This one goes to eleven: Daniel Arnold

Daniel Arnold is taking this theatre thing seriously. Armed with a BFA from the University of Alberta, where he met his writing/production/stage partner Medina Hahn, he toured the world for seven years with their first play written together: the wonderfully ethereal Tuesdays and Sundays. Off the road and relocated to Vancouver, Daniel has since been working like a madman on stages here, in works that include Tideline and Poster Boys, both of which garnished him Jessie nods, along with one for Tuesdays and Sundays.

It seems like Daniel’s work here has only just begun…

1. In one word, describe your present condition.


2. In more than one word, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

Wow. Well, there’s a lot more going on than I thought there was going to be when I first moved here. A lot of independent companies creating new work and doing riskier plays that companies with money aren’t, and the Push Festival is a great boon to the city, for those who can afford the ticket price. I do wonder if there is ever going to be a mid-sized company that can afford to have its own theatre facility, a 4 or 5 show season, and the ability to both produce and present really edgy international work (Martin McDonagh, Neil Labute), a classic or two (Ibsen, Chekov, please?), alongside new Canadian work. I think it would be great for audiences to be able to have one place to go where they could see all that, at an affordable price. It’s sad that the mid-sized companies here either can’t afford a 5-show season, or can’t afford their own space. But given the piece-meal funding, it’s very hard. However, having just been in Toronto, a theatre person said to me, “Vancouver is booming, isn’t it?” And a few others have said that recently too, and were even thinking of moving here…don’t know where that comes from, maybe the “Olympic” buzz…but if that’s the feeling, then I guess that makes it true?

3. How important is a national identity to your work as an artist?

Well, I may feel a little differently than the normal actor, because I also write and tour my own work.  And I know that when I tour across Canada or abroad that I am not only part of a national identity, but helping to create it. When Medina and I toured our show Tuesdays & Sundays to the Edinburgh Festival or even to New York, we were surprised to see how much they respect Canadian plays and playwrights in the UK and USA; we were part of a pedigree just because we were from Canada, and that was nice. I think very few people here realize that. But honestly, I don’t often think in terms of “national identity”. I kind of like to see the world as one big place, with no real borders between countries. National identity has always been a strange concept to me. Perhaps because I live in a multicultural country? That said, I do believe taking art across borders is what creates a feeling of “identification” and distinction, while at the same time a feeling of sameness. Sharing art and stories, and having international stories shared with us at home, is extremely important in my view. It helps to create a more understanding world, and with understanding comes compassion and tolerance.

4. In terms of building a new audience, would you prefer to see more established works performed well, or more risk being taken with new work by our companies?

Well, yes I would like to see more established (that includes contemporary) works performed well – or at all!  For instance, it continues to baffle me why famous contemporary plays that in other Canadian cities have enjoyed mainstage regional runs and/or have played extended runs off-Broadway or in London (and admittedly are more “edgy”), are here not produced by our funded companies, but often picked up by independent or amateur companies. Is it about risk? And that it may scare away some audiences? I don’t know. Or are those plays just not even being read here? I do know that when I see risks being taken and boundaries being pushed with new creations in Vancouver, it always appears to me those are the shows that are getting great audiences, and even building new ones. To me “building a new audience” is about bringing in the kids who’ve grown up with dvds, youtube, etc, into a live theatre for a live performance, perhaps for the first time, and getting them hooked on it. What’s going to get them there? Way cheaper tickets, more agressive internet marketing, and shows that take risks, blow their mind in a visceral way that only a live performance can, and content that speaks to them, and the new multicultural world they live in. And something that speaks to them in a personal way that a movie can’t. So yes, let’s also create more bold new Vancouver works. Let’s inspire them with the bravado of live performance, and create heroes on the stage again. Local heroes. Heroes that live in our neighbourhoods, not just in Hollywood.

5. How well did your academic acting training prepare you for a career in theatre?

Hm. Well, I went to the University of Alberta, did two years of a BA Drama, and then the 3 year conservatory BFA Acting program, and that education was great. I graduated feeling prepared to be an actor, a professional, to work with different directors, to work with others as an ensemble (not as competition, which I feel some programs are guilty of). I had a well-rounded kind of feeling from the 2 years in the BA doing writing, psychology, comparative literature, social sciences, etc, and I even graduated with some “practical” theatre skills, like letter writing, tax filing, and living poorly. But I honestly believe that wherever you go to school, or even if you don’t, it’s what you put into your own education and growth that’s most important. No one can give it to you. I remember spending plenty of nights at the UofA, late in the library, or even sleeping overnight in the green room, because I was dedicated to my own growth, beyond what anyone else could offer me.

6. What is key to a successful writing partnership?

Geez, you’re asking all the hard ones…well, I’d be the first to admit that writing partnerships don’t always work, or don’t work at times and do work at others. But when they do, I guess I’d have to say respect, compromise, and constant communication. An ability to always understand what the other wants, and to try to find a common goal that you’re both shooting for – both artistically and logistically. If you can’t agree on the basic theme or message of the piece, it may not work. Or won’t work as well. Also, perhaps you need an ability to not take things too personally…and always know that what you’re creating will never be “yours” specifically, it belongs to both of you. If you want something that’s just yours, write a book, a short story, or a poem. Theatre is collaborative, and the thing that’s created is only brilliant because it’s the combination of energies that makes it so. That’s why theatre and live storytelling is one of the most healing art forms man has: by its nature it is communal, and cannot be done alone. Even a one-person show in which you write, direct, design and perform…needs a live audience before it exists.

7. What is the best piece of acting advice you’ve ever received?

In my first year acting class in the BFA at the UofA, my professor Tom Peacocke forced us to read a chapter of David Mamet’s “True and False”. I devoured the whole book, and practically memorized it. I honestly think that was some of the best acting advice I’ve ever had. I got things like this:

– Acting in my lifetime has grown steadily away from performance and toward what for want of a better term can only be called oral interpretation, which is to say pageantlike presentation in which actors present to the audience a prepared monologue complete with all the Funny Voices. And they call the Funny Voices emotional preparation. But there is no emotional preparation for loss, grief, surprise, betrayal, discovery; and there is none onstage either. Forget the Funny Voices, pick up your cue, and speak out even though frightened.

– Learn the lines, find a simple objective like that indicated by the author, speak the lines clearly in an attempt to achieve that objective. That is the job of the actor.

– It is the writer’s job to make the play interesting. It is the actor’s job to make the performance truthful.

– Here is the best acting advice I know. And when I am moved by a genius performance, this is what I see the actor doing: Invent nothing, deny nothing.

– By the time you feel something, the audience has already seen it. It happened and you might as well have acted on it. If you didn’t, the audience saw not “nothing,” but you, the actor, denying something. The above is true and hard to do. It calls on the actor not to do more, not to believe more, not to work harder as part of an industrial effort, but to act, to speak out bravely although unprepared and frightened. Acting is an art, and it requires not tidiness, not paint-by-numbers intellectuality, but immediacy and courage.

– Stand up straight, invent nothing, deny nothing, and get on with it.

8. Who or what inspires your writing?

So far I’ve been inspired by true events that have not much to do with my own life. Tuesdays & Sundays (with Medina Hahn) was inspired by a true story from 1887 Prince Edward Island. Clear Sunny Day (with Medina Hahn, a long monologue performed at Catalyst Theatre) was inspired by the sinking of the Russian submarine, the Kursk. The short film I wrote with Matt Kowalchuk (The Janitors) was inspired by something that happened to my dad. Any Night (again with Medina) was inspired by a true story of a violent act committed while asleep.  And the new musical Medina and I are writing is inspired by the first kids to ever get corporate sponsorship just for going to college.  Although none of these plays are actually the “real” story, I always seem inspired by real life, not my own personal life. But something fascinates me about the story, then I try to put myself inside it, find out how it would happen, and why, and end up dealing with my own issues in life through that.

9. What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t when you started working in it steadily?

That it doesn’t pay much. Sure, back in school we were told, “You won’t get paid much; it’s a hard career.”  But they didn’t tell us exactly. I wish someone would have put it simply like this:

Best-Case Scenario: you’re doing 4 shows per year, all at A-houses. That’s a damn fantastic acting career in the theatre, and near impossible. But say you’re doing it, consistently.  And say for each show you’re getting $1000/wk, and each show is an 8 week contract (3 wks rehearsal, 5 week run, which is long). And you do 4 of those a year. That’s great! But add it up. That’s still only $32,000 a year. And that’s the Best-Case Actually Impossible Scenario.

I wish those numbers were put to me, so I could see clearly that I was choosing a life of poverty.

Fortunately, what I did see somehow were people doing more than just acting. People like Daniel MacIvor were writing, directing, acting, making movies. Others were designing. I saw something in those people and thought, “Yeah, maybe that’s the way to go …”

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

True and False by David Mamet

Audition by Michael Shurtleff

Practical Handbook for the Actor

Oh hell, one more …

The Actor’s Survival Kit

Daniel Arnold and Colleen Wheeler in 'Influence'
Daniel Arnold and Colleen Wheeler in 'Influence'

11. What’s next?

Playing Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast at the Arts Club, then doing Summer of My Amazing Luck at the Gateway in Feb/March. Writing film adaptations of Tuesdays & Sundays and Any Night. And working towards more tours and productions of Any Night – hope to have it presented in Vancouver soon! Also writing the book for a 6-person musical.

But right now, Influence with Touchstone at Performance Works, Nov 6-15. Come on out – brand new Canadian play by the witty, intelligent, and hilarious Janet Munsil.

The Cultch accepting applications for performing arts grant

The Vancouver East Cultural Centre is now accepting applications for the annual Rio Tinto Alcan Performing Arts Award. It’s a very generous grant that cycles yearly through the disciplines of dance, theatre and music, and this year it’s theatre’s turn! You can click through here to download the application form. Thanks to Eleanor Stacey, the Cultch’s Director of Developement for the heads up.

The Rio Tinto Alcan Performing Arts Award is a $60,000 production fund open to performing arts companies resident in British Columbia and is administered by The Cultch. The award was conceived to recognize the achievements of British Columbia performing arts companies and to foster the creation of new work by providing a significant financial investment in a new production by the chosen company.

The Award rotates annually between Dance, Theatre and Opera/Music (note that no company may apply more than once in any three-year cycle). The premiere (four performances) of the selected production will be presented at The Cultch as a key component of the award. The premiere will take place in February of the year following the announcement of the chosen company.

Rio Tinto Alcan previous winners are:

Dance 2000: The Holy Body Tattoo Circa
Theatre 2001: The Electric Company Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
Music/Opera 2002: Modern Baroque Opera Company 120 Songs for the Marquis de Sade
Dance 2003: battery opera Cyclops
Theatre 2004: Boca del Lupo The Suicide
Music/Opera 2005: The Hard Rubber Orchestra Enter-Exit
Dance 2006: Kidd Pivot Lost Action
Theatre 2007: neworldtheatre Adrift on the Nile
Music 2008: Vancouver New Music Marginalia
Dance 2009: Wen Wei Dance Title to be announced

The most important thing you will read today

On the heels of my recent decision to devote my artistic energy to the proliferation of indie theatre, I have found a new manifesto, and I cannot get it out of my head. Which means I have to try and get it in yours. Written by New York non-profit fundraiser/blogger Sasha Dichter and inspired by übermarketer Seth Godin, it is entitled I’m sick of apologizing for being in charge of raising money. In it Sacha propounds a set of ideas whose time has come, now more than ever, if you consider the world we live in to be in desparate need of art and its ability to communicate ideas directly into the central nervous system. Some talking points from the manifesto…

Look around you at great leaders who you know or respect. What do they spend their time doing? They are infused with drive, passion, vision, commitment, and energy. They walk through the world dissatisfied with the status quo. They talk to anyone who will listen about the change they want to see the world. And they build a team and an organization that is empowered to make that change.

How good is your idea? How important is your cause? Important enough that you’ve given up another life to lead this life. You’ve given up another job, another steady paycheck, another bigger paycheck to do this all day long, every day, for years if not for decades, to make a change in the world and to right a wrong.

You’re devoting your life, your spirit, your energy, your faith into making the vision you have of a better future into a reality […] So why are you so scared to ask people for money? Why do you feel afraid to say: “This problem is so important and so urgent that it is worth your time and your money to fix it. I’m devoting my whole life to fixing this problem. I’m asking you to devote some of your resources to my life’s work too.”

People think that storytelling is a gift, not a skill. Learning how to do this – to be an effective storyteller, to consistently connect with different people from different walks of life and convince them to see the world as you do and walk with you to a better future – is hard, but it’s a skill like any other. It’s true that some people are born with it. But it still can be learned and practiced, and if your nonprofit is going to succeed, you’d better have more than one or two people who can pull this off.

Of course your programs or investments are real work. But so is evangelizing, communicating, sharing, convincing, cajoling, and arm-twisting. So are videos and images and stories and ideas […] If your ideas and programs and people and vision are so great, shouldn’t people be willing to reach into their pockets and fund them? If it’s worth spending your life doing this work, shouldn’t you or someone in your organization be able to convince someone else that the work is worth supporting?

Can I get an amen. Sacha’s salient point that rings the bells with me in this essay – outside of the one about being proud of asking for funding for your art – is the need, the real, honest-to-goodness need for all of us artists to get better at talking about what we do in a clear, proud voice all the time. This is the best marketing we can do for ourselves as a community, to legitimize it and push it further into the consciousness of the uninitiated. This manifesto is talking about a change in how we exist in our city, about becoming a force. One to be reckoned with.

Read the full text of the manifesto here, and pass it on if it resonates with you. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on it in the comments as well. The revolution starts with proclamations like these…

Totally Trucked

Here’s a fun example of theatre getting some use out of blog marketing. The touring production of the multi-Tony winning and “form-breaking” musical Spring Awakening has started an on-line road diary, with random cast posts, behind-the-scenes video clips, photos from their flickr photostream and interviews with fans. Pretty cool and generous, and a great way for both fans and aspiring theatre artists to see what life is like out on the road. The greatest thing about it, however, is that it’s totally free. Smart stuff, guys.

Click here to get Totally Trucked…

That’s it. I quit.

There’s a thread over at Praxis on the post Giving up the dream? that bears some conversation. It began in reference to a Seth (super-marketer) Godin post provocatively titled Maybe you can’t make money doing what you love. Actually, hang on, it would be rude for me to post here without joining in on that conversation. One sec, I’ll be right back…

Whew, okay, my conscious is clear. Please hop over and check out the thread, it’s a quick enough read but too long to reprint, and it’s a concise summation of a problem that needs much, much more discussion, and then a whole lot of action: how to make a real living as a theatre artist.

This is all I want to do with my life: to be a playwright who workshops his work with his own company of like-minded and talented actors and who also occasionally – just when needed – gets to perform on stage with them. Oh, and I want to do all this and never have to pour another drink (hey buddy, make it a good one this time, eh?) for anyone ever again. There it is, in a nutshell, my own personal little dream. But I can’t do it. Not right now, and not anytime in the immediate future.

I’ve been working steadily towards this dream for quite a while now, and I think I’ve been working pretty hard. Lately, with a new production imminent and yet another new bar job started, I’ve been working so hard that sometimes I feel like running as far away from it as I can get. We’re making a product for a market that barely exists: an independent, small-house theatre audience. Sure, the big civics sell out large houses, heck, The History Boys at the GI Stage extended their run. But the bulk of those audiences don’t ever think to go to black box stage, it’s a subset of the art that doesn’t necessarily fit into what constitutes, for them, a night out at the ol’ theatre. Plus, let’s face it, they probably never even hear about us. Which is fine, okay, but where is our audience? How do we get one of those? One that complains loudly to us that we’re not putting up enough shows for them, an audience that looks for us instead of the other way around. We have to create that audience, somehow, as a community, where one has never existed before. The time has never been more ripe, as discussed today by the very smart Nick Keenan:

Most people – sorry, most theater goers – don’t realize that storefront theater exists. And, at least in our experience, they’re excited when they discover the art they already love being done in tiny, intimate spaces.

That’s from a post entitled Street Vendors make the best Lemonade. That’s us. The street vendors. Street vendors make a modest living doing what they do. They do it by getting out into the streets and talking directly to people.

The simple fact that I can’t make a living doing what I love right now is excrutiating to me. Me and many others, it would seem. I think about our marketing problem every day. I read blogs about it constantly, and I hear the same concerns echoed all over the theatrosphere. I also hear a lot of people saying that we should just put our heads down and do our art, do it for the love of it. But I think if we’re all doing that then nobody’s working on the commercial side of it, and if that’s not taken care of, why do it in the first place?

I took a marketing-for-the-performing-arts seminar a while ago with a room full of fellow indie theatre artists. We heard about how to advertise on buses, and bus stops, billboards, radio and TV. In magazines. I am by no means an expert on marketing, but I know that was the wrong group of people for that kind of advice. We may never get bus-advertising money, but surely we can get decent-living money. At the very least bartender money. You can live on that, I promise.

I have to put aside my art for now. This is a painful decision for me to make. I love making theatre, I have stories hammering against the inside of my skull trying to get out. I’m finally starting to understand what directing plays is all about. But I’ve come to the realization that I can’t put out the amount of energy that this deserves and bring in a paying audience and work another job that allows me to eat and be available to my family. Something’s got to give. Some of us, those with a predelection for the administrative side of the biz, have to champion this thing we love so we can all be free to do more of the work we want to do, and get paid for it. And hopefully, if we can figure out this marketing thing and make small theatre a necessary function for enough of the city, I can get back to doing what I want to do most. Which right now is finishing the greatest play never written about being a career bartender. And believe me, this is a piece that you’re going to want to see.

So I’ll be blogging a lot more about the marketing of theatre here in the future. About real marketing ideas that we can actually afford, innovative ideas like asking people to come to the shows. This, to me, is the greatest use for the theatrosphere, the facet of it that I get the most use out of, anyway. Because to do this it’s going to take a village. A very loud village.