Are Vancouver stages too white?

ice-cream-conePlank Magazine today posted a letter by local theatre-goer David C. Jones which posits that our local theatre scene doesn’t accurately reflect the inherent cultural diversity of the city. Mr. Jones goes further to suggest that the lack of actors from non-white backgrounds could constrain the growth of our theatre industry:

Young, diverse high schools students do a field trip to see a show at The Arts Club or wherever. They see an all white cast and no matter how much they are captivated or intrigued by the thought of acting and getting training – they figure – why spend the money for training since I won’t get cast anyway since the theatre is a mostly exclusively white career choice. Then a theatre company tries to cast diverse but there are no trained diverse actors.

The article also reprints an letter sent from Mr. Jones to VancouverPlays.com which continues the discussion. An quick exerpt:

If one of the jobs of theatre is to hold a mirror up to society, then I don’t know what society they are reflecting because it is not like any I have seen anywhere in Greater Vancouver.

What do you think? Do we have a responsibility to our city to be better representing it demographically? Should our companies be choosing racially diverse material reflective of our cultural growth? Or do artists only have a responsibility to produce material reflective of their own tastes and backgrounds?

Click here to continue the discussion at the original article

There’s some great must-read letters about this being reprinted at VancouverPlays.com too…

PuSh off to a flying start

skydiveextra

I missed the premier of Skydive here in 2007 to my utter chagrin, the story of its conception sounded fantastic: two old theatre school buddies were jamming on ideas over beers one day and one of them said “hey, how cool would it be to stage a play entirely in mid-air?”. And boom, Skydive was born. It was a long and amazingly technical process to birth it, mind you, but they put together a corker of a story and they made two actors fly for 90 minutes. What’s even more amazing is that one of them happens to be usually wheelchair-bound. He also created a theatre company for his project, which is off to an auspicious start. To say the least.

I finally got to see this play the other day – my first taste of this year’s PuSh Festival – and boy-oh-boy, was it worth the wait. You can read my full review here.

If anyone has any recommendations (or warnings) about any of the work they have seen at PuSh so far, please feel free to drop them in the comments section. We’d love to hear any thoughts about the festival as it progresses.

Everyone’s a critic

As we roll into the last weekend of the Van Fringe, I’m proud to say that the Plank review team managed to tuck 60 reviews under our belts, which is actually way better than I’d hoped for. Congratulations gang, you done good, reviewed from the gut, and did it all for the sheer love of theatre. I’m proud of all of you.

I’m also proud of the legion of Vancouverites that have raided the public reviews section of the site, the response to that little experiment was way beyond my wildest expectations. You’ve done it now Van City, you’ve exposed yourself as a scrappy little opinionated theatre town. Don’t even think about pretending that you don’t care about your theatre after all that. Some of you even aroused the ire of mild-mannered plank editor Andrew Templeton, not an easy task, believe me.

Keep ’em coming everyone. And if you have some opinions on shows that you’ve seen so far, please add your voice to the chorus. And don’t just stop at “this show blew” or “this show rocks!”, tell us why you thought it blew or rocked. I’ve still got a weekend of Fringing left, and I could use your help…

We’re looking for a few honest opinions…

Okay Fringers, you’ve walked the walk, now it’s time to talk the talk. With the Van Fringe solidly underway, we can take advantage of indie theatre’s highest profile period of the year to really kick start a city-wide conversation about the great art.

After you hit up a show, head on over to the Plank Magazine website and publish your candid opinion on it. They’ve set up a dedicated section exclusively for public reviews. Just click on the show you saw and fire away.

Whether you loved it, hated it or were entirely indifferent towards it, your opinion matters. The continued growth of kick-ass theatre in Vancouver depends on a reciprocal relationship between artist and audience, so please share your thoughts on what you experience over the next two weeks.

Click on the Plank below to join the conversation…

Talkin’ about talkin’ about a revolution

Well Vancouver, here we go again. There are now three days left until the opening night of Fringe ’08, so it’s time to start wading through this year’s line-up to see what jumps out. I gotta level with you, this is an annual prospect that I absolutely dread. It’s a mystifying process to me, not the least reason being that it’s a logistical nightmare trying to schedule maximum theatre into my already crammed schedule. And the unjuried nature of the Fringe means there’s no real guarantee of quality for my festival buck. In years past Fringing has always proven to be a bit of a crap shoot, and still all we’ve got to go on is three sentences in the official Fringe guide and a small promotional photo that, while well-considered I’m sure, can’t offer any real insight into the actual experience of the piece. We’re going to need more info, methinks.

Now, yes, there are a few resources already in place to facilitate efficient Fringing. Some touring shows get a bit of advance buzz, if you can source it out. The local papers run a few reviews. But I think it’s high time there was a better system of separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Perhaps some sort of convenient method of instant communication through which Fringers, both audience and artist, can have a discussion with each other about the work.

Indie theatre, I’m sorry, but it’s time to cozy up to the internet.

One of the advantages TV and film makers have over theatre makers is an enormous and immediate access to fan opinion. They can always track how their product is doing because they can filter through an endless amount of passionate commentary, both positive and negative, to gauge what their audience likes and dislikes. It would be a tremendous asset to our artists and to theatre as a whole if we could openly and honestly and publicly talk about how we felt about the work we see. I know it feels weird, and that we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But if theatre is going to grow in popularity, it’s going to have to be talked about more, plain and simple. Don’t worry, the people that are serious about the work can take your honesty, and it’s more than likely that they crave it. If you have a strong opinion, don’t keep it to yourself.

Towards getting this revolution of discourse rolling, The Next Stage has teamed up with Plank Magazine to provide a forum for this conversation and, with the blessing of the Fringe administration, we’ve assembled a team of theatre lovers to blitz the opening weekend, with the ambition of offering our take on each and every entry in the Fest this year. The goal is to establish a 3rd-party guide of honest opinion to help everyone get the greatest experience possible from this 2 week immersion in independent theatre .

But the thing here is, we’re just opening the door. Over at Plank anyone is welcome to discuss their Fringe experience. Artist or audience or both, we know you’re passionate about this thing, and we’d love you to share. After all, it’s just opinion, we’re all entitled to one, and the more that theatre becomes a dialogue instead of a monologue, the healthier it becomes.

Click here to download the 2008 Fringe guide. Click here to read our reviews and to leave your own. And check out the Fringe video listings over there on the top of the sidebar, where a bunch of artists have already started talking to you about their work.

This One Goes to Eleven: Andrew Templeton

Andrew is a man on a mission. A mission similar to mine, actually, he is a theatre artist who thinks that he needs to do more than just make plays to increase the visibility and popularity of our art form. A Jessie-nominated playwright (for outstanding original script for Portia, My Love), who has seen his worked produced both here in Canada and in London, he is also a publicist/marketer for theatre, dance and indie film.

Recently Andrew and some friends, inspired by the Australian Arts Magazine Real Time, conspired to create Plank, the city’s newest performing arts magazine dedicated to inspiring conversation and debate through review and analysis of Vancouver’s theatre and dance scene. And they mean it, the comments section of each review is wide open. Just like mine.

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Warm

2. With no restrictions on length, describe the present condition of Vancouver theatre.

Theatre in Vancouver is in an exhilarating but fragile state. Probably the most encouraging development has been the Arts Club and Playhouse programming the Electric Company and The Black Rider. Companies that were once the anarchic Fringe are now on the mainstages. It is also exciting to see that we’re maturing the work here (and, well, with Black Rider, over the border in Alberta). Central to this shift has been, I believe, the existence of the PuSh Festival.

The fragility comes from the fact that there is no infrastructure (rehearsal or production space) to support the art form.  When I interviewed Ken Cameron for Plank Magazine, he said that it was the same complaint in every city and I quietly disagreed. Ken is from Calgary – they have Epcor, Edmonton has the Citadel, Toronto has a network of mid-sized, resident theatre companies that support and nurture the form and we have – nothing. The second major English-language centre in our country has no buildings devoted to theatre arts. While the current crop of independent companies has achieved a tremendous amount without this supporting infrastructure, they have had done so through some sacrifice.

With no identifiable location in our geography – the majority of our theatre (outside of the Arts Club and Playhouse) remains invisible to the wider community. The majority of Vancouverites are missing out on a vital, independent sector which – ironically – best reflects the spirit of their city in terms of innovation and creativity. But at least they know where to the find the Syringa Tree.

3. Why (or why not) does theatre as an art form deserve a broader audience here?

At its best, theatre is raw, emotional engagement combined with a sense of wonder. This will probably sound terribly flaky but theatres should be cathedrals and the work produced in them as close to a spiritual experience as possible. They should also have bars that stay open late. After all, they serve wine at church, don’t they?

If by here, you mean specifically Vancouver then I believe we have an evolving, unique theatre aesthetic that needs to be celebrated and promoted (and HIVE is an important step in that process, in my opinion). Vancouverites are proud of the mountains but as a people we weren’t responsible for those. We are responsible for evolving some interesting theatrical forms and we should be celebrating that and promoting it to the world (for more information on how this might be achieved see: Quebec, Robert Lepage and Cirque du Soleil).

4. How should we be focusing our marketing towards building a new generation of theatre-goers?

Wow. This is a huge question and encompasses all elements of creating and producing theatre. When something cool happens – whether it be a movie, a new band or, yes, theatre – the audiences will usually (although not always), come. In addition to the infrastructure/visibility issue mentioned above, we have a built-in problem here with the “10 day specials” – that is the majority of independent theatre runs are so short that there just isn’t enough time for word of mouth to develop (and word of mouth is crucial). I’ve missed countless shows because I wasn’t able to get my small – but well formed – arse to the theatre in time. And I’m in the community!

One of the key problems is connecting the right work with the right audiences. I remember going to see a festival of sound artists at Video In and being blown away by the age (young) and the cultural diversity of the audience. Most of that audience would have no interest in the Arts Club and honestly, probably not in Touchstone or Ruby Slippers either – but I suspect they would be very interested in, say, Theatre Replacement or Radix. So we need to find a way to connect that audience with those artists. And that’s just one example.

More crucially, there is a larger systemic problem theatre faces in Canada: it is a marginalized, specialized art-form that can (and probably does) intimidate mainstream audiences. We need to build on the work of companies like Green Thumb and get teenagers to work that will really excite them, such as the Electric Company, Boca del Lupo, Theatre Replacement, Leaky Heaven and Radix. The sort of stuff that will blow their minds and get the arty teenagers – who might, at the moment, be creating stuff on the internet – interested in live performance. It isn’t enough to just get them to the shows. We also need to make connections between those artists and young people – not just the theatre students.

I’ve gone much wider than I think you may have expected – but I really think the problem is deeper than having a cool poster campaign or a facebook page or sneaking stuff onto Craiglist (all of which I’ve done). We need to find a way of connecting to the schools, getting live, independent theatre (not just the reading of play-texts) into the curriculum. This should be linked to a more concerted effort of engaging the wider community. HIVE demonstrated the power the independent sector has when it co-operates.  We need to start lobbying for our art-form. And I have to stress lobby for the form itself – not as some sort of hobby youths can have fun with – but because it’s culturally important – and is cool. Honestly.

We also need to make the case that the cultural sector can have a positive economic impact (for more information see: Quebec, Robert Lepage and Cirque du Soleil).

5. What niche does Plank fill in Vancouver?

Judging by the positive response we’ve had in our first month, we are obviously responding to some need at least within the theatre community – and hopefully in the dance community as well (our coverage of Dancing on the Edge should test that). First off, the performing arts are all we do. We’re not a life-style magazine, we’re not an online entertainment section.  Our coverage isn’t buried in the middle of the paper next to the car ads. It’s all performing arts, all the time. Secondly, we take the forms seriously. Plank Magazine will create the space and the time to allow more thoughtful responses to the work on our stages. I think – crucially – all the writers have direct experience of working in the arts. It is something we feel passionately about. This is not taking anything away from the existing reviewers but more about how and where the performing arts are located spatially within their respective publications.

We want Plank to be more than a review magazine. We want it to act as a repository of knowledge and opinion about the performing arts in Vancouver. We want to be able to follow and track the development of individual artists and companies over time. I think this sort of stored memory is vital to the community.

6. How do you walk the line between being a theatre artist and a theatre critic?

Warily. Being in the community does – if you’re honourable – make you work that much harder. I think I’m less dismissive than I might otherwise be (whether I know the artists or not). Nobody intends to produce bad art but we all have our failures or misfires. It’s not enough to just condemn a particular piece with “well, that was a dud and weren’t they a bunch of clowns for trying”. Sure, it can be fun to write that stuff and we all get a schadenfreuder thrill from reading reviews like that but ultimately they’re not helpful to anyone. I’ve done a little acting, a little more directing and lots of writing – so I believe I have a perspective that is nuanced. Perhaps the most important thing is that I try to be upfront about who I am. I’m a playwright, and my first interest is the text itself, the structure and use of language. I think it’s important for readers (and those being reviewed) to realize that this is my starting point.

To my surprise, it hasn’t been as big a challenge as I’d feared and in some ways, it is a natural progression. I hope more theatre artists will give it a try. I think if we get comfortable with the idea of everyone contributing to this sort of public debate the better it will be for all of us.

7. Place the following components in order from easiest to hardest for you, with a note on your approach to each:

– Dialogue, Structure, Character Development, Story

I see these as two interlinked topics: dialogue is the way into character and structure the way into story.

The easiest thing for me to write is dialogue. I can write it until the cows come home. The danger is that I can end up with dozens of pages of characters talking at one another and not much else – which may or may not be entertaining. I’m resistant to worrying too much about defined character arcs as I think they can lead to rather predictable structures (eg. character feels something’s wrong in his life, spends 90 minutes figuring it out and realizes he just needed a cuddle, has a good cry, end of play). I think life is more complicated and richer than a simple emotional arc. I think the challenge is to get a strong sense of the characters and then test their responses to the situations and the other characters you create for them to interact with.

In terms of the structure/storytelling axis, I love trying to figure out how the pieces fit together and how I’m going to get where (I think) I’m going. It’s like doing a giant jigsaw puzzle in my head. Where possible, structure should support the themes of the work. I think we’ve got into a rut with how stories are now told in theatre – not unlike the predictability of Hollywood films. Guidelines can be very useful but for me the most important rule should be: don’t bore the audience. And if we keep seeing the same story told in the same way over and over again, then that’s kind of boring.

8. Playwrights by nature are solitary creatures best left to their own devices to produce their best work. Discuss.

Playwrights occupy the strangest place in the “traditional” creative process in theatre. We work on our own, usually for months, developing a piece and then suddenly we’re launched into a collaborative process for workshopping and/or production. While designers also create their work largely in isolation, their role is responsive. Playwrights, on the other hand, go from solitary weirdo to being at the centre of the action – after all, it’s their work that is being critiqued and developed. And then, to top it off, we’re stuck in the audience on opening night.

Ultimately, a playwright has to work with collaborators and this should – and almost always is – a huge benefit. It is fantastic to have input from directors, actors and designers – especially here in Vancouver where there is so much experience in developing new work. I think the important thing is to have a clear sense of what you want from a particular piece so that you can use the feedback to support that vision.

9. What is your impression of Mag North as a whole?

My experience was so tied up with the launch of Plank Magazine that I’m not sure I can give an honest answer. My biggest regret is missing the majority of the industry series. I wish I’d had the energy to make more connections.

With so many PACT delegates in town, on top of those here for the industry series, Magnetic North had its own gravity. Although Emma Lancaster did an outstanding job at getting coverage for the event, I’m not sure how much the event impacted on the city generally. I guess that’s the problem with a one-off event. Perhaps the saddest thing is that we’ve now had our go at this Festival for quite some time. It just demonstrates the difficulty in trying to create a sense of cohesion in English Canada with the massive geography and small population base. It will go on next year in Ottawa and will only directly impact those artists from here who participate. Still, there’s no doubt in my mind it’s a good thing.

10. What are your top 3 essential reads for the aspiring playwright?

Before I give my sadly predictable answers, a rant: play-texts are not television scripts! I sometimes wonder whether certain playwrights have actually experienced much live theatre. The themes are sadly pedestrian (and internal), the settings naturalistic and the scenes short – just like tv! I’m going to list playwrights rather than specific texts, if that’s okay.

First off Shakespeare. Yes, I know. But his casual brilliance with language should be a source of awe and inspiration. His ability to weave themes and different narratives throughout the text, his way of repeating and emphasising imagery for thematic purposes should be a template for all writers.

Next, I’d say Albee. He has an amazing ability to craft text that sounds at once heightened and yet naturalistic. His conceits are sometimes fantastic – a man in love with a goat – but his ability to explore the struggle of people – painfully recognizable people – is phenomenal.

Then, how about Ibsen? For his interest in big ideas and his ability to convey complicated, dialectical exchanges while keeping a grasp on narrative and character is impressive. Especially when you think of the thin gruel served far too often on our stages (see above rant).

11. What’s next?

This summer: Portia, My Love will be given a special reading during the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in Ontario in July. I will then spend August in Toronto, covering the Summerworks Festival for Plank, among other things.

I’ll continue working on two new plays; The Last Occupant of Troy, which was recently workshopped at Playwrights Theatre Centre and another new play, Simon Magus. which is scheduled to for a workshop in November. Then, the gods willing, a production of This Mortal Flesh next season at the Firehall.

Critics are your friends. Meet your new friends.

I’m a theatre nerd with a blog. It’s something I do simply because I want people to talk more about this thing that I’m in love with, so that more people make and see theatre. So the fact that a new Vancouver theatre magazine has just emerged online has made me a very happy little nerd. Plank Magazine‘s (GREAT handle guys, BTW) mandate reads thusly:

To encourage intelligent, critical dialogue amongst arts enthusiasts and people working in the cultural sector. To increase media coverage of the performing arts in Vancouver, giving culture the conversational space it deserves.

I know, I know, we’ve still got a real love/hate thing going on with the critics, don’t we? it’s terrifying having them somewhere out there in the house (Is that him? The one in the back row? How does he look, happy? Pissy? Bored? I think he looks bored, I’m going to kill myself now), lurking in the dark hunkered over their little pads, judging us, probably hating us…god, why do we even need them at all? Seriously, why do we even invite them? This piece is about the art. The art, dammit!

It is so past due for us to get over this. It’s time to get real perspective on these people and what they are doing. It’s time to talk about them, and to them – to engage with them. Professional criticism is not a one way street, it’s one half of a conversation that you start with your play. We need them. We really do, if we want to ever make money through theatre work, anyway.

The critics don’t work for us. Sure, it’s nice for our progressive marketing if they say some nice things in print about the show, but this can’t be the only reason we care about them, can it? Is their worth to us measured merely as a potential sound bite? Seems a bit mercenary, doesn’t it?

The critics don’t work for our audience either (we do), they are the audience, and what’s more, they know a lot about theatre, and they love it. And they can write, and they like to talk, so people listen. Everybody else at the show is talking to people about you too, but you don’t get to hear what they’re really saying. Now, I know that this is just fine for some of us. There are a lot of theatre artists out there right now who are delicate and sensitive and quite happy making their art for themselves and don’t want to hear what people thought about the work, because they think that it will have an effect on future work. And they’re right, it will. Is that such a bad thing? I guess it depends on what part you want to play in the bigger picture.

Remember, critics don’t make culture, artists do. Critics report on it. Let’s just be clear on our respective jobs. The critics, simply put, work for the theatre. They exist to maintain a conversation about something bigger than all of us individually, something that we all want: a popular, sustainable, trendy theatre. They keep the ball of public awareness in the air, and so we could use more of them, many more, getting the idea of theatre into the heads of more people.

If putting up a play is something that you need to do for you, because you want to be on a stage in a particular role that’s important to you, and you want all your friends to see you perform it, and after it’s done you can always be able to say that you did it, that’s fine too. Go ahead and hate the critics. Don’t invite them. But if you want to put on another play after that one, and then a bunch more after that, and you want to work less on convincing people to come out and watch you make art and more on actually making it, you’re going to have to embrace the critics, or at least honour what it is they do for us. Which means pulling on our big artist undies and standing tall and saying “so, what’d you think?”, and then listening with the awareness that nothing in the reply, good or bad, is a reflection on you as a person. We must somehow learn to separate the art from the artist. We are, after all, charging money for it, which makes it more than art. It also makes it a product. And the most successful companies solicit for product feedback all the time. They make it a point to know the satisfaction level of their customers.

Vancouver is a town in dire need of more media coverage for the arts. The arts community here sustains itself by supporting each other’s work, and the rest of the city – the majority of the city – goes on about their daily lives completely unaware of what we’re doing. It’s not that they don’t want to know, they’re just busy people with a ton of options to spend their spare time on. We need to get in their face more, and then perhaps, quite probably, we’ll have a major movement on our hands. We’ve certainly got the artists. Now it’s time to build their audience. There are a lot of cool people out there who will be awed by us, if only they knew where to find us. And they do want to find us. It’s part of the job to go get them.

And so, I bid Plank Magazine a hearty welcome to the Vancouver arts scene, and leave you with a pull quote from their landing page. It sounds to me like they’re taking their new role seriously. Are we ready for it?

We want to provide the space that will allow for in-depth consideration of the performing arts in Vancouver. You won’t find star systems or thumbs up/thumbs down ratings. If we do capsule reviews, they will be deliberately pithy. We will not resort to short-hand praise or off-hand dismissals of work. We’ll track performers and companies over their careers; we’ll keep track of the development of productions; we’ll ask about ideas, directions, successes and crashes. If we feel a work has fallen short of the goals that have been set for it, we will try to explain how and why we believe this to be the case.