On Theatre
29

Canadian Theatre Can Do Better

It’s about the intention of the art, the goal to affect and change. We are artists, but we are also healers.

canadiantheatre copyI recently paid $50 to see a Canadian production that left me feeling like I had just been mugged by three junkies in a dark alley. $50 dollar tickets were all that was left of the nearly sold out production, and I, being a die-hard Canadian theatre activist (of sorts), gladly paid for my ticket to a show that I felt was quite worth the price of admission.

Truth was that upon my post-viewing reflection of the show: its production value, the talent and potential, I feel like I might have preferred the method of losing my money to junkies in a dark alley. In that metaphorical moment of being mugged, I would have most likely experienced a sense of life-altering truth; my heart racing, my blood flowing through my veins, burning in my ears, a rage against the injustice and my own personal loss. I would have staggered home to my roommates and shared the tale of the dark alley and the junkies, a story that I would be telling for several weeks at least. I would embellish my heroism and bravery (when in fact I probably would have sat in a puddle of my own tears and snot while the rain seeped into my clothes, the junkies’ heavy footsteps fading away into the sounds of the busy street). It would have been a terrible moment and I by no means care to throw myself into those experiences by choice. However, when I pay $50 for a ticket to a highly reputed Canadian production I expect to feel something… anything. Instead, I felt indifferent, lethargic and craved the fattest joint that could be rolled.

When I attend the theatre I have certain expectations that the story told would have some influence upon my life. I expect that when I lay down my money that I would be given a joy ride of experiences, emotions and adventures that will allow me the opportunity to understand humanity just a little bit more. It is for these reasons that I wanted to study theatre, became an actor and now produce my own work through my own theatre company: to affect, to change, to enliven and to benefit the human race with stories that will help them remember the joys and complexities of the rarest gift of all: life itself. The last thing I want my audiences to be thinking upon leaving the theatre is “I want a refund!”

All this being said, the production in question received a standing ovation (one of which I was almost inclined to participate in, if for no other reason than to stretch my legs), and has a nearly sold out run. This got me thinking: how can a production that I found rather underwhelming harness such attention and credibility?

What I’m starting to believe is this: that Canadian theatre goers are willing to accept the underwhelming, the indifference, the unpolished production value and the notion that life carries on at its petty pace, from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time, from the purchase of the ticket, to the post show beer. Nothing has changed, and life continues, Shalom and Amen.

However, this is something that I refuse to accept. I refuse to accept that this is the best that Canada has to offer. I refuse to accept that sheer entertainment and cheap laughs is enough to fill the appetites of hungry minds and souls that crave the opportunity to feel the blood flowing through their veins, the giddiness of their heart beat, the reminder that life is beautiful and that all we have is right now. I refuse to accept this and I know that many of my colleagues do as well. Our audiences deserve better, even if they don’t know it. We owe it to them, to our culture and our humanity to pour our heart and soul into the back breaking and often agonizing process of theatre creation. It is through this out pouring of love and respect for our audiences that change can occur. Because it starts with us, doesn’t it? If we want our audiences to be affected, then shouldn’t we also be affected by our work, our art? Shouldn’t it creep into our lives, singing songs of renewal and joy, and shouldn’t that experience be shared with our audiences?

The point I’m trying to make friends is this: It’s not about the money. It’s not about how big your budget is. It’s not about how talented your performers are. It’s about the intention of the art, the goal to affect and change. We are artists, but we are also healers. We share stories of pain to affect pain, so that pain can be healed through conscious reflection of a story presented by flesh and blood. We share stories of joy to affect joy and shed light on a world of darkness.

I for one would like to make a commitment to carry this intention of healing into every project I produce from now until my dying day. Because I’ve realized that there is little money for me in this modest industry, so I need to hold onto something and this rather altruistic manifesto is the best I can come up with. Because, when I am responsible for an audience member leaving a production that I’ve produced/directed/acted in, then there is no greater recognition of my worth and talent than to know that because of me I have made a change, a difference to an audience that I live to serve.


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Caleb McMullen

Written by Caleb McMullen

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheatreisforSuckers.com

There are 29 comments

  • I hope you are getting out to see some of the shows at the Push Festival (although perhaps the show you saw was at Push – you are kind of vague). I have now seen 4 and all of them were bold and high risk – two of the them greatly touched me.

    The thing that I find hopeful at Push is that many of the shows I have seen are packed – that means there is an audience for edgy or heartfelt fair and not the ‘safe’ or reverentially presented material be often get here.

    • Thanks for your comment David! I purposefully remain vague when I want to present material that is a little more truthful, without discrediting the obvious hard work and motivation of any individual who has the balls of steel it requires to produce and present their own work.

      I am encouraged by the turn out, support and wide-spread excitement for festivals like PuSh in Vancouver (similarly Luminato, Next Stage and Summer Works in Toronto) It is enlightening and inspiring to see audiences revel in the risky and cutting-edge acchievements of Canadian theatre practicioners. We do need more of this, and since this is the time of year when hundreds of theatre-creators gear up for their upcoming Fringe Productions, I think an examination of the success of high-risk, thought provoking Canadian productions is an inspiration to both the emerging and established theatre artists alike.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts regarding the PuSh Festival and Canadian Theatre.

  • Colette says:

    Yes Canadian theatre can do better! As someone who has actually been mugged by a junkie at knife point (only one not three though), I can confirm that said experience is far more memorable than the show you describe. Not that I recommend being robbed. Anyway, I do wish that more theatre was able to give audiences that electrifying feeling of being drawn into the present that events of danger give us. I agree that it is our job as theatre artists to try our best to give audiences an experience out of the ordinary. If we aren’t going to have a lofty goal, we probably shouldn’t be making theatre at all.

  • Dani says:

    This is a great article that too many people have quietly at home.
    I would like to invite you to see our show, Laws of Motion, it opens March 1st @ a brand new event space Jam Factory Co, located above the merchants of green coffee.
    I think theatre should shake us and ignite conversation and a difference of oppinions, it should lend us a new pair of eyes for an hour and it should definitely NOT be polite.
    People see theatre in NYC for a reason.
    I look forwrd to hearing your honest, balls-out thoughts of our show, I’d love to talk ART with you.
    Dani.
    http://Www.lawsofmotion.ca

  • Michael Worthman says:

    “What I’m starting to believe is this: that Canadian theatre goers are willing to accept the underwhelming, the indifference, the unpolished production value and the notion that life carries on at its petty pace, from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time, from the purchase of the ticket, to the post show beer. Nothing has changed, and life continues, Shalom and Amen.”

    Amen indeed. This is how I feel time and time again in relation to the state of theatre in my home province, Newfoundland and Labrador. Not only our “summer stock” and tourism-bait theatre companies, but our mainstay theatre companies continually put out underwhelming theatre experiences in order to pander to what they think tourists and Newfoundlanders want. It’s sad and offensive. The Tourists want rubber boots, song and dance and “Newfie” Shenanigans only because that’s what we think they want, and that’s what we offer them. I think visitors of Newfoundland and Labrador would be pleasantly surprised that we could exceed their expectations and present them with innovative, challenging, socially scathing and emotionally paramount artistic experiences. We can. We have from time. There are great theatrical innovators here, but it pains me to see that their work is viewed by peers and peers alone until it fades or leaves us for the magically mainland. I think the attitude needs to shift from “let’s do shows for the sake of doing shows that will sell some seats.” to “let’s create something new.” Otherwise what’s the point of having a theatre company at all. I’m sorry for blathering but this point hit home and I wanted to express that even here in the cultural mecca that is Newfoundland, theatre is in hard shape, and we, as well, can do a lot better.

    Here’s hoping,
    Michael Worthman
    Theatre Worker.
    St. John’s, Newfoundland.

  • Zoe sweet says:

    It bemoans me to say this, but I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always held the best intention to pursue,with unfailing steadfastness, a dedication to creating and propagating a Canadian theatre culture. However admittedly, my most recent trip to New York has me thinking more and more about abandoning the tepid Canadian works for the more rigorously adventurous theatre practices of NYC. I saw 7 shows while I was down there and while I didn’t love every second, I did feel very challenged, angered , perplexed, awed and ultimately Engaged in whatever it was I was witnessing. There was an unapologetic air of experimentation and dare I say “artistry” which magnified the lack of which I see here at home. Whether I understood what was happening or not, I could sense that the artists were wrestling with a question, playing with form, text, stylistic devices, ect and seemed ultimately unconcerned with whether or not it worked but were rather engaged in the process of art making. By witnessing this, the audience was invited into this artistic practice.
    I think we coddle our Canadian theatre goers with milquetoast theatrical versions of what they would expect to see in film; most often a straight linear casting of some uninteresting “human drama”. The beauty of theatre is that it can ( and should ) be live experimentation; what better way to engage an audience than to have them wrestle along with the artist.
    It’s important to shift the expectation of our audiences. More often than not , it seems we’re looking for some cathartic emotional release from our time at the theatre. While extremely important and beautiful, these arent the paramount reactions one could/should have in the theatre. Intellectual, physical, metaphysical and sensory stimulation ( to name a few) are all equally worthy experiences and should be celebrated and honored as much as the revered emotional release.
    None of this is to say there aren’t artistic practitioners who are out there challenging the status quo. But I do invite our Canadian audiences to expand their notion of ” good” theatre. Let’s relinquish that word from our vocabulary and replace it with one that encapsulated the desire to be stretched in all directions.

    • Ian says:

      Not every piece of art will move every single viewer. Personally, I don’t even think that’s a valid expectation. Not every work of art is going to impact your life the same way a mugging might or a near miss from a taxi. Hell, if you live in a major city (or even a minor one these days), you might find yourself a bit jaded and dismissive by a near miss by car when you’re walking around downtown, just as you might be difficult to be moved if you see a lot of theatre or take in a lot of art.

      It’s nice that Mr. McCullen recognizes the obvious hard work and effort that goes into even a piece of work that he wasn’t moved by. At the same time, even failure in our culture comes at a cost and it is not without failure that we are able to find success and those moments that an audience member will carry with them the rest of their lives. Those moments are rare in my experience – needles in hay stacks. But without the constant petri dish of cultural exploration and experimentation, we might never find those wonderful moments. I think Canadian Theatre is trying pretty darn hard in face of economic hardships and a whole lot of apathy.
      My hat goes off to any artist willing to get up there and try to move an audience – and I’ll admit I’m a harsh critic of work and not as supportive of the pieces I feel are failures as I would appear in this comment. My bad. I’ll try harder. Artists may not always succeed, but I can guarantee that they, in their heart of hearts, are hoping that they WILL succeed and give their audience something that will touch them and make them think and possible give them an experience they will carry in their souls for the rest of their lives. Perhaps Mr. McCullen should cut artists a little slack and give them room to fail? That may be where the next great piece of theatre will come from.

  • Crystal J.G.S says:

    Dear Caleb McMullen…

    All though in my short life I would have to say that I have seen quite a bit but not a lot of theatrical plays thanks too Young Peoples Theater here in Toronto. With not only exposing their youth to their productions but also other productions within the area; which have left my peers and I, so captivated with the way the actors and stage hands take hold of their characters and bring life to their stories. I have to say great art is here and but it may not be in the grandest theater with the best acoustics. It could actually be in the schools halls, the churches, or even in the middle of the street.

    To name a few grass roots productions here in Toronto would be from the top of my head, B Current, NoManzLand, Lost Lyrics and Imani Enterprises. From there you could see many actors who really know how to recreate the words they are given and make it their own (if it is not already theirs.) With the amount of great people working through out Toronto I believe that the best shows I have ever remembered working on and seen did not have a fifty dollar entry fee unless you decided to.

    In closing, my views of art are quite similar to yours. And I commend you for your voice and choice of words and imagery and also for being vague. Your words are truly spoken of a person that I could not only learn a lot from but also a person who does art not for the money but the love of humanity.

    Signed,
    Crystal J.G.S

  • Sophie says:

    This is a beautifully written piece and I am right there with you, I would even say that – why choose a story that isn’t going to mentally, physically and emotionally move you (the audience)?
    To not only make audiences feel something through the telling of the story but also have them walk away with current topic to discuss. This is why at Sterling Studio Theatre (www.sterlingstudiotheatre.com) we have chosen to do The Glory of Living By Rebecca Gilman. Two tickets are yours if you want to check out what we are doing in the indie scene. There are a lot of my peers too, in indie theatres and theatre companies picking hard hitting plays with meaning.

    With our play, the playwright insists this play is not based on anything concrete but one cannot help but find the similarities between the true story of Judith Ann Neeley and Alvin Neeley, one of Americas most notorious couple serial killers (the US version of Canada’s Bernardo and Hamolka). When the play goes up in February 2013 Judith Ann Neeley will be up for parole, this is one of the main reasons for choosing this play; to open the discussion on crime, punishment, gun law and education in North America.

    Ms. Gilman became the first American to receive the Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright in England and was named a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for this play . New York saw a production directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in October 2001 that starred Oscar winner Anna Paquin in the title role.

    Set in the deep rural south this play follows Lisa (Carleigh Beverly) a troubled teen as she runs away with a much older Clint (Adam Lolacher), to escape the misery of life with her prostitute mother (Angela Besharah). Lisa’s white-picket-fence dream with Clint never materializes instead she is to procure young runaways like Kelly (Candice Mausner) and Carol (Katelyn Wallace) for him. What happens next is a gruesome mess. Arresting officer (Taylor Whittaker) and Detective Burrows (David Greig) try to unravel this mystery with their only witness’s story, Carol’s boyfriend, Steve (Mike Lipka) who survived a certain violent death at the hands of this deadly duo. Carl (Adrian G Griffiths), Lisa’s lawyer, provides her with the safe place to talk and find solace.

    Directed by Sophie Ann Rooney. Assistant Director Ashton Doudelet.

    STERLING STUDIO THEATRE – 8PM

    Preview Feb 19th – Shows Feb 20th – Mar 2nd

    No shows Mondays.

    DISCLAIMER: Strong & Abusive Language. Partial Nudity. Violence of a sexual nature (not shown but mentioned). Prop guns.

    Nightrider co-op: Carleigh Beverly, Adam Lolacher, Adrian G Griffiths, Angela Besharah, David Greig, Mike Lipka, Candice Mausner, Katelyn Wallace, Taylor Whittaker, Ashton Doudelet, Sophie Ann Rooney

  • Musicals are often disappointing? says:

    Hello there – I’m not sure which city you are in, but I would recommend Allison Cummings’ new piece at Oz studios or anything by Volcano or Mammalian Diving Reflex. It seems odd to me to go see a musical and then complain that it was vapid and expensive. In my experience, the majority of musicals in every city (including London and New York, where theatre probably can not do better) are vapid and expensive. It’s only the rare piece that will really earn its ticket price.

    • Thanks Deborah for joining the conversation.

      Musicals are vapid and expensive and I think there is something to be said about the mass flocking of theatre goers to see a production simply because it is a musical. There is a shared notion that the more expensive a production is to produce, the better the experience will be. However, as we know of from musical theatre of late, that it doesn’t matter the money that goes into it, it can still be (and too often is) a flop. But, musicals draw the crowds because regardless of the artistic quality, audiences still get high production value and feel that it was worth the price of admission.

      There is so much to be said about productions (musicals or otherwise) that can create something from nothing. It’s like playing god a little bit… taking absolutely nothing and forming an experience for an audience that is unforgetable. Anyone can throw money at someting and make it superficially better, but artists, through the articulate formation of thoughts and collaboration can make magic.

      Thanks for sharing! And I will most definitely check into Oz, Volcano and Mammilian Driving Reflex. Thanks for the suggestions.

      Caleb.

      • Gtyler says:

        As someone who has been an actor, singer, and dancer in musicals for almost 25yrs, I take great offense to yours or anyone’s statement that Musicals are vapid and expensive. It’s an ignorant and obtuse statement especially coming from an artist such as yourself who is trying to rally a community into inspiration greater dedication to excellence. It’s an uneducated blanket statement that is also extremely short sighted. Of course there are SOME musicals that are vapid and buoyed with production value to cover the flaws, but so are a vast number of plays, ballets, operas, TV shows, and movies out there that people laud, and watch, everyday. Smart people just try to avoid performing them. The Musical is also the youngest art form in the pantheon of live theatrical performances in the world having really been invented scarcely 100yrs ago in America, while all the other art forms have had hundreds, if not thousands of years to develop. From that view point then then I would say Musicals have an incredibly sound track record. I could list you 25 solid, well crafted, poignant, classic, as well as highly entertaining Musicals almost out of hand, many with very modest production values. And you’ll have heard of most of them. And you’ll then, hypocritically, no doubt say, “oh yeah, well, those ones are good…”. That’s a LOT in 100yrs! You try it sir! All I’m saying is, please please PLEASE use your head before your mouth when speaking of an art form that you obviously know little about and equal obviously care little to understand. You don’t mention the production that ripped you off of you $50 out respect for what they’re at least trying to achieve, so perhaps you can extend the same respect to what may be, out side of cinema, the most popular form of entertainment of the last 100yrs. Seek to understand the medium before your decide its worth perhaps.

  • Tavey says:

    I feel that a lot of the ennui and lethargy that is happening is due to the lack of support of the major critics. It’s hard to want to put on something when you know before you even get onto the stage that you’ll be panned simply for breathing.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that they make everyone out to be perfect or ideal. But it would be nice if they’d at least be fair.

    • Thanks Tavey for your comment.

      Fairness is good. But, honesty is better. Honest fairness… now that’s the keeper I think! It truely is difficult to get an honest response from anyone regarding our work. People say “well done”, “congratulations”, “it was amazing” and even while people say this to me, I know in my heart of hearts that my work wasn’t well done or amazing, and what would really benefited me as a theatre creator is the cold, hard truth… as devestating as it often is. How else might I grow? How else would I know how effective my art is? We Canadians seem to have a real hard time with this. We seem to think that we win just by coming out. That we should get a reward because we tried. I think it’s this mentality regarding our industry that is causing it to suffer. It’s also why we have no identifiable star-system in Canada, because if we praise every practicioner for their work, then how do we determine which productions, directors, actors, etc. to promote for their true success? And if we can’t clearly define a success, then we can’t promote the individuals or productions that truely deserve it.

      This isn’t really an answer to a question, more a sharing of ideas. Please write back your thoughts if you have the time. They are incredibly valuable.

      Caleb.

  • Dave says:

    I agree with so much of your lament. If my theatre-going experiences have been for the most part stimulating and positive, it is because I have been perhaps overly cautious in what I choose to see. Not cautious in the sense of “safe content” – far from it – but with limited time and finances, I have relied to a large extent on past encounters with the works of innovative companies, directors, artists and writers whose track record/risk-taking has impressed. Facilitated of course by hearsay from respected contemporaries. The downside is that when a run is short or quickly attains sellout momentum, I have often missed the wave
    .
    One answer, for my wife and I, has been to put our money where the mouth is by establishing a space where artists can come and freely explore, create, and present with every manner of assistance that we can hope to offer. It is called The Sunset Theatre in Wells B.C. and is now moving into its 7th year of providing a one-of-a-kind venue for new and gently used work. The aim is to fulfil a mandate of pushing for the development and presentation of top-class/ground-breaking theatre despite the remote location. At the risk of this being considered a shill we would love to have you visit our website and see what we can do for each other. http://www.sunset-theatre.com

    • Thank you Dave for your comment.

      Now this, you (and your wife), right here… this is an answer to a question I’d had surrounding new Canadian theatre for quite some time. The resources you are providing to artists to have freedom for their work, to be able to grow their work and test their work prior to a paying audience… this is essential to the health of our industry. Congratulations for taking these steps and thank you from one theatre guy to another for your contributions. I would love to find the opportunity to chat with you further regarding your work and how you nuture the creative process to be able to allow it to eventually become and artistic product…. sellable, and exportable. (Dangerous words for a theatre blog, but there they are).

      I will check out your website and respond to you directly.

      Thank you again Dave!

      Caleb.

  • Kerry Wise says:

    This is so entitled and elitist I don’t know where to begin, reading this blog post brought to mind the mentality of a child; crying to high heaven when they don’t get what they want, and demanding something be changed without the wherewithal to actually do anything themselves. First off, wishing you had been mugged for the story you could derive from that experience instead of sitting safely inside a temperature appropriate theatre is very sad. I’m sorry you live such a depraved existence where you can’t even get a good mugging in to brag about town while you wish for a more interesting life. A little perspective and humility might be the thing for you.

    Not every piece of “art,” as it were, has to come barreling toward you, beat the artistic shit out of you, leave you questioning the very fibers of your existence and thoroughlly “change” you. Maybe you don’t see very much theatre, because that would be exhausting if you partake more than once a week. What about the Noel Coward’s, the Shaw shorts, the whole goddamn Hunger Games (I’m sorry to stoop to that level, but I can guess the kind of mind I’m talking to). Do you really think they CHANGE THE LIVES of EVERY person who comes across them in a DRAMATIC BACK ALLEY MUGGING kind of way? No. Do they serve their literary purpose? Obviously. If every play seen was original-broadway-cast-of-Streetcar-ferocious, that would be an insurmountable amount to handle in an emotional way. Not every film can be The Deer Hunter, not every book can be Crime and Punishment, and nor should they be. We need the ebbs and flows of creative energy and intensity to make us appreciate the highs and the lows, otherwise it’s all one note.

    I’m sorry to say you’re probably not going to get the “Michael-Bay-esque” theatre your looking for, not should you. Stop whining and if you’re so unhappy with the theatre you’re seeing then learn to make better theatre. At least before you produce something next, because I would like to say that “Closer” did anything BUT the desired effect you mentioned above, rather the opposite, and there was definitely no standing ovation to make me question my reaction, as it should have done yours. So who are you to say any of this any how?

    • Dear Kerry,

      Thank you for your comment and criticisms. This is an important discussion we’re having and whether you agree with my arguments or not, it’s a discussion that has to happen if we are to encourage the growth and quality of Canadian Theatre.

      You make some very valid and agreeable agruments. I agree with you regarding your statement: “We need the ebbs and flow of creative energy and intensity to make us appreciate the highs and lows, otherwise it’s all one note.” This is a very poinient and thought provoking insight. Without the laughter, our tears are meaningless and vice-versa. We do need a plethora of challenging stories to be able to find varied relate-ability in all facets of life, as are represented by the cannon of contemporary theatre. I am not suggesting that every piece of theatre produced should cause the audience to weap and bemoan their mother’s choice for having brought them into this sad sad world. Comedy has been used to change and sway people since the Ancient Greek Theatre Festivals. However, what I am saying is that regardless of the playwright, genre or style, if the art has an intention to affect and change, then there is integrity to the art-form and honours it’s heritage.

      I have received varied reactions to this blog post, and this is inspiring to see. Many people share my sentiments expressed here and many people do not. However, what is important is that people are passionate one way or another, and it is that passion that still exists in Canadian theatre practicioners that will revolutionize the next generation of our treasured craft. However, that passion is useless if kept to ourselves.

      Kerry, you suggested that instead of complaining like a child, that I learn to do something that makes theatre better. You couldn’t be more right. But you fail to see that by expressing, most truthfully, how I feel and sharing it in this public forum, that I am, in fact, doing something to make theatre better. We cannot change and grow if we do not take the time to analyze the problem and find a sense of community in order to change, grow and develop as theatre artists. Collaboration and communication are our greatest life-lines in this industry.

      And as you so elegantly pointed out, I am also guilty and subject to critisisms regarding the integrity of my past work. The work that I produce always has it’s failings, and as I fail I learn. But I wonder about this notion of failing for a paying audience. You might have felt upon leaving my production of Closer that you wanted your money back. You might have felt like the production that I advertised did not live up to the potential that I aimed to acchieve. For that, I surrender my humble apologies. There was a time that directors and producers would be flogged for their failings. Now we are simply subject to the vocal critisisms of theatre reviewers and blog post commentors, both of which allow for the theatre director/producer to objectively view their work through the eyes of non-partisan eyes. However, I’m starting to think more and more about this idea of asking an audience to pay for a product that they are unsatisfied with. This wouldn’t fly in any other business/industry, but it happens over and again in theatre. Perhaps this is another discussion that needs to take place regarding the fairness towards and satisfaction of paying audience members.

      As for who I am to be saying such things: I am an actor, director and producer with a passion for the dying industry I am in and am willing to take the time to say the things that often go unsaid. I am an artist with a voice and a forum for using my voice to be able to start a discussion that could change our industry into the thriving community it once was. I will not apologize for my candidness, and I encouage you never to apologize for yours. It is through this discussion that I believe we, as theatre creators can be gathered with a mutual goal to share inspired stories, with inspired intentions to inspire our audiences and leave them stronger than they were before. I believe I am entitled to share my voice with my community, just as you are entitled to share your voice in return.

      And I’m so thankful you have, because here we are: two passionate strangers with something to say. The discussion has started, and that Kerry is the ultimate goal behind my writing, my theatre company, and this e-magazine.

      Sincerest regards,
      Caleb McMullen.

  • Z says:

    I think you’re missing Kerry’s point, Caleb. It has nothing to do with the validity of comedy, or the history of the ancient greeks, or whatever other trite response you felt the need to spew (7 paragraphs too many, by my estimation).

    The notion that every piece of good theatre has a responsibility to touch the very depths of your soul, or force you to re-evaluate your very existence, or question all that you once held true, or even strengthen your faith in humanity is melodramatic, even for an actor. What other form of art could possibly be held to that standard? I would pay $50 dollars just to see what your iTunes library looks like. Hell, I’d mug you myself if it would sneak me a peak at your art collection, or even a list of your favourite books and movies. Do you trash everything and anything that doesn’t shake the foundations of your being? Do you burn the books that have failed to move you in some strange ritual ceremony of artistic integrity and divine insight?

    Your article is arrogant and self-indulgent. You equate the Canadian populace to a herd of cattle with you as their shepherd. You suggest that they’ve somehow been duped into liking the show enough to warrant a standing ovation. That if only they had your brilliance and taste they’d see through the charade, demand their money back, stalk the streets in search of desperate hobos in dark alleyways, and roll a couple fatties when they finally stumble home. Not only do you discount the audience’s experience as invalid, you discount the production and all those involved.

    You conclude yourself, in a nauseatingly banal bit about the role of art in society, that it’s not about the money, or the budget or the talent, yet you denounce the show precisely for its supposed lack of production value and talent, claiming that you’d rather lose your money in the streets. If it’s really about “the intention of the art, the goal to affect and change”, then are you suggesting the show had no intention of affecting change? That it set out to underwhelm? That it consciously attempted not to impact the lives of the audience? We both know that’s ridiculous, so next time you decide to stroke your ego at the expense of hardworking artists, why don’t you take a minute to ponder your hyperbolic drivel before hitting enter. Or better yet, don’t.

    • Dear Zachary,

      Thank you for your comment. You make a ton of very valid arguments. And I’m glad you reached out to be able to share in this discussion.

      There has been a conversation happening amoung Toronto Theatre critics, instigated by this blog post. Interestingly what they took from this post was not a reflection about the audacity of an individual to discredit the hardworking merits of very brave theatre practitioners who have received incredible praise for their artistic accheivements, but rather a look at the nature of the audience and their collective response during curtain call. Several critics sympathized with my views of the ‘mob-mentality’ standing ovation. They are asking the question “Why is everyone standing when the art presented was less than deserving of the response”. If every actor who came out for his/her curtain call received a standing-O, then what does that really mean about the credibility of the response? Perhaps it means that the audience feels obliged to respond in the manner expected. Perhaps as theatre creaters, we have conditioned our audiences to praise work through standing and clapping despite their true reactions to the art. Perhaps.

      I’m trying to come up with a way to be able to help the audience provide rational and reasoned responses, which could actually be useful and beneficial to the theatre creator. Would it not be interesting to have a page in the programme explaining how their responces will be received? “We at yadda-yadda Theatre Company value our audiences’ true responses to our work, because it allows us to critic our work from your truthful and objective point of view. To allow us to better understand your level of satisfaction of our presentation, please give us a standing ovation if you are incrediblely satisfied, a seated applause if you are satisfied and complete silence if you are rather indifferent… and (dare I say…) a vocal ‘boo’ if you were unsatisfied.” How brave would that be?

      Look, I know I come accross as arrogant, conceited, elitist, diluded, self-indulgent (couldn’t agree with you more on that one), childish, and a plethora of other adjectives that are very applicable to my character description. My mother would agree with you, as would my best friends… But, I need you to understand that my melo-dramatic response to your production was merely a launch-pad to discuss bigger concepts and ideas than your work. Sometimes people say and do things entirely for dramatic effect (means-to-end sorta deally). I was eager and excited to see your show. I heard the hype, I believed the hype and I looked forward to the experience. I was underwhelmed. I used my reation to your show to discuss the state of Canadian Theatre, not about your show. You’ll notice that no one here is asking what production it was, because quite frankly, who cares? What people are now discussing is Canadian Theatre and how it can be better. That’s what I was going for. However, I do understand if this merit is hard to perceive beyond a bruised ego. But, if it’s any consolation, and if I am everything you say I am, then my opinion has no credibility and is just the ranting of an annoying theatre nerd with too much time on his hands.

      I’m looking forward to your input on my upcoming post regarding how the Canadian theatre community can best encourage the development of authenticly Canadian theatre exports. (Because you might be NYC bound, correct?)

      A long response again… my apologies.

      Caleb.

      • Kelly Hudson says:

        I have to wonder how you would have felt about the show if there was no hype. If you went in with an open heart and mind instead expecting to have your mind blown. I think the audience also has an obligation in Theatre and that is to clear their mind sit tight and allow the unexpected to happen. All the best shows I have seen I went into not expecting much and just allowed myself to be swept away. With out knowing it youdamned the production before you even walked in. I can appreciate wanting to be entertained enlightened inspired maybe even have your life changed but that can’t happen when you have set something up to fail. I challenge you to never read another review again. Go to a show only because you are intrigued by the plot the company or the performers not because someone you respect or admire has blown their load on it. Its important to form your own opinions but be careful that they arent being influenced by others.

        I knew right away this was about my show and I knew right away why you felt that way. There are a lot of people coming in wanting to discredit the hype. Wanting to be the only ingress to hate it. Its really sad. I’m sorry you didn’t get to see it before all the love. Hopefully you can see it again with out jealousy clouding your judgment.

        I’m so proud of this show and the people that have worked so hard for the past five years. All of us have poured all of our blood sweat and tears into it and most of our cash. This is the first time anyone in the actual production is going to make a dime on it and most of the dimes I’m making are going to pay down my credit card from the last tour. I’m so thankful for the hype because its allowed us to play these bigger venues and reach an audience that never would have heard of us otherwise. What I’m not thankful for is another Theatre artist stabbing me right in the heart with his nasty jelous attitude. We all need to be proud of each other and support and champion each other. Not to mention be very careful of our words. We all have pretty thick skins but this was nasty. There are actual humans creating this work please don’t forget that. Thanks for hurting the fuck out of my feelings and suck my Dick. Constance Blackwood
        The nicest girl in town

  • Maddy says:

    To add to Z’s post: some of the absolute worst theatre I have seen in Toronto is theatre that is trying too hard to be “important”, “edgy”, “boundary-pushing”, “passionate”, etc. It’s usually made by recent theatre school grads in their 20s who don’t yet realize that every other recent theatre school grad in their 20’s has tried and failed at the same thing, with the same list of complaints. I made some of that theatre myself when I was in my 20’s, and I don’t deny that it was a valuable learning experience. But it truly is immature to assume that bad theatre is made by artists who aren’t passionate enough, or who don’t care enough to make something that is brilliant. I’m quite sure that the people in the production Caleb saw were not lazy rich jerks just trying to do something that was “good enough” in order to get a paycheck, I’m sure they were trying to create something worthwhile: as said above, without the failed experiments, how do we get the good stuff? Though this may be difficult and unexciting to accept as “indie” theatre artists (and I’m one of those myself) there are a lot of people running and working in the big theatre companies in Ontario and Toronto who care a LOT about what they’re doing. The idea that the “established” theatre professionals in Toronto are all self-satisfied, complacent, out-of-touch privileged assholes in frankly incorrect. I know a lot of them: they care, I promise.
    And let’s admit it: yes, New York and London are amazing, but they do bad theatre there too. Really bad theatre: I’ve seen some of it. When we visit, we tend to see the stuff that’s gotten great reviews or that we’ve heard all about, but trust me: there are all sorts of people there who care a whole lot who are also failing. And that’s fine: failure’s a part of it.
    And this is just my own personal taste here, but to be frank: if the show Caleb saw was an original production (as opposed to a production of a previously written work), then I do think it deserves our support. Not necessarily our money, I’m not saying I’d want to see it, I’m just saying it’s a HELL OF A LOT harder to create an original piece of theatre than it is to remount some “edgy” hit from Broadway. I’d rather we all put our energy into trying and failing at actual theatre CREATION than into remounting another non-Canadian work. I think there’s a place for that stuff, absolutely- I’m not saying we need it ALL to be original and Canadian, I’m just saying let’s acknowledge the bravery of the people trying to create something that is. I don’t see how remounting someone else’s hit play takes half the bravery that project creation does; and yes, project creation is much more likely to fail, obviously. But we need it, because THAT’s what “Canadian Theatre” is all about, no? I’m not sure it’s fair to complain about “Canadian Theatre” without trying to make some of your own.

    • Hi Maddy,

      Thank you so much for your comment. You bring up some very exciting arguments that I would love to talk/think more about. What I found most interesting about your comment is the idea of theatre as creation versus theatre as product. Most theatre professionals I know like to stay away from the word ‘product’ as it does, in it’s own way, discredit the artistic nature of theatrical art, which is always changing and growing. However, it’s impossible to discuss theatre and the development of it’s audience without taking a hard look at the semantics of theatre as a business and a production as a product. When a business sells it’s product there are almost always forms of guarenteed satisfaction. When we by a hose from Canadian Tire, we have the security to know that if we are unsatisfied with the product that we can return it. When we go to films, we will have likely seen trailers of these films that has triggered in us the desire to buy our ticket. Theatre is an interesting business in the sense that we expect our audience to buy a ticket to a show that they really can’t pre-assess and we give them no guarentee of their satisfaction. It’s bizarre really. So, basically under this business-consumer model, we are telling our patrons that they are running the risk of losing their money if we don’t fulfill our promise to delight, entertain, provoke, or enlighten our audiences with our work.

      The scenario becomes even more complicated when we present new Canadian work because in a way we are testing our product on a paying audience, and if that product fails, then it’s the audiences lost and we go back to the drawing board to workshop. However, in this scenario, the creator has lost nothing (and has more likely gained from the experience, which is vital in the growth of new work) and the audience member has lost the cost of their ticket. This doesn’t seem entirely fair to me.

      I do not have an answer to this unique business dilemma, but I would like to start a conversation regarding these questions:

      What is the difference between a work-in-progress (or a New Work perhaps) and a sellable product?
      When should theatre be charged for as a product?
      Is it fair to change an audience to view a production that is still in the process of development?
      What are the responsibilities of a theatre company to it’s unsatisfied audience members?

      And you’re right regarding my need to create new work (it’s in the works as we speak)… because as you say, the risk is far greater when presenting material that is not a guarenteed hit, that has not yet been tested. There is incredible honour and merit in the individuals that challenge themselves to be so daring and risk it all on an original idea. And we need those ideas to be fostered to develop an authentically Canadian theatre identity. However, there must be a way for us to be able to support these endevours without taking our audiences for granted, because as we both know, the theatre industry in North America is having problems in retaining audience members. And when theatre goers (who are not theatre practicioners) purchase tickets to shows that leave them unsatisfied, we risk losing those audience members entirely.

      There are so many questions here. And I’m stupped on the answers to most of them, but we’re asking them and discussing them and that’s an important step to a collaborative effort to find the answers.

      I greatly respect your thoughts and thank you for your comment. I have learned much from you. Please write back if you have the time.

      Caleb.

      • Coming into this discussion a little late, perhaps, but some of these questions intrigue me and the way you speak about what a company member ‘gets’ from a production vs what an audience member ‘gets’ struck me. I do love that the discussion is happening and there is passion and, overall, I agree with what you say in regard to a standing ovations often being given out when (I feel) they’re not quite deserved. But, again, we all have our own levels of taste and, I feel, the best way to get (uninformed) audience members out of the habit of an obligatory standing-o is to get them to see more theatre and, from there, develop and refine their own threshold/standard for that particular level of recognition.

        Some more specific notes on this comment, though. When you say “the creator has lost nothing (and has more likely gained from the experience, which is vital in the growth of new work) and the audience member has lost the cost of their ticket,” I would tend to disagree. As you must know, especially in independent theatre, it is often the case that creators lose economically and, in the case of a sell-out show, may have the potential to lose out on valuable critique in favour of overwhelming praise (however informed or uninformed). As for the audience member, they don’t lost the cost of a ticket because they are paying for an experience. Whether they enjoyed the experience or not, they still walk away with that experience. That’s not to say that should be exploited because any theatre practitioner I know tends to want their audience to enjoy/appreciate the experience they had and have all intentions to make it happen. That can’t be guaranteed. And one person may love the same experience another hates. Does that mean there’s a fault in that production? I would say not and therefore would say the cost of a ticket is not ‘lost,’ as the audience member (the one who enjoyed and the one who didn’t) was still presented with an experience. You can’t go into a show aiming to satisfy everybody or you run the risk of being bland, losing a point of view, and pleasing nobody.

        You ask a series of questions, too:

        What is the difference between a work-in-progress (or a New Work perhaps) and a sellable product?
        How is a new work or a work-in-progress not ‘sellable?’ Whether in terms of money or time? What is the qualification for ‘sellable?’ You can’t qualify that. There are new works that I find amazing right out of the gate (whether unpolished or not) and there are established scripts I wouldn’t ever be bothered to see. And how those scripts are treated are other factors that impact the experience. And other people may have different thoughts on those productions than I would.

        I say you can’t make those decisions for an audience. If it’s a premiere, say so. If it’s a workshop performance, say so. Charge what you will, in terms of money and/or time. The audience member will make their own decision, knowing these factors, as to whether or not this experience is ‘sellable’ by the action of buying in.

        Deciding if something is ‘sellable’ or not feels to me like dictating to an audience and saying ‘I feel you will/won’t like this’ and that’s not for me to decide. I feel I can, though, make decisions in regard to the choices I make for a production that I feel will lead me to the result I want in terms of audience (though I may or may not hit those marks I set for myself).

        When should theatre be charged for as a product?
        When you feel it should be. My own views, which will be different than others’, are generally I may not charge for a reading, especially if the point is development of a piece. For a full production, I will typically charge. I’ll try to find a balance between a ticket cost I am willing to pay to see theatre and what is needed to cover costs and ensure that those people involved get recognized financially for the time, effort, and commitment they put in to the production. It doesn’t always work the way I’d like, but those are my general guidelines (that, of course, will vary based on circumstance) as to charging for theatre. I always strive to hit a level of quality I’m satisfied with (otherwise, why do it?) so the question of ‘is it good enough to sell?’ rarely comes up. That’s not my concern. I want people to see it and I also want to ensure the work itself is valued and the people who contributed to the work and valued. I want to ensure the audience is valued, too, by us doing what we can to make the show what we’d like it to be.

        Is it fair to change an audience to view a production that is still in the process of development?
        It depends on the circumstance. How far along in development? What are you hoping to get out of this specific performance? Will a paying audience give you what you’re seeking from this performance or would an invited, curated audience who didn’t pay better provide what you need? And, the always ugly, are there financial burdens taken on that you must alleviate and charging audience members is the only/best way you can? (Not saying that last is the best question, but it’s sometimes a needed one.)

        In the end, you’re not forcing an audience member to attend or luring them in and springing a cost on them. So long as they know it’s a piece in development then they are the ones making the choice to say, ‘I feel it’s a healthy risk for me to take to spend this time/money on this experience in the hopes I will enjoy/appreciate it.’ And that’s their choice to make. Culture/entertainment is always a risk. You never know how it will make you feel. Just because you didn’t like how an experience made you feel doesn’t mean you were shortchanged that experience.

        What are the responsibilities of a theatre company to [its] unsatisfied audience members?
        First of all, I think the responsibility beforehand is to be (relatively) clear about the experience you’re presenting them (e.g. don’t market it as a contemporary comedy and then show them a period tragedy in another language, say if it’s a premiere, be clear if it’s intended as a work-in-progress or if this is a developmental performance).

        What’s your responsibility after you’ve done that? Do better next time. Learn. Grow. Or be able to accept that you’ve lost that patron and they may not see your work again. (This last one may be a good or bad thing.)

  • Derek Bedry says:

    You lost me at “junkies.” I don’t know what your definition is, but drug addicts and group muggings? Statistically, not exactly common. The imagery doesn’t help your argument, strengthen the metaphor, or sound somehow more clever than “muggers” would.

    You probably have a good point about theatre in here somewhere I’ll never see because your flimsy metaphor was so marginalizing and so persistent. Pro tip on persuasion: easier to criticize when you can alienate as few people as possible. Just be aware you’ve pulled language from an unrelated and especially sensitive vocabulary and you risk losing a diverse array of people for no good reason.

    Not that the irony of my own sanctimony is lost on me, here.

    • Thanks Derek for the heads up. Appreciating the feedback (both positive and negetive) from readers. Good point about marginalization. I tend to have the ability to trap myself in a corner of my own rantings now and again. Will keep your notes in mind whenever I feel the urge to write a sentence longer than 4 lines or speak for anyone other than myself. Good lessons to learn early on.
      Thanks for reading!
      Caleb.

  • […] wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be in the blog post that I wrote in its regard entitled, Canadian Theatre Can Do Better. But, it was not very good, to say the least. However, the underlying truth of the post remains the […]

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