My First Theatre Production Was Probably My Last, Composing, 21/03/2016

Just under a month ago, I read a review of a piece of theatre that I’d quite like to see. It’s in London, so I really hope they record it and make a version available online eventually. It’s called Cleansed by Sarah Kane, and directed by Katie Mitchell.

It is an apparently very disturbing piece of art – deeply symbolic and filled with visceral violence and torture. Actors masturbate on stage. There are graphic murders and horrifying violence throughout the story. Anal violations, mechanical tortures, brutal stabbings. Nudity is a constant, and this nudity is disturbing and unsettling – as far from erotic as you can get. 

A scene from Cleansed, some seriously weird shit.
Yet compared to what I’ve learned of the most remarkable theatre of the last century, Cleansed actually fits in quite well with its history of provocation and the tradition’s recent desires to push the boundaries of art forward. Despite this, there seems to be a limit to the artistic innovation theatre can achieve. 

You can see this in the descriptions of the audience at the Cleansed preview. Its political content is challenging, but its on-stage violence amounts to nothing more unusual than a live theatre Hostel. It’s violent, but no more bloody than a typical horror or action film of the 21st century.

But audience members were hissing and walking out in disgust. The audience was composed entirely of refined, upper-crust, and frankly ignorant theatre buffs. The folks who, as far as the VICE reporter could tell, still tittered nervously at the double entendres of a farce like The Importance of Being Earnest

It seems to be the same conundrum that I hit two years ago when I produced my first play, You Were My Friend. I still thought about the theatre as a place for challenging, powerful art. That’s why I wrote an uncompromising story about two women struggling against the financial erosion of under- and unemployment in modern Toronto.

My whole crew and I thought the story was wonderful, and that (it’s my blog, so I’ll blow my own horn) the script itself was pretty damn good. What audiences were got were appreciative, and many people approached me after performances to say how affected and touched they were. It hit people in the souls and the guts. 

When I first thought of the story of You Were My Friend, I wanted to make a visceral, powerful theatre experience that depicted the struggles of so many people in this rough economy, and showed how low we could fall – financially and ethically – if we didn’t support each other.

English theatre director Sarah Kane
And we succeeded. Me, the director, the designer, our technician, and our two actors, we all succeeded. But the audiences were all at Theatre Aquarius down the road watching the feel-good Canadian patriotism play Billy Bishop Goes to War

Of course, a serious factor in Billy Bishop’s success was the terrible and tragic timing of our theatrical run. Barley two weeks before we opened in Hamilton were the Parliament Hill shootings, whose only fatality (other than the shooter himself) was Nathan Cirillo, a Hamilton-born soldier who was only in his mid-20s. 

The entire city went into a period of collective mourning. A city in that mood wouldn’t be drawn to a story like You Were My Friend, but would sit in the collective cushion of happy patriotism. But thinking about the reaction to Cleansed helped me understand that there was more to it.

The art of playwrights like Antonin Artaud, Henrik Ibsen, Dario Fo, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, and Harold Pinter could shock a popular audience because they had a popular audience. But theatre today is priced largely beyond the reach of ordinary people.

Most young people in my generation and with my cultural tastes – fairly intelligent hipsters raised on Quentin Tarantino, basically – love to watch these kinds of emotionally powerful and sometimes viscerally violent stories. We’re the generation who loves series on Netflix like Jessica Jones, television shows like Breaking Bad, and I hope movies like the film version of You Were My Friend

I’m finishing the script over the next couple of weeks, and then we’re searching for enough funding to get this thing produced. My lead actress Samantha from the theatre version is keeping her role and will direct as well.

Because people like Samantha and me (and our collaborators on the play version, Mel, Jeannette, and Hannah) are drawn to stories like this. They’re the kind of stories people love from artists like Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham. But you put them on the theatre and they go nowhere. 

Theatre audiences largely aren’t young people anymore. The tickets are just inaccessible to them, especially in the most prestigious venues. So the biggest theatres in my current home city of Toronto – despite having a major large theatre district – play mainstream musicals and mainstream adaptations like Spamalot. Anything more experimental – even the classics – ends up on the margins.

So I’m probably not going to produce theatre again, unless it’s a trial run or some related part of a project that will be recorded and distributed more cheaply than live performance. There just aren’t the same possible returns. And I want to aim big.

1 comment:

  1. Before you lose hope, remember Toronto is a very strange city. It's a vast a place with many layers, with lots of good stuff hidden from view.

    Back when I lived in St. John's, from what litte experience I had with the music scene, it seemed like everything was punk/death metal/art rock. I loved it. When I moved to Toronto, I was at first very disappointed. It seemed like everyone was playing pop cover at all of the venues and I started thinking "man, everyone in Toronto are a bunch of sellouts".

    But then I started networking. I met up with a friend I used to know in St. John's, and he introduced me to his friend's band. And then I started using facebook to find shows, started liking bands, and then I discovered a huge vibrant music scene that was previously hidden from view. Even NOW magazine missed a lot of the shows I went to. Some venues I discovered:

    The bovine sex club - lots of punk and metal
    Coalition bar in Kensington market - lots of metal
    Cameron house - folk / indie
    The cavern (hidden in the basement of a hostel ) - I've been at lots of good shows here.

    The list goes on and it's a long list.

    Anyway, perhaps the same thing is going on with theatre. You have to look harder. There are a lot of people in the GTA and I am sure there are people who will appreciate your art. You just have to hunt for the LSPU hall (or basement of the Arts and culture center) of Toronto.