how canadian theatre is killing itself, or how to REALLY love our audiences

I’m currently spending a few months in Germany before moving to Toronto in mid-August. A few days ago a good friend from Vancouver emailed me, asking the following question:

“What’s it like being in a place where the arts are considered nourishment?”

His email came hot on the heels of two articles that had given me quite a bit to think about: Christine Quintana’s “Thank You For Coming” and Bruce Norris’s Howlround article “The Private Theater, aka “Dynamic Pricing.” So I took some time to tell my friend about my experience in Germany, especially in the context of Christine’s and Bruce Norris’ articles. I think the (maybe not so implicit) connection between these two writings is vital in the context of contemporary Canadian theatre, so I’m posting my response here.

The term “the arts” doesn’t even really exist here (Germany) in the same sense. When people talk about “art” here, they’re usually referring to visual art, because that’s what “art” translates to. Sure, sometimes you hear someone talking about culture or cultural offerings, but usually people here don’t talk about things like “the value of art,” or “how wonderful” “the arts” are or something like that, because they take “the arts” for granted. For people here, art exists on the inside, as opposed to something that happens outside of themselves—a thing that “other people” do and that they can find “wonderful” and “purchase” for “entertainment.” Here, art—and theatre in particular—is something that audiences partake in. Not something they just receive. And that’s crucial.

I notice this difference so much during curtain calls at the theatre here. Bows here are an exchange between performer and spectator in which each party thanks the other for having made the experience of the evening possible. It’s a completely genuine conclusion of a genuine relationship: the spectator thanks the performers for their work, while the performer thanks the spectator for theirs. NOT for purchasing a ticket, but for their active, captivated presence; for constructing the story with them—indeed, for completing the story. The audience’s active intellectual and emotional engagement is a direct condition for the performers’ ability  to travel their characters’ journeys, to throw themselves at their art. It’s a steady feedback loop, a constant connection. For the performers here, performing doesn’t seem to be “work;” they seem to relish each performance as an opportunity to discover themselves in the art. And yes, that’s totally “work,” but it’s something they do for themselves, not for the people who bought a ticket. Yes, they need people there to do it, but the capitalistic aspect of that is almost non-existent. Rather than just bodies, they need engaged spectators there to feed off their captivated energy—the result of being an active constructor of the evening.

On Sunday, at La Traviata (much like at Romeo and Juliet a few of weeks ago), the applause lasted at least 10-15 minutes. Everybody applauded everybody; performers applauded the soprano; the soprano applauded the audience and the conductor; everybody kept on thanking each other for a successful relationship. That’s how it should be. Because these live performances are only alive if the audience, like everyone else, is a character in the room. Not necessarily explicitly or through some kind of meta technique, but through a direct and active type of engagement in the construction of the story, intellectually and emotionally. The audience needs to be tasked with active meaning-making, with autonomously filling imaginary gaps—it needs to be a participant in order for live theatre to even be able to exist.

I’m very sad to say that I have rarely observed this dynamic in Vancouver. And I think that might be why so many shows there felt so strangely, uncannily dead, without a steady heartbeat. Because the relationships in the room were one-way streets: the performers “worked” for the audience, and the audience thanked the performers for their “work”—for getting their money’s worth. I’m not talking about a lack of enthusiasm in Vancouver—I’ve seen big applauses that had audiences on their feet for minutes. But barring a couple of shows, the dynamics in the room were always the same: the performers TOLD the audience a story that the audience RECEIVED because they had PURCHASED it. Hardly ever was the audience an active constructor, and thus a necessary part of the evening.

I find this notion prevalent in much of the directing and dramaturgy I’ve observed in Vancouver, too. So often it’s about whether the audience is going to “get” what we’re “giving” them. It sometimes feels like we aren’t interpreting the work, but rather translating—indeed literalizing—it for the audience. Everything seems to constantly be about making the material as accessible as possible, as though that’s what we have to do in order to retain customers. That opacity and obscurity are extremely important in art, because they transfer intellectual and emotional agency and thus ownership to the audience by allowing them to figure something out, seems completely overlooked. We’re breeding lazy audiences. We’re patronizing the very people whose intelligence and emotions are integral to the successful realization of our work onstage. That’s the result of a completely market-bound, capitalistic arts structure, in which shows are treated essentially as commodities. Here in Germany it’s more like everybody thanks everybody for being necessary parts of the experience, for assembling the pieces together, for an act of artistic communion and communication—which makes so much sense. It’s sacred. Maybe capitalism kills theatre. I think it might.

With all due and sincere respect (and thanks!) to Christine Quintana and her article “Thank You For Coming,” in which she makes some very interesting points about audiences as seen from the front lines, we must go further and redefine our current goal of simply getting people into our Canadian theatres. We MUST begin to think about the form of theatre itself, about how we can become more than a mere alternative to Netflix and TV. If these are our “competitors;” if theatre is merely “entertainment,” then our grave has been dug. We cannot compete with these mediums. And we shouldn’t. If we continue on this track, eventually only the super-rich will be our guests (and owners!) and we WILL disappear. As we should. As exclusive, bourgeois theatre should. To prevent this, we MUST begin to reconsider the live aspect of theatre; we must think about how we’re different from these mediums; we must contemplate HOW and WHY the theatre tells stories; and we must STOP treating it as a mere “vehicle”—a medium like any other. Theatre is live. We must therefore think about, and choose carefully WHICH stories should truly be told through the medium of theatre—not all stories are best told in the theatre, or deserve the theatre as its container. We HAVE to reconnect form and content. We HAVE to think about how to let audiences into our stories. We HAVE to show this medium some love, give it our formal attention, remind ourselves of WHY we use it, and stop taking it for granted.

Ask yourselves: Why do you want this story to be a play?* Why should it be staged in a theatre, rather than be put on film or published on paper? How is your story going to use the theatre to become a play? Do you need a live audience for your story? Why do you want one? Why should your story be told live?

Making theatre is about more than just methodologically practicing our craft. Making theatre is about rigorously questioning and challenging the theatre; it’s about abandoning ourselves to it. You can’t do theatre just for the sake of doing theatre. That would be a total underestimation of the form you love.

This desperate need for a rigorous dramaturgical reexamination of theatrical form is directly connected to the necessary exchange between performer and spectator that theatre requires in order to be. This exchange that I describe above, the active relationship between performer and spectator—the very essence of live theatre—is currently inhibited not only by stories that aren’t really for, and don’t really work in the theatre, but also by our funding structures, i.e. the very infrastructure on which Canadian theatre is built. I remember Kim Collier’s emphatic acceptance speech at the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards Ceremony in Vancouver in 2012, in which she stressed over and over again the importance of non-profit theatres.** I cannot agree enough: We MUST think about the way our theatres are turning into for-profit businesses (sometimes under the guise of non-profit/not-for-profit organizations), and about how this commodification KILLS the very essence of live theatre—because it inhibits that crucial exchange between performer and spectator that is theatre. This is why Bruce Norris’ excellent article is so important—not just because it points a very necessary finger at dirty dynamic pricing schemes, but also because it hints at how the increasing commodification of our theatres, OUR DRIVE FOR PROFIT AND GROWTH, literally builds passive one way streets between artists and spectators, turning artists into providers and audiences into receptacles, thus annihilating the very foundation on which theatre can only exist: active, two – (or more!) way relationships. Theatre is MORE than a transfer of goods and services to purchaser. Audiences are MORE than customers. 

This is how and why CANADIAN THEATRE IS KILLING ITSELF. To be clear, I am NOT suggesting that we become like Germany—that we ever could, or that we ever should. Not remotely. But I AM suggesting that we need to think about, and seriously consider the current state of affairs in Canadian theatre. Because as it is, our own infrastructure—the business model—is ruining the very dynamics that define theatre. We MUST think about how to rescue the essentials of the form from the business model, so we can then artistically and aesthetically develop Canadian theatre at the institutional level.*** Let’s start by running out into the streets and yelling it from the rooftops: We need true non-profit theatres!



*Or musical, for that matter. Substitute “play” for “musical,” “opera” etc. throughout this paragraph if that’s your thing.

**My memory is cloudy regarding the details, but as far as I recall, this was part of an acceptance speech for a Jessie Award for All The Way Home, which Kim directed in early 2012 at the late Vancouver Playhouse. In this production, she invited the audience to sit onstage in immediate proximity to the performers, instead of in the auditorium. This non-traditional configuration meant that only a small percentage of the usual volumes of spectators could come to the show; in other words, it meant taking a huge cut to the show’s potential earnings—based solely on her artistic vision. According to Kim, this endeavor—this very important type of artistic risk—was only possible because of the non-profit infrastructure that supported the production. She is right. And it’s inexplicable to me why her incessant pleas haven’t been shouted from the rooftops by theatre artists in all of Canada.

***It’s important to note that much interesting work happens in Vancouver’s independent theatre scene, often also on a formal level. However, the question of how and why theatre exists cannot and should not be delegated to those independent theatres. Our independent theatre scene cannot and should not compensate for the shortcomings of theatre at the institutional level. In order for Canadian theatre to work, to define itself, to exist in its own right, to become and serve its own purpose—in Canada and in the world—we must hold our theatre to the highest possible standard both in and outside the institution.



  1. Tim

    First of all, it’s SO reductive to say categorically “German theatre is better than Canadian theatre”. The concept of looking at a fifteen minute applause and saying that it happens because there’s a better relationship between the audience and the cast….also VERY reductive. I also challenge that it’s a very vague thing to say. How do you improve the audience/cast relationship? Audience participation shows? Personally I loathe audience participation shows, and would be MUCH less inclined to go see one.
    Canadian audiences are very different from European audiences. We like different things, we experience life differently and we experience theatre differently. You imply that it’s a problem that Canadian theatre is about telling stories. I say what’s problematic about that? Canadians like narrative. What about that needs fixing? And again, just because you saw a German show that you liked does NOT mean that the German theatre model is better than ours.
    Canadians are notorious for doing this. We import British directors and Hungarian directors…The Le Coq school in France is where most of our masque/clown teachers come from. There is this ridiculous insecurity that we have when we look at our own theatre. We look at places like Germany and Hungary and London and Russia, and we say “oh why can’t our theatre be like that”.
    There’s really only one aspect of the German model that, for my money, we need here, and that’s the funding model. If Canadian theatre was FUNDED in the way that some European cities fund it (or used to fund it), then companies wouldn’t need to be as reliant on ticket sales in order to survive. But I leave you with this.

    Short of saying vague, unquantifiable things like “we’re breeding lazy audiences” or “the audience needs to be tasked with meaning making”, can you actually articulate why you think German theatre is better than Canadian theatre?


    • Actually, my point isn’t at all that German theatre is better than Canadian theatre. Rather, I’m using my experience of German theatre at the institutional level (which exists on a non-profit basis) to illustrate how the current systemic circumstances, i.e. the funding structures that Canadian theatre is largely built upon, are eradicating the very essence of what theatre is: a dynamic liveness—an even exchange between performers and spectators. In my opinion, the increasing commodification of Canadian theatre annihilates this even exchange by turning artists into providers and audiences into receptacles.

      Moreover, it is important to note that I’m quite committed to a Canada-specific Canadian theatre. That’s actually kind of the point of this article. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear—I thought my final paragraph and some of my footnotes, too, were quite explicit about that. However, I just don’t think we can develop a Canadian theatrical identity unless we preserve those essential live dynamics that I talk about…

      Furthermore, I do not have a problem with theatre that tells stories. I’m pretty sure all theatre tells stories in some way or another. Neither do I have anything against narrative. Much to the contrary. I don’t know where you found that indication in my essay.
      Regarding “meaning-making” and “breeding lazy audiences:” I think there are many ways to explain what I mean when I say ‘meaning making.’ It relates to what I say about interpreting vs. translating/literalizing. We need to speak a theatrical language in the theatre—a kind of code, if you will—that allows for agency on the part of the spectator in constructing the story. Maybe it’s a bit like poetry; if we employ visual metaphors, for example, the spectator is cued to interpret/make sense of a ‘sign’. He or she gets to use his or her own imagination in the story-telling process. This type of intellectual involvement produces a different relationship between the story and spectator than if, say, everything was told literally and explained directly or shown.

      Yes, I guess in some way these techniques qualify as a kind of audience participation. But I don’t think it’s the type of audience participation that you don’t like. It’s just a basic part of theatrical language.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So, just to be really clear, if we don’t employ this theatrical language or code, likely in an effort to make things ‘clearer’ or ‘easier’ for our audiences, then we’re reducing their agency and ownership in the construction of the story.


      • Tim

        So if I am to understand you correctly, you think we need more “abstract movement” in theatre? (I ask honestly, I’m not sure what you mean when you say we need to “speak a theatrical language” with “visual metaphors”).

        Again I ask what’s wrong with literalizing? I take literalizing to mean “telling the story” – i.e. doing what’s written on the page. And if that is your point, and I’m not misinterpreting you, I think you’re grossly underestimating the power that a good narrative can wield.


      • Re: “Abstract movement,” that’s not what I’m suggesting. Yes, I think abstraction can be one way of inviting our audience’s imaginations to make meaning. Maybe it’s about adding complexity through different layers of meaning, by giving more expressive power to costumes and set for example. Or by mixing styles. Ultimately, the question we could ask is: How can we offer our audiences something to read independently?

        By “literalizing” I mean reducing complexity, reducing layers, spelling everything out, showing, making everything as easy to understand as possible, worrying about everyone in the room understanding the same thing. Of course, what’s on the page is always debatable; it’s always in the eye of the beholder. So what makes you interesting to me as an artist is your very own view of what’s there. That’s your interpretation. I’m just calling for artists to trust their imaginations, to offer their worldviews without worrying that everyone needs to take away the same thing at the end of the evening. It’s so vital to leave room for our audiences to create their own version of the story, to take ownership of what they’ve seen, which will ultimately make their experience of it even more worthwhile.

        And Tim, I love a good narrative. I really do. Even a coherent, linear one. And I’m fully aware of its potential powerfulness. I really, really am. In fact, I’ve experienced it. I’m not sure why you think I don’t like narratives.


      • Coherent, linear narratives and my thoughts/suggestions are not at all mutually exclusive. In fact, I think they work really well together.


      • Tim

        Well I have to say that narrative is a very difficult thing to communicate. If one is focused on the abstract, one isn’t telling the story as clearly. I know this isn’t what artists want to hear, but very few non-theatre practitioners care about the artist’s “interpretation”. They just want a story. The same way the Greeks, the Medievals, the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution eras all used theatre – to tell stories.

        When an artist focuses on an interpretation, the artist is not focused on telling the story on the page, and so the narrative gets muddied. It has nothing to do with “dumb audiences”, it has everything to do with clarity of thought. The reason why HAMLET is a great play is because the writing is great and the narrative is great. NOT because the interpretation is great. The actor, director, designer, etc all need to be thinking “what is true to the script”, not “what is original or new”. This may just be a fundamental difference in the way you and I enjoy theatre, but I really do liken “interpretation” theatre to self-indulgence.


    • calla

      Yeah, I agree, Tim, Hamlet is a great play. But, you just used Hamlet as a really bad example. Hamlet, as a text, is rife with metaphor, poetry, haunting, and imagination: not literal. I agree that the writing is great, but WHAT makes the writing “great,” and WHAT makes the narrative “great”? And Hamlet may be a great play, but sadly, I’ve seen some really bad, and really boring productions of it… in Canada, I might add, but that’s beside the point, it could be done poorly anywhere. I think what Fannina is saying (on one level), is that it isn’t enough to say “good” and “bad” and pass judgements without really questioning what makes something “good” or “bad.” Maybe commercial art can settle for either being good or bad, or pleasing, or entertaining, but I think Fannina is asking for something more fulfilling… something she is experiencing as an audience member in Germany, and is wondering why it is so hard to find in Canada.

      I think a key word Fannina used in one of her responses was “imagination,” and I would like to focus on that rather than “interpretation”–which I think is maybe a complicated word here, perhaps being used in two different senses. Hamlet is certainly a work of Shakespeare’s imagination. It could also be argued that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s “interpretation” of social/political/historical/emotional/psychological/etc. phenomena that he was experiencing/witnessing in his own life–the play being an imaginative interpretation, if you will. Next in line, we have theatre practitioners working centuries later (directors, dramaturgs, performers, designers, etc), who are re-staging Hamlet. This may be a really great idea, but why do it now? How do the artists performing Hamlet today, understand the play? Is it possible that they understand it EXACTLY as Shakespeare did? Will our audiences experience the ideas and the beauty in the same way today as in the past? Are some parts more relevant or poignant today than they ever were before, with current events and all the history that has gone by? –These are just examples of some of the many questions we could ask ourselves when creating theatre in Canada. We can stage the play as literally as possible, but we must ask ourselves if it is worthwhile to do so. What do the artists discover by doing another Hamlet? What will the audiences discover? Will they discover anything? Is theatre just inherently good, because it is equated with “culture,” therefore, it makes us feel sophisticated when we go to the theatre?

      And why does hardly anyone in Canada ever go to the theatre!!?? What is theatre!?

      And interpretation, self-indulgence? As an audience member, I am humbled when the theatre piece I am seeing asks for something from me. If I can’t receive the work through my own emotional/psychological/intellectual history, then the work risks become didactic and it risks assuming that I agree with, or understand the premises/ideas/narrative/values/etc. that the play has introduced to me. I don’t think Fannina is advocating that theatre artists interpret in a didactic, self-indulgent way, I think she is advocating that they more rigorously question themselves and the Form they are working in… not take it for granted.

      anyway, good discussion!!


      • Tim

        This is my exact point. William Shakespeare wrote a beautiful, poetic, metaphorical, allegorical, insert adjective here….play. Every one who reads or sees Hamlet will see something different in the play. That’s what we want theatre to do.
        My point is that because William Shakespeare wrote this wonderful play, the job of the actor/director/designer is to be AS TRUE AS POSSIBLE to his script. When the audience leaves the theatre, you want them to be thinking “Wow, what a great play”. If they leave the theatre thinking “wow that one actor”, or “wow that movement piece in the middle” or “wow that cutout of a Christmas tree on the wall”, then the play has failed. Why compete with Shakespeare? You’re probably gonna lose. And if you want to do your own thing, write your own play! And include all of your abstract ideas, by all means.
        But Hamlet, while it has abstract ideas written into it, they are part of the STORY. Not part of any “director’s vision” or “actor’s interpretation” or any other sort of “originality”.

        I’m gonna be perfectly honest, what bugs me so much about these arguments (and this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve had them), is that these arguments usually revolve around the following fallacies:
        1) There is something wrong with Canadian theatre
        2) Commercial theatre isn’t as good/imaginative as Independent theatre.
        3) Europeans “get” theatre and we don’t..
        4) Everybody’s sick of the classics. (this one drives me crazy).

        These are vast, unquantified, and in my opinion, untrue statements, and I’ve yet to see a good point made for any of them.


    • calla

      Hey Tim!

      Glad we’re on the same page about Shakespeare. Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure of seeing much Shakespeare that really came to life for me. I’ve never been to the theatre in anywhere else but Canada, so I”m certainly not here to advocate or compare against European theatre. I can easily say that theatre, as compared to other art forms I have experienced in Canada, tends to be boring, didactic, and an insult to my intelligence. Sometimes theatre is not these things, but it falls short of asking something from me, as an audience. I feel that it doesn’t matter if I am there or not, whereas, if I engage in other art forms, it does feel as though it is important that I am there with the work, whether it is reading a novel, looking at a painting, watching a film, or music… I would just say that there is something wrong with me, and that it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the theatre, but why is it that so few people seem to go to theatre compared to other art forms?
      That being said, I appreciate how much work it is to put on a theatre piece, and that not all bad theatre is completely bad… it can have intriguing moments. I guess I’d just like to see some theatre that was humbling, that made me feel less alone in the world, that made me really think about a play, an idea, a situation, in a different way than I ever thought of it before. I don’t want someone to produce Hamlet and show me everything I already knew about Hamlet… I want to see Hamlet and realize how much more there is in Hamlet than I ever saw before. I’m not sure how you do that. Maybe reproducing Hamlet exactly as the Elizabethans did, is a way to do it, but I don’t think that is necessarily enough because I have seen it done that way before, and it felt hollow to me.

      1) There is nothing “wrong” with Canadian theatre. I just find that, for the most part, I can’t really connect to what is going on in a very personal way. Hard to explain, I guess. Maybe I’m just not the “target audience” so I shouldn’t bother having a standard for it anyway, when I’d much prefer to go to a football game, a museum, or the zoo. Still, it is hard when I studied theatre, to just stop questioning it…
      2) I am not sure I feel that commercial OR independent theatre is all that good or imaginative.
      3) Like I say, the European theatre experience is something I haven’t had. But I think it is likely that some places in Europe experience the form of theatre in a different way than we do, here in Canada. It is likely a social/cultural/historical thing, but I bet it exists.
      4) No one EVER said we were “sick of the classics.” I am just sick of people producing the classics without really seeming to study them and ask good hard questions about what makes these plays “classic,” and HOW do these plays operate in a way that continues to connect with us?

      hope I haven’t driven you crazy!

      I think theatre has the potential to ask all these questions and arguments that we are raising, just through its very existence and its very form when questioned and researched rigorously…


      • Tim

        What you’re essentially saying is “I’ve seen a lot of theatre that I didn’t like”. That’s a fair thing to say. If I could ban crappy theatre, I would (but that’s impractical and impossible obviously). But when a story is told well, people usually like it.

        But more importantly I really do have to challenge your statement that every time you see Hamlet, you’re seeing “everything you already know”. I’ve probably seen three productions of Hamlet in my life, I’ve read the play three or four times, and I’ve done two different monologues from the play, and every time I see it or read it or work on it, I learn something new about it, or about life, or about love, or about depression, etc. This play has survived over four hundred years for a reason. The Stratford Festival can operate an 1800 seat theatre, an 1100 seat theatre and a 500 seat theatre because people LIKE plays like this. St Lawrence Shakespeare, Bard on the Beach, Theatre by the Bay, Driftwood, Shakespeare in the Ruins, Shakespeare in the Ruff, Classical Theatre Project, Humber River Shakespeare….There’s tonnes. And they are all companies that do VERY well at the box office (comparatively). And they do very well because people like the plays.

        On a similar note, I also have to challenge your question of “why is it that so few people seem to go to the theatre in comparison to other art forms”. I’m gonna throw out a random guess and say that there are 500 plays done in Toronto every year (I think that’s a fair guess). All 500 of those plays will get audiences. Let’s say 100-150 of them will get good audiences (one out of every five). Meanwhile the Mirvishes are filling their 1000 and 700 seat theatres, Stratford is filling their 1800, 1100 and 500 seat theatres, Shaw is 3/4 filling their 800, 380 and 330 seat theatres….200-300ish seat theatres at Soulpepper and Tarragon are routinely sold out. Toronto Fringe Festival is regularly sold out as is Toronto Summerworks Festival, as is Luminato.
        Now how many art galleries are there in Toronto? There’s a bunch, but only one of them *really* sells. How many dance theatres really sell? Two? Three? How many operas? Music and novels are different, because they are mass produced, inexpensive and one doesn’t need to leave their house to experience them. And when one does go to a concert, it’s more than likely a concert put on by a band you already listen to at home.

        I understand what you’re saying. Shakespeare is difficult to understand for actors and directors. If it’s difficult for them, it’s even MORE difficult to make the audience understand it and relate to it. And so we resort to “concepts”. Like Richard III in Nazi Germany or Romeo and Juliet as Muslims and Jews, or Hamlet on the moon. We do this because we think it will make the play easier for an audience member to understand. The irony lies in the fact that you consider the company that produces the conceptual version to be challenging their audience more! It requires SO much respect for an audience to have actors just sitting there and talking. You have to trust in your play and your actors and your audience WAY more in a non-conceptual production.


    • Joanne Williams

      The take away for me from this, Tim, is that making theatre accessible above all, that making our primary concern be whether the audience will “get it”, hurts us. We need to make creative, brave, imaginative work that lets our audience in certainly, but gives them something to think about, something to engage them, and invite them to fill in details and create images and inventions in their minds. Hopefully, if a theatre piece engages you, you recognize you can get something in theatre that you can’t get elsewhere. That feeling of engaged with something live. Thanks Fannina, for this article.


      • Tim

        You say that as though a story/narrative doesn’t engage, or challenge an audience. Theatre has been a storytelling medium for its entire history. What storytelling medium doesn’t give an audience something to think about, or invite them to fill in the details? These are all weirdly circular arguments, which endow conceptual theatre with some sort of strange and mysterious power that storytelling theatre doesn’t have.

        In the last 50-75 years or so, we’ve started introducing more abstract, “conceptual” stuff to theatre. And – surprise – VERY seldomly does it sell. And then we turn around and blame theatre artists, claiming that audiences don’t like abstract, conceptual theatre because our AUDIENCES are dumb. These are broad statements obviously, I’m positive there is some great conceptual work out there, and it clearly has fans, as anyone reading this board can see. But, as it has been for the last 2500 years, audiences for the most part still respond best to linear, clear, concise storytelling. And that is NOT a problem.


    • calla

      Well, Tim, I don’t know, man. I do admit that I did a very horrible job about trying to communicate the disappointment I have felt with seeing staged Shakespeare plays (including Hamlet). I AM NOT advocating that we do “conceptual plays.” In fact, I think “concept plays” can be a very slippery slope and require a lot of thought and rigorous questioning and consideration if they are to be done. I’m just asking for a little sophistication, a little vulnerability, a little respect for my intelligence from the artists at work.
      I have never seen a truly Elizabethan rendition of a Shakespeare, although I have seen several plays done in period dress. I have studied Hamlet, as well as many other Shakespeare plays, and have performed monologues and scenes, and done intensive close-readings and scene studies for well over a decade. Like you, I continue to find more layers in Shakespeare’s work each time I engage with it. That is why I am left so exasperated after seeing a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays, and feel as though I would have made more discoveries re-reading the play alone in my head. For some reason, I connect to the poetry, the characters, the images, when I am engaging with it on the page, just as Shakespeare wrote it. Could be that I just always saw really bad productions, but I’ve also seen productions at Stratford and Shaw, as well as at universities, and although, I learned from them, I guess I didn’t learn more about myself, or about how much I don’t know… and I wasn’t emotionally affected by them… unless you count “boredom” as an emotion.

      I still think few people see theatre or understand it compared to other art forms. Many Canadians live in small towns or rural areas without theatres. We live in a culture where we rely on mediums that can be mass produced or mass disseminated, so I don’t think it is fair to exclude novels and music. What about film? Also, we are not only exposed to visual art in galleries… Visual art is all over the place and takes many forms, and often you can’t help but be exposed to it. For instance, plenty of sculptures exist in public parks. I agree that ballet and opera aren’t doing too well in Canada either. The performing arts are struggling. The numbers you have given, don’t mean much to me. There are a lot of people in Canada. Why is it that in all the places I work, in the community I live in, and in the universities I have attended, so few people around me ever go to the theatre? I also sense resistance to going to the theatre from many of my peers. Why is that? I think I have only ever been to a sold out play once or twice in my life, most times, the theatre is less than 1/3 full. Most importantly, I’m not talking about “selling.” I am talking about engaging with the other, with ideas, with action, with stories… Through the medium of art.

      “And when one does go to a concert, it’s more than likely a concert put on by a band you already listen to at home.” Yeah, but Hamlet is something I read at home too, so why doesn’t that count???

      “I understand what you’re saying. Shakespeare is difficult to understand for actors and directors. If it’s difficult for them, it’s even MORE difficult to make the audience understand it and relate to it.” NO!!!!! I am not so sure you understand what I am trying to say. I DON’T WANT TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE UNDERSTAND!!! As an artist, I want my audience to discover with me, through the medium of theatre. As an audience, I want to feel as though the theatre artists, and their work NEED me to be there to complete the work. It’s like… I don’t want the theatre artists to “make it easier for me to understand!” That’s assuming that there IS something to understand, and that I’m so stupid, that the artist has to hold my hand so that I can understand it. Can we ever really understand Shakespeare? Hamlet? Pollock? Picasso? Mozart? Beckett? Is not the beauty in this artwork through the very process of realizing that the world is maybe not what it seems? Rather than giving answers, or solving problems, showing how complicated, opaque, and unfathomable the human condition is?

      I agree that actors “just sitting there talking” can be a very moving experience. I have seen it happen–mostly in advanced acting classes. I think you are right too, about trust. As a Canadian audience member, I enter a theatre with my guard up. I am wary of being talked down to or manipulated, or ignored. I don’t trust very easily. Why is that? Sure, it could just be that I am a paranoid person, but I suspect this is not the case. I have heard it from others too.

      I have a feeling that there is a lot more going on here than just “bad theatre,” “dead theatre,” and lazy or poor potential audience members.


      • Tim

        I have to challenge a few more things…
        1) “Many Canadians live in small towns or rural areas without theatres”
        You’d be surprised. 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook (a hamlet of what…1000?) is a 350-400 seat theatre that sells out every night. They service the Port Hope/Cobourg/Peterborough area. There are MAJOR regional theatres in Prescott, Blythe, Concord, Newmarket, Orangeville, Hamilton, Sudbury, Perth, Grand Bend, Port Hope….I mean you name the rural town, there is a theatre that services them, and I can just about guarantee that that theatre does REALLY well at the box office.
        I know that box office may not be the ideal way of measuring the success of a theatre company, but the fact is that modern democracy…indeed the very way the world is run nowadays…is based on where money is spent. If people started eating salads at every meal, you can bet your bottom dollar that McDonalds would become a salad joint. Similarly, if these theatres are selling out, they’re obviously doing something right.
        2) “I don’t want to make the audience understand”
        We’re probably just being picky here with choice of words. But you’ll never convince me that the job of the actor, director AND designer is not to tell the story so that the audience understands the story. If the story is told, the beautiful subtleties, questions and mysteries of the play will all come out. If they don’t, then it’s probably not a very good play.
        3) I don’t know that a “true Elizabethan rendering” of Shakespeare is what is needed. I think Shakespeare would have loved to be able to cast women, light his shows and stuff like that. But yes. I maintain to my very last breath. If you see a play that doesn’t move you in some way, it’s either a bad play, or it’s a bad production.
        4) I don’t know what you mean about wanting the artists to “need” the audience. Every artist needs an audience. Without an audience you’re just wanking.


    • calla

      Hey Tim,

      1) I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about how many people go to the theatre in Canada, and if it is a culturally relevant form for the masses.

      2) Sure, semantics often get in the way, of understanding each other, and we may be “picky” about our choice of words. I usually try to be selective about what words I use and how I use them. I think you’re right here, that the theatre artists need to make strong choices for how they perform the story of the play, in order to make the play world clear. But does theatre have the potential to do more than just tell a clear story? Why not just get on stage and read some Grimm’s Fairytales to the audience from a book? What I mean by “understand” is that I think theatre–and art in general–has the power to make us question our understanding of the world…. we understand that there is so much more that we do not quite understand…

      3) “If you see a play that doesn’t move you in some way, it’s either a bad play, or it’s a bad production.” YES, you are exactly right. Bad plays and bad productions are what I usually see when I go to the theatre!

      4) I don’t know what you mean about wanting the artists to “need” the audience. Every artist needs an audience. Without an audience you’re just wanking. YES, you are making my point, exactly. Pretty much all of the theatre I’ve seen (and I’ve only ever seen Canadian theatre, I’m not comparing it to any other nation), is just wanking… I don’t feel as though I need to be there.

      thanks for your comments. Good discussion.

      Thanks to fannina for posting this article.


  2. Peter

    You make some interesting points here, and your passion for theatre is evident. That theatre be a dialogue is certainly important, and that dialogue has to start at the earliest possible moment – by taking our children to theatre, and by making both the performance of and critical thought about theatre a part of every school curriculum. (Something that your German audience experienced more than your Canadian audiences.) We need audiences who are used to attending the theatre, and are therefore equipped to have the conversation about our most challenging and intellectually engaging works. That doesn’t mean, of course, that theatre needs to be intellectually elitist. Great stories will always engage.
    But (and forgive me if I’m reading something in this that isn’t here) I’m not sure we should equate for-profit theatre with the commoditization of theatre, and the killing of live theatre that this implies. There is a certain freedom in the for-profit sector to produce a singular vision and be accountable only to the ticket buyer – not to a board, a subscriber base, a sponsor or a funding agency. There are those in the for-profit sector that play it safe, going for the seemingly easy money of rehashed films and songbook musicals, and there are not-for-profit theatres that do the same. But there are others in both sectors who are much more ambitious. In some of these theatres, the relationship between audiences and the work could not be stronger.
    It’s easy to simply receive art these days. Heck, there’s a lot of great drama on Netflix. But I have a lot of faith in my community and in audiences. Eventually they’ll all discover (or remember) how much fun it is to experience great stories together instead of in isolation. Let’s keep making great theatre and coax them out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • calla

      Hi all,

      I think Peter make some great points about German culture, about the engagement of good stories at many levels, and about how people somehow might need to discover community again. I am wondering though, if “the commoditization of theatre” is something more than just money and profit…? When we are “free” to be accountable only to the ticket buyer, is it not much more difficult for new artists to create work? How can artists who aren’t filthy rich, make new and exploratory work, taking the risk that some ticket buyers might not like it? As you said, a lot of people turn to making “rehashed films” or “songbook musicals,” for this very reason. And if it is just “for profit,” are we only making theatre for the upper classes to see? How will lower income people see theatre? Especially when in Canada, you usually have to drive to get to a theatre, so you’re paying cost of tickets, plus gas, plus parking… If art really IS nourishment, in the way that food, shelter, and spirituality can be, then why should it be reserved for those folks who are lucky enough, or wealthy enough to afford it?
      And also, if I were rich enough to go to the theatre all the time, I wouldn’t go, because, like you say, they have some pretty good drama on Netflix. Why would I go to the theatre? I have a bit of faith in people, but not in the audiences that I have seen in Canadian theatres. I don’t think people consciously care about experiencing great stories together. Beside, we have blogs, and facebook, and twitter, so we can just stay home and watch Netflix, and THEN facebook our friends and tell them how great it was, or how stupid it was, or how great we are for having an opinion about it, etc, without having to bump into any strangers in the auditorium along the way! Netfilx is great too, because you don’t have to go at certain times (i.e. Saturday at 2pm or 8pm). AND, if you get bored, you can just switch movies, without feeling guilty about buying your ticket, or leaving your seat! Amazing.

      If people really do want to seek out something less isolationist–and Peter, I think you might be right here–how are Canadian theatre artists going to have that dialogue? Perhaps, by questioning the very form of theatre in Canada. Is the for-profit model working? Why do more Canadians watch Netflix than go to the theatre? What insights or aesthetic/affective qualities do we gain through a theatre form, that Netflix cannot provide? When we make a work of theatre, how are we engaging with the form to tell our story? If our story can be told better through a movie on Netflix (or an abstract movement piece, as Tim suggested), then maybe we should drop the theatre and turn to another art form.

      I certainly don’t have any answers to how to make the Canadian theatre alive again. I do think that it is pretty dead though. I think what we can do, to start (and I think Fannina is encouraging this in her essay), is to rigorously question why we are making theatre, and why we have chosen the form we have chosen. Asking deeper existential questions about who we are, what is important to us, what we want/need from our audience to complete the work, etc., are questions that have the potential to make any work of art (or story), really come to life. Asking questions admits that we are in a realm of doubt, and we are exploring and searching–not blindly and uncritically–but Very critically, and humbly too. It is not enough to just make theatre without questioning why we are doing so. Maybe Canada doesn’t need a theatre, so who cares if it is dead? I have a feeling that this isn’t true, but I also think that the form of Canadian theatre has to change in order to really re-engage Canadian audiences in a meaningful way. I don’t know what this would look like, exactly, and I’m sure it WOULD NOT look like an imported German theatre, as so many of you have pointed out, that would not work (nor do I think Fannina was at all suggesting it might). I think Fannina was pointing out that Germans are engaging with the form of theatre on multiple levels, not just profit levels (i.e. cultural, existential, affective/emotional, psychological, intellectual)–and that Canadian theatre pieces often become slave to the types of values associated with profit, emotional/political safety, existential transparency, etc.

      Anyway, great article. Lots of ideas embedded in there to consider and keep thinking about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Peter

        Good points all. To quote Calla, “Why do more Canadians watch Netflix than go to the theatre”? Well, because it’s a mass medium, and theatre is not. Theatre will never “win” that battle, nor should it try to.
        Instead, we have to focus on our point of difference – the live experience. And at its core, in this one person’s opinion, is the immediate physical presence of the performer. There are lessons to be learned from the music world here; people download music, but they know it will be somehow intrinsically better and more meaningful Live. And in support of Fannina’s thesis, it’s better and more meaningful because the performer and the audience truly need one another. They are meaningless alone.
        This may seem like an unrelated tangent, but to me it’s not. Perhaps it is time to both strip our art form bare, and to raise its standards. As regards the former, what can we do to make theatre less expensive? Price is a huge factor in getting new audiences to try theatre. More subsidy and sponsorship is one way, certainly. But in its absence can we reduce our institutional overheads? Can we focus less on visual spectacle and more on acting and engagement? Can we drag our collective bargaining associations out of the WPA era and loosen the rules for independent production and the development of new Canadian plays? One great way to make the theatre less elitist is to make it affordable.
        As regards the latter – the raising of our standards – I would suggest that we currently create too many aspiring theatre professionals through our colleges, universities and conservatories. Or at least we create too many aspirants who think that a job is waiting for them. I would rather see less graduates who have been more thoroughly educated and vetted – and whose education has been rounded out with more coursework in politics, literature, critical thinking, the sciences, etc. In other words, I’d like to see more emerging theatre artists who have something to say, and the skills to say it.
        One of the reasons that audiences stay away from live theatre is that they get burned. They go see a play, often because an aspiring friend is in it, the play is terrible, and they are loathe to again give live theatre a chance. To adopt the language of commoditization, maybe we have too much inventory and insufficient quality control.
        Or maybe I’m just ranting like the aging curmudgeon that I am.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Tim

        What makes you think Canadian theatre is dead?


      • calla

        Hey Peter,

        I agree with you about Netflix… I don’t think theatre should try to “win” the battle… at least not the profit one.

        I don’t know if we are creating all That many aspiring theatre artists at colleges and universities… I am not sure why that has to be a bad thing, either. I do agree that it is silly for theatre students to assume that a job is out there waiting for them, or that they are entitled to such a job, just because they have the education. I also agree that a well-rounded educational experience is very important and valuable. I have studied theatre and performance at two different universities and found that both were quite rigorous in their training. My BA was done at a university where it was mandatory for me to do plenty of other courses, and I agree that those courses were very enriching and always helped me question what I was doing in my theatre-related courses… In fact, I wasn’t going to major in theatre, but only did because I was taking it as an elective, and decided to study it further.
        I’m wondering though, if it shouldn’t be the other way around: Maybe, the math, business, engineering, chemistry, nano-tech, biology, economics (you get the picture), students should be required to take some theatre courses in theatre literature, history, performance, and critical engagement…
        But overall, yeah, I agree with you Peter, most of the theatre that I see does not seem to be coming from “people who have something to say.” Skills are hit and miss… I don’t know if the lack of “people having something to say” is entirely the fault of educational institutions… I think the problem is a bit more systemic than that, and complicated (but that is another discussion).

        And you got it! One of the only reasons I ever go to the theatre is to see someone I know, yet I somehow still think the theatre form could be really important, just not sure how to revive it…


    • calla

      I was thinking about what I said in the last post, and about Peter’s observation that young people today, don’t seem to “have anything to say.” Now that I think about it more, I’m not sure that is the problem we are dealing with here…

      I wonder if great artists don’t so much “have something to say,” as they have something to discover… Is the job of the theatre artists just to tell, show and give? Or is it more about listening…?

      You’re right, Peter, I have been in post-secondary school for over 7 years, and I still have very little to say. In fact, the more I learn, and the more I “think critically” about the subjects I research, the more I feel as though I can’t really say anything for certain. I spend my life navigating uncertainties. I think that is okay, but maybe that’s not the way other people consciously navigate the world.


  3. Kel

    This -> “And I think that might be why so many shows there felt so strangely, uncannily dead, without a steady heartbeat.” I so agree with this to summarize my audience experience at Canadian theatre in contrast with how I feel in American theatre (Chicago/Detroit). Although I often chalked it up to the general reserved attitude in Vancouver… but that’s a whole other blog post, right?


  4. Patrick

    I think the first commenter needs to take a second read as he has taken a single anecdote intended to partially support a thesis and has re-interpreted it as the thesis itself. Next he ascribes a different interpretation to the example and turns it into a false dichotomy – then tries to disprove it. I did not see anywhere in the article supporting his second sentence and yet he uses it to set up a straw man argument. Sounds almost as if he only read the article very briefly and then projected his own interpretation of the events/examples instead of trying to understand what it was the author was explaining. The points Tim makes, if not for the direct quotes of sentences, almost seem unrelated to the article, as they quite clearly do not engage the theme of the thesis.


    • Tim

      One of the first lines of the piece, in bold AND left in its own paragraph for emphasis was: “What’s it like being in a place where the arts are considered nourishment?” The title of the piece starts with “How Canadian theatre is killing itself”.
      The rest of the piece goes on to diagnose problems with the way Canadians perform, direct, produce, watch and experience theatre, all while holding up the German model as the gold standard. So explain to me what I’ve misunderstood.


  5. The great dilemma lies in balancing the administrative needs and the artistic ones.
    Having recently returned to Vancouver to direct and having recently experiencing the international theatre in London and Moscow, perhaps the extremes of the question, there some major differences that lie at the heart of production. Some of these seem small, for example in order to save money many companies will double side print their scripts. This has the unfortunate side effect of creating hiccups and pauses in the actor work than then takes rehearsal time to expunge. Others are larger and more evident such as the two week and half week rehearsal period.
    Artistic Directors work hard and I have yet to meet one, from the major Canadian festivals to the independent start ups, that wasn’t desperately trying to stay afloat, provide artist employment and make good work. As a producer myself, I get that.
    A challenge in Canadian theatre lies in the expected three tier funding – one third grants (Municipal, Provincial and Federal that creates its own set of issues), one third fundraising and sponsorship and one third Subscription and Box Office. Currently, and this is global, the subscription rates are falling. Whether this is due to whom the companies have been marketing to over the last few decades or simply a societal change is up for debate. The truth remains that these numbers are going down in general and the model is shaky – add into that the tightening of funder budgets (and grants are always inconsistent so how does one plan?)…you can see how it can get a little scary for the producing bodies.
    By being dependent on seat sales for one third of its capital and as the gage by witch a production is judged, unlike art galleries for example, the not for profit theatre is still forced to adhere to a for profit model and, as such, will make choices that are in the interest of the long term company survival over the interest of the individual productions. Most companies seek a balance here, but the overall priorities of survival and its tools from politics to production models can come into conflict in the quality and advancement of the art and form.
    The heavily government subsidised theatre comes with its own woes, primarily a reliance on the state. Ideally, a subsidised theatre exists to provide a platform for material that would challenge its audiences, presenting voices and forms that are not heard in the main stream – in other words, not popular. These then go on to inform and inspire the main stream. This ideal is dependent on government benevolence. Remember Thatcher’s rearranging of funds from small companies to state monuments in Britain and effectively killing the opposition voices or, on a more extreme level and let’s not forget Meyerhold.
    The subsidised theatre came out of World War 2. In Germany it was partially as an attempt to understand what had happened but also as big push from the German governments in public relations. The Russian system came about under the Soviet regime along with purges and gulags. The British Theatre came from a huge socialist movement in a country that had suffered greatly. All these places had actively had someone attempt to destroy them and their culture. The Anglo Canadian system came from a popular nationalistic desire to be more separate from the UK. (On an interesting side note, with the formation of the Councils, this was essentially the death of the for profit touring market that had its own effect on both quality and form).
    We no longer live in a world were these WW2 lessons are remembered. The theatre, across the world, has become part of the Entrainment industry wither it is subsidised or not, and the mounting costs of creating theatre and actual revenue that can be generated simply don’t add up. As a result the idea that theatre’s purpose is to “entertain” has taken hold (rather than entertainment being a tool in its repertory towards a greater conversation) with both the general public and the sponsoring bodies. This thinking does not help lead to greater exploration or adventure in craft. Also, on the flip side, many peer committees react in the polar opposite supporting material or projects that don’t have a greater public reach or longevity in artist reverberance (one might argue that if something were truly revolutionary, it would be impossible for the committee to recognise it).
    It is perhaps no surprise that much of the exciting theatre then comes from small independents such as Vancouver’s How to Disappear Completely, Edmonton’s The Drowning Girls, Toronto’s Solo Hamlet or Montreal’s My Pregnant Brother. These artists developed their works through fringe festivals and other alternatives that play more to the passion project model taking years in process and at great individual sacrifice of heart, time and money. On the International scene this same pattern can be seen with productions like Yael Farber’s Mies Julie or companies such as Cheek by Jowl.
    Further in this, quite understandably, the emerging or independent artist seeks both employment and recognition. This comes again from the main steam or regional theatres. Artist will then naturally tailor their work (whether consciously or unconsciously) towards these influences.
    What is the solution?
    I don’t know. Finding a balance between the needs of the institutions and the needs of the art form is tricky. Especially in lean times. Start ups can look to new models and ideas (such as the 5 year company) and attempt to convince to funders of their validity. Older institutions can look to develop different production models that allow either a greater development periods or provide support to the independents. This is, in many places, already happening.
    At the end of the day, we serve our communities and owe them the best possible work we can give them. That includes creating a living conversation with our audiences does not diminish them through flattery or pandering to the pocket books but that makes them laugh during times of hardship, challenges them through conflict, inspires them through imagination and creates a place where each individual can be given a place of transformation – a place to dream. And we must endeavor to do so whatever the means.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Tim

      I wish we had exact numbers on how many independent theatre companies there are. I don’t know the numbers in Vancouver, but in Toronto there are HUNDREDS of indy companies all producing at the same time. There’s one “for-profit” company, and then a few more not for profits that are successful with “homes”. Again I can’t speak to Vancouver, but certainly in Toronto, problems with attracting audiences to indy theatre stem from there being TOO MANY independent companies, not from their being too few.
      They also stem partially from marketing. I get all my indy play invites on facebook because I’m an arts worker. But if I wasn’t an arts worker, I’d have no idea about any of em. Many of them also suffer from a lack of quality.


    • Hi Jack!

      Yes, you’re absolutely right; German theatre evolved out of WW2 and the need to deal with a massive amount of societal trauma. To some extent, that engine is still running today, but German theatre and its makers are also always reflecting and discussing how its mandate—its reason for existing and being in the world—is constantly in flux and changing with the times, and how the art form has to evolve accordingly. In my mind, that’s the conversation we’re missing in Canada and that we NEED TO START HAVING. I said it in my essay and I’ll say it again: “making theatre is not just about methodologically practicing our craft. It’s about rigorously questioning and challenging the theatre.” We must figure out and clearly articulate our role in the (Canadian) society that we’re (allegedly) making art within and about.

      Yes, the three-tier funding model. Yes, dependence on subscribers. Yes, I totally agree—this comes with a ton of problems. But what you say here is crucial:

      “The truth remains that these numbers [of subscribers] are going down in general and the model is shaky – add into that the tightening of funder budgets (and grants are always inconsistent so how does one plan?)”

      Yes, the model is shaky for artists AND producers. It’s dated. I say it’s on its way out. As a friend of mine said, “the cultural nationalism that gave Canadian literary arts their engine is a dead end.” AS IS THE FUNDING MODEL THAT CAME OUT OF, AND SUPPORTED THAT ENGINE. As I wrote elsewhere this morning, “huge societal, artistic, and economical changes have occurred since that engine worked, and even more has changed in the last 5-10 years. I think we have to REDEFINE our engine; we must discuss WHY we exist, and HOW we want to exist—as an art form and as a collective of artists. We need to articulate clear ideas. Then we need to think about what kind of financial infrastructure we need. And then go from there.

      We need systemic reform, economic and artistic (or “dramaturgical”, as I tend to call it) reform. Otherwise, this cycle of complaint and complacency is only going to continue. It’s evident that so many of us are sitting with a massive amount of fear and discontent. So, can we turn that negative energy into a common goal? Can we find out if there is a common goal? Can we find a way to get Canadian theatre artists around a table (real or virtual) and talk about what we want Canadian theatre to be? Is there a way that we can organize looking at what we are vs. what we want to be? Right now, much of the situation feels fractured and overwhelmingly negative. Not yet productive.

      I’m fully aware that systemic reform is a VERY big job, almost inconceivably big. And I do believe that it has to happen on many different levels and in many different ways. Nonetheless, we must take responsibility for the system we live in, and organize the change that we and our art form need.”


  6. Colin B

    I scanned through this conversation looking for references to Fringe festivals and found none. Surely the Fringe movement has more of this exchange, this sense of community to which you allude in Germany? Erica Paterson wrote a graduate thesis to this effect during her time at UVic, I believe.


  7. Michael Doherty

    While I don’t think the answer is very helpful, the underlying question itself is. That is, “what is Canadian theatre doing wrong?” Since self-examination and the search for improvement is always useful, whether at the personal or the instituional level, perhaps some other answers could be generated. My own suggestion would be that an unhealthy dichotomy has been created, in which theatres either offer safe restagings of established Broadway and London productions or offer the theatrical equivalent of cruciferous vegetables, productions that are perhaps supposed to be good for their audiences but are unpalatable and unsatisfying. There seem to be very few attempts to create and stage new plays that audiences might actually enjoy.


    • Tim

      That’s an unfair thing to say. I’m not sure how things are in Vancouver, but in Toronto, if I’m not mistaken, EVERY major theatre company (including “classical companies like Shaw, Stratford and Soulpepper) has staged a new play in the last two or three years. Granted, many of them took plays that were originally staged at Fringe Festival, but the point remains. Da Kink in her Hair, Musical of Musicals, Kim’s Convenience, RARE, Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding….are just a few examples of new Canadian plays that have been staged by major companies.
      And I utterly reject the notion that Canadian theatre is “doing something wrong” in comparison to European theatre.


  8. ms anne thropic

    the only theater in canada of any legitimacy are strip clubs

    somebody had to say it


  9. Anyone see this essay from south of the border last week? It made the rounds about my US-based theatre making friends:

    I wonder how it is related?


    • Wow. GREAT article by John Steppling. Thank you VERY much for posting this. I think it’s directly related on a number of levels, so I’m posting a few excerpts below.

      “There is no longer an audience culturally educated enough to sit through say, a six hour Heiner Müller play — but really, it is more about the loss of mimetic depth (and this becomes too philosophical for the purposes of this article), the inability of audiences to really listen or look. A sub-effect of this (…) issue is that the ascension of irony has coincided with the rise of marketing, of a branded culture of hyper-realism (…).”

      “For theater requires, and in fact is predicated upon, a space. And that space must have the capacity for ritual learning. Theater is ceremonial, in the end. It is a civic ceremony. It is not entertainment. It is for the most part the opposite of whatever they told you at the University MFA program. Think the opposite and you will be closer to the truth. I read someone recently say the playwright’s first job is to not bore the audience. No, actually the first job of the theater artist might well be to intentionally bore the audience. You think awakening from the dream is supposed to be fun? The first job of any artist is to be serious. Within that is the avoidance of manipulation, of pandering to be liked, of dancing like the organ grinder’s monkey, hoping for spare change.”

      “Institutional theater is on a respirator, and probably your health insurance doesn’t cover it anyway. In Los Angeles, before I left, I had a small panel discussion as an answer to the Theatre Communications Group panels being held. I was surprised at the love being shown, or at least fondness, for TCG. But then I thought, Stockholm Syndrome. Until theater artists bite those hands that provide scraps, the leftovers, then the colonizing of artistic consciousness will continue. And I get it, believe me. Without an audience, without validation of some sort, you become the cultural version of a battered child. You accept becoming collaborator, because the alternative seems too bleak. And it is. For theater to recuperate its own history, the form of stage narrative, then the creation of an audience is the first step.”


    • calla

      Yes! Wow. This is a great article. Really articulates a lot of what I have felt and observed both as an audience member, and theatre scholar/maker.


  10. Eli Goulding

    I think Fannina, is just sharing traditions that she would like to see happen in Canada that made her experience worth sharing about, being overwhelmed by her ambition to travel and rant how everything is better across the pond obviously.

    Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves.
    1. Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already. The greatest playwright in history has become your enabler and your crutch, the man you call when you’re timid and out of ideas. It’s time for a five-year moratorium—no more high schoolers pecking at Romeo and Juliet, no more NEA funding for Shakespeare in the heartland, and no more fringe companies trying to ennoble themselves with Hamlet. (Or with anything. Fringe theater shouldn’t be in the game of ennobling, it should be in the game of debasement.) Stretch yourself. Live a little. Find new, good, weird plays nobody has heard of. Teach your audiences to want surprises, not pacifiers.

    2. Tell us something we don’t know. Every play in your season should be a premiere—a world premiere, an American premiere, or at least a regional premiere. Everybody has to help. Directors: Find a new play to help develop in the next 12 months. Actors: Ditto. Playwrights: Quit developing your plays into the ground with workshop after workshop after workshop—get them out there. Critics: Reward theaters that risk new work by making a special effort to review them. Unions, especially Actors’ Equity: You are a problem. Fringe theaters are the research-and-development wing of the theater world, the place where new work happens—but most of them can’t afford to go union, so union actors are stuck in the regional theaters, which are skittish about new work and early-career playwrights. You must break this deadlock by giving a pass to union actors to work in nonunion houses, if they are working on new plays.

    3. Produce dirty, fast, and often. Fringe theaters: Recall that 20 years ago, in 1988, a fringe company called Annex produced 27 plays, 16 of them world premieres—and hang your heads in shame. This season, Annex will produce 10 plays, 4 of them world premieres, which is still pretty good. Washington Ensemble Theatre will only produce three plays, one of them a world premiere. (An adaptation of… Shakespeare!) What else happened in 1988? Nirvana began recording Bleach—and played a concert at Annex Theatre. By the next year, Nirvana was on their first world tour. The lesson: Produce enough new plays and Kurt Cobain will come back from the grave and play your theater.

    4. Get them young. Seattle playwright Paul Mullin said it best in an e-mail last week: “Bring in people under 60. Do whatever it takes. If you have to break your theater to get young butts in seats, then do it. Because if you don’t, your theater’s already broke—the snapping sound just hasn’t reached your ears yet.”

    5.Offer child care. Sunday school is the most successful guerrilla education program in American history. Steal it. People with young children should be able to show up and drop their kids off with some young actors in a rehearsal room for two hours of theater games. The benefits: First, it will be easier to convince the nouveau riche (many of whom have young children) to commit to season tickets. Second, it will satisfy your education mission (and will be more fun, and therefore more effective, for the kids). Third, it will teach children to go to the theater regularly. And they’ll look forward to the day they graduate to sitting with the grown-ups. Getting dragged to the theater will shift from punishment to reward.

    6. Fight for real estate. In 1999, musician Neko Case broke up with Seattle, leaving us for Chicago. (It still hurts, Neko.) When asked why in an interview, she explained, “Chicago is a lot friendlier, especially toward its artists. Seattle is very unfriendly toward artists. There’s no artists’ housing—they really like to use the arts community, but they don’t like to put anything back into the arts community.” Our failure abides. Push government for cheap artists’ housing and hook up with CODAC, a committee that wants developers on Capitol Hill—and, eventually, everywhere—to build affordable arts spaces into their new condos. (CODAC’s tools of persuasion: tax, zoning, and business incentives.) Development smothers artists, who can’t afford the rising property values that they—by turning cheap neighborhoods into trendy arts districts—helped create. To get involved with CODAC, e-mail

    7. Build bars. Alcohol is the only liquid on earth that functions as both lubricant and bonding agent. Exploit it. Treat your plays like parties and your audience like guests. Encourage them to come early, drink lots, and stay late. Even the meanest fringe company can afford a tub full of ice and beer, and the state of regional- theater bars is deplorable: long lines, overpriced drinks, and a famine of comfortable chairs. Theaters try to “build community” with postplay talkbacks and lectures and other versions of you’ve spent two hours watching my play, now look at me some more! You want community? Give people a place to sit, something to talk about (the play they just saw), and a bottle. As a gesture of hospitality, offer people who want to quit at intermission a free drink, so they can wait for their companions who are watching act two. Just take care of people. They get drinks, you get money, everybody wins. Tax, zoning, and liquor laws in your way? Change them or ignore them. Do what it takes.

    8. Boors’ night out. You know what else builds community? Audience participation, on the audience’s terms. For one performance of each show, invite the crowd to behave like an Elizabethan or vaudeville audience: Sell cheap tickets, serve popcorn, encourage people to boo, heckle, and shout out their favorite lines. (“Stella!”) The sucky, facile Rocky Horror Picture Show only survives because it’s the only play people are encouraged to mess with. Steal the gimmick.

    9. Expect poverty. Theater is a drowning man, and its unions—in their current state—are anvils disguised as life preservers. Theater might drown without its unions, but it will certainly drown with them. And actors have to jettison the living-wage argument. Nobody deserves a living wage for having talent and a mountain of grad-school debt. Sorry.

    10. Drop out of graduate school. Most of you students in MFA programs don’t belong there—your two or three years would be more profitable, financially and artistically, out in the world, making theater. Drama departments are staffed by has-beens and never-weres, artists who might be able to tell you something worthwhile about the past, but not about the present, and certainly not about the future. Historians excepted—art historians are great. If things don’t turn around, they may be the only ones left.


  11. Pingback: contemporary theatre, “interactivity,” and the problem with (neo)fascist thought | FANNINA WAUBERT DE PUISEAU

  12. Pingback: towards a dramaturgy of resistance (commissioned by SpiderWebShow) | FANNINA WAUBERT DE PUISEAU

  13. David Allan Stein

    Dear Tim,

    You display a fundamental and disturbing misunderstanding of art. Narrative is not necessarily art; it is a medium, like paint, stone, etc., by which art emerges in the clash and resolution of abstract ideas. The more artistic ideas can be verbalised, the less they are art. All ART is abstract.


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