is. It’s pretty diverse and can be honest when it wants to.

5.) What do young theatre companies here need to do to popularize their art form?

Advertise. You simply can’t do enough to tell people about what you are doing. So many artists are getting the word out so poorly that they are killing any hope of being noticed before they have even presented anything. It’s equally frustrating to see groups that are presenting (in my humble opinion) crap – but seem to find consistent audiences. Despite their lack of artistic merit, these groups have learned how to advertise.

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

Puppetry. Children’s Theatre. Original Works. I would love to see more mixed-media. I am overwhelmed to see people that I knew when I was younger making work that resonates with me – people that innately take risks – T.J. Dawe, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop, Britt Small

7.) Why is theatre important here?

For me this is an odd question because I cannot imagine a community without theatre of some kind. Maybe the question is meant to ask what Vancouver has to contribute to theatre. I’m not sure.

8.) Any pearls of wisdom for young companies looking for production space?

I hear Chilliwack has lots of room…less condos. Honestly – seek until ye find. Space is dire and there seems to be no real solution – even groups with budgets are finding it hard to get space. There are any number of ways to approach it – look to larger groups to see if they have space outside their schedule, time sharing with other smaller groups, – at this point even office space becomes an option.

9.) What is your most memorable theatrical experience?

Passing out in front of a packed audience during a Beckett monologue…

10.) What are your top three theatre reads?

The National Theatre in London has had a great success with an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse – so I have been trying to locate anything written by him.

I love the website www.ubu.com – it has such weird things that you never get to see or hear in your daily travels.

A book I am trying to lay my hands on is Rehearsing With Gods. This is a collection of essays on the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont which has had a long history of political activism through theatre (on a communal farm no less – I can’t think of anything more leftwing!)

11.) What’s next?

Vancouver on the international stage.

Theatre is Process

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Happy New Year, all y’all. I sincerely hope 2008 brings with it a fulfilling creative boon, and your art is seen by as many people as possible. Oh, and that you make some money at it, too. Not that that’s what it’s about, but it would be nice, wouldn’t it? Just a few more coppers in the coffer, to continue to make art? Not a lot, just enough, is what we in the theatre hope for, and it’s amazing to me that a small profit is considered a great success in indie theatre, fie, breaking even is considered to be a success. Truly, this is a labour of love.

Well, that’s not good enough for me. I want to make a living at it. I don’t need a Lear jet or a pet tiger or anything like that, I just want to afford to do nothing for a job but creating theatre, and not just for a little while in a humble flat eating KD, but for a career alongside other artists with similar aspirations. Last year brought with it a revelation for me about the type of people who choose to make art, and I’d like to share it.

Artists in the dramatics break down into two distinct categories. There are those who are process-oriented and those who are end-result-oriented. Process-oriented artists love all the work that goes into creation; the rehearsals, the re-writes, the mis-steps. They feel that they can only figure a thing out by getting it wrong, by falling on their face. A lot. For this artist it’s never really done even when it’s done, because it could have been better, there’s always some clearer way of telling their truth. They’re hardly ever satisfied. End-result-oriented artists want to get the work in the box and move on to the next. They tend to be impatient with the rehearsal process and want to cut right to the meat of the thing, get it done, and step back to examine it, learning from the finished product.

I do not claim one of these personality types to be superior to the other, but I’ve realized that it is the former that I prefer to work with. I find the exploration of the idea more interesting than the idea itself, the journey more satisfying than the destination, if you will. As a gross generalization I would say that you would find PO artists gravitating to theatre, while film and television tends to attract the ERO artist. The overlap is huge of course, due to the similarities between these media, with residents of both camps working within each discipline (especially actors). I just find them a little easier to identify now. I saw Joaquin Phoenix on Conan, by way of example, promoting Walk the Line. Conan had asked him, with no small measure of incredulity, whether or not the rumour that Phoenix refused to watch his own movies was true. It was, actually, he admitted to an obviously disbelieving host and studio audience, whose reaction suggested that this indicated a certain egoism or perhaps a false modesty. I, however, didn’t see that at all, I saw an actor who loves acting, present tense, and to watch his work set in stone with all his decisions finalized and unchangeable must be anathema to him. I would like to work with Joaquin Phoenix.

Film and sculpture and painting and prose all have a clear end product. These art forms attract ERO artists, and the POs find themselves in disciplines like dance and theatre. Process-oriented artists find fulfillment in theatre for one simple reason: theatre is process. It’s never really done, is it? Even when rehearsals are finished and the curtain rises on opening night there’s still an entire run ahead of you, offering many more chances to nail that one little moment you wish was nailed the night before (probably only to discover that it won’t work the next night, and the moment was lost forever into the abyss of the what-if and the if-only). Even when the run is over and the closing curtain falls it’s not really “finished”, because there is no physical evidence of the experience to study, it now exists only in the commutative memory of its audience and participants. (Filmed theatre simply does not count, as the nature of the art form dissolves when it is not immediate. End of discussion.) After the run there is but a script, and most playwrights are probably never 100% happy with that either. We were unable to attain performance rights to Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime last year because he’s working on a new draft, and it premiered 35 years ago. Sam’s as PO as they get. I wonder if he likes watching his films?

So now we move into another year of trying to find new buyers for our art, hopefully using what we’ve learned so far to find new ways of financing our goals. I intend to use The Next Stage this year to foster that, not just for my company but for theatre here in general. That is, in a nutshell, where I think the great opportunity of the theatre blogosphere resides: in sharing our process and our experience with one another, for the good of the art form and for the community. I’m going to up the ante on The Next Stage this year and re-tool it a bit as a marketing opportunity not just for LSP, but for Vancouver independent theatre et al, a go-to site for an insider’s perspective on our work. Fun and informative is what we’re going for here, and I’ll be asking for your help to spread the word, and to kindly share your process with us. This conversation needs to get going.