In the National Post, I reviewed Sex With Shakespeare, Jillian Keenan’s beautiful memoir of kinky coming-of-age and the Bard.
For the next year, I’m waiving all production royalties to my play On Top for theatre companies and collectives with an annual budget under CAD $50,000. The full script, below, will live online for the year. To secure the rights, just e-mail me and tell me what you plan to do.
The text is also full of meaty audition monologue material for men and women in their late 20s and 30s.
On Top premiered at the Tarragon Theatre Workspace in Toronto in March 2016, directed by me and performed by Krista Colosimo, Michael Goldlist, and Jess Salgueiro. Under a previous title, it won the 2015 Safe Words Playwriting Competition. The play is political, sexual, non-linear, fragmentary, occasionally poetic, sometimes anti-dramatic, often weird. It requires no set or design. It allows, maybe demands, a fair bit of interpretation by the producing artists. It runs about 60 minutes.
For Partisan Magazine, I wrote about scapegoating and the erotic charge of online mobs.
When an important theatre company’s entire eight-play season includes just one (1) actor who unambiguously couldn’t pass for an ethnic European, and that actor is cast as a non-human in a jester’s hat, can that truly be seen as a positive, progressive example of “colour-blind casting”?
If racial and ethnic “colour-blindness” isn’t a genuine human possibility, tribal and prideful as we are, but is instead a bourgeois myth that allows the lookers to feel morally righteous instead of confronting their own prejudices, what’s the artist’s responsibility in relation to it?
For Partisan Magazine, I asked these and other questions in a discussion of Mustard at Tarragon Theatre: http://www.partisanmagazine.com/reviews/2016/2/14/never-an-intruder-always-a-guest
Zadie Smith’s essays are so great. They’re collected in a book called Changing My Mind, a phrase that beautifully captures the tentative quality of the essay form: a literary gamble, an attempt, child of the French word essayer, “to try.” I’ve spent a year and a half essaying, on this website and sometimes elsewhere, and I’ve never changed my mind so often or been so full of doubt.
In the spring of 2014, I launched a dangerous little experiment on this inch of online real estate: I began to write long-form critical essays about dramatic art and mainly about the work of my own theatre community in Toronto. Soon after I started the project, I decided to package those essays as open letters to the theatre artists about whom I wrote, with the guiding principle that I’d include in the essays only such thoughts as I might otherwise share with those artists directly and privately — over e-mail, say. The letters would be overheard speech, governed by roughly the same social rules, the same codes of omission and inclusion, that mark any frank but respectful conversation with a peer.
Though the initial public reaction to the project was largely positive, in the spring of 2015, almost exactly a year in, it received a fundamental critique from a local artist who argued that it, and I, as a straight white man, take up too much space in the Canadian theatre landscape. That critique, which took the form of a discussion of the aesthetics and ethics of one of my own plays, positioned me at a distinct point along a spectrum of ideas about the politics of identity. The critique staked out political territory, drew a line, and located me on the other side of it. To be fair, it did invite me to reform my views and switch camps. But in the process it established, by implication, that there were camps, and that I was, at least for the moment, in the wrong one.
A Possible Roadmap to a Less Pale, More Prosperous Future
I caused some distress a few weeks ago when, in the rowdy virtual pub that is Facebook, I offered a possible explanation for why the Canadian theatre is so damn white.
My claim, which I made way too glibly, was that the vast majority of new Canadians from Not-Europe seem more inclined to seek lucrative work in mainstream sectors like finance and technology, for instance, than to hurl themselves down the economic rabbit hole that is the arts. Whether that observation is true or not, it was wrong of me to speak of race-related matters in the flippant, generalized way I did. It was a mistake — lazy, facile, distracting — to approach such a complex issue with quips instead of rigour.
This essay, then, is the product of research and reflection to which I was compelled by my own dissatisfaction with my careless words. It’s an attempt to move past glib politicking, test intuitions with data, examine some of the economic forces at work in the Canadian theatre, and propose a speculative but potentially revolutionary model for change.
You think you’ve seen all the forms of Internet outrage, and then along comes an essay about Canadian poets and the House of Saud. An account of the ties between Griffin Poetry Prize founder Scott Griffin and the recent $15-billion Canadian arms deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, poet and critic Michael Lista’s “The Shock Absorber” is quite the polemical performance. It’s researched in depth; it unites such excellent topics as Great Power Politics and Petty Poet Politics; it even has some decent one-liners, as when Lista notes Griffin’s sometime desire to do altruistic work in a benighted nation and clarifies: “That underdeveloped country wasn’t Canadian poetry; it was Kenya.” (Wocka wocka.) A former poetry columnist at the National Post, Lista’s in fine form here: casually virtuosic, anticipating and karate-chopping objections, prosecuting his case with judicious flair.
His case is this. Scott Griffin, who not only funds the Griffin Prize but also owns the Canadian literary publisher House of Anansi, is the controlling shareholder of a Brampton, Ontario military parts manufacturer called General Kinetics Engineering Corp. General Kinetics, Lista reports, “has a subcontract on the largest foreign trade deal in Canadian history. It is an arms deal — one that violates our own export regulations — negotiated by the Harper government on behalf of London, Ontario’s General Dynamics Land Systems, for the delivery of $15 billion worth of light armoured vehicles.” The buyer is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a land of Wahhabi haute couture and persecuted liberal writers. As Lista presents it, the deal’s a grotesquery with the geometry to please a perverse Spinoza: profits from arming a despotic regime, one that imprisons and brutalizes its subjects who advocate liberal democracy on their blogs, are sluiced into subsidy for writers in the liberal democratic West.
What an elegant equation. Guilting, nauseating — and quite beautiful in its symmetry. Lista’s argument offers an aesthetic satisfaction that’s part of what makes it tricky to dismantle. To my taste, his essay is an excellent poem. But it asks to be read also as politics, as activism, which means tugging a little on its loose threads, however fine the fabric.