Andrew is a man on a mission. A mission similar to mine, actually, he is a theatre artist who thinks that he needs to do more than just make plays to increase the visibility and popularity of our art form. A Jessie-nominated playwright (for outstanding original script for Portia, My Love), who has seen his worked produced both here in Canada and in London, he is also a publicist/marketer for theatre, dance and indie film.
Recently Andrew and some friends, inspired by the Australian Arts Magazine Real Time, conspired to create Plank, the city’s newest performing arts magazine dedicated to inspiring conversation and debate through review and analysis of Vancouver’s theatre and dance scene. And they mean it, the comments section of each review is wide open. Just like mine.
1. In one word, describe your present condition.
2. With no restrictions on length, describe the present condition of Vancouver theatre.
Theatre in Vancouver is in an exhilarating but fragile state. Probably the most encouraging development has been the Arts Club and Playhouse programming the Electric Company and The Black Rider. Companies that were once the anarchic Fringe are now on the mainstages. It is also exciting to see that we’re maturing the work here (and, well, with Black Rider, over the border in Alberta). Central to this shift has been, I believe, the existence of the PuSh Festival.
The fragility comes from the fact that there is no infrastructure (rehearsal or production space) to support the art form. When I interviewed Ken Cameron for Plank Magazine, he said that it was the same complaint in every city and I quietly disagreed. Ken is from Calgary – they have Epcor, Edmonton has the Citadel, Toronto has a network of mid-sized, resident theatre companies that support and nurture the form and we have – nothing. The second major English-language centre in our country has no buildings devoted to theatre arts. While the current crop of independent companies has achieved a tremendous amount without this supporting infrastructure, they have had done so through some sacrifice.
With no identifiable location in our geography – the majority of our theatre (outside of the Arts Club and Playhouse) remains invisible to the wider community. The majority of Vancouverites are missing out on a vital, independent sector which – ironically – best reflects the spirit of their city in terms of innovation and creativity. But at least they know where to the find the Syringa Tree.
3. Why (or why not) does theatre as an art form deserve a broader audience here?
At its best, theatre is raw, emotional engagement combined with a sense of wonder. This will probably sound terribly flaky but theatres should be cathedrals and the work produced in them as close to a spiritual experience as possible. They should also have bars that stay open late. After all, they serve wine at church, don’t they?
If by here, you mean specifically Vancouver then I believe we have an evolving, unique theatre aesthetic that needs to be celebrated and promoted (and HIVE is an important step in that process, in my opinion). Vancouverites are proud of the mountains but as a people we weren’t responsible for those. We are responsible for evolving some interesting theatrical forms and we should be celebrating that and promoting it to the world (for more information on how this might be achieved see: Quebec, Robert Lepage and Cirque du Soleil).
4. How should we be focusing our marketing towards building a new generation of theatre-goers?
Wow. This is a huge question and encompasses all elements of creating and producing theatre. When something cool happens – whether it be a movie, a new band or, yes, theatre – the audiences will usually (although not always), come. In addition to the infrastructure/visibility issue mentioned above, we have a built-in problem here with the “10 day specials” – that is the majority of independent theatre runs are so short that there just isn’t enough time for word of mouth to develop (and word of mouth is crucial). I’ve missed countless shows because I wasn’t able to get my small – but well formed – arse to the theatre in time. And I’m in the community!
One of the key problems is connecting the right work with the right audiences. I remember going to see a festival of sound artists at Video In and being blown away by the age (young) and the cultural diversity of the audience. Most of that audience would have no interest in the Arts Club and honestly, probably not in Touchstone or Ruby Slippers either – but I suspect they would be very interested in, say, Theatre Replacement or Radix. So we need to find a way to connect that audience with those artists. And that’s just one example.
More crucially, there is a larger systemic problem theatre faces in Canada: it is a marginalized, specialized art-form that can (and probably does) intimidate mainstream audiences. We need to build on the work of companies like Green Thumb and get teenagers to work that will really excite them, such as the Electric Company, Boca del Lupo, Theatre Replacement, Leaky Heaven and Radix. The sort of stuff that will blow their minds and get the arty teenagers – who might, at the moment, be creating stuff on the internet – interested in live performance. It isn’t enough to just get them to the shows. We also need to make connections between those artists and young people – not just the theatre students.
I’ve gone much wider than I think you may have expected – but I really think the problem is deeper than having a cool poster campaign or a facebook page or sneaking stuff onto Craiglist (all of which I’ve done). We need to find a way of connecting to the schools, getting live, independent theatre (not just the reading of play-texts) into the curriculum. This should be linked to a more concerted effort of engaging the wider community. HIVE demonstrated the power the independent sector has when it co-operates. We need to start lobbying for our art-form. And I have to stress lobby for the form itself – not as some sort of hobby youths can have fun with – but because it’s culturally important – and is cool. Honestly.
We also need to make the case that the cultural sector can have a positive economic impact (for more information see: Quebec, Robert Lepage and Cirque du Soleil).
5. What niche does Plank fill in Vancouver?
Judging by the positive response we’ve had in our first month, we are obviously responding to some need at least within the theatre community – and hopefully in the dance community as well (our coverage of Dancing on the Edge should test that). First off, the performing arts are all we do. We’re not a life-style magazine, we’re not an online entertainment section. Our coverage isn’t buried in the middle of the paper next to the car ads. It’s all performing arts, all the time. Secondly, we take the forms seriously. Plank Magazine will create the space and the time to allow more thoughtful responses to the work on our stages. I think – crucially – all the writers have direct experience of working in the arts. It is something we feel passionately about. This is not taking anything away from the existing reviewers but more about how and where the performing arts are located spatially within their respective publications.
We want Plank to be more than a review magazine. We want it to act as a repository of knowledge and opinion about the performing arts in Vancouver. We want to be able to follow and track the development of individual artists and companies over time. I think this sort of stored memory is vital to the community.
6. How do you walk the line between being a theatre artist and a theatre critic?
Warily. Being in the community does – if you’re honourable – make you work that much harder. I think I’m less dismissive than I might otherwise be (whether I know the artists or not). Nobody intends to produce bad art but we all have our failures or misfires. It’s not enough to just condemn a particular piece with “well, that was a dud and weren’t they a bunch of clowns for trying”. Sure, it can be fun to write that stuff and we all get a schadenfreuder thrill from reading reviews like that but ultimately they’re not helpful to anyone. I’ve done a little acting, a little more directing and lots of writing – so I believe I have a perspective that is nuanced. Perhaps the most important thing is that I try to be upfront about who I am. I’m a playwright, and my first interest is the text itself, the structure and use of language. I think it’s important for readers (and those being reviewed) to realize that this is my starting point.
To my surprise, it hasn’t been as big a challenge as I’d feared and in some ways, it is a natural progression. I hope more theatre artists will give it a try. I think if we get comfortable with the idea of everyone contributing to this sort of public debate the better it will be for all of us.
7. Place the following components in order from easiest to hardest for you, with a note on your approach to each:
– Dialogue, Structure, Character Development, Story
I see these as two interlinked topics: dialogue is the way into character and structure the way into story.
The easiest thing for me to write is dialogue. I can write it until the cows come home. The danger is that I can end up with dozens of pages of characters talking at one another and not much else – which may or may not be entertaining. I’m resistant to worrying too much about defined character arcs as I think they can lead to rather predictable structures (eg. character feels something’s wrong in his life, spends 90 minutes figuring it out and realizes he just needed a cuddle, has a good cry, end of play). I think life is more complicated and richer than a simple emotional arc. I think the challenge is to get a strong sense of the characters and then test their responses to the situations and the other characters you create for them to interact with.
In terms of the structure/storytelling axis, I love trying to figure out how the pieces fit together and how I’m going to get where (I think) I’m going. It’s like doing a giant jigsaw puzzle in my head. Where possible, structure should support the themes of the work. I think we’ve got into a rut with how stories are now told in theatre – not unlike the predictability of Hollywood films. Guidelines can be very useful but for me the most important rule should be: don’t bore the audience. And if we keep seeing the same story told in the same way over and over again, then that’s kind of boring.
8. Playwrights by nature are solitary creatures best left to their own devices to produce their best work. Discuss.
Playwrights occupy the strangest place in the “traditional” creative process in theatre. We work on our own, usually for months, developing a piece and then suddenly we’re launched into a collaborative process for workshopping and/or production. While designers also create their work largely in isolation, their role is responsive. Playwrights, on the other hand, go from solitary weirdo to being at the centre of the action – after all, it’s their work that is being critiqued and developed. And then, to top it off, we’re stuck in the audience on opening night.
Ultimately, a playwright has to work with collaborators and this should – and almost always is – a huge benefit. It is fantastic to have input from directors, actors and designers – especially here in Vancouver where there is so much experience in developing new work. I think the important thing is to have a clear sense of what you want from a particular piece so that you can use the feedback to support that vision.
9. What is your impression of Mag North as a whole?
My experience was so tied up with the launch of Plank Magazine that I’m not sure I can give an honest answer. My biggest regret is missing the majority of the industry series. I wish I’d had the energy to make more connections.
With so many PACT delegates in town, on top of those here for the industry series, Magnetic North had its own gravity. Although Emma Lancaster did an outstanding job at getting coverage for the event, I’m not sure how much the event impacted on the city generally. I guess that’s the problem with a one-off event. Perhaps the saddest thing is that we’ve now had our go at this Festival for quite some time. It just demonstrates the difficulty in trying to create a sense of cohesion in English Canada with the massive geography and small population base. It will go on next year in Ottawa and will only directly impact those artists from here who participate. Still, there’s no doubt in my mind it’s a good thing.
10. What are your top 3 essential reads for the aspiring playwright?
Before I give my sadly predictable answers, a rant: play-texts are not television scripts! I sometimes wonder whether certain playwrights have actually experienced much live theatre. The themes are sadly pedestrian (and internal), the settings naturalistic and the scenes short – just like tv! I’m going to list playwrights rather than specific texts, if that’s okay.
First off Shakespeare. Yes, I know. But his casual brilliance with language should be a source of awe and inspiration. His ability to weave themes and different narratives throughout the text, his way of repeating and emphasising imagery for thematic purposes should be a template for all writers.
Next, I’d say Albee. He has an amazing ability to craft text that sounds at once heightened and yet naturalistic. His conceits are sometimes fantastic – a man in love with a goat – but his ability to explore the struggle of people – painfully recognizable people – is phenomenal.
Then, how about Ibsen? For his interest in big ideas and his ability to convey complicated, dialectical exchanges while keeping a grasp on narrative and character is impressive. Especially when you think of the thin gruel served far too often on our stages (see above rant).
11. What’s next?
This summer: Portia, My Love will be given a special reading during the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in Ontario in July. I will then spend August in Toronto, covering the Summerworks Festival for Plank, among other things.
I’ll continue working on two new plays; The Last Occupant of Troy, which was recently workshopped at Playwrights Theatre Centre and another new play, Simon Magus. which is scheduled to for a workshop in November. Then, the gods willing, a production of This Mortal Flesh next season at the Firehall.