so, while this last half year of working in germany has been an incredible, overwhelming, and eye-opening experience—i've experienced a theatre culture that is different in just about every way, from audience to acting technique, treatment of text, role of the director, working structures, and even a general concept of what theatre means and how it is valued—i have to say that i miss home.
that's a given when one moves away: even people fleeing as refugees from totally oppressive and unendurable circumstances miss their homes, and i am on a relatively short working holiday from a really awesome country and city. it's been great, and i hope to continue working here as well. but as i come into the final weeks of rehearsal and my return flight edges slowly closer, i'm turning my thoughts towards the coming year, which i will be spending largely in toronto.
i spent this last weekend in paris with catherine, planning next year for the theatre company and writing a text for one of our productions. beyond that i'm working on concepts, grant applications, and all manner of other thoughts for how i'm going to be able to simply earn my living while working on all the projects i've got planned. i've also been keeping in touch with the toronto theatre scene through the local papers (the digital age be praised).
maybe the distance, and the new experience here has clarified a bit for me what exactly toronto theatre means (to me). i get asked a lot what theatre at home is like; why i'm here and what sort of theatre we make. and i have to think of a way to explain it to people who have this vague idea of canada as an unimaginably large place with a lot of snow and trees, and also in a rather limited and newly-learned vocabulary. now, my take is likely to alienate a large number of theatre makers in toronto / ontario / canada, and that's why i'm more interested in what i'm learning here and so engaged by this culture. but what i find myself explaining is the following.
VARIATIONS ON THE THEME OF ARTISTIC POVERTY (in broken german it's a lot shorter):
1. we have one "state theatre" in the whole country. that is, one theatre run mostly by state funds. being the NAC. here, you work in a state theatre, you're automatically a civil servant. you get your pay from the government. the NAC doesn't even have a budget large enough to hire artistic assistants. theatre in canada relies on private funding, granting (which often accounts for small portions of operating funds, and goes largely to a small group of established theatres), and ticket sales. which means that theatre in canada exists in a perpetual state of poverty.
2. the established theatres, that is, the big institutions in toronto and the two big summer festivals in ontario, are heavily reliant on ticket sales to continue operating. which means that the audience determines the art. they get what they think they want. here, art is determined by the creators, because having the money they have (which isn't heaps and heaps, but enough to give artistic autonomy) they can choose pieces based on being relevant, provocative, and challenging to their audiences.
3. new canadian plays. NEW CANADIAN PLAYS! how many grants have i sat down to write where i had to make clear the NEW CANADIAN PLAY aspects of a piece i want to direct. we have about 40 years of theatre history, and we're just so gosh darn proud of ourselves for having done anything that we sit around congratulating ourselves on our ability to string a passage of dialogue together that we grabbed that and are continuing to hammer it to death. anything else is worthless, if it's not shakespeare, whom we have to admit that even though he wasn't canadian he wasn't bad.
4. you won't see many productions of a classic play in canada that isn't shakespeare done in doublets and hose or maybe—and this is wildly experimental—transposed to the 1960s with music composed by an inoffensive canadian pop rock band. text almost totally uncut. when we do a classical play, we don't sit down and ask ourselves "what does this story mean to us?" instead we ask the thoroughly asinine question, "how did the playwright want us to do this?" as if the important question is what a chekhov play meant to a 1903 russian audience if we're trying to do a play in toronto in 2009. and then when we do this sort of historical digging for answers, we do it through a filter of modern thought that imposes ridiculously backwards notions like psychoanalysis retrospectively onto time periods who had no inkling of that mode of thought. the greeks didn't think oedipus had an oedipus complex, they thought dike (fate) bent him over and had her way with him. but more often we dismiss the majority of brilliant classical text for not taking place in canada.
5. a very closed and singled-minded point of view from canadian critics. this is especially obvious to me when i read reviews of stuff i haven't seen. every time i read a review, the leading actors are criticized in terms of emotional complexity, and not their technical abilities. an actress could juggle knives while somersaulting through a flaming hoop and reciting rhyming verse at breakneck speed and she'd be called gimmicky and shallow, not impressive. this ties back to an acting practice based on four times debunked notions of psychoanalysis. which stanislavsky himself rejected, but he was too late—a pair of stupid americans built the north american method to end all methods on ideas he later recanted.
6. inadequate rehearsal time. the reason i think i'm so rarely surprised by what i see in canadian theatre is that we just don't have the money to afford the rehearsals we need. here, minimum is six weeks. after three weeks, an ensemble is usually through the play, and sure, they could put it on, but wouldn't dare. the next three are used for reconsidering the stage logic, taking things that were obviously expressed and finding something more surprising and inventive, and tying the details of every action to the larger arguments of the piece, such that it functions as a united(ly disjointed, depending on the director) unit of meaning.
7. a general poverty and artistic insecurity that creates a lack of daring in the mainstream. i know many people here with various complaints against the state theatre system, and it's not all ungrounded, but it's hard to argue that it's conservative. because of our relative theatrical youth, combined with financial pressures, we have created a genre of theatre and continue to foster it, rather than pushing for new expression. the 1970s in canada were really revolutionary. we built a theatre culture, and what was being done then was avant-garde for its time. we're making that theatre still. those giants of playwrighting and theatre creation are now running the main theatres all over canada, and hire artists who are interested in working in that idiom, which is now completed outdated. i don't care about epileptic crackwhores in timmins speaking muttered provincial dialect in a theatrical sense. they have my compassion, but we've seen it onstage. but we were so quick to canonize the likes of judith thompson and good old george f walker that we stopped having an impulse to look beyond that to boundary-pushing, challenging, and uncomfortable theatrical expression. if there's innovation, it's made as polite, watered down, and inoffensive as possible.
8. political identity affecting allocation of sparse funds. as a white anglophone male, i'm a BAD demographic when it comes to applying for grants. handicapped native francophone lesbians have it easy, and sure, they deserve money too. but the theatrical idea is often second to the racial / sexual / cultural classification of the theatre creator. i could play the gay card if i wanted, but i don't know what my sexuality has to do with my theatrical ideas, except that sometimes i have a taste for camp and like pink lighting. besides, who's to say that handicapped native francophone lesbians should be confined to making theatre for handicapped native lesbians? the problem is, that this psychoanalytical nonsense that's permeated our acting style also has convinced an entire culture of artistic creators and consumers that you can only 'write what you know,' which means create what you are, not what you observe. besides, this theatrical beggary means we're pitching ideas we can sell the arts councils, which means often that we are producing more of the same, trying to submit to the status quo rather than doing what art should have the freedom to do, which is mount an outright challenge to the values of the society in which it is produced.
9. puritanical guilt kills our sense of humour. as a country founded by the religious radicals who got forced out of england, we started out as a "no cards, drinking, sex, dancing, or theatre" culture (raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens). we have this horrible guilt we are supposed to feel for not toiling at a good protestant job. we're looked at as spoiled. so we have to run around making humourless, heavy theatre and pretend that our jobs and lives are really hard. and to an extent, the money issue means life is still hard. the job though, is wicked fun, and i find it stupid to pretend that i don't love what i do, like so many of our theatre artists who have 'made it'.
my boyfriend (an insipid term i hate but significant other and partner are also nauseating and loathsome so i'll opt out of canadian politically correct terminology for the highschool colloquial) is always harping on this argument of doing away with the money system. not surprisingly, he's also an artist. i smirk and stare at the floor and vaguely play the pragmatist, but daring to think on it—oh the freedom. damn us hippy leftist idealist artists and our impractical ideas.
and then there's the one thing that is the unfortunate truth: the best theatre is struggling against its own limitations. some of the stuff i've seen here that clearly has a huge design budget i find uninspiring because the director was financially free to choose the obvious form of expression, instead of working on a shoestring budget where you have no choice but to creatively solve expressive problems. catch 22.
that said, there's got to be a happy medium. accountants and lawyers who are bad at their jobs make better money than most of the talented theatre artists out there (those who can even find work). sure, we know going into this profession that we're not going to live well, but maybe people would give theatre the respect it deserved if we actually had the money to make the quality worthy of respect. and then not give artists the i told you so when we complain about personal money problems because a well financed industry would yield theatre that drew a better audience. no wonder we have a tiny theatre-going population and most shows i go to i see a room full of familiar faces. it's only those of us with the faith that it could be something better than it is that go.
this is not to say that all canadian theatre is bad. i've seen some really wicked stuff in canada and i'm generalizing on trends i've seen. a more typically canadian article about this would be very careful to note all the exceptions so as not to offend everyone. i'll leave it that many exceptions exist.
all this coming from the fact that i'm heading home, and have a number of projects that i'm working on that i can't devote myself entirely to, due to having to fundraise, and work a side job in canada to keep myself fed and financed. and i'm looking at things like serving tables, teaching english, and other such things. i love my city, but i'd love it more if i could earn my living with my real qualifications there.
that's my balls-out rant. i'm off to rehearsal.