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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Dear Jordan Tannahill (Or, Wisdom, Love, and a Reply to Hitler)

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51f55976662e782d-PostEden1Dear Jordan,

I write to you not in a spirit of critique or challenge, not specifically about your most recent play (Concord Floral, which was terrific), but because I have thoughts I feel the need to air in the conversational space between us, with its exceptional acoustics, and I don’t want to wait for our next brunch.

Your work as a playwright has been justly celebrated of late. You’re now the youngest-ever winner of the Governor General’s Award for Drama. Various ideas about, reasons for your work’s value have been floated. Many of them are grounded in the political. Your theatre creations are read and marketed as complex articulations of queer identity in the digital age; as “of our moment” instances of inter-disciplinary/mixed-media performance art; as temperature-takings of life in the contemporary suburbs.

None of these readings of your work are wrong. They’re apt enough descriptions of its surfaces. But they don’t capture why your offerings on these themes and in these forms are so distinguished from the many others of similar description that exist right now.

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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.

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Dear Daniel Karasik (Or, Self-Exam #1)

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baby-duck-wallpaperDear Daniel,

How’s it going? I know you hear enough from me already, but I’d like to lob a few public thoughts in your direction. Hope you’ll forgive the indulgence.

I think this open-letter project of yours, where you write missives to your theatremaker peers and offer critical responses to their work, is pretty interesting but not without its problems.

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Dear Richard Rose (Or, A New Moment For Theatre in Toronto?)

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An Enemy of the People,Tarragon TheaterDear Richard,

Did you ever read or hear Obama’s January 2009 inauguration speech? I remember my delight as I read the transcript that the New York Times posted online, how moved I was by its complexity of argument and its elegant, quite high register, with echoes of Emerson and the King James Bible. Here’s a man, I thought, who’s speaking not to the “unwashed masses” but to the enlightened citizens of the country he’d like to exist. And he wasn’t just speaking to them: he was also willing them into existence.

Maybe history doesn’t bear such gestures out; probably a country’s people don’t change their character because of a leader’s good intentions. But that doesn’t make his gesture any less noble, to my mind, or less important.

I felt much the same way towards the end of your production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at Tarragon Theatre, or rather your revision of Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s play in Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation and Maria Milisavljevic’s translation (to put it simply). A contemporary update of Ibsen’s story of a man who speaks out about his town’s contaminated water supply and runs afoul of the local economic elite, it struck me as perhaps the most important production I’ve seen at the Tarragon in years.

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