On Doubt

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“Christmas Morning,” Andrew Wyeth (1944)

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.

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How To Save the Canadian Theatre in a Few Not-So-Easy Steps

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A Possible Roadmap to a Less Pale, More Prosperous Future

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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.

 

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Dear Annabel Soutar and Chris Abraham (Or, Exit Music for a Planet)

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Watershed-Kristen-Thomson-and-CastDear Annabel and Chris,

If noted TV philosopher Stephen Colbert is right that “reality has a well-known liberal bias,” reality’s political inclination seems nowhere so clear as on the subject of climate change. As you know, there’s now a strong consensus among scientists that the planet is getting hotter, human industry and consumption are largely to blame, and catastrophic weather phenomena (euphemistic for flooded cities and continental droughts) are, unless something’s done to stop them, coming soon to a major population centre near you. Even sophisticated right-leaning media havens for climate change denial (climate anti-alarmism, they might say), like the Wall Street Journal, have begun to change their tune. The recent resolution of G7 nations to “decarbonize” completely by 2100 is at once a shirking of responsibility by current governments, whose leaders won’t be around to enforce the pledge, and a symbolic statement that the problem of anthropogenic climate change is real and must be dealt with.

The growing bipartisan acknowledgement of global warming has done little to depoliticize the debate over how to address it, as your excellent new play The Watershed, now running as part of the Pan Am Games’ festival of the arts, explores. Pundits on the far ends of the political spectrum tend to reduce the issue to a stark binary: “capitalism vs. the climate,” as framed by the subtitle of Naomi Klein’s recent book on the subject, This Changes Everything, reported in brilliant depth, if quite tendentious (probably Klein would reply that it’s reality that’s tendentious). The oil and gas industries are massive economic players who will need to commit hara-kiri in a hurry, Klein’s argument goes, if the planet isn’t to succumb to climate disasters that would lead to mass suffering and death. The immanent logic of capitalism, its hurrahs for growth without limit and the exploitation of the earth for human benefit, is in tragic opposition to the immanent logic of the earth itself, which is fragile and unforgiving of those who mess with its harmonies.

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Dear Erin Brubacher (Or, Misogyny and Representation)

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Little-DeathDear Erin,

Thanks so much for your open letter to me about my play Little Deaththe premiere production of which just closed at Toronto’s Theatre Centre. Your letter is one of the most thoughtful public critical engagements that any of my plays have been offered. I’ll continue to reflect on your words for a long time.

I’m troubled to hear my play caused you and others distress. Wish that hadn’t been so, though I’m also glad that the experience produced your public response. I’m aware that the conversation you’ve started is about more than just my play and its production, that it has to do with larger questions about the state of gender representation (and other kinds of representation) on our stages. But in this letter, mirroring the method of yours, my way into the larger issues will be through the specifics of my play.

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Dear Hannah Moscovitch (Or, Is Love The Limit?)

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tn-500_infinity5Dear Hannah,

What’s the “common sense” definition of gifted playwright, a definition that would be accepted by those without highly specialized (“scientific”) knowledge of theatre? I’d say it might go something like this: a person who writes compelling scenes of drama that feature convincing human action and dialogue.

A theatre specialist might argue, rightly, that that definition is too limited. She might also, again rightly, point to the scarcity of Canadian artists whom that definition fits. In Toronto, for instance, we have a number of skilled monologists, able Lecoq- or Gaulier-trained physical performance-devisers, talented etchers of sketch comedy so-labeled or not, writers of vivid poetry and prose inserted willy-nilly into onstage characters’ mouths, but few dramatists who can write a credible, active, witty, high-stakes dramatic scene.

You can.

Infinity, your new play at Tarragon Theatre in a Tarragon-Volcano Theatre co-production directed by Ross Manson, is in large part about the tension between the “common sense” understanding of things — time, for example, or love — and the technical or specialist understanding of those things. A family drama that’s ostensibly about physics in general and the concept of time in particular, your play calls to mind Augustine’s famous quip about time, a profundity that’d be at home in a Groucho Marx routine: “What therefore is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I’m asked and wish to explain it, I don’t know.”

What therefore, I wonder, is a play about time? When no one asks me, I know; when I’m asked (albeit by myself) and wish to explain it, I’m stumped.

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Dear Matthew Jocelyn (Or, The Soulful Text and The De-Souled Actor)

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harper3Dear Matthew,

I like your taste in plays. I was thrilled to hear that you’d programmed Simon Stephens’s 2008 play Harper Regan, a longtime favourite of mine, at Canadian Stage, the large Toronto theatre company of which you’re the artistic and general director. You’ve also programmed a play by the excellent German Philipp Löhle next season, alongside plays by the excellent Canadian Jordan Tannahill. As this patchy survey of your programming suggests, your curation at Canadian Stage is cosmopolitan and, in my opinion, oriented towards excellence.

In a manner more or less unparalleled by any other local company in the years I’ve been attending theatre in Toronto, you’ve opened a space in this city for a conversation about the substance and form of theatre as it exists beyond the limits of North America and particularly in Europe. You’ve programmed a lot of European work, for one thing, and you’ve enfranchised local directors to approach texts of whatever provenance with a characteristically “continental” attitude.

That attitude may be epitomized in a few maxims that are inevitably reductive but capture the gist. The writer is not the author, in the strict sense, of a stage production. The writer is necessarily radically dispossessed when interpreters take hold of her play and stage it. There is a dramaturgy of all stage elements — scenery, sound design, actors’ performances, etc. — not just a dramaturgy of the text. The spirit of the text may sometimes be best honoured by taking liberties with the letter of the text; if the director has any obligation to the text, that obligation is only to the spirit of the text as he perceives it and not to the author’s intentions. The author’s intentions are radically unknowable. Realism is acceptable as a self-conscious formal strategy but never as a hegemonic default position. Language is unreliable at best and possibly just noise; the most authentic stratum of reality, from which we as bourgeois moderns are liable to be alienated, is sub- or supra-lingustic: gestural, imagistic, physical.

It’s not my interest here to unpack the salty compound of truth and nonsense that those claims amount to. Let it suffice to point out, for these modest Internet purposes, that they rest on doctrinaire postmodern and post-structuralist thinking, developed in Europe after the Second World War, and are vulnerable to all the same challenges as are postmodernism and post-structuralism.

What I mean to do here, instead, is to look at how your production of Harper Regan is served by your interpretive approach.

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