What do Audiences Do?

Cross-posted from Glasswater Theatre’s This is Not a Review

When talking about the differences between theatre and film, or theatre and television, one of the things I like to emphasize is the audience’s role as co-collaborator in the work: without an audience, there can be no play. Aside from their role as consumers of the theatre, I hadn’t thought about what else audience members can do. Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to see some companies in Toronto that have taken the audience’s role in the show much more seriously than simply breaking the fourth wall or using the aisles.

Some audience members just watch, some help out a little more.Image from Oink & Coo Photography, http://www.oinkandcoo.ca

As half of their show at Harbourfront in April, Evan Webber and Frank Cox-O’Connell produced a version of the Greek tragedy Ajaxthat both gave the audience an integral role and interrogated the typical relationship between audience and play. The first half of the show seemed to be in a curtained black-box-like theatre. During intermission, they distributed masks for the audience to wear in the second half. As intermission ended, they raised the curtain to reveal that we were in fact sitting at the back of a proscenium stage and, now masked, would be playing the role of the (silent) chorus. The lead roles were played by small clay dolls, while the actual actors played audience members. On the one hand, this inversion of place meant that we, the audience, were being watched as much as we were watching. On the other hand, as the dramatic action was moved off the stage and into the (structural) audience, we got to witness an audience engaging with a show in a way that I think most theatre creators would want: I mean, maybe more vocally than we would appreciate, but they were performing some real synthesis: relating what they were seeing on stage to what they know of history and to their own lives.

The other company that’s been doing some work with interesting audience interaction is Single Thread. Their last few shows have put the audience to work in increasingly complex and innovative ways. Always using non-traditional performance venues, Single Thread has been experimenting more and more with non-traditional audience relationship. In their 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Spadina House Museum, the audience were told when they arrived that they were newly-hired staff at the House and on their first official tour they witnessed the play (possibly the most dramaturgically interesting part of this was that the audience was divided into two groups who saw different subsets of the play – but that’s a discussion for another time). Earlier this year, they performed an original piece at the Campbell House Museum about an incident in the rise of William Lyon Mackenzie. In this one, the audience were the jury, deciding whether or not Will Campbell was guilty of trying to incite a rebellion against the government. In addition to providing a framework for facilitating the audience’s movement around a  diffuse playing space, this also meant we were ultimately called upon to make a decision: they voted to determine Will Campbell’s guilt (Sir William Campbell presided as judge, so we didn’t need to worry about sentencing). This was a step up in complexity of the audience’s role from Much Ado, but it was nothing compared to what was to come.

In conjunction with the city’s celebrations of the centennial of the War of 1812, Single Thread has created  an immersive, heavily interactive piece called The Loyalists. After laying out ground rules, the audience are thrown into a reconstructed town of York during the 1813 American occupation. Not only do the audience members choose where to go and what to look at, they ultimately have to pick sides and take an extremely active role in the events – which team they choose to support (or deny their support to) can actually change the outcome of the show. I’ve seen this show in particular compared to LARPing and capture the flag, but it is definitely still theatre.

So to return to the title question, what do audiences do in these pieces? In most of them, audience members are co-opted as cast-members: however passively, they become actors in the show, with varying degrees of agency.  In the more complicated pieces, however, the audience also function as playwright and director: shaping the piece. More literally than in traditional theatre, the audience in these pieces becomes a true co-collaborator.

The Loyalists runs until June 22nd. Tickets and more information available here. As with so much in this life: the more you put in, the more you’ll get out of the experience.

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Lies, Damned Lies, and Theatre

Cross-posted from Glasswater Theatre’s This is Not a Review

Some of you are hoping tonight that the rarest of things will happen: that someone is actually going to tell the truth.That’s rare. That’s hen’s teeth.

You should know better.

And so should I. Because that’s what I’m looking for—every time I come back to this place, and all the places like it. Looking for the truth: that rare, random descent, like a feather across the back of your hand.”

– Mike Daisey, from How Theater Failed America

“I also find any assertion that any piece of art (theatre ) is “true” or “completely factual” to be suspect. As soon as we call something theatre (prefixes such as “docu” or “agi-prop” are simply codifiers for marketing) we are moving into the realm of artifice and lies.”

–  David Ferry, on the Praxis Theatre blog post Pushing up Daisey: iChanges in iChina

“Do you think these people are mentally ill? Do you think it is possible that they are making all this up?”

– Mike Daisey’s translator Cathy, wondering about the accuracy of FoxConn workers’ claims

This past weekend I finally got to see the Toronto production (and adaptation) of Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, produced by Outside the March in association with Theatre Passe Muraille. The  history of Daisey’s work is by now infamous: a worshiper at the cult of Mac, he got curious about how Apple products are actually made, went to China, wrote a play about his experience, punched up some details and presented it as a true account, did a lot of media, went on a journalistic radio program claiming it was the truth, and then was publicly humiliated when his fabrications were exposed.

Daisey has chosen to release his play into the wild under a Creative Commons license, so that anybody who wanted to could use it as a tool to proselytize against the evils of Apple. Daisey hadn’t been working from a script, exactly – each performance he tells his story afresh – so he developed a script from transcripts of the actual performances. He encourages people to make any adaptations they see fit; an invitation that feels a little different in the light of the scandal. The Outside the March production curated by Mitchell Cushman and David Ferry, properly titled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (and the Repudiation and Redemption of Mike Daisey), uses much of the text of Daisey’s play, but supplements it with information about the scandal.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (or TATES, which is Daisey’s short-form for it) talks a lot about the metaphors people use to understand the world around them, be that the world of technology and computers or corporate structure. The Outside the March production itself has a dominant metaphor; one that relates the production to the scandal, and even to Apple’s manufacturing policies. To fully understand it, we need to talk a bit about the scandal.

Lies and fabrications are a theatre artist’s stock in trade. The thing that made people (mostly journalists – there’s still considerable disagreement in the theatre community) so upset about Daisey’s work is not that he embellished and made things ups, it’s that he claimed that this partially made-up play was the truth, the complete truth, and nothing but the truth. It claimed to be one thing, but was really something different.

Daisey first got really interested in Apple’s manufacturing process when he saw some photos that had been taken inside a plant where iPhones are made and realized he hadn’t ever thought about the fact that, well, iPhones are made. While Apple didn’t (at this point) exactly claim something that wasn’t true, it had blinded him with their science: by never talking about how their products are made, they allowed Daisey (and the rest of us) to not think about it. They didn’t actually lie, they just weren’t transparent about their practices.

Which leads me to the dominant metaphor of the Over the March Production: transparency. Despite Ferry’s convictions that truth is not really the province of theatre (and if you’re interested in his further thoughts, you really should read the comment section under this article), his production is very transparent about the inadequacies of Daisey’s script as a record of truth (this is probably as good a place to say this as any: it  fails as a record of truth, but in my view it’s successful as a piece of theatre). He starts with a discussion of the scandal and an invitation to the audience to think about the nature of the relationship between truth and theatre, and interrupts the progress of Daisey’s script when Cushman hands him cue-cards with commentary on the controversy.   There are definitely moments in the production that blur the line between Ferry and Daisey, but because we’re already so attuned to the difference between fact and non-fact, this serves to problematize the transparency of the production instead of occluding it altogether. This dominant metaphor is made physical in subtle ways on stage itself, and even in this fantastic image they’re using for publicity.

For what it’s worth, Daisey has responded to the controversy, on his own blog, and his reflections are definitely worth reading.

While the initial run of this production is over, it sounds like they’ll be scheduling more performances in the future (the venue has changed for each performance). It’s certainly worth checking out, if you get another chance.

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Truthiness: Dos and Don’ts in Reality-Based Theatre

Cross-posted from Glasswater Theatre’s This is Not a Review

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (as have a lot of people) about the relationship between the theatre and the truth. Partly in view of the upcoming Glasswater project, and partly from the fallout from Mike Daisey’s genre transgressions with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, I’ve been thinking about how theatre artists grapple with facts to uncover the truth.I don’t really want to talk about Daisey’s work right now – many, many people have already said things worth reading on it, and frankly, I haven’t seen it (although Outside the March will be bringing it to Toronto in May, and I certainly intend to see it then!). In case you haven’t been on the Internet lately: Daisey’s work has, shall we say, a problematic relationship with facts: it was billed as “not a work of fiction”, despite having some fictive elements. Once the proverbial shit hit the fan in Daisey’s project, it was hard not to wonder about the massive grey area between total Fact and total Fiction on the stage. In this bizarre climate, I saw two productions in Toronto based to a greater or lesser degree in reality, each grappling in its own way. By revealing their limitations to the audience, their truthiness was less of a problem.

The piece that took the greatest liberty with the facts was Proud by Michael Healey. The story of an unnamed prime minister of Canada (who is very, very clearly based on Stephen Harper), Proud made news when Healey accused Tarragon Theatre Artistic Director Richard Rose of not programming Proud out of fear of political repercussions (Rose has not directly responded to the allegation). While this dispute doesn’t particularly interest me, it is germane to the problem of the truthiness of Healey’s script.

The play starts with the premise that during the most recent federal election, all the Quebec seats that went to the NDP instead went to the Conservatives, leaving them with both a crippling majority, and the huge number of rookie MPs from ridings they hadn’t anticipated winning – people who hadn’t been groomed for the position or selected from the party elite. This gives Healey a clearly fictive space in which to explore the motivations of the very real (though, significantly, unnamed) Prime Minister – and allows him to think honestly about the man, while putting clearly fictional things in his mouth, giving him the plausible deniability of fiction. The result was a show that smacked of “truthiness” – vaguely based in reality, and having the ring of truth, but not being factually accurate in any way. Interestingly, since the reading of the show, in a bizarre element of life imitating art, a backbench MP has put forward private members bill somewhat similar to a private members bill put forth in the play, with a similar (public) government reaction. This certainly strengthens the truthiness of the piece, but because of the clearly fictional elements it still stays away from presenting fiction as fact. Is it different enough to avoid litigation? Time will tell.

At the other end of the factual spectrum was the Crow’s Theatre production of Seeds. Seeds is documentary drama in the traditional sense: all words spoken on stage were taken verbatim from interviews the playwright (Annabel Soutar) recorded with the people in question. Soutar also (not unlike Daisey) put herself in the middle of the action: including both her questions to the interviewees (giving their answers necessary context) and allowing her to explain her developing views on the issue at hand. The issue is Monsanto v. Schmeiser: the agri-business giant sued a Saskatchewan farmer claiming that he had illegally obtained some of their Roundup-ready canola. His defense was that the seeds had blown onto his property from a passing truck, but ultimately called into question the legality of owning a living thing, or rather, a gene that could only be a part of a living thing. The first act researched the facts of the case: interviewing Schmeiser and his wife, his lawyer, a representative from Monsanto, and various kinds of experts, leaving the audience clearly (though not explicitly) in support of Schmeiser.

Had the play ended here it would have been an exact twin to Daisey’s play: an investigation of a huge corporation and its frightening and nearly invisible treatment of the “little guy” – in Apple’s case, the workers in its Chinese factories, in Monsanto’s, the farmers using its GMOs: classic David and Goliath stuff. However, in the second act, Soutar conducted more interviews: interviewing Schmeiser’s neighbours, and foregrounding her own assumptions and biases. What she actually leaves us with is the realization that we don’t get to know the real facts (the Supreme Court ruled against Schmeiser, ultimately). She ultimately believes that Monsanto does bad things (as Daisey believes of Apple) but rather than send us out into the world with the simplistic (but emotionally satisfying) idea that Monsanto is evil, we’re left with the notion that genetic modification is scary, but that we live in a world (or at least a continent!) that it is irreparably a part of, and that there are no easy answers. This is how documentary theatre can transcend truthiness, and reach (unsettling, and as a result somehow unsatisfying) Truth.

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I still exist . . .

. . . I just feel strange about posting things on the internet for no reason. Good news: I now have a reason! I’ll now be contributing reviews to Glasswater Theatre’s “This is Not a Review” blog. I’ll cross-post them here – my first post went up two days ago.

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Autobiographicality and Inalienability

Because I primarily work on classical plays instead of new ones, but most of what I see are new plays, I sometimes think when watching them about the possibility for subsequent productions.  I get the impression (but I’m happy to be diabused of this notion) that because of a focus on always producing New Canadian Plays, that few Canadian plays – even very good, very deserving ones – get to have much of a life after their first production.  I don’t worry too much about this when I’m watching a new work in general, but sometimes I wonder how much autobiographical plays lose when performed by another actor.

The play I saw that started this thought process percolating for me was The Aleph at Soulpepper (luckily for all of you, this production is being remounted this year, so you can see it.  It’s really fantastic).  The play is an adaptation of a Borges short story of the same name by founding company member Diego Matamoros and Daniel Brooks. The Aleph is a story about a woman who Borges loved who died, and blends autobiographical elements of his life with the story of the aleph, a point from which all other points are visible. In adapting it for the stage Matamoros (and Brooks) took not just the content, but the autobiographical context. Matamoros spent time as a young man visiting his father, a diplomat, in South America. He in fact started the show out by passing around his first headshot – from the time in question, when he was just barely out of University – and talking a bit about his family and his life then. The fictional elements of the story merge seamlessly with his own biography in a way not unlike the way they do in the original story. Apparently Borges was once asked in an interview if he had actually seen the aleph – an impossibility, but it was made believable by the amount of verifiably true information surrounding it. The experience of watching Matamoros tell his story was similarly baffling – had I not known it was adapted from the Borges story, I would have believed it was all true.

Matamoros addressed much of this at the talkback after the show. One thing he talked about was the difference between developing a character that is completely foreign to yourself (though obviously drawing on your own thoughts, memories, experiences and relationships), and playing yourself by developing your own story. It strikes me that the latter is closer to just being a good liar, but upon reflection, what it really means is that nobody else can really play the part, at least not in the same way. The whole thing is tied up so much in his Diego-Matamoros-ness, his personal history and the complicated way he lived in an international community even at a young age, that it would be an entirely different (and much less rich) performance if given by anyone else.

That started me thinking about autobiographical plays in general, and whether this is always the case.  Are there times that the body of the actor is so bound up in a role that no other actor could take the role on?  Or is there just space for a different kind of performance?

With other autobiographical shows I saw last year, I had different reactions.  In My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, I think much of the charm was a result of knowing that the show grew out of David Hein’s actual experience (and it was touching to see photos from the titular wedding) but it didn’t seem to preclude productions that didn’t involve Hein.  Some of the songs seemed more personal than others (for example, “A Brief History of Gay Marriage in Canada” seemed particularly performer-friendly) but none of them would have felt inappropriate sung by another actor.

The show I saw that is the most concerned with the body of the creator is The Silicone Diaries.  In many ways, it plays like a lecture by Nina Arsenault about the various surgeries and modifications she’s made to her body . . . with constant reference to the results, on display on stage (she also makes use of video she’s taken of the procedures, and pictures of her when she was younger).  As a piece of documentary theatre, it could never be adequately performed without reference to Arsenault’s body.  But if one assumes (as I would) merit in The Silicone Diaries as a cultural artefact, it might be even more interesting to see it performed by, for example, a cisgendered woman, either with or without a history of surgery.

In a way this brings me back to The Aleph. The play was an adaptation of an autobiographical story – further from the truth, but still (or rather, more so) embodied in a single person.  Is this hybridization the next stage for any autobiographical work?

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Top 5 of 2010

I saw a tonne of great shows last year, but these five stood out among the rest:

5. The Anderson Project (Ex Machina/Canadian Stage, (October 26)

Robert Lepage is probably the foremost Canadian theatre artist of our time.  His stagecraft and the way he seamlessly intertwines it with video and projection make both pieces seem necessary parts of a unified whole – in a way that other shows I’ve seen that combine projection and live action never do.

The Anderson Project is a play about adapting a story for an opera.   It’s also about the artistic process and the loneliness and difficulty of communication it entails.  Also, cultural difference and how the French always seem to be on strike.  It is a remarkably beautiful piece of work.   This is an embarrassingly uncritical admission, but watching Lepage is one of the few times theatre feels totally magical to me, even when I can figure out how they’re doing what they’re doing.

4. Courageous (Citadel Theatre/Tarragon Theatre, February 5)

So, my interest and background in theatre is much more in classical than contemporary, and part of the reason I started going to see so much in 2010 was to fill in part of the shameful gap in my knowledge of Canadian playwrights.  That is to say (among other things) that I had never read or seen a work by Michael Healey. (Okay: that’s not exactly true.  I saw Healey in Studio 180’s Stuff Happens: he played George W. Bush, and though Bush is such a familiar figure and it would have been so easy, and reasonable, to just do an impersonation of the public figure we all recognize, he instead seemed to build the character from the ground up, while still rooting it in the man himself. Beautiful work.)  It’s possible if I had, I would have been prepared for the bizarre turn the play took after intermission.  At first the two acts seemed only tangentially related, but the more I thought about it afterward, the more clear the connection became.  This play is mostly on this list for two monologues in the second act about fairness.  They’ve both stuck with me, even months later.

3. The Tempest (The Bridge Project/The Old Vic (London, UK), August 16)

I went to London for the first time in August 2010, and Sam Mendes’ Tempest was the first show I saw.  In the Bridge Project, Mendes brought together a company that was half English actors from the Old Vic, and half American actors from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and toured them in rep doing two classical plays. This was the second year of the project, and close to the end of the run.  It’s only fair to admit that while I had never before seen a stage production directed by Mendes, my knowledge of his work directly informs the way I read Shakespeare and think about its staging, so I was pretty excited to see this show.  It’s also important to acknowledge the effect the venue had on me: the Old Vic!  It was also the single quietest audience I have ever been a part of.  During the course of the play, I didn’t hear anyone clear their throats or shift their weight.  What I liked the most about it is how much the production relied on the text and the actors, and how little it relied on anything else.  Perhaps in part because it was a touring production, there was very little set, and all of the choices (including the ‘magic’ which is such an important part of the play) were clearly based on very close textual reading, even at the expense of flashy and impressive effects.  This play reminded me why I love Shakespeare, why I think it’s still worth producing, and why I want to do the work I want to do.

2. Studies in Motion: the Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge (Electric Company Theatre/Canadian Stage, November 23)

This piece of Physical/Theatre by Vancouver’s Electric Company was fascinating.   It used projection and movement to help illustrate stories of Edweard Muybridge; his serial photographs of animals in motion, and an earlier point in his life when he killed his wife’s lover.  It started with a lengthy movement piece that had people moving across the space in different ways, and at different speeds, mostly completely naked.  It was jarring in the moment, but it meant that when actors were naked for plot reasons during the rest of the play the audience wasn’t distracted by squirming or titillation.  It must be said: once you’ve seen a nude man do a few cartwheels, nothing else can distract you.

In addition to being a truly fantastic piece of work on its own, Studies in Motion really opened my eyes to what’s going on in the theatre scene in Vancouver.  I’ve heard a little about the takeoff in the devised theatre movement over there, and it was really exciting to see some of the work first hand.  It’s a big country I live in, where lots of great theatre is produced, and I never forget how little of it I really see.

1. If We Were Birds (Groundwater Productions/Tarragon Theatre, April 30)

This play by Erin Shields was the show in Toronto I was most excited about seeing all year, and frankly was the one I was most likely to be disappointed by.  It was by a playwright who I’d only seen one other play by and it had been fantastic; I knew that it treated the legend of Procne, Philomel and Tereus, which I was super excited about; and I knew that it was working in a Greek tragedy format, which is my favourite style to see, but really tricky to work in.

Director Alan Dilworth and Shields did something brilliant to the chorus that managed to treat it simultaneously a collective and composed of individuals, that worked both as an other in the story and a surrogate for the audience.  In adapting the ancient story, the textual references (e.g. proper nouns) were the same, but somewhere between costume and other referents, the action wound up taking place in a very specific, very much present-day world, which allowed it to keep the scope and breadth of the original story, while making it feel very personal to a contemporary audience.

The story has an inherent staging difficulty in that a central plot point involves a mute character weaving her story into a tapestry which another character discovers, reads, and interprets.  That it’s non-verbal is a pretty important thematic element, and the solution the production used was elegant in its simplicity and very moving in its theatricality.

The writing was great and the performances ranged from very good to fantastic.  It cut close enough to the bone that people had to leave during the show (which, in another good decision, was presented without intermission).  This was definitely the best show I saw last year – probably for several years.

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2010: 76 shows

In 2010, I tried for the first time to keep a log of each show (play, opera or ballet) that I saw, and write some comments about it.  Over the course of the year I saw 76 different productions, most in the city of Toronto, some excellent, most pretty good, with one or two stinkers.  What I noticed most of all is that 76 shows barely even scratches the surface of theatre in this city.  It occurred to me that I saw enough things last year (and kept enough records) to have a top ten list.  Then I realized that I had a top five list without even really looking over my notes.  Hereafter, my top five and thoughts about the year in review.

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