Wow. Your review of Theatre of the Unimpressed is an exceptional essay, an absolutely riveting read. But I just can’t agree with some of what you say — and this is not primarily about your opinions regarding the book, but about your claims regarding theatre and its current state. I just can’t leave those unaddressed, because I think they get at something really, really crucial and important that we must talk about. And I’m thankful that the ongoing discussion of Theatre of the Unimpressed has gotten us there.
You make a central claim in your essay, stating twice that the “idea of trying to save theatre through theatre – it’s hubris. More than that, it’s dangerous.” You suggest that “[the decline of audiences] is a political problem that requires political solutions,” and that Theatre of the Unimpressed falls short in its project because it’s “apolitical”. I take issue with a few things here:
1. I completely agree with you that “our art form is at hazard, [that] our own minds are at hazard, [that] the world is at hazard.” Absolutely. I also agree that to some extent, these problems require political solutions. But I disagree that the solutions are entirely up to politics. That our art has no agency or influence whatsoever in the context of this problem. These problems are — and this is where I agree completely with Jordan — also about the art: about the art that is currently pervading our theatres.
The world has changed radically in the last ten years. Along with the digital revolution, our ways of watching, consuming, and perceiving have changed drastically. In your essay you note this, too. But in contrast to you, I don’t quite long for the past. Ok, sometimes I do, but I generally believe that we have to engage with the world as it is now — critically, of course. And to me, that change is precisely what makes life and art challenging and exciting. I also believe that the digital revolution isn’t so much a threat to the theatre, but rather a great opportunity artistically — and by extension a chance to win over new audiences. That being said, the majority of the art we’re currently seeing at Canadian theatres doesn’t reflect this new reality, neither in form, nor in content. Instead it still reflects the realities of pre-internet theatre-goers, serving those of the pre-internet age, and that is going to be a MAJOR problem. So, the shift we need to see in theatre is not just a matter of taste, or of conservatism vs. avant-garde; it’s also about age. If the next generation doesn’t want to go to theatre, if it doesn’t see a point in going, and if (god forbid) it doesn’t end up going, we’re screwed.
But of course that’s only one of the hazards we’re facing. The current state of theatre-making is dire. Paralyzing. These are the worst possible conditions in which to create art: funding is so scarce that the members of our community have to compete for it; money in general is so ubiquitously unattainable for the vast majority of theatre artists that existential fears are having tremendous negative effects on our work. Our theatre is getting smaller and smaller. To convince oneself to self-produce is getting more and more difficult. Just to justify the validity of an idea has become tough! In such a state, to still even have ideas is almost impossible. It’s so bad.
So I thought for a long time about whether I could make theatre. Whether it would take changing — even overthrowing — “the system” to feel like I could make theatre. The thought was paralyzing: How could I possibly change a system that I also wholeheartedly believed had no capacity to change right now? I know that at this point, capitalism has to burn itself out; I know that there’s no turning back on the beaten path we’re on. I know that in the grand scheme of things, any battle I might fight would be a losing one.
These thoughts are literally depressing. They are debilitating, murderous thoughts. They turn my mind and body leaden. They beg the question to what extent ideology is pathology.
So, in a moment when strength visited, I began to wonder: what kind of change can I make within a system that tries to make me powerless? What is the extent of my control? How can I turn my unfreedom into something productive? How can I achieve a kind of radical liberation by subordinating myself to the given circumstances? I refuse to think that I have no agency. I refuse to think that art has no agency. I simply refuse to. This refusal doesn’t stem from a self-serving ignorance. As a former lover once told me, “you can’t worry about the point of art; you just have to do it.” He’s not completely wrong, but I think there’s a better way of putting it: life can get lost in thinking about the revolution — and that serves the system instead of challenging it. Life can get lost in depression and paralysis — and that serves the system instead of challenging it.
So the question became: How can I find ways of functioning within the system without selling out? I have to get up and do it: I have to make theatre without losing sight of the greater goal, that is, without forgetting the utopia of a different system. For me, art is created from the friction between reality and utopia. Perhaps art is utopia.
2. This is where, in my estimation, it becomes clear that Jordan and Theatre of the Unimpressed are anything but apolitical. I could go ahead and quote the many passages from the book in which Jordan offers an anti-capitalist critique of Canadian theatre, particularly its institutions, but my point is bigger. As I suggest in my review of Theatre of the Unimpressed, Jordan embodies a kind of utopia: he has found, like Lady Gaga or even Shakespeare, ways of challenging the system from within. In Jordan’s case this means offering himself up — renouncing any claim to a bourgeois “work/life balance”, allowing theatre to permeate every aspect of his life, so he can contribute to the meaningful development of the art form. This model of living is radical, also because, as I argue in my review, it conflates the mainstream with the avant-garde. But it is primarily radical, because it proposes an institutional model that has the potential to revolutionize (on a small scale) the way we make theatre, and the way we live. I agree with Jordan that we need many more “micro-incubators” like Videofag, which, independent of institutions and too many stakeholders, serve as “sites of confluence between art and community,” and are woven into “the fabric of everyday life.” We need places where we can experiment with our art and also contribute to the populace through alternative education. Why not use these micro-incubators as places of learning? As sites of alternative liberal arts education? Bottom line: I do read Theatre of the Unimpressed as a call to action: it’s a call to as much independence as possible. It’s about subverting the system from within, about a small-scale utopia — the tiny space that late capitalism permits.
3. I wholeheartedly agree that we have a political responsibility, and that, especially in consideration of our current situation, any theatre artist must also assume a political position. Part of our political problem stems from the fact that we DO NOT HAVE A CRITICAL CULTURE. Why I do spend hours upon hours on this blog, writing thousands of words about theatre in Canada? Well, because I know it’s part of my job: as a dramaturg, in the sense of good ol’ Lessing, I have a serious responsibility to engage with the meta-structures of theatre publicly. But also because I know that someone has to make it visible. Because if nobody talks about our art IT EFFECTIVELY DOESN’T EXIST. And IF I LET IT NOT EXIST, then I’m handing any politician a pretty darn good argument for cutting funding instead of increasing it. As theatre artists, it’s our job to prove that we exist and that we HAVE TO KEEP EXISTING. Any theatre artist whose work doesn’t implicitly make a claim as to why it needs to exist AS THEATRE, does not earn my respect. As theatre artists we have to prove our worth. AND WE CAN ONLY DO THAT BY MAKING WORK. By making work that’s meaningful and potent. In my estimation, that’s not a hubristic argument. And just by reading your writing, Alexander, I hope so hard that you are one of the people who continue to make theatre. So yes, I absolutely agree with you: we have to be politicians — but as theatre artists: our impulse to be political must stem from our desire to make theatre and to develop our art form. That, of course, includes hitting the streets.
Thank you for writing! Thank you thank you thank you!