Playwrights need to be out in the world, connected to it, trying to answer unanswerable questions.
I just had to share this with everyone, because it’s wonderful. It’s a letter I received in the comments of the ‘contact’ section, and it made my day.
Hello Next Stage
I was just on the toilet, thinking about theatre and I thought, “I am a part of the next stage. My feet have walked the walk of many a theatre before me and my eyes see clearly a new way forward. The next stage has been sitting in a drawer, a dream for over five years. It becomes more real every day. To me, for me, it’s the obvious next stage. And it’s a dream evolving out here in New York City which has become a cultural wasteland a shadow of its former self, with little property to play in. The theatre scene here is a joke with a few beautiful blossoms every year. So … from the bathroom I sat here at my computer and typed in “the next stage” into my google search and here we are. I love it. Vancover makes me miss my days in San Diego, Los Angeles and Chicago where the small theatre company is supported by audiences willing to go for the ride. There are more benefits and grant proposals out here than plays. There are more 10-Minute Play Festivals than I care to count. —
My question is this: can this forum, could this forum actually be a place where the people who like to make seriously fun theatre can muse about the future of the form?
I want to blog with y’all. What does that mean? Where do I sign up?
New York City
Anybody else want to read that blog?
Further to my last post on critics and criticism, here’s a necessary post by San Fran theatre critic Chloe Veltman (HT to Tony, who virtually invented inviting the critics into the party), on the relationship between artists and critics, and the myth of objectivity.
I like any discussion that forces us into an awareness of our ego. I think it’s how we move beyond stasis.
I’m a theatre nerd with a blog. It’s something I do simply because I want people to talk more about this thing that I’m in love with, so that more people make and see theatre. So the fact that a new Vancouver theatre magazine has just emerged online has made me a very happy little nerd. Plank Magazine‘s (GREAT handle guys, BTW) mandate reads thusly:
To encourage intelligent, critical dialogue amongst arts enthusiasts and people working in the cultural sector. To increase media coverage of the performing arts in Vancouver, giving culture the conversational space it deserves.
I know, I know, we’ve still got a real love/hate thing going on with the critics, don’t we? it’s terrifying having them somewhere out there in the house (Is that him? The one in the back row? How does he look, happy? Pissy? Bored? I think he looks bored, I’m going to kill myself now), lurking in the dark hunkered over their little pads, judging us, probably hating us…god, why do we even need them at all? Seriously, why do we even invite them? This piece is about the art. The art, dammit!
It is so past due for us to get over this. It’s time to get real perspective on these people and what they are doing. It’s time to talk about them, and to them – to engage with them. Professional criticism is not a one way street, it’s one half of a conversation that you start with your play. We need them. We really do, if we want to ever make money through theatre work, anyway.
The critics don’t work for us. Sure, it’s nice for our progressive marketing if they say some nice things in print about the show, but this can’t be the only reason we care about them, can it? Is their worth to us measured merely as a potential sound bite? Seems a bit mercenary, doesn’t it?
The critics don’t work for our audience either (we do), they are the audience, and what’s more, they know a lot about theatre, and they love it. And they can write, and they like to talk, so people listen. Everybody else at the show is talking to people about you too, but you don’t get to hear what they’re really saying. Now, I know that this is just fine for some of us. There are a lot of theatre artists out there right now who are delicate and sensitive and quite happy making their art for themselves and don’t want to hear what people thought about the work, because they think that it will have an effect on future work. And they’re right, it will. Is that such a bad thing? I guess it depends on what part you want to play in the bigger picture.
Remember, critics don’t make culture, artists do. Critics report on it. Let’s just be clear on our respective jobs. The critics, simply put, work for the theatre. They exist to maintain a conversation about something bigger than all of us individually, something that we all want: a popular, sustainable, trendy theatre. They keep the ball of public awareness in the air, and so we could use more of them, many more, getting the idea of theatre into the heads of more people.
If putting up a play is something that you need to do for you, because you want to be on a stage in a particular role that’s important to you, and you want all your friends to see you perform it, and after it’s done you can always be able to say that you did it, that’s fine too. Go ahead and hate the critics. Don’t invite them. But if you want to put on another play after that one, and then a bunch more after that, and you want to work less on convincing people to come out and watch you make art and more on actually making it, you’re going to have to embrace the critics, or at least honour what it is they do for us. Which means pulling on our big artist undies and standing tall and saying “so, what’d you think?”, and then listening with the awareness that nothing in the reply, good or bad, is a reflection on you as a person. We must somehow learn to separate the art from the artist. We are, after all, charging money for it, which makes it more than art. It also makes it a product. And the most successful companies solicit for product feedback all the time. They make it a point to know the satisfaction level of their customers.
Vancouver is a town in dire need of more media coverage for the arts. The arts community here sustains itself by supporting each other’s work, and the rest of the city – the majority of the city – goes on about their daily lives completely unaware of what we’re doing. It’s not that they don’t want to know, they’re just busy people with a ton of options to spend their spare time on. We need to get in their face more, and then perhaps, quite probably, we’ll have a major movement on our hands. We’ve certainly got the artists. Now it’s time to build their audience. There are a lot of cool people out there who will be awed by us, if only they knew where to find us. And they do want to find us. It’s part of the job to go get them.
And so, I bid Plank Magazine a hearty welcome to the Vancouver arts scene, and leave you with a pull quote from their landing page. It sounds to me like they’re taking their new role seriously. Are we ready for it?
We want to provide the space that will allow for in-depth consideration of the performing arts in Vancouver. You won’t find star systems or thumbs up/thumbs down ratings. If we do capsule reviews, they will be deliberately pithy. We will not resort to short-hand praise or off-hand dismissals of work. We’ll track performers and companies over their careers; we’ll keep track of the development of productions; we’ll ask about ideas, directions, successes and crashes. If we feel a work has fallen short of the goals that have been set for it, we will try to explain how and why we believe this to be the case.
Of all the theatre-going experiences I’ve had, few come close to the epic grandeur I was treated to at last year’s PuSh festival when I finally had a chance to witness November Theatre‘s acclaimed version of The Black Rider. If you’ve seen it you know that I do not exaggerate, and if you haven’t, well, if you get the chance, take it from me, you’ll be glad you did. All I’m waiting for now is the cast recording of the Tom Waits soundtrack. Michael, any odds on that happening anytime soon?
The Black Rider is a masterpiece of Avant-Garde theatre rooted in German Expressionism and Folk Storytelling, and was a co-creation of Tom Waits, Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs. How could it not be sublime? November Theatre, with Mr. Scholar as Artistic Producer and in the lead role of Peg Leg, became the first company sanctioned by the show’s creators to mount it after its original run in Germany. They gave it its World English Premiere at the Edmonton Fringe in 1998, and have been touring it to continued success ever since.
In addition to his work with November Theatre, Mr. Scholar is a mainstay of Vancouver stages as an actor and director, he was onstage recently in neworld/Touchstone’s Tideline, and in the director’s chair for I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change at the Gateway Theatre via the Arts Club.
1. In one word, describe your present condition.
2. In your choice of word count, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.
Discovering itself. Waking up. Stretching in new directions. Growing.
3. How do we compare to other Canadian cities as a supportive theatre town?
Not very well yet, but we are getting there. Cities like Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto have audiences that go see a wide range of things from broadway musicals, to experimental works, to dance and we in Vancouver are still trying to get the general public to include the performing arts in their daily lives. We in the theatre community are still fighting the elements like the beaches, the mountains, the green outdoors for our audiences. While in more insular colder cities across Canada, people are hungrier for indoor cultural events. But it’s the cooler, younger, hip companies like the Electric Company, neworldtheatre, Rumble and yes, our company – November Theatre – that are connecting with the next generation of theatre-goers and making theatre a cool place to go. A place as relevant as the rock venues, the clubs, the arts galleries and the cinemas that are constantly full in our beautiful city.
At the city council level we don’t really have the support for the arts that we need either. Vancouver has a very corporate mentality under the Sullivan regime these days with cultural funding being cut and/or wasted. The city is currently spending $750,000 on consulting with a Toronto firm about spaces around Vancouver instead of using that money to actually buy, preserve and use theatres like the York Theatre (raja theatre) on Commercial Drive.
4. How are Canadian audiences responding to avant-garde theatre?
Canadian audiences are hungry for the avant garde. Vancouver audiences are hungry for it too, but this coastal city is still cutting its teeth on the avant garde diet. The more Vancouverites are exposed to it, the more challenging works they will expect and demand.
5. What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t before your work with November Theatre?
That you have to work 9 administrative hours for every 1 artist hour.
6. Do you have any hard and fast rules for working within an ensemble?
I’m a big fan of communal communication. Check-ins and check-outs with the group at the beginning and the end of every work session.
7. What’s your best piece of advice for new actors?
Act as much as possible at first. Work with as many different artists as possible. Sponge up their processes and try to create one for yourself. Learn your instrument. Practice, practice, practice. And if you can’t get the experience in other people’s theatres, make your own projects happen. Don’t just make projects to get noticed. Pick projects that excite, challenge and scare you.
8. How has your experience with avant-garde theatre informed your work as a director in more traditional plays?
Every piece of text can be interpreted and seen in a different light. Every time you approach a piece of theatre you should be bringing something new, fresh and relevant to it.
9. Given a time machine, what would you tell a young Michael Scholar Jr. just setting out on his career?
To learn more skills, like playing piano or dancing or visual arts. The more skills you have the less limits your art has.
10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?
Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (my favourite play).
Robert Wilson. The world’s greatest director, maybe even artist, is so under-appreciated in North America. This fabulous retrospective hard cover “coffee table book” written about Wilson and featuring great productions photos is quite big, heavy, expensive and a must have. Simply titled “Robert Wilson”, it’s written by Franco Quadri, Franco Bertoni and Robert Stearns.
Theatre of the Absurd by Martin Esselin – the book that coined the phrase and found order amongst the chaos.
11. What’s next?
I’m in development for a stage adaptation of Hard Core Logo. It’s still cooking in the oven so i can’t talk too loud about it right now, but soon you’ll be hearing more about it.
Collaborating with Caravan Farm Theatre on their 30th anniversary Everyman Project with the Electric Company; Theatre Replacement, neworldtheatre, Theatre Melee and Pound of Flesh Theatre for next summer.
Okay, it’s probably not actually a secret, I mean, who puts something up for sale and then doesn’t advertise it? (Insert applicable first indie theatre production joke here.) But I stumbled across it completely by accident, and it’s in amongst that weird alley/warehouse area at the bottom of Main St. around Terminal. I tripped over it taking a short cut to work yesterday as they were shutting down, and the genial fellow I spoke to gave me the heads up about the big sale next weekend, apparently they’ll be selling off some sweet props dirt cheap from a wack of major productions that just wrapped here.
So, if your company is in the market to fill up its prop room, they’ll be open from 11-4, Saturday, May 31 and Sunday June 1. The sale is in a sneaky little warehouse behind the Kal Tire on Main; as you’re heading North turn right on Industrial Ave., between the Kal Tire and the Midas, then your first left and right. And – just in case – I call shotgun on any cool samurai swords.
I get bored at the theatre a lot because I notice that there’s not always a connection between the actors. They may be technically proficient, but they’re not surprising each other. I’m thrilled by actors who make choices that are surprising.