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?

Well, that was fun. What’s next?

And so the (finally) sunny West Coast bids a fond adieu to Mag North (or ‘Canada’s National Festival of Contemporary Canadian Theatre in English’ for long. Canafestconcanatheng? Seriously guys, nothing snappier jumps to mind?). Traditionally with me the close of a run portends a short bout of postpartum, so I suppose I’ll be dealing with something similar now that I’m no longer submerged in the daily tub of theatrical exploration that was these last two weeks. *Sigh.* And so we must turn our gaze back to the future of our stage, both local and national, and start to think ahead.

What do we take from this year’s festival? In what way is its success measured? Perhaps this would be better phrased by asking what it was that you were hoping to take away from it, and did it deliver? Were you entertained? I sure as hell was. Mostly. Did it create new connections between practitioners? Undoubtedly. Did it raise the profile of new theatre here in Vancouver? Somewhat. Nationally? Probably. But for me the big consideration is, and always will be: did our audience grow? And more directly: did we as an emerging theatre city take full advantage of Ottawa’s big, noisy, contemporary theatre road-show while we had it here to seed new ticket buyers?

I wish there was some way of quantifying this. Some kind of Mag North exit poll along the lines of “was this your first play, and did it make you want to see another one?”. I would love to be able to chart the growth of Vancouver as a theatre town as we move forward. But left to conjecture, I would say yeah, a few people here stuck their toe in, from the hype generated by HIVE if nothing else. And isn’t that the great hope from a project that consolidates 11 small companies into one super-company: to promote the component brands and build the bigger buzz? To be able to say hey, if you liked that 15 minutes, you need to see our next full-length? And does this marketing agenda extend to the festival as a whole?

Festivals like this one, the Fringe, Summerworks etc. have an function inherent in their existence to be a giant marketing tool, a sampling plate that convinces newcomers to make theatre a part of their monthly entertainment diet. I see this overshadowed a lot of the time, here in Van anyway, by the convenience of getting some theatre in a conveniently packaged form – because hey, everybody’s doing it right now – only to see it disappear back into the broader unconsciousness when the tent poles come down. The same problem plagues the Jazz Festival here too. You can’t get into the buzzy shows during those two weeks, but how many rooms in the city of Vancouver can you go to see consistent live jazz the rest of the year? Two? Three?

I’m not putting the onus on the Festival organizing committees. God knows they’ve got enough on their plates just keeping the wheels on the tracks. As we move from Mag North towards the Fringe in September it’s us, the artists, that need to be asking ourselves and our companies whether we are using the high profile and marketing muscle of these events to their full advantage for the future of the game, and talking it up enough out there in the outfield. And not just participating theatreists either, but anyone with a vested interest in promoting a sustainable theatre. I’ll lay down a challenge right now. Come September, make it a mission to take two non-theatre people from your social circle, work, the gym etc. to a Fringe play. I’ll pledge to do the same, and I’ll print their impressions on it right here on The Next Stage as ‘civilian reviews’. And I’ll do the same for any of your theatre guests if you’ll send me their reactions.

Sound like a plan?

Fringe Marketing

With Mag North behind us, our festival thoughts turn towards the country’s un-juried festival circuit: the Fringe is on its way. We’ll be taking a look at Canada’s other Fringes in anticipation of our own on in September, and looking for some advance on shows to watch out for.

The Montreal Fringe is in full swing right now, here’s some great little promo video drops grabbed from their website. The first two are cute little animations that do a nice job of encapsulating the Fringe experience, and the third is an ad with a punk aesthetic that I could never imagine seeing here in Vancouver.

What being on stage in a new piece can feel like…

A great take on ‘the show must go on’…

How do you think this would fly in the British Properties?