On A Theatre Community That Is Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger

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I know this may shock some of you, but when I was a teenager, I didn’t get involved in the theatre because I wanted to be popular. I’m sure most of you had a similar experience. I embraced my penchant for dorkiness and tolerated feeling ostracized by the girls who looked like they walked off an Aaron Spelling set. I was relieved to enter University and the Canadian Theatre Community, where I was suddenly surrounded by those who felt the same passion for theatre that I did and suddenly the way I was perceived by those who did not understand ceased to matter. I had found, as Lucy Maud Montgomery would say, the race that knew Joseph, and I couldn’t be more proud or euphoric. Yet, I feel that society’s stigma towards artists and especially towards actors, continues to stifle our ability to create with the freedom that we deserve and that many of our own institutions are ultimately making choices that disenfranchise artists and perpetuate an aura of powerlessness and alienation in our community.
I think the challenge is that we all feel helpless; we have been conditioned to believe that we are not the mainstream because we are the drama geeks from High School, but in fact in this industry we are the majority. We are the powerful, we are the reason that plays and musicals exist in Toronto and across the country. I feel like something momentous is brewing right now, something wonderfully inspiring and hopeful. Theatre practitioners are becoming increasingly vociferous in voicing their opinions and engaging in public discussions about theatre issues that have disconcerted them. In the past few weeks I know of two members of the theatre community who have written passionate, eloquent, and insightful pieces about two separate reviews published in The Toronto Star which these artists denounced for being unprofessional and, in one case, blatantly offensive. Matt Baram wrote his own blog about TAPA’s decision to exclude Impromptu Splendor from its Dora Award considerations on the basis that Improvisation cannot be judged by the same standards as “theatre” and without commenting (as yet) on the suggestion of broadening the Dora Award categories to include Improvisation in the future.
The first step toward instigating change is for us to become dissatisfied with the way things are and to identify the forces that subjugate us and to really work together and to stand united in taking the future of Canadian Theatre, our future, resolutely into our own hands. I can see the momentum building, I can see the movement toward artistic empowerment and the frustration that actors, playwrights and directors are feeling mounting and most importantly, I see theatre heroes emerging all across the theatre community who are taking matters into their own hands and helping to build bridges, dedicating themselves to the production of new work, the creation of Canadian musicals, championing our theatre artists and their ventures and adamantly and valiantly opposing corruption.
The most important thing right now is for everyone in the theatre community, and extending that community beyond those who work and love the theatre, to include everyone who considers themselves to be a performer in this city, to become aware that something inspiring and promising is bubbling just below the surface. If you have been feeling restricted in your ability to achieve your dreams, or if you have been feeling disparaged or disconnected by an infrastructure that seems to pit artists against one another, I encourage you to voice your opinions and join in the discussion. I think part of the reason that we feel so powerless is because we have been grappling with these issues as individuals and perhaps discussing them with our close circle of confidents, but there hasn’t been a movement to really rally the community together around any one particular issue.
So, what can we do? What can be done? What are the biggest issues that I would like to see resolved?
1. Firstly, I think that when it comes to producing plays that Toronto is a wonderfully balanced theatrical city. Between Tarragon Theatre, Factory Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille, our indigenous playwrights are given ample opportunities to have their work showcased, read, workshopped, produced and even revived. Soulpepper Theatre provides us with stunning productions of the classics from the world’s canon, while Canadian Stage is dedicated to bringing more contemporary world-class works to our stages and Obsidian Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Nightwood Theatre, Studio 180 Theatre, Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, Fu-Gen Theatre, and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre are committed to mixing Canadian works with works from elsewhere and allowing Canadian artists to bring life to work that speaks to a specific mandate and a special community. I don’t ever see these theatres as being in competition with one another, they are all needed and cherished by the artists of Toronto, so there is never any need to set one against another. That being said, I think the Artistic Directors of these companies should work together as compatriots. At the very least, I think it is imperative that none of the Opening Nights of these theatres overlap with one another, because splitting the audience and the theatre critics’ attention quite frankly, does a disservice to everyone. It would be wonderful if all the Artistic Directors could work together to pool their intelligence, their visions for the future of Torontonian theatre and their resources to help one another because I think that only in working together will Toronto’s mid-size theatres be able to rise out from under the shadow of the all consuming Mirvish advertising monolith. I have been to each of these theatres frequently and I know that there is a loyal and invigorated audience for each one and there is really no reason for insecurity or concern to make rivalries out of ten theatres that are integral and beloved to this community. We all want many of the same things, let’s help each other.
2. The rise of Independent theatre is definitely not a new innovation in Toronto, but it seems as though there is a new insurgence of artists who are taking their careers in their own hands by writing or directing their own works and developing their own theatrical styles, whether it be in the creation of new plays, or in Cabaret, musical theatre or Improvisation. As difficult as it is for the mid-sized venues in Toronto to reach out to the same mass audience as Mirvish and DanCap, it becomes even more difficult for small independent shows to find their own audience. Festivals such as Summerworks and Fringe are incredible, solid institutions that bring these sorts of works to a large, established audience of theatregoers which makes them one of the most valuable and exciting theatrical events in the city. What I think would benefit the independent theatre community most is for the artists within it to keep their eyes open for the small show that is being produced outside of a major festival, in a small venue, especially if it is a company’s inaugural production, and to make supporting these types of shows a priority. Social media is the easiest and fastest way to disseminate information, so if you saw a production that was particularly wonderful, it does wonders to give a Facebook or Twitter shout-out to your friends because I know that we like to feel secure in the quality of the theatre that we patronize, which makes us all very conservative and cautious theatregoers. The good news is that often the very small independent shows are significantly cheaper than most other forms of entertainment and I find that it is often the shows I feel dubious about that end up being the ones I am most grateful to have seen.
3. I feel like I have been advocating repeatedly for the artists of this city to continue to work to break down the archaic walls that have been built up between the “theatre world” the “musical theatre world” and the “comedy world,” but I feel passionately about us all coming together and feeling like equal, valued and empowered members of this community. More importantly, I think that we can all learn tremendous lessons from one another. The Comedy Community, for example, is incredibly close-knit and the performers who work within it are fiercely supportive of one another. I have seen the comedians of this city taking the initiative that shapes and determines the amount of opportunities that are available for everyone in their community to staggering and impressive success. I challenge you all, all the artists of this city, to ignite your intrinsic spark of fascination and to venture into the unknown caverns of performance and to soak up every ounce of theatricality that you can find. You will find inspiration, you will find collaborations, you will discover new ideas and experience revelations about your craft. Seeing all different types of theatre enriches your soul and it helps to make artists better at what they do.
4. A friend of mine from Halifax recently brought his fantastic show to the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space and I was reminded how difficult it is for theatre artists in visiting shows, people who are new to the city, with few connections to the theatre community and small advertising budgets to fill even a small or mid-sized venue. I think that it is these types of productions that the theatre community in Toronto should make an additional effort to support and promote. In the same way that it is beneficial for us to continue to build bridges between the various theatre artists in Toronto, it is equally as advantageous for us to extend these bridges to those who live and work in other places across the country, and indeed, around the world. Embracing visitors and extending our warmth and hospitality to those who have come to share their art with us will make the Canadian theatre a more unified and cohesive place to place.
5. Conversely, I also become frustrated with the notion that simply because a work is written and produced in Toronto or because a theatre director or actor chooses to work in Canada, that our art is somehow automatically inferior to that which plays in New York. I admit that I idolize my fair share of Broadway legends, but I also know that the theatre practitioners who call this community home are just as incredibly brilliant, magnificently talented, creative and inspiring as anyone else we could hope to find and this fact is one that makes me ardently proud, protective and perpetually humbled. One of the most magical moments that I have ever witnessed in the Toronto musical theatre community occurred in 2009 when the American National Touring Cast of Spring Awakening came to Buddies in Bad Times to join Ari Weinberg’s Cabaret Open Mic Shameless Sundays and I watched the American musical theatre performers mingling freely; singing, chatting and laughing, with the Canadian musical theatre performers without pretence, contention or segregation. For me, this is how the interactions between Canadian artists and our American contemporaries should be and this requires not only the American producers to facilitate a more egalitarian connection between the visiting companies and our established Community in Toronto, but it also requires the Canadians interacting with these companies to have the confidence and pride in our indigenous theatre to insist on it being respected and acknowledged. Tour Managers and Theatre Producers should never create barriers that isolate artists from one another, especially the young who are eager to connect and to have fun together and they should never seem to suggest that any one group of performers is “superior” or deserving of preferential treatment based solely on their country of origin.
6. Recently I heard of an exciting Annual General Meeting at the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association during which an assortment of theatre artists voiced their opinions about how being Equity Members hampered or complicated their desire to create their own work. I think this is an incredibly important discussion for the Canadian theatre community to have, and one that I sincerely hope CAEA will ruminate on with care and work with the performers to reach a logical solution that provides ample flexibility to honour creativity, ingenuity and freedom for Canadian performers, while still upholding CAEA’s values to keep these artists from being exploited. Unfortunately because CAEA is a specific union that I as a theatre critic am not privy to, I do not know all the logistics of this discussion, and it seems to me that it would be beneficial for all of us to have another space, a Town-Hall type venue, where the Toronto theatre community could come together, without excluding anyone, to have these sorts of discussions more frequently.
7. At the same time, lastly, I would like to call on the gargantuan theatre institutions of Toronto: Mirvish Productions, Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts and to encourage each of them to consider widening their accessibility for the benefit of our theatre community. It seems utterly unnecessary to me for Mirvish Productions to conduct its business from behind a brick wall where emails disappear and contact information for integral staff members (such as publicists) are withheld to insure that only a specific demographic (who are certainly not average theatre patrons) are able to instigate a discussion with anyone outside the Box Office. Canadian Cabaret megastar Sharron Matthews just returned from two wildly successful shows at Joe’s Pub in New York; shows that she could not receive funding for from either of our two Arts Councils, despite the fact that she is one of our country’s most talented, innovative and unique musical theatre performers, and that she is using her platform to promote and raise International interest for Canadian musical theatre and Cabaret. Shouldn’t the Canada Council for the Arts be more supportive of such an initiative? Shouldn’t exporting professional and unique theatrical marvels to the venues outside of Canada where performers like Sharron Matthews are in demand be a priority for the Canada Council, as this allows Canadians to contribute to the theatrical world stage and to engage with future collaborators? Why do the institutions that have been built to protect and enhance the Canadian theatre seem so resistant to connecting with and providing support to the very community they are supposed to represent?
I look around me and I see so much that makes me exorbitantly proud and deliciously inspired. I see bridges being built across this beautiful community. I see ambition and perseverance. I see optimism and I see protest. The Canadian Theatre in Toronto is simultaneously thriving and seething; popping the shackles that once limited its voice, stifled its growth and contained its dissatisfaction with mediocrity. We can band together and shape our own destinies. We can work together to determine the vision for Torontonian theatre and insure that our dreams meet reality. We all must be strong and we all must be brave. Dare to confront injustice. Dare to expect better. Dare to believe in our future. As Stephen Sondheim said it best, “I insist on miracles if you do them. Miracles, nothing to them! I say don’t- don’t be afraid.”

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