avant-garde performance and the popular: on Jordan Tannahill’s THEATRE OF THE UNIMPRESSED

I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about the release of a theatre book than when Jordan’s Theatre of the Unimpressed came out this April. But as tends to be the case with works for which I have big, specific expectations, reading Theatre of the Unimpressed left me feeling strange — without necessarily being at fault for that: it couldn’t have possibly conformed exactly to my expectations. In many ways my initial response was similar to Alexander Offord’s impressions, which he detailed on Twitter:

offordwrites-on-theatre-of-the-unimpressedLike Alexander, I thought the book was a surprisingly broad survey; its thesis seemed a bit general. I also thought it didn’t provide much new insight, but rather stated and explained current realities — albeit in very clear and articulate terms. And I, too, felt acutely the book’s anecdotal urban romanticism — presumably analogous to what Alexander calls its “memoir-y feel”. But in order to get at what the book wanted, as opposed to what I might have wanted, I began to examine Theatre of the Impressed independently from my expectations, based on what it seemed to do and wanted to be. 

As Daniel Karasik rightly suggests in his recent Globe and Mail review, the obvious central argument of Theatre of the Unimpressed is about our current need for a theatre of risk and failure: Jordan argues that “[t]here’s a prevailing, predictable theatre that’s risk averse and wary of failure, and there’s a dark-horse theatre that’s predicated on risk and failure as preconditions of a transformative live event.” To some extent, Daniel is also correct in locating Jordan and his work within the theatrical avant-garde: “[It] often subverts the realist style that’s ubiquitous at North American institutional theatres: his plays and performance pieces, full of emotional insight, have taken forms that include a live-streamed webcast and a magic-realist production with a cast of non-professional youth artists.”

Notably, however, and seemingly contrary to Jordan’s position as an avant-garde artist, it emerges throughout Theatre of the Unimpressed, that at the core of his book seems to live a conviction of theatre as a popular art form, with popular being defined as

(of cultural activities or products) intended for or suited to the taste, understanding, or means of the general public rather than specialists or intellectuals.

This concept of the popular is ubiquitous in Theatre of the Unimpressed. For example, Jordan explicitly notes that we make theatre precisely because of, and for, others: “Theatre artists of any age and experience set out to make plays because they’re attempting to access what theatre does best: a live engagement that forces us to confront the humanity of others. […] A play, even a boring one, is rooted in an emphatic desire to commune with others.” Jordan further suggests that theatre must begin to (re)connect with the public at large: “Theatres must also strive to further  integrate themselves into the greater cultural fabric of our cities and into the everyday lives of our citizens. […] Theatres must reimagine themselves as sites of confluence between art and community.” In other words, though Jordan’s work arguably qualifies as “avant-garde” — as “unusual and experimental” — his expectations for that theatrical work seem to be explicitly inclusive as opposed to exclusive: he regards theatre as a type of civic activity, recognizing that it exists for those outside of us — for everyone as opposed to for a few.

It is no surprise, then, that Theatre of the Unimpressed, too, qualifies as a “popular” work: As a specialist — a theatre maker who’s very familiar with the Canadian theatre world — I seem to constitute only a speck in the vast pool of people that the book targets. Offering “a survey of contemporary theatre trends, which he researched in part through a year of conversations with theatre artists both local and distant, obscure and famous, his friends and not-yet-friends”, Theatre of the Unimpressed is written in ways that suggest it wants to be read not only by people who know Canadian theatre, but also by those who don’t. Not only by those who create theatre, but also by those who don’t. It wants to be read and understood by those who have just an ounce of interest in the obscure art form that theatre is in Canada. So in contrast to the vast majority of books on Canadian theatre — or even theatre in general — Theatre of the Unimpressed is not “for scholars, students, and practitioners” of theatre; it isn’t a “Routledge Companion”; it’s a book for audiences and thus constitutes an absolute rarity. 

It is perhaps one of the single most important facets of this publication that it attempts to return theatre to the realm of the popular. It presumes that theatre should be accessible and important to many more than just theatre creators. It thus directly opposes the often alleged and perceived elitist narcissism of theatre makers, particularly of avant-garde theatre makers, inviting others into our conversations — others who we desperately need to be there. Why should a book about theatre (and particularly about audiences) be only for theatre people, especially in these times, when we constantly complain that we don’t have audiences? Why are we (myself included), expecting a continuation of the closed-off, cyclical conversation that theatre often is and that we constantly bemoan?

Theatre of the Unimpressed is a book for non-experts. It’s a book for interested people. For those who want and need to know. And I am so glad for it. We must push the issues that we’ve heard “1000 times” past the boundaries of our in-group conversations. In order to truly become a political, civic, democratic subject, theatre must re-permeate the popular. In other words, it needs to matter to the populace. And for Coach House to publish a book about Canadian theatre, by a young Canadian theatre maker largely unaffiliated with academic and theatrical institutions, is a great recognition of theatre as an art form, justifying and supporting the assumption that theatre is important in Canada and by extension to Canadians.

At the same time I understand that the expectations Alexander and I might have had for Theatre of the Unimpressed are indicative of a real hunger for specialist literature on contemporary Canadian theatre. The expert writing that’s out there is insufficient, often obscure and niche-oriented, and frequently quite hard to come by, unless you’re enrolled in a post-secondary institution. Risking to sound like a broken record, I’m going to say it: We are in dire need of an accessible, sophisticated critical culture specific to Canadian theatre. We need an independent critical discourse that operates under the assumption and expectation that Canadian theatre has the potential to matter to the Canadian populace in important, meaningful ways. We need it on local and national levels. Theatre of the Unimpressed tackles that same problem the other way around: it gives credibility and momentum to the current issues that our community is acutely aware of, by expressing them in an accessible, easily obtainable — popular — format that reaches beyond us who already know.

The “popular” is ubiquitous not only in Theatre of the Unimpressed, but by extension in Jordan himself. As Daniel writes, Jordan “is one of those magnetic humans who seem to be friends with everybody”. Moreover, Videofag, Jordan’s simultaneous home and performance space, is woven into the “fabric of everyday life”: by the artists, for the people, it exists entirely outside “the financial pressures faced by larger institutions with subscribers, funding obligations, boards of directors and public scrutiny”, run only by Jordan and his ex-boyfriend William Ellis. That is to say, theatre for Jordan is a way of life: he is the live-in co-artistic director of his own performance space. No one I know has a kitchen which regularly doubles as a green room, where artists sleep over, and where the downstairs neighbours interrupt performances. Of course, the majority of us make significant sacrifices to facilitate being theatre artists, but every other theatre maker I know has the ability to leave at the end of the day and go somewhere else: home. But for Jordan, home is his theatre, and theatre is his home. Nobody else I know lives this closely with her art, in a kind of socialist utopia. Jordan’s life is a kind of fantasy, a type of performance in and of itself.

The man and his home are a romantic urban concept that is acutely timely. In his review of Theatre of the Unimpressed in the Globe and Mail, Daniel Karasik describes Jordan as “a rare human type described by Marshall McLuhan: a zeitgeist savant who can read his era, internalize his moment’s changes in technology and ideological mood, and adapt in real time.” As such, Jordan constitutes a model of what it’s going to take to make theatre in the future. The level of devotion it currently takes, and will take to remain committed to the development of our art form is unprecedented; our future is incredibly precarious, more so than we possibly realize. In a country whose urban centres’ real estate is becoming increasingly unaffordable, with Vancouver and Toronto in my estimation having long crossed the threshold into impossibility, Jordan’s way of life is indicative of a brooding reality. Though my life is vastly different from Jordan’s, it is also structured entirely around my profession. In the past few years I’ve repeatedly faced a radical decision: either I would live, or I’d live theatre. I’m currently living theatre. This implies that I do not have a home base, no apartment, no room, few possessions. My whole life is spent in transit: in train stations, airports, on the bus, on couches and mattresses, out of suitcases, and, at the end of the day, in the theatre. In other words, theatre is not a job: in current realities, making theatre cannot and will not be a career; instead, it’s going to be about negotiating the self — in relation to other possible selves, in relation to the world, the public, the other.

To conceive of Jordan and his work (including Theatre of the Unimpressed) as a kind of avant-garde performance within the realm of the popular is not so far-fetched, considering especially that a number of contemporary pop stars embody precisely the kind of complex contradictions that Theatre of the Unimpressed implicitly points out: avant-garde work seems to have developed a claim to popular access and resonance. Hugely successful contemporary musicians like Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey, for example, whose art extends beyond music to include their persona, constitute artistic identity performances. They comprise a type of modern Gesamtkunstwerk, by which the mainstream subsumes the avant-garde (or vice versa?), collapsing any viable distinction between high and low art, between mainstream and non-mainstream, between art and entertainment. That collision and conflation itself already constitutes a type of post-modern, late-capitalist aesthetic radicalism, but these performances are also closely tied to questions of nationalism, race, sexuality, and gender, further solidifying their political potency. In a recent article in The New InquiryLana Del Rey is described as follows:

She curates putatively mundane Americana as exotic. The careful pastiche that earned her derision upon her debut is the very reason why she resonates today. The “authenticity” Lana’s earliest critics spent months interrogating is a wholly irrelevant question to the young people who gaze approvingly at her flower crowns and gold chains.

Lana Del Rey’s America is corny and flat but makes her neither because she isn’t corrupted by faith in the image she offers. She’s resilient in her noncommittal twirling and forthright appropriation of America’s most overexposed iconography. The perpetually mournful singer manages to sound reassuringly anonymous as she sings “Springsteen was the king, don’t you think?” It’s an act beyond irony, an attempt to reinvigorate belief by celebrating cultural exhaustion through affective emptiness.

Conversely, in the context of contemporary theatre-making, artistic identity performances like those by Lana Del Rey and Lady Gaga — and, by extension, Jordan — raise an interesting question: to what extent is theatre potentially an interdisciplinary art form, in the sense that it is inherently performative and must thus always engage questions of identity and politics?

This relationship between avant-garde performance and the popular is a phenomenon we’ve got to be acutely aware of. Certain kinds of avant-garde works make a claim to popular or broad accessibility and appeal — potentially because they’re still defining their audiences, or potentially because they specifically don’t want to define them: because they want to remain open. “Popular chestnuts”, on the other hand, the work of mainstream institutions, could possibly count as quite the opposite of “popular”, as they tend to be primarily aimed at, and accessible to, a specific type of audience: the fraction of the Canadian public who attends theatre, and whose tastes have been developed by the artistic directors of the past thirty years.

In closing, it’s important to summarize explicitly the several significant milestones that Theatre of the Unimpressed represents. First of all, in both form and content, it makes a point about theatre as a popular, accessible art form. That is to say, Theatre of the Unimpressed isn’t necessarily specialist literature, meaningful only to academics and experienced makers of theatre. Rather, it respectfully includes those who don’t create, thus practicing what it preaches, acknowledging “its audience’s capacity to think abstractly, profoundly, with nuance.” It also implies that the avant-garde isn’t necessarily an exclusive way of art making, but possibly a new, increasingly inclusive theatrical activity.

Furthermore, Theatre of the Unimpressed constitutes an account of a young person’s life in the theatre. It thus not only gives credibility to a generational shift in Canadian theatre, but also points to important contemporary questions of artistic identity performances, theatre’s relationship to popular culture, and a more general cultural conflation of the avant-garde and the mainstream. Theatre of the Unimpressed implicitly gestures to the crucial negotiations of the self that are inherent in contemporary art making, indicating that theatre, too, is part of a broader cultural movement.

For Coach House to publish a book about Canadian theatre by a young Canadian theatre maker largely unaffiliated with academic and theatrical institutions (as far as that’s possible as an artist) is a great gesture to, and recognition of, theatre as an important Canadian art form. Give it away. Give it to friends, people, grandparents. If you don’t realize the popular potential and appeal of this book then this conversation will stay in the room.

Screenshot 2015-07-08 12.41.08

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