Hey Toronto, Need a Laugh?

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See that cute couple up there? That’s Justin and Kristi; dear, sweet friends of mine. Many, many moons ago they were 2/5ths of my very first theatre company, Face Full of Theatre, a sketch comedy/sketch drama troupe that was poised to take over the world (as are all first theatre companies, aren’t they?). We done real good too, as I recall, we even went so far as to shoot a CBC sketch comedy special with Kevin McDonald. Alas, these two heard the siren call of the Big Smoke and, packing their lives into the VW van, graced the other side of the country with their talents a couple of years back.

Well, the two of them have been at it again. They’ve written a sketch show about the whole coupling fiasco and trust me, as someone who’s spent literally months together with them in a room laughing until I couldn’t see straight, it’ll be worth the price of admission. The show’s playing until Sunday, December 2 at the Diesel Playhouse, check it out if you can. You guys in Toronto could probably use a good pick-me-up, eh?

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Must-Read Theatre Blogging…

This is great, great, great…Ian at Theatre is Territory has published a simply wonderful interview with University of Minnesota theatre prof and Broadway alum Charles Nolte, who grandly holds court on the state of theatre, reminisces about the heyday of Broadway, and dishes hilariously on working with the likes of Henry Fonda, Jack Palance, and Charlton Heston (!). It contains the single greatest observation I’ve ever heard on my hero, Sir Ian McKellan, as well. Click on through, you’ll be glad you did.

This One Goes to Eleven: Brad Lepp

“My dear Minerva,
It was not the best of times, it was not the worst of times, it was Ottawa.”

On June 9th of this year, at 7:45 pm, Kristian Bruun as Frank Dickens (son of Charles), launched the first of forty cross-country performances of his play Dickens of the Mounted with this line. Beginning in Montreal and ending in Vancouver on September 16, Dickens quickly snowballed into one of the must-see Fringe sensations of the season, I was already hearing buzz about it during its next tour-stop in Toronto. The play is a creation of (the Toronto-based) Mr. Bruun and Brad Lepp, who also directed. It is an adaptation of the 1989 book of the same name by Vancouver humourist and playwright Eric Nicol (87), a wonderfully arcane story soaked in booze, charming prose, and Canadiana; of the sort that makes you remember that this country actually has a history to it, and that you’re allowed to be proud of it.

I was lucky enough to be in attendance for show #40, the last of the tour and coincidentally the same show attended by Mr. Nicol himself who, as it turned out, was seated in the front row not 3 seats down from me. He was introduced to us all by Mr. Bruun following the show and, through our applause and with the aid of his cane, rose to shake the hand of the man who had brought his book to life. It was a delicious moment, and one that I’m proud to have shared in. As Brad came down and joined them in what I’m sure was the beginning of a long discourse of mutual admiration, we all filed from the theatre feeling like we’d shared something precious that afternoon. Theatre rocks.

I went home and filed my review, then sent it on to Brad by way of a thank you. He was good enough to share his insights with us on taking his work through the entire Canadian Fringe circuit, and on theatre in general. Brad is a teacher, producer, director, writer, and dramaturge, working with over a dozen companies across Ontario and recently with Maple Leaf Theatre in Tokyo. He is currently the Theatre Coordinator at the Walmer Centre Theatre in Toronto, and is the Artistic Director of Beyond Chutleigh Productions.

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1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Seated.

2.) In as many words as you see fit, describe the current state of Toronto indie theatre.

Fractured. There’s a lot going on. A lot of young ambition, struggling talent, and versatile artists. There’s a lot going on but most of it is unfocused. There are very few producing houses, and few companies ever make it to producing more than a couple of shows. There is little artistic growth, because there isn’t the money, support, infrastructure or market to warrant more ambitious larger productions. Energy is funneled into just getting by. Almost everyone has a “day job” so the air of professionalism suffers and, unfortunately, I think that is noticeable – not by the quality but by how we hold ourselves. So much of it is theatre practitioners doing theatre for themselves – and I’m not sure if that’s because we’re not connecting with a larger urban demographic, because we haven’t found our niche in our society or whether theatre has gone obsolete today (I hope it’s not the latter). And so all of this makes the struggle to create very draining and tiring. There are so many artists that just seem burnt out…until their next “must do” project comes along and they sound from somewhere deep within the spirit to push on.

That’s my rant. Sorry.

3.) Please compare Vancouver with the rest of Canada’s Fringe circuit.

This was my first trip to Vancouver so I was extremely excited about performing at the festival. I came to love the city, the areas we explored and so many of the people we met. Unfortunately it will always be in the shadow of the Edmonton Fringe, just prior on the circuit timeline, and so expectations of the artists have been raised. Of the festival, a lot has already been said of its struggles and mistakes. I understand organizations go through rough patches and need to try new ideas to revitalize and re-envision itself. It was more the attitude that we were getting from the festival (and this may just be due to some personalities, because we met many wonderful staff members and volunteers there), but the tone was one of being unapologetic – when they changed our performance times without telling us, when they moved our venue last minute, when they set up the competing Encore series, Encore audiences not having to buy memberships, etc. Why would an audience member take a risk, go across town to see a show, where they have to buy a $5 membership, plus ticket, when they can stay on Granville [Island] at the encouragement of the volunteers, and see a show without hidden charges? There were just a lot of frustrations, one after another, where the artists found it very difficult to remain positive and create good work.

There needs to be a sense of collaboration, between the festival organizers and the artists, that they are in fact working together, not the one against the other. This isn’t just Vancouver, other festivals as well have this split – in fact only Winnipeg and Saskatoon made any effort of sitting down and asking the Artists how things went and where they could improve. Specifically the Vancouver festival needs to support itself as a whole (put everyone on a level field) – either spread out to venues across the city, or move it all onto Granville Island. It also needs to do a better job of letting the city know what’s going on (same problem as with Montreal and Toronto).

4.) What is the responsibility of Canadian independent theatre?

An artist’s responsibility is to themselves, I think. To push themselves to always do the best work that they can. To be honest to themselves and to their audiences. I think theatre has an important role to play in our society, but independent or not, I think that’s the same – to explore our relationship to the world around us, to our environment, our society, each other, the human condition. To ask questions and to tell stories.

5.) What was it about this book that made you see it as a potential play?

My roommate left it on our coffee table one day and I thought, ‘isn’t that “neat”’. I wish it was something more profound. “Charles Dickens’ son was one of the first Mounties” There is the “hook” factor, the intrigue. Truthfully, ideas were already spinning before I had read it. But I wasn’t let down by the book – I was really drawn in by this historical misfit, who goes to the ends of the earth to try and find a place to belong, and still can’t get out from his father’s shadow. It had everything: action, comedy, drama, Canadiana. I’m a history nut, and so I loved the idea of fusing obscure history with intriguing storytelling. And of course it doesn’t hurt that you’re dealing with material from one of Canada’s great humourists; Eric Nicol, who is also a playwright, so I think it inherently has a dramatic flow.

6.) Describe your approach to developing the adaptation.

The adaptation was quite difficult, truth be told. It’s a longish book, full of interesting tidbits, political satire, and personal insight. But it was episodic in structure, so that was lucky. We really had to fashion our story line against this material, and cut away that which didn’t help move it along. So for us, we had to first begin with specifying what exactly this story was about. Subtlety is okay in novels, but not on stage. What was our arc? Where did our story begin and where did we want it to end off? What was the main message, premise or theme that we wanted to get across? After months of correspondence between Kristian Bruun (the performer and co-adapter) and myself, and long hours transcribing text, our first draft was 86 pages long. At 2 minutes a page or so, it didn’t take a genius to do the math and realise that we were in trouble. So we spent a week just sitting, reading and editing. Just when we thought that we couldn’t cut any more, we’d do a timed reading and realise we had to keep slashing. But that was good – it’s nice to work within confines – in a business of variables, its nice to have a constant to play off. For us, we knew it had to fit into an hour slot at the Fringes. We also knew that it was going to be a one person show – partially for practical purposes of touring – and because it allowed us to stay close to the letter format of the book. And so we rethought the scenes – what needs to be said, what can be conveyed with a gesture or a look, trying to move the letters out of the past tense into real moments on stage – this is an example of when it was very useful to have the performer involved with the adaptation process.

You know it was a real struggle to “kill the baby” as we referred to cutting draft after draft, but looking at the script now, I really can’t see what we would add back in. Its like you don’t realise you’re overweight until you loose the fat. We got it down to 28 pages, with a running time of 62 mins.

I think the reason I am proud of this piece is that in its adaptation and staging and performance it encapsulates many of my ideas and feelings about theatre. It told a clear story (we were one of the few fringe shows with a narrative, not a slight, just an observation); a range of emotions as it spanned from subtle tragedy to coarse humour; a certain fluidity of time, space and characters; it had little set, but used everything to its fullest, hopefully engaging the audience in the creative aspect. A reengagement of theatricality for storytelling.

7.) What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t before the tour?

How much talent is out there. I was blown away by most of what I saw on tour. By how simple a show can be – most of those shows had little or no set. I found it funny that our “minimalist set of 3 trunks and 2 planks”, was one of the largest sets on tour. About how much personality plays into performance. By how generous audiences can be. I have produced many shows before, but it was a good reminder about how much leg work goes into getting ahead. I have a deeper appreciation for the ‘shelf life’ of projects, and how to make those investments pay off. And of course, boil your pitch down to two lines, that’s all the time you have: “It’s the story of the worst Mountie in Canadian history, who happened to be Charles Dickens’ Son. (and if they are still listening…) It’s a true story. Based on the bestselling book by Eric Nicol. Its been getting great reviews across the country, playing right over there at the ________ theatre, and so please keep us in mind if you’re looking for a comedy.” I don’t want to think how many times I said those words…

8.) What can we do to better market our theatre to a new audience?

This is really tricky. I think it’s about educating our society, ensuring that they know that theatre is an inexpensive, entertaining and approachable option. So many large theatres just take it for granted now that they need to have an outreach and community development department. It’s now part of the way we do business. Get them young – put Art and, more importantly, Critical Thinking back into our education system. I think there are certain challenges and opportunities that present themselves with such an ethnically diverse urban population, and so we’ll see a handful of new leaders take the forefront of engaging these new communities. But ultimately independent companies need to work together, we need to have the organization and infrastructure in place so that companies, large or small, are supported and built to last, so that longer partnerships (artistic, financial, media) can be invested.

Media needs to let the city know what’s going on – but I don’t blame them, they inundated by hundreds of requests, and have only limited resources themselves. There is so much out there that we’re competing with, not only cinema and TV, but concerts, stand up, comedy, dance, opera, music. I know I don’t push myself and go support dance as much as I should. But that’s okay; theatre just isn’t everyone’s thing. As long as people have a ‘thing’, that they’re getting out there, engaged with an artistic industry, then I’m not too upset.

Ultimately what I found satisfying about the tour was bringing theatre down to basics, and that included marketing. Handing out handbills, pressing palms, meeting people, chatting with them a bit, asking which shows they liked, what they didn’t like, and making personal connections. I think this is where the future of our industry is, what we can offer that others can’t, a personal interaction between artist and audience. It reminds me of something I learned working with Maple Leaf Theatre in Tokyo – how much time and energy was spent wooing audience members. Artists would go for coffee and dinner with audience members, get to know them; but once they became your patron, they were very loyal and would come see everything you did. And that was very important, often getting you more work if you had a larger following. It might mean we have to work harder now, but ultimately that human touch will keep us connected to our audience.
But “I didn’t know there was a theatre festival going on” was something we heard often on tour, especially in Vancouver. Our billets visited the fringe the first time by seeing our show, and were so thrilled that they cancelled their vacation and instead went to 5 or 6 other productions. And we’d spend time afterwards talking about them, some were great, some a little disappointing, but like they said; for $10 what’s the risk? And they’re excited about telling their friends and going next year… sometimes people just need a little push to go, and human connections do that.

9.) What inspires you as a theatre artist?

Passionate characters wrestling with difficult questions. Honest, sincerely real moments.

Side note: What pisses me off is arrogant artists who think the sun rises and sets with Brecht, have a gratuitous approach and don’t respect the audience and their choices.

10.) What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Three writers I enjoy sitting down with:

John Mighton
David Young
Michael Frayn

Three titles I’m dying to do:

Shadowlands
Mary’s Wedding
Quiet in the Land

11.) What’s next?

You know you never ask an artist that. They usually cover the fact that they don’t really know, by spouting off two dozen whimsical projects that they once upon a time mentioned to another artist dreamily over coffee.

This One Goes to Eleven: Ian MacKenzie

Welcome to the inaugural edition of a continuing series on The Next Stage. When I started this blog back in March my intention was to offer a glimpse behind the curtain of a neophyte theatre company mounting its first production, a chronicle of our formative period to hopefully drum up some interest and inspire conversation of a kind that I had been looking for on the craft of stage art today. What I have found since is that there are a lot of people who want to join in that conversation; smart, talented, and passionate people with opinions that deserve to be heard. This interview series, then, is the natural evolution of this site’s objective, and its intention is to motivate even more discourse, debate, and enthusiasm for the contemporary theatre by hosting the ideas of artists devoted to its perpetuation.

The idea for these interviews is one that I borrowed (well, stole, actually). I was thrilled to discover that there are many other theatreists using this medium to communicate ideas, and they taught me a lot about its potential for cultivating a larger community of theatre ideologists. In this regard I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Theatre is Territory, the Praxis Theatre’s blog from Toronto, whose 10 Questions series became an immediate addiction for me and continues to provide illumination on the current state of theatre. It seems only fair that the author of the site and the inspiration for this series be the one to kick things off over here on the West coast edition. Ian MacKenzie is the director of marketing for The Room and a true man of letters.

Ian MacKenzie

1.) In one word, describe your present condition.
Hypoglycemic.

2.) In as many words as you’d like, describe the present condition of Toronto indie theatre.
There’s a tremendous sense of optimism among independent theatre makers in Toronto. Our peer group is starting to win more grants and awards, we’re making better work and securing prestigious internships. At the same time, many of the community’s ideas about theatre are maturing. We’re getting more access to resources. And it looks like we’re finally in a real position to start challenging the status quo. All signs that a new generation of theatre makers is coming in to its own.

One thing seems clear: what worked for the previous generation of theatre makers is not going to work for us. The golden era of Toronto arts funding is over. There’s more competition than ever for consumers’ arts-and-entertainment dollars. And there’s a brave new world at our doorstep that we need to try to make sense of in our work. There’s lots to be done, for sure. But I think people are doing a great job of responding to these challenges.

There’s also a trend toward inter-organizational collaboration. Toronto’s various independent theatre companies are sharing actors, resources, ideas. It feels like we’re listening to one another and developing a model for doing business that is relevant to the realities of our situation.

In terms of arts funding, Toronto is at the bottom of the barrel. (Toronto’s per capita contribution to arts is just $14.64. Compare this to Vancouver’s at $17.71 and San Francisco’s at $86.01.) But, whatever, we’d be fools to let that stop us.

3.) What is the major obstacle in Toronto to the popularization of indie theatre?
A lack of specialization. We’re a group of generalists trying to sell our wares in an economy that privileges specialists. I can see how it happened. Theatre attracts artists – who are, by their nature, creative. We like to make things. So we make our own posters and programs, do our own marketing and PR, produce our own shows, throw fundraisers, do our own makeup and costumes, design our own sets, run our own lighting boards and video projectors . . . and pretty soon there’s no time left to focus on the tasks we were originally trained to do. The work suffers – the shows do poorly – and then we’re back at the beginning again, designing posters for the next show nobody outside the community is going to see. Sometimes it’s easier to do it all yourself than it is to run around finding trained specialists to cover your organization’s basic needs. But this is short-term thinking and it’s no way to run a business.

There is a host of reasons and explanations as to how we got into this predicament. And it’s probably well worth talking about them. But my primary interest is in figuring our way out of it. How do we attract accountants and trained marketers to our industry? Why do we assume that lawyers and producers aren’t interested in working in independent theatre? Have we tried talking to them recently? I think the onus is on us to answer these questions and to reverse our community’s drift toward professional generalization.

When we start to nail every aspect of the production cycle, we will win the full engagement of our communities – and a new legion of spectators and participants will follow.

4.) What is the role of the critics in the proliferation of a theatre movement?
From what I understand, theatre critics are writing for their readers, not the artists whose work they’re critiquing. So as far as theatre artists are concerned, the role of the critic is to market their show. It’s a shame that it’s come to that – and I think it’s become a more adversarial relationship than it needs to be. I hate the idea that the critics are going to make or break your show. It’s a straw man. Make a good show, market it well, and it will matter to you a whole lot less what the critics say.

On the other hand, mainstream theatre critics, generally, could be doing a better job of championing the little guy of independent theatre. We need reviews of our shows, sure, but we also need arts reporters to bring news of our other accomplishments and failures to a wider audience. Some critics do a great job of this. Others seem stuck in an outdated, review-based model of arts reporting.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to generate buzz surrounding our own work. Once we’ve assembled our armies, the critics will have no choice but to react and report back to their readers on the status of our staggering genius.

5.) What do we, as artists, owe to the theatre scene in terms of choice of content?
Art exists to challenge the status quo, I really believe that. So in developing content, art makers need to think about influence, we need to explore new ideas and, I think, the work needs to be guided by a sense of compassion. That’s why we don’t kill kittens on stage. You may be able to make an art argument for it, but it’s simply not a compassionate thing to do. So we find another way to say it.

If we’re challenging the status quo (whatever that means to you) and letting compassion be the tie-breaker on close artistic calls, we’re doing our jobs. It’s a form of pragmatism and I think we owe it to ourselves.

6.) What is the relationship, if any, between TV/film and theatre in Toronto?
That’s a huge question. I don’t have a cohesive answer for it. The production methods of these forms has some overlap, especially for actors. I know theatre actors get paid relatively well for appearing in television commercials. But I’m at a loss to come up with any unifying theories on this right now.

7.) Where will Toronto theatre be five years from now?
In the early bloom of its renaissance.

8.) The blogosphere is a potent new weapon in our battle for patronage. Discuss.
I hope so. Blogs can be an effective way of communicating complicated messages in an easily digestible format. The theatre community has fallen short in terms of really opening up theatre and theatre ideas to the general population. Look at film – everyone’s an armchair film theorist. But people who aren’t regular theatergoers simply don’t have the language to talk or even to think about theatre. This lack of language alienates them from the form. Blogs can deliver theatre language and ideas to a wider audience, which helps improve theatre literacy, generally, which, in turn, makes people more likely to come to our shows and give us their money.

9.) Through your immersion in the blogging community, what do you know about theatre now that you didn’t a year ago?
Pretty much everything. Praxis Theatre’s “10 questions” interview series gives me the opportunity to follow lines of inquiry that I simply did not have the resources (or the inclination, for that matter) to follow previously. So I ask my peers, “Do you think conservative, right-wing politics are somehow fundamentally at odds with the arts?”, for example. And I thank God they have an answer, because if you’d asked me that a year ago, I wouldn’t have had a clue.

Also, reading other theatre blogs has opened me up to whole new worlds of theatre-related discourse. I read about a dozen theatre blogs regularly and probably another dozen intermittently. So, if you detect a note of dogma in the tone of my writing, it’s probably because I’ve absorbed so many new ideas this year – I’ve had to find concrete ways of organizing them in my head.

10.) What are your top three must-reads right now?
I read for a living, so the idea of wading through pages and pages of long-form copy on my spare time doesn’t really turn me on. I do a lot of shorter-form reading online:

I. Scott Walters at his blog Theatre Ideas. He’s a drama professor at the University of North Carolina and one of the first theatre bloggers I came across. I’m a sucker for his professorial tone. Also, I didn’t go to school for theatre, so having access to a good drama professor is a real pleasure and a competitive edge. This quote from one of his recent posts sums up his offering nicely:

“Most theatre artists don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to graze in all kinds of books, and write, and ponder. They’re just trying to keep their heads above water! To my mind, academia ought to be the R&D for the theatre. We should be trying things out, coming up with ideas, documenting performances, and spreading the word about what is new and exciting. And we should be putting this into readable, accessible forms so that the exhausted artist can grasp the ideas easily (as opposed to the jargon and obscurity in academic journals, for instance). To me, blogging is a great way to do that.”

II. David Cote at his blog Histriomastix. It’s become a bit of a theatrosphere cliché to mention David Cote in the same breath as Scott Walters – they’ve publicly traded barbs on numerous occasions. But watching a couple of heavyweight, contemporary theatre thinkers going at it online is a sight of considerable spectacle. Sometimes I feel like Gilligan standing between the Skipper and the Professor while they’re arguing. I’m like, “He’s right. No, he’s right. Oh, you’re right, too.” And then the Skipper hits me with his hat and says they can’t both be right.

David Cote is a theatre critic at Time Out New York. His writing has a directness to it that has had a big effect on my own writing. I, like many young writers, started out with an abundance of confidence and a scarcity of skill. As the years passed – and I grew to more appreciate the challenges of being a good writer – my confidence waned, and the hollow tones of apologetic diplomacy crept in to my voice: “Here’s an idea, you know, but it’s not the final idea – I mean we could change it if you want.” Cote inspires me to reconnect with directness – and maybe to shelve the diplomacy every once in a while. His ideas about theatre are presented with clear-minded insight, creative flare and a sometimes-brutal honesty.

He’s also a question-heavy writer – “Where’s the political theatre?” – a trope I’ve shamelessly adapted for my own writer’s toolbox. Because, you know, questions are the answer.

I had the pleasure of interviewing both Walters and Cote recently, and in both cases, I was blown away by their generosity (of time and ideas), facility with language, and passion for theatre.

III. The letters section of my local arts weekly, Now Magazine. I don’t laugh much, but sometimes letters to the editor just make me howl. People are so clever!

11.) What’s next?
An aggressive campaign of compassionate localism. Whatever your battles are – the appalling practice of factory farming animals, declining theatre attendance, global warming, tasteless oranges – chances are they have something to do with the 20th century’s unprecedented centralization of power.

The debate between capitalism and communism is over. Capitalism won. The great political argument of our time is between centralization and decentralization – global and local, if you like (that’s John Livingston). This, incidentally, is why theatre is poised for its renaissance: It has a natural resistance to commodification, which prevented it from being centralized in the first place. (Unless, that is, you follow the argument that film is the natural evolution of theatre, in which case theatre has been successfully commodified and practitioners of its traditional methods are doomed.) So theatre, in many of its forms, remains a remarkably local pursuit.

I’m optimistic that theatre can be a major player in unifying communities and asserting a localist agenda in which average artists are recognized with fair compensation for their contributions to the local economy and the greater good.

So what’s next? We all need to step up, start buying locally manufactured goods when possible, stop commuting so much, stop letting geo-political borders determine our levels of compassion and engagement, and commit to making our communities as local as they can effectively be. It doesn’t mean turning our backs on the benefits of globalization, just making sure we fight tooth and nail in pursuit of the greater good.