Tarragon Theatre unveils Under-30 Playwrighting Competition

paper_rsToronto’s Tarragon Theatre has announced a new incentive to encourage new Canadian stage work with, one imagines, a more youthful perspective: the National Under-30 Playwrighting Competition. The winning playwright will recieve $3000 and a spot in Tarragon’s annual Play Reading Week.

To be eligible your birthday must fall after April 30, 1979, and you must be a Canadian citizen. This contest is open to anyone: professional or non-professional. And the play must be in English. Deadline is Thursday, April 30 at 5:00 pm.

Click here for full details and entry form.

Electric Company gets name-dropped in American Theatre Magazine

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It’s nice to know we’re getting noticed by our industry neighbours downstairs. This month’s issue of American Theatre magazine, the bi-monthly publication of the Theatre Communications Group (America’s advocacy organization for the not-for-profit theatre sector) has an article discussing the potential of new-media projection theatre bringing in a fresh young audience.

How are we to transform the theatre to attract young audiences, in this time when live performance could not be more important as a platform for much-needed social discourse?

One answer to the question is to embrace the technosphere in which the youth of today are immersed (along with, of course, the rest of us not-so-young, yet nevertheless immersed), and to engage it passionately, while attempting to maintain a critical distance. This means opening the theatre’s stage door to projection designers, new media artists and systems engineers—to animators, filmmakers and laptop wizards—and to the panoply of technologies they practice.

UBC’s Robert Gardiner is mentioned in the article as being a groundbreaker for this kind of work:

In the department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, scenographer Robert Gardiner heads one of the most daring and sustained pedagogical explorations of new media for the theatre. With guest artists, students and faculty, he conducts research and creates stagings that employ projection not only as imagery and scenery but often as stage lighting as well. These productions, such as Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge (co-produced with Electric Company Theatre), have sometimes been showcased in Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

It’s rare that anything Canadian gets mentioned in ATM, so this is pretty great, and hopefully heralds much wider recognition for our local theatre. Congratulations you guys, keep up the great work.

Check out Theatre at UBC on the web here, and follow them on twitter here.

You can join the Electric Company facebook group here, and follow them on twitter here.

You can read the full article here.

The passion of the theatre blogs

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A look back on a good year in the theatrosphere

By Ian Mackenzie and Simon Ogden

Time to put 2008 to bed? Good idea. But not before we take one last look at the year that was in theatre blogging. And what a year it was! From epic online dust-ups to Internet-wide collaborations, here’s our list of last year’s greatest moments in theatre blogging:

The Empty Spaces’ Or, How Theatre Failed America.
The American monologuist Mike Daisey’s scathing editorial for the Seattle-based The Stranger newspaper argues that American theatre has been irreversibly damaged at the hands of corporate commodification. It quickly becomes the most widely discussed theatre essay of February.

The Great ‘Value of theatre’ Debate.
For one day in March, the Ohio-based blogger Matt Slaybaugh of TheatreForté organized a theatrosphere-wide discussion to answer one simple question: ‘What is the value of theatre?‘ More than 32 different blogs from around the world weighed in on the topic that day, and yet surprisingly few common themes emerged. That theatre’s online diarists could not reduce the craft to tidy soundbites is welcome evidence of the art form’s complexity.

The SummerWorks ‘Expression’ video controversy.
The Toronto-based SummerWorks Theatre Festival promo video depicts some of the city’s most highly regarded women playwrights acting like bimbo valley girls, up-talking and saying ‘like’ a lot. ‘Expression‘ sparked an all-out brawl among Toronto’s theatrical intelligentsia. Some called it demeaning, some called it transgressive, others called it smart marketing. But no one called it late for dinner.

Professor Scott Walters ‘retires’ from theatre blogging.
After a lengthy monologue explaining his Tribes model of running a theatre company, and some highly personal bare-knuckle scrapping in his comments section, the resident professor of the theatrosphere calls it quits again in May. He’s back posting within a couple of days; posts sporadically for a few months; and then officially reboots his blog again earlier this week.

The proliferation of the Canadian theatre blogs.
Although theatre blogging exploded in the U.S. a couple of years earlier, 2008 was the year theatre blogging officially took flight in Canada. Here’s a quick, incomplete survey of the current landscape:

And the list keeps growing. Thankfully.

Canadian artists rally online over $45 million goverments arts cuts.
The Canadian arts community unites against Stephen Harper’s Conservative government following its controversial $45 million cuts to Canadian arts programs; sets the national theatrosphere ablaze, including dozens of reprints of playwright Wadji Mouawad’s scathing response to Harper and the birth of the arts advocacy group Department of Culture.

Content is king for a day.
Well, several days actually, after Tony Adams drops a post called ‘Content‘ in which he wonders aloud why no one on the Internet ever discusses the content of their shows. The topic has legs.

The age of the guest post.
Theatre is territory and its west coast sister blog The Next Stage host a series of guest posts that help inspire their writers to think outside the blog:

Don Hall gets divorced.
The usually irascible Don Hall blogs about the dissolution of his marriage, morphing the normally incendiary Angry White Guy in Chicago blog into a tender and affecting piece of Internet theatre.

The Globe and Mail gets its theatre blog on.
After showing all of England how to theatre blog (by founding the Guardian UK’s theatre blog roundup Noises off), J. Kelly Nestruck returns home to Canada to fill the prestigious national theatre critic slot at the Globe and Mail. He promptly starts a Globe theatre blog, Nestruck on theatre, and seals the deal on theatre blogging’s legitimacy in Canada.

Canadian theatre critics invite unprecedented dialogue with artists.
Notorious Vancouver theatre critic Colin Thomas challenges theatre artists to change their status quo and engage him directly about his opinions online – none do (yet). J. Kelly Nestruck does likewise.

How Mike Daisey failed American Theatre.
‘The Daisey’ goes head-to-head with American Theatre Magazine.

The theatroshpere unites to say goodbye to Harold Pinter.
Legendary American playwright shuffles off his mortal coil and goes on to join the choir invisible; the chorus of the theatrosphere sings his praises down here.


Well, it’s clear that our list could be twice as long and still wildly incomplete. Lest we forget Isaac Butler’s oddball Hair Blogging, George Hunka’s syllable-heavy Organum series, Matt Freeman’s awesome Star Wars fixation, Nick Keenan’s constant innovations, James Comtois’ horror film posts, Leonard Jacob’s prolific flamboyance, Paul Rekk’s island of insight, Adam Thurman’s paradoxical mission, those anonymous ponderings at 99Seats, Travis Bedard’s extreme connectedness, Alison Broverman’s fashionista quipping, Chris Wilkinson’s succinct reporting of the whole fine mess . . . oh theatrosphere, we hardly know you and yet we bleed for your love.

Suffice to say, 2008 was the year that many will remember as the year theatre finally made a successful transition to digital.

You can also find this here.

Selling at the fringes

A new approach to theatre marketing from a Canadian sellout

By guest blogger Ian Mackenzie

I cringe when I hear theatre people say the word “marketing.” It’s like when you hear your grandma say “Facebook” – you know she’s heard of it, but you can be damn sure she’s got no idea how to use it.

I mean, here is a group of otherwise creative and talented people whose best idea for a marketing campaign is printing 1,000 postcards – 500 of which never get handed out. Or email “campaigns” that have the sole effect of guilting friends and family into coming to the show. And have you ever been to a theatre company’s website? Don’t bother. There’s nothing there for you except headshots, vanity copy and half-hearted mission statements.

How bad is theatre marketing? Theatre marketing is so bad it’s not even visible enough to be obnoxious.

There are three good reasons for this dismal state of affairs:

First and foremost is that most independent theatre companies are run by people who are primarily interesting in acting or directing, and those people generally went through acting and directing programs at school. Check out the performance curriculum for one of Canada’s most respected theatre schools, Humber. Lot’s of acting classes. But nothing about marketing or management. Certainly no course called, “Running your own independent theatre company – 101.”

What’s the thinking here? That all these actors are streaming out of these programs into high-paying theatre actor jobs? That ain’t happening. What is happening is that many of these actors and directors are graduating from school and in the absence of decent career opportunities in their fields, they are starting their own independent theatre companies – an undertaking for which they have absolutely no training. It’s a setup.

The second major problem is that artists have allowed themselves to be brainwashed into thinking that business = Walmart; that “business” is somehow fundamentally evil; and that the great artists throughout history existed on some astral plane above personal and professional finance.

And while that works fine while you’re still in school, romanticized notions of penniless playwrights fall apart when it comes time to pull together funding for your next show. So out come the complaints about lack of public funding. About how people don’t care about theatre. About how hard this industry is. About how there’s nowhere to rehearse and lights cost too much.

Here’s something they ought to teach at theatre school: If your business (i.e., your theatre company) doesn’t have enough money to make its product, then your business model is broken and you need to fix it.

Third – independent theatre companies are terrible at communicating their “big idea.” What’s the big idea behind your work? How do you feel about factory farming? HIV in Africa? Prison rape? Racism within families? Heroin? Ghosts? Flowers? Electricity? Cancer? Cotton candy? Blindness?

If you can’t tell me who the enemy is in a single sentence, you have lost my attention, and not even a marketing genius like Seth Godin is going to be able to help you sell me your product. How could he when you haven’t even figured out what it is you have to sell?

I’m not telling you how to be an artist . . . I am the proverbial parrot in the blender, and I see you there with your finger on the “purée” button. Stop. Step away from the blender. Take a deep breath. Let’s rethink this whole thing.

Here’s my three-step plan for independent theatre companies who want to make money and increase their influence:

1) Bring in the specialists.
It takes a team of specialists to run a successful theatre. Here, for example, are the staff positions at one of Toronto’s most successful independent theatre companies:

  • Artistic Director
  • General Manager
  • Administrator
  • Publicity & Marketing Director
  • Director of Development
  • Director of Education & Outreach
  • Literary Manager
  • Assistant to the Artistic Director
  • Outreach & Marketing Associate, Group Sales
  • House & Box Office Manager
  • Production Manager
  • Technical Director
  • Wardrobe Head
  • Props Head
  • Carpentry Head
  • Mainspace Technician
  • Extra Space Technician
  • Building Manager

Maybe your company doesn’t need all these positions filled, but it sure as hell needs some of them. Talk to people outside the actor/director circles and see if you can lure them to the job on the promise that theatre work will feed their soul. You might be surprised how many lawyers and accounts and marketers come running. Seriously. Once you’ve got them, hang on to them by keeping your natural flakiness in check – and let them help you grow your business.

2) Embrace capitalism.
Money is good – if you do good things with it. Business is good – if your business is focused on doing good things. And theatre is a good thing, right? “We need it to see ourselves.” That’s what Daniel MacIvor says.

This is about more than you and your world. Part of the reason capitalism has become such a clusterfuck is because artists have allowed themselves to be nudged out of positions of influence. Capitalism needs empowered artists working from the inside to help guide it. This notion that theatre is not a capitalist pursuit does a disservice to both capitalism and theatre – and by extension humanity and everything else under this sun. Reject this notion. Embrace capitalism. Make money. Build your theatre. It’s our only hope.

3) Know your enemy.
The elevator pitch is not a cliché. Why do you make theatre? Why did you start a theatre company? Why is your work important? What is your work about? Why should I care?

If you haven’t answered these questions clearly in your mind, your independent theatre company is dead in the water. I’m not telling you what the answer should be, just that – if you have any interest in selling your wares – you’d better have an answer.

That’s it. Three steps. Not all theatre companies are guilty of all of these inadequacies. But collectively we’re doing something very wrong. We are allowing ourselves to be pushed to the periphery of our own story. That’s bad. We are not victims. And theatre is not a charity case.

So who the fuck am I? I’m the guy with the $125 watch. I’m the guy with the soul job in theatre. I don’t know anything about acting, or directing. I don’t even know that much about marketing. But I do know bad news when I see it. And theatre marketing? Bad news.

I hope this helps.

Ian Mackenzie is a Toronto-based writer and Director of Marketing for Praxis Theatre.

Loving the hate: seeing the benefit in backlash

While we’re on the topic of backlash, there’s a play that has made the ‘best of fest‘ at the just-wrapped Winnipeg Fringe (click here for reviews) that’s got people talking about how we as artists handle negative response to our work.

Keir Cutler is a seasoned Fringe writer and performer, whose last work Teaching As You Like It was met with almost universal praise. Almost. One persnickity audience member objected to the show’s subject matter: the distasteful practice of teachers who seduce their teenage students. The play featured Cutler portraying one such teacher as he addresses his class while waiting for the police to arrive to pick him up for his most recent offense. One long-term Fringe-goer apparently didn’t quite get the inherent satire of the piece, and in response wrote a scathingly accusatory 3-page letter to both the Winnipeg Fringe administration and Child Find Manitoba, an organization that notifies community members about high-risk sexual offenders. The letter asserted that the play “could be used as a textbook for the luring and seduction of young girls” and that it “promotes the idea that sexual predation of underage girls is acceptable.”

Well, what’s an artist to do? Cutler responded by creating an entirely new work entitled Teaching the Fringe (directed by home-town hero TJ Dawe) which contains excerpts from the letter and is marketed with this copy: “In his first autobiographical show, Keir Cutler takes a comic look at the menace of rogue audience members and the wacky encounters that can happen at the Fringe, including being reported to the authorities for one of his plays.” The new play was a smash hit and received resounding critical acclaim, but there has been some question as to whether or not such a reactive statement to an obviously misconstrued reception was even necessary. From the CBC review:

There’s no denying the quality of the craft: the writing, direction, and performance are of the highest quality. But watching, I couldn’t help but feel saddened Cutler felt it necessary to bring to bear the full weight of his considerable wit and intellect to demolish an argument so asinine it needn’t have been dignified with a response.

It’s the best show that didn’t need to be made you’ll see.

In a way, such a vitriolic outburst in response to this kind of play is a huge compliment, if you can muster up that sort of perspective on it. I would much rather have an audience member come up to me mad as hell after one of my shows because it pushed some buttons for them (this has actually happened to me, more than once), than for them to be utterly indifferent to the work. It strikes me as unrealistic to think that everyone is going to luv your piece and come away from it all happiness and sunshine, and instantly improved. The possibility of backlash permeates any work that addresses the unseemly or provocative. We invite any member of the public with the price of admission to be affected by our work, there’s no way that we can affect them all in the same way.

When it comes to subject matter, is any passionate reaction, whether gushy or seething, a worthy objective? How do you measure success in your work?

On the Difference Between a Critic and a Reviewer

Terrific article by Chris Dupuis over at his newly re-christened site Time and Space, in which he offers a modest proposal for a new model of responsibility for our critics. It’s a great contexualization of the actual job, and the post itself follows the very guidelines that he propounds within it.

Chris puts some responsibility back on the artists as well, which struck a real chord for me. He suggests that we should be taking greater initiative in engaging with the critics that we invite to our shows, and beginning the dialogue with them even before the start of the run.

Rather than hate the reviewers, try to work with them by providing them with as much information as possible about your work and the context in which you are working, assuming they haven’t gone to the trouble to do this themselves.

If this kind of effort continues to be made towards the delibration of the art amongst the practitioners ourselves and with the invested critics, it just might compel a new benchmark for the tradition of arts critisicm and discussion in Canada. Great stuff. Click here to read the full essay.

Canadian Critical Culture Called into Question

Now first off, I know a lot of you are thinking: “we have a culture of criticism?”. Well, apparently we in fact do, and the UK Guardian’s Andrew Haydon offers as proof the web site of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. Now I know a lot of you are thinking: “we have a Canadian Theatre Critics Association?” We do, in fact; its headquarters is in Toronto, it has 43 members from across the nation, and a list of seven objectives, the seventh being to “promote a code of ethics for professional critics and their employers”. The code itself is built out of six tenets and exists to ensure that due respect is paid by reviewers to the artists whose work they sit in judgment upon. It is the very existence of this code and Canada’s slavish adherence to it that Mr. Haydon suggests gives Great Britain’s theatre reviewers the critical high ground.

He does concede that several of the CTCA’s rules are in standard practice by theatre reviewers in the UK, and suggests that these articles are just plain common sense, which they indeed are. The crucial difference, according to the article, is that over in Blighty these rules aren’t actually written down anywhere, which relieves them of institutional oppression; and thus British theatre critics are, unlike we strictly constrained Canucks, able to choose to follow their common sense or not, free from the yoke of any sort of tyrannical critical legislation. This, then, will render a “more adult state of affairs if criticism is a negotiation between grown-ups rather than a set of rules that ultimately leaves artist and public alike wondering what the critic really wanted to say”. Take that Colin Thomas, member of the CTCA!

“The Canadians” critique objectively. The British critique subjectively. Excuse me, “completely subjectively”. So there. Allrighty then. But regardless of the outsized brush with which Mr. Haydon paints the critical community of our little nation, the point of the article is well taken: critics are answerable to their readership. And now that anyone with access to a computer connected to these here internets can publicly announce their opinion on last night’s play there is increased pressure on the professionals to remain just that, professional. And if criticism is your vocation of choice you shouldn’t have to be told by anyone else but your readership and your own conscience what’s fair and unfair. But really what it all comes down to is that malevolent or ill-informed reviewers tend to inevitably fall out of orbit under the sheer weight of their own disagreeability anyway, whether they hold a membership card to a non-profit critics coffee klatch or to Costco. But that’s just my opinion, eh?