Dear Joel Greenberg (Or, What Makes “Political Theatre” Political?)

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NSFW-2Dear Joel,

It’s tempting to grant you amazing gifts of foresight: your production of young British author Lucy Kirkwood’s play NSFW (Not Safe For Work), a satire about the media and cultural attitudes towards sex and gender, has coincided with a couple of the biggest sex scandals in years and an invigorated national conversation around sexual aggression. On the face of it, this play seems to be the definition of political theatre — timely, topical, provocative — the sort of work to which your company, Studio 180, is committed.

By most standards, your production is terrific. The acting is superb; the dramatic stakes are high; the action gallops, though the pace never feels forced. NSFW has virtues that the person I was three years ago, say, would’ve swooned over (and that the person I am now admires): witty, fluid, revealing dialogue, a clever structure, emotional complexity.

But one virtue it lacks, I find, is political urgency.

You might ask: how much more political than NSFW can a piece of theatre get? The first half, set in the office of a men’s magazine, involves an explicit photo of an underage girl, submitted to the magazine by an ex-boyfriend without her consent or knowledge, that’s been published in ignorance of the girl’s age; it raises questions around consent, objectification, the boundaries or lack of boundaries of male desire. The play’s second half, in which a young male job-seeker interviews for a position at a women’s magazine, reveals how women impose on other women the standards that men create. As a whole, the play examines the model of female beauty (and of gender more generally) that the Western media perpetuate. It’s all straight out of an Internet think-piece, a newspaper op-ed column. NSFW is more political and “relevant,” on the surface, than the vast majority of new Canadian plays that premiere on institutional stages in Toronto. And that should be commended. So what’s my problem?

My problem, in part, is that nobody is trying to close your production down. My problem is that nobody is arguing about it on the Internet, as far as I’ve seen. My problem is that, chances are, nobody finds what you’ve put onstage disgusting, immoral, unacceptable. Nobody’s ending friendships because of disagreements over it, ill-matched couples aren’t breaking up because of arguments sparked by it. People aren’t calling you and your collaborators and the playwright names: extremist, misogynist, reactionary, wanker. A “political” play that provokes no visible controversy isn’t plunging deep enough into its issues, it seems to me, and must be doing a pretty good job of upholding a moral and aesthetic status quo.

“But these are complaints about the audience,” one might object. “Can you really hold artists responsible if their audience is apathetic, offers only muted responses? Isn’t that how Canadian audiences usually are?”

NSFWMaybe so — but I don’t believe that the target audience for this play (e.g. anybody who’s been glued to the news about Jian Ghomeshi) is the least bit apathetic about these issues. On the contrary, that audience writes furious blog posts or letters to the editor, depending on their generation, about sex and gender injustices. A huge part of the public is consumed by these issues right now. So why isn’t social media boiling over with debate and outrage about NSFW? Why aren’t audience members writing dozens of angry e-mails to the Theatre Centre’s management, urging them to reconsider its affiliation with your company? (I assume this isn’t happening.)

The problem isn’t the play’s craft, which is unimpeachable. Kirkwood has major gifts for selecting dramatic situations, dropping believable characters into them, and providing those characters with smart, musical dialogue. But, to my mind, the play doesn’t feel marked by personal urgency. It doesn’t feel invested with a genuine searching quality: I never get the sense that the playwright considers her topics to be difficult, perhaps unresolvable issues through which the play is a necessary attempt to navigate. On the evidence of NSFW, she seems to have more or less made up her mind about them.

Though, to her credit, Kirkwood gives her male magazine editor some edgy arguments about why his job is morally sound, how it provides an aesthetic pleasure that men clamour for and some women wish to offer, the play never seems to take such arguments seriously or expect its audience to. The writing is subtle and avoids explicit moralizing about the media’s cult of beauty, but it always suggests that that social messaging is pernicious. And so it is, perhaps — but the play’s critique of it often feels skin deep, as it were, directed at the “the cultural climate” and transient creations like magazines more than the desires and passions that underlie them. Like a lot of liberal discussion of such subjects, it doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that many of the problems of sex and gender, whatever their contemporary expression, are ancient, fundamental, permanent.

This is a dangerous idea, of course, anathema to the spirit of reform. To argue that the problem of male aggression is permanent is to hobble attempts to improve male behaviour, to slide down the slippery “boys will be boys” slope. But art doesn’t have to make this argument, just as it doesn’t have to make any argument in a univocal way: it simply has to acknowledge it, to follow it down the rabbit hole and bring the audience along so they can have a look and make up their own minds.

For theatre to be “political” in a meaningful way, in a way that can ripple outward from the art and cause changes to consciousness and action, I think it has to tell audiences what they don’t want to hear — even if that argument is presented alongside what they do want to hear. And I’m not convinced this is what NSFW is up to.

NSFW-stills20rv1Instead, like Kirkwood’s newer play Chimerica that Canadian Stage will produce next season, NSFW justifies itself by its political subject matter but seems to remain far more concerned with itself as an object — a well-made consumer good, a skillfully crafted entertainment — than with its political explorations or impact. It dramatizes its characters’ high emotions and makes a few poignant observations about love, but otherwise it feels rather sterilized by its craft, as if the author’s genuine passion and deep concern has been so subsumed under the demands of scene and character that it’s no longer identifiable. The work has no whiff of vulnerability about it. It’s all smooth surfaces and straight lines.

Which is, of course, from one perspective, impressive and commendable; I’m aware that many of the criticisms in this essay could be read as praise. But, to me, the play’s lack of vulnerability and urgency restricts the political meaning of your programming it here in Toronto. The play, read the way I read it, is not a cri de coeur or a strong reformist gesture but a well-crafted functional object whose main purpose is to please an audience and achieve commercial success, and so it participates in the same market logic on which the media’s cult of beauty — its reduction of women to objects — also rests. Your production of it in Toronto becomes an import of a foreign “hit,” in the old Canadian Stage style — also an import of its cache, the colonial value of its London production history — more than a genuine political provocation. The play and production become complicit with the systems of thought they purport to critique.

I see two possible solutions to this. They’re probably connected. They’re not, of course, meant as prescriptions for you personally or you alone. As ever on this website, they’re first of all me thinking out loud.

One possibility is that we should develop theatre, here in Toronto, that has a more radical political character than (as far as I’m aware) most of what’s currently on offer in New York and London, both theatre cultures that are oriented pretty strongly towards commercial rewards — see Simon Stephens’s 2011 Berlin Theatertreffen keynote address for an interesting articulation of this issue. (Though, come to think of it, the Royal Court’s recent programming looks a lot more urgent and radical than NSFW.) We should enfranchise local creators who, in their art, are willing and able to deepen the so-called liberal position radically and/or to give a conscientious hearing to the so-called conservative position. We should support these creators through to production on mainstream (mainstream in theatre terms, anyway) platforms.

We could also, I think, be more upfront about the intentions of work, like NSFW, that may have contemporary relevance but isn’t deeply political in its content or effect. Most theatre isn’t very political, certainly most “political theatre” isn’t, but a lot of it still has a good claim to our attention because of its beauty. The aesthetic richness of a work of art, though too nebulous and ineffable to form a decent marketing soundbite, is often a better, more honest reason for us to check it out than its discursive claims to political importance. One of the reasons NSFW felt a bit hollow to me, despite its technical brilliance and your expert production, is that I found it to be without poetry, without a profound sense for the feelings and experiences that transcend our political situation. It’s a virtuosic ecclesiastical treatise; it’s not grace or love.

Don’t get me wrong: your production is one of the most accomplished I’ve seen in Toronto this year. There’s a lot to recommend it. But I think anybody engaged in a public enterprise as important as yours  — to produce “socially relevant theatre that provokes public discourse and promotes community engagement” — should be prodded a bit as to what that enterprise means and how it’s gone about.

All the best with the rest of your run (at the Theatre Centre till this Sunday, November 30th),

Daniel

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