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.