Highlights from today’s Canadian theatrosphere

Hot day on the Great White North theatre blog tundra today (it’s…alive!), a day worthy of a round-up. Check out these great posts:

Pitch-hitting blogger Evan Webber over at Chris Dupuis’ Time and Space sums up his TO Fringe experience. Heading into the festival with a mission to determine the answer to the question “what do people like” from their indie theatre, Evan comes out the other end with some great observations.

“From this angle, what people like (and what I like too) are performances in which the ambition to communicate is desperate and huge, shows that ask a lot.”

Read on for more of that…

Marketer/blog master Ian Mackenzie has sourced out a video that takes 18 minutes to address 87% of the discussion on the theatrenets. Author Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point) discusses the origin of diverse consumer product choice and the importance of a varied market, and Ian grafts it onto theatre. Brilliant.

“What theatre can learn from spaghetti sauce”…

And over at Michael Rubenfeld’s Summerworks blog, a bona fide brouhaha erupts in the comments section of a festival promotional video that brings out Toronto theatre’s serious side. And they call us No-Fun City.

Click for a lesson in how to get internet conversations about theatre started…

Looking to the next generation for the survival of theatre

Further to the post the other day on his question “what have you done to save theatre today”, Travis from Midnight Honesty at Noon dropped this link in the comments, please give it a read. (Great man, that Travis Bedard, and if you’re not reading MH@N you should be.) It’s a letter sent to Mike Daisey detailing how he not only runs a profitable regional theatre, but how his company is focused on turning the next generations into theatre-goers. Now that’s proactivity. Now that’s smart.

In truth, it’s probably too late to convert a significant number of uninitiated post-college urbanites into rabid theatre fans demanding more and higher quality theatre. We’re battling preconceptions based on lack of exposure to anything other than past community theatre renditions of Oklahoma! and grandiose versions of Shakespeare foisted on us in high school. The future of the independent theatre may lie in the hands of the next gen if, if, they can be exposed to some kick-ass productions that are actually about them and their time and their place, and the things that they care about (whatever that is), there’s a fighting chance that theatre could be re-branded as more than something to do to train for a fantasy Hollywood career. It just may be seriously cool again.

This One Goes to Eleven: Sebastien Archibald

Sebastien is a playwright/actor/director straight outta the theatre program at UVic, and is spinning his BA in theatre into his own company; ITSAZOO, where he resides as one of their four artistic directors. His well-received play Grimm Tales, a site-specific contemporizing of the works of the Brothers Grimm, is running in Victoria now and hits Queen Elizabeth Park on August 14th. Click here for all the details.

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Disenfranchised.

2. So what’s your ‘how I fell in love with the theatre’ story?

I desperately wanted to partake in my elementary school’s Talent Show (I was in grade 5), so I wrote a play called Kung Fu Super Cop and starred as the lead. To this day it is my crowning achievement.

3. What is your ambition for the future of ITSAZOO?

I want ITSAZOO to be the premier company in Vancouver for new work and emerging artists. I know far too many talented directors, writers and actors who aren’t seeing any stage lights or having their works produced. This town is a small pond, with a lot of familiar fishes circling the water. But there are some new eggs hatching. And ITSAZOO has a fish tank just for them. Okay. I think I’m done with the pond metaphor. I want ITSAZOO to help shape a Vancouver theatrical community that appeals to everyone. I want Vancouverites to take theatre seriously as an art form, as an event, and as an enlightening form of entertainment and I want ITSAZOO to be part of that cultural shift. I love this city. I really do. But, I feel that we are behind most cities culturally and artistically. I also want ITSAZOO to be a hot ticket in this city. I want to do sensational, controversial pieces that leave people talking long after they’ve left the theatre and I want to inspire people who don’t give a shit about any of this stuff to come to a show and discover something new.

4. In terms of preparing you for a theatre career, what aspect of your UVic training do you feel was the strongest? The weakest?

The strongest part of my uvic training was SATCo. This was the student run alternative theatre company that operated with in, but did not answer to, the department. I wrote and directed 3 plays in my time at the Phoenix and that taught me a great deal about the basics of creating and putting on a show. Also, theatre history is a must. You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. My acting training was fairly strong and I was given some tremendous opportunities (I can’t say the same for some of my class mates-this is the risk of theatre school) but some of the acting training was bullshit. Absolute bullshit. I feel comforted when I talk to friends and acquaintances from theatre programs in Vancouver, and beyond, and find that they too are learning a fair bit of bullshit. However, this is also extremely frustrating. Stop charging us so much money for bullshit! If you are going to charge money then everything, I mean everything, should be relevant, constructive, and educational. EVERYTHING. Don’t just wake up in the morning and regurgitate some tired old lesson plan that you’ve flogged to death. We’re paying you to teach us. So teach us. Don’t act like you’re teaching us.

5. Can you give us a window into your construction process as a playwright?

Inspiration generally comes from a healthy mix of social outrage, borrowed (sometimes stolen) ideas, and intoxication. This eventually turns into something resembling a story for which I then write an Act and Scene breakdown and then, finally, the first draft. For Grimm Tales I read and reread 10 fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, conceptualized them within a contemporary framework, and then threw in all the theatrical “bells and whistles” I could think of. Oh, and then added an over-arching narrative. That part’s important, too.

6. If you could have drinks with 3 theatreists, alive or dead, who would they be and why?

Harold Pinter-because nobody does it better. Nobody. Just about every contemporary playwright is following his lead.

Bertolt Brecht-because he reinvented modern theatre and has given us more, in my opinion, than anyone else, including Shakespeare. Shakespeare couldn’t go 3 rounds with Brecht. That’s a fact.

Susan Lori Parks-Because she’s one of the most fearless and provocative playwrights alive. Now if only more people had the balls to put on her plays…

I’d invite Peter Brooke, Sam Shepard, Samuel Becket, Antonin Artaud and Carol Churchill, too, as long as we’re fantasizing. That would be one hell of a party. Lots of Wild Turkey.

7. What, if any, is the responsibility of theatre to its community?

Theatre has the responsibility to entertain, enlighten, and educate. Not necessarily in equal parts, but some level of each is required. If a show is missing any one of these qualifications it is, in my opinion, unsuccessful. We can assemble people under one roof and perform for them live, even interact with them if we choose. Why not say something worthwhile?

8. What have you found to be the freedoms/restrictions of your site-specific work?

Theatre outdoors is like spending an afternoon naked on Wreck Beach. It’s liberating and it just feels right.  Challenges include enough projection and presence to compete with the rest of the outside world.

9. What is your favourite theatrical moment to date?

As a performer I have two. Performing as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls during my training at the Phoenix. Not because I like the show (Guys and Dolls is the theatrical equivalent to masturbation. It feels great while it’s happening, but afterwords you wish you had experienced something you could truly share with another individual). But because I over came many personal obstacles, learned how to sing, learned a dialect, and helped carry the show as one of the leads. And performing in Casualties of Progress, which was ITSAZOO’s Vancouver debut, because I finally figured out what acting is. Now if only people actually came out to see it…

As a spectator it’s also a tie. This past year I had the privilege of seeing two outstanding shows. Boxhead and Palace Grande. These shows blew my mind wide open. It will be a great day when these types of shows are performed constantly in an artistically thriving Vancouver.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

True and False by David Mamet – I don’t revere Mamet as much as others do, and his theories aren’t universal by any means, but Stanislavski is a dick and Mamet teaches us to get over ourselves as actors and get the damn job done.

Towards a Poor Theatre by Jerzy Grotowski – a fascinating approach that Canadian theatre needs a lot more of.

The Theatre section of the Georgia Straight – it’s how I keep tabs on what’s going on and I enjoy seeing shows and comparing my reviews with Colin’s and Kathleen’s.

11. What’s next?

This year marks ITSAZOO’s first full season. We perform Grimm Tales in August at Queen Elizabeth Park. Then we’re doing a One Act Play Festival, which will showcase 4 new works from across Canada. Look for Four Course Meal sometime in November. In the Spring, we’re doing a show I’ve been working on for years, Death of a Clown. This was a finalist in the 2007 Theatre BC National Playwriting Competition and I can’t wait to show it to a Vancouver audience. It’s a wild mix of Orwell, Brecht, and clowning. And local clown Gina Bastoni is offering us some guidance. We’ve got a show in the works for next summer but we’re still keeping it a secret. Oh, and we’ll be putting on a production of Albee’s Zoo Story sometime this year, as well. All this without any funding from Canada Council. Now, imagine what we could do with money…

“What have you done to save theatre today?”

Responding to a recent Theatre is Territory question about asking questions, Austin theatre artist and blogger Travis Bedard poses an essential one of his own, and states:

We want to do Our Thing and be done. We want to be specialists in a shrinking anachronistic craft. We don’t get the choice to not be evangelists.

A wise acting teacher of mine once charged us to do at least one thing a day to advance our careers. Well, I’m an artist in a struggling discipline, so to advance my career I also have to do at least one thing a day to bolster the theatre.

I’m glad I’m not the only one out there who thinks this. What have you done to save theatre today?

Towards a sticky theatre

I got myself into a spirited debate the other day. Nadine is an ensemble member in my company who works with us here in Vancouver but actually lives in New York, and she’s great to debate with because she has an East Coast defiance and a stubborness that rivals my own, so she can toss the West Coast demure out the window and force you to either strengthen and articulate your argument or acquiesce to her opinions. The topic of this debate was play selection and how it serves to build audience.

Nadine had played the role of Abby in a run of Labute’s The Mercy Seat that I helped produce here a couple of years ago, and she was mentioning how much she’d love to take another crack at it in Vancouver at some point, incorporating the new insight into the role she’d acquired since doing it the first time. I said yeah, sure, but maybe you should do it in New York, since it’s set in Manhattan and concerns 9-11. She said yes, but (and I paraphrase here), that’s merely the backdrop, and the themes of the play deal with infidelity and the nature of responsibility within relationships, which are universal and as such equally resonant to all audiences, regardless of place. And besides, says she (and here I do not paraphrase), it’s a great fuckin’ play. Yes, says I, but is it great enough to make theatre-neophyte Vancouverites want more?

My POV in this matter is rooted in a theory that I’ve been kicking around, which is loosely stated as: in order to increase the chances of a new audience returning once you’ve finally got them in the stalls, we should hew towards serving up new work that is about them, as in; their time and their place. This is related to another theory that I’m working out, which is that ‘theatre cities’ become such because at some point there is a huge issuing forth of new plays produced about that city, facilitated by a reaction from the population taking an unprecedented interest in said theatre because it reflects them as a community. I have no hard data for this, I just know at some point in years past a lot of great theatre was made about, say, New York, featuring characters speaking in New York dialects and referencing New York-y things, and as a consequence so many New Yorkers went to see them and talked about them that we still do them in acting class in Vancouver in 2008. New York is a theatre city. Vancouver is not. Can I change that? I have no idea, but I’d like to, so I could use all the help I can get.

So, the question I put to all of you is this: hypothetically, and all things being equal in regards to quality of production, if the same virgin Vancouver audience is given two plays; one a popular established play that has performed well in its community of origin where it also happens to be set (and acquired a resultant industry buzz), or a new work that is set here in Vancouver, will the setting have any influence on its overall affect and popularity with said audience? Put another way: does art proliferate when it can be claimed by its community?

I think a key to this line of questioning is to look at our work from the POV of the potential audience member that we need to convert, the one who is not an artist but has a latent interest in the arts. How do they want to be treated by their local artists? Would they prefer to see plays set in other cities and other cultures, or do they want us to address their issues with references to their city and in their own vernacular? What’s the best way to make theatre a sticky art form?