I first discovered Rosamund Small’s writing when I was a juror for the Sears Drama Festival’s new play competition for high school students several years ago. I was like 21 or something myself, had a stack of plays to read, and came across a script that struck me as hugely assured. I had no info about the author besides that he or she was an Ontario high school student, but I scribbled a little note on the feedback sheet that went something like: “Hope you’ll keep writing plays! You’re super good at it. If you ever have a show onstage, please shoot me an e-mail and let me know.” And I left my e-mail address. A year or two later, behold: there was an e-mail.
Flash forward a bunch of years (zzzzoom! zwinnggg! okay) and Ms. Small’s an accomplished professional playwright and I still think her voice is great. She has a fantastic ear for contemporary speech rhythms. She’s a wit. As Kelly Nestruck highlights in the Globe and Mail, she knows how to get out of her own way: most of the time, her technique is invisible.
Her new play, Vitals, is a Theatre Passe Muraille and Outside The March co-production, directed by OtM artistic director Mitchell Cushman. Mitchell’s developed a reputation for clear, precise productions of plays staged in non-traditional venues, and this one’s no exception: a solo show about the experiences of a Toronto paramedic, Vitals unfolds in a house near Roncesvalles Village, with rooms decked out to look like sites of medical emergencies. The production is grounded by its one performer, Katherine Cullen, who, supported by the text’s accurate rhythms, gives a photo-realistic reading of a woman worn down by her demanding job.
I’ve found it interesting and problematic that so much of the reception of this play, plus its marketing, has centred around that job. The messaging, as I’ve taken it, has been that Vitals is important because it offers an up-close look at a part of the population—paramedics and related support workers—we’re liable to take for granted. The Globe review hits this note; so does the playwright, in an interview about the show.
The problem with this notion is that it justifies the play on the grounds of representation. It implies that we should see the show because of whom it represents, not what it asks about such people or what’s the relevance of those questions to the show’s audience. It sets up a false standard for weighing the play’s merits: if the play represents the underrepresented person/group/experience with enough verisimilitude, it’s labeled as good; if it fails to do so, it’s considered to be bad. Questions like But wait, how’s the audience implicated either way? are evaded.
“The audience is implicated because they’re made aware of a group of people they take for granted” isn’t a satisfying answer. It assumes the audience’s ignorance. It assumes their middle class entitlement, their privileged unawareness of those who labour for their well-being. The latter’s a fair assumption, maybe. But Vitals doesn’t critique that entitlement. It reinforces it, in a way, because it allows its audience to walk away and pat themselves on their collective back about how they’ve engaged with a segment of the so-called working class. It doesn’t require them to ask any tricky questions about their relationship to that segment of the working class.
The pitch for Vitals that’s about representation doesn’t allow a lot of room to discuss the play’s merits as a play. I think Vitals has a profound set of concerns at its heart (more on this below), but much of the play skirts them. Its first two-thirds bank on the audience’s interest in the sensational and banal details of a paramedic’s work. Structured as an episodic set of stories about our paramedic’s cases, tension and suspense flag as the play doesn’t suggest whether the stories will have a cumulative effect—if they’re building, if there’ll be a payoff—or if they’re supposed to hold interest as loosely linked anecdotes.
The “site-specific” model struck me as part of the problem. Here it diffuses tension more than it creates interest; the audience’s wanderings around the house underscore the episodic nature of the experience. Though these proceedings didn’t strike me as fascistic, it wasn’t clear to me how the setting helped to create or intensify the play’s meanings on a more than superficial level. It struck me as more of a fashionable, attractive, fixed way of doing things—Outside The March is committed to this sort of theatre—than an artistic strategy tailored to the needs of this particular play.
The dialogue is well pitched, the performance is credible, but it’s not clear why we should feel invested in the outcomes of Vitals‘ early vignettes, which seem like glorified campfire tales, complete with a disappearing corpse. Eventually it emerges that the play is in part about the toll these cases have taken on Anna the paramedic’s mental health, but this doesn’t feel like a particularly revealing conclusion. It’s reasonable to expect that first responders are at risk of trauma. It may be worthwhile to ask if this is acceptable, or if society does everything it can to make such work tolerable, but Vitals doesn’t go there.
Where it does go, eventually, is much richer than that. In its final moments, it takes salvation as its theme, salvation on a human scale. It asks if everyone deserves to be saved, given the compromised, sometimes viciously compromised, state of human beings. Are we obliged to rescue someone just because we can? What claims does the stranger in need have on me?
These questions arise because, late in the play, Anna finds herself in a situation where she has to make a choice. Should she save a violent, cruel man whom she finds in need—by now she’s off the job—or should she let him die? It’s a terrific moment of drama. It’s gripping because it’s not just a moment of storytelling, not just emotionally charged exposition, but also a moment of urgent moral decision. It dramatizes a character with an immediate dilemma that has serious consequences. It doesn’t reduce that character to her job, however much her job informs her behaviour. It’s drama first, docudrama second. And as a result, it’s more revealing about paramedics and their trials than anything else in the play.
David Mamet, in his collection of essays Writing In Restaurants from the late ’80s (before his lamentable political conversion and TV’s laudable aesthetic conversion), describes the way that network TV procedurals lull us into a complacent worship of our public service professionals: look how attractive, capable, and devoted (if lovably flawed) are our doctors, lawyers, police officers. This is entertainment as facile reinforcement of the status quo. At times, when Anna the paramedic is evoked in a way that’s more descriptive than active, Vitals functions this way too.
The issue isn’t helped by the solo show form, which is opposed to immediate action (the story is told, not lived in front of us) and makes complex relationships hard to dramatize—makes anything hard to dramatize, rather than to narrate.
In fact, let me interrupt this essay to make a cheeky/dead-serious request to the cultural philanthropists of Toronto: please consider endowing the stalwart Theatre Passe Muraille with a grant dedicated exclusively to the employment of actors in new plays that have more than one character and ideally more than two. No theatre can speak meaningfully to the diversity of a city if it grounds its programming in the one-person show. Diversity is about the intersection of cultures and viewpoints, not the accretion of them as islands. Storytelling as such is essential but univocal and tribal. Drama is pluralistic and democratic. The one-person show is storytelling. The multi-character play is drama. There are exceptions.
We might fault the solo show form for the way that Vitals struggles to build dramatic conflict, but I also wonder if the show’s creators overestimated the value of verisimilitude as an artistic goal. Kelly Nestruck’s praise about the transparency of Rosamund’s technique is well deserved but has a faint anti-intellectual whiff about it. There may be coarser and subtler techniques for investigating a subject in drama, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing if we can glimpse, behind the mechanics of plot and dialogue, the playwright’s active mind roving over the scene and trying to sort something out—as we do, in fact, in Vitals‘ last few minutes.
Invisible technique is great if it’s in the service of a worthwhile artistic goal, but it’s not a very interesting goal in itself. Mahler’s super-smooth way with eighth notes doesn’t mean much, certainly not to a lay audience, when it’s divorced from a considered, ambitious artistic project like his 9th Symphony (an arbitrary example, but one that was recently competing for the attention of Toronto arts audiences).
I think Rosamund and Mitchell are supernovae of talent, and Vitals is a great chance to discover some of their signature gifts. But it seems to me that what’s on display here is more interesting as technique than as content, and what’s most interesting here as content doesn’t get much stage time. Is Vitals as technically polished as much of what’s onstage in Toronto? Absolutely. Does it aim high enough? Are its artistic (spiritual, political, formal) goals equal to the intelligence and sophistication of its creators? I’m not so sure. But I’ll most definitely check out anything else those two create.