Paul Thompson: On Levitation

paul thompson
I am continually being reminded that some of the most incredibly fascinating and ultimately theatrical experiences are often the ones that catch you entirely by surprise. Last evening after taking in Soulpepper Theatre’s riveting production of Doc, I was reminded that every Friday evening around 10:00pm is Mike Ross’ incredible Cabaret Series which brings together music, spoken word, Opera Corner with William (Bill) Webster, interviews, random snacks, multimedia comedy and a conglomeration of exorbitantly talented people, to create an always delightful and often inspiring end to the evening.
Last evening was certainly no exception as our host for the evening, the charming Derek Boyes, conducted a wonderful interview with, as he put it “one of the pillars of Canadian theatre,” Paul Thompson. For those of you who may benefit from some historical context, Theatre Passe Muraille was founded in 1968 by Jim Garrard, which became the hub of the Alternative Canadian Theatre Movement of the 1970s. Thompson joined with Garrard and they adopted the process of collective creation as a means of creating new works, and it was through the work at Theatre Passe Muraille at this time which had a strong influence in popularizing this method of theatrical work across the country. The Farm Show (1972), directed by Thompson, is one of the most seminal works not only from Theatre Passe Muraille’s canon, but also from the history of Canadian theatre. The Farm Show was developed by a group of actors who traveled to Clinton, Ontario for three months to live and work as farmers and a play immerged from this experience, coupled with the interviews they conducted with the citizens of Clinton and improvisations based on what the actors had seen, heard and learned during their stay. The original cast of The Farm Show included Janet Amos, Ann Anglin, David Fox, Al Jones, Fina MacDonell and Miles Potter.
When Derek Boyes jokingly referred to Thompson as “The Yoda of the Canadian theatre, daring us not to go over to the dark side,” Thompson responded by saying that the moments that he still waits for in the theatre are the moments where he gets to see actors levitate. As Boyes points out, Thompson is still a fascinated, active, passionate champion of theatre in Toronto, and he attends the productions of theatre companies across the city. He still seeks to engage and argue with the plays he sees. Thompson told us of the days when there were designated “actor bars” in Toronto, where one could go after the shows were over and you were guaranteed to find a hoard of actors who you could discuss and argue these concepts with and steal ideas from, and then the next day, in your rehearsal, you could apply the ideas that you had appropriated from the bar. Now, Thompson muses, he has to invent his own bar- and he has a pretty fantastic idea for one, open on Monday or Sunday evening, called “Audition”- whereby he would round up (or con) a collection of directors who may at some point need actors, to join him at a prescribed bar, and a selection of four or five actors would have the opportunity to prepare their audition pieces for the assembled panel. Each actor who auditioned would be then allotted one free drink, and the rest of the evening, all those who convened would be left to sit and talk and argue about the theatre in general for the rest of the night.
Thompson spoke about the original Church Hall that Theatre Passe Muraille used to inhabit on the corner of Queen and Yonge Street, where The Bay now stands. They were given free run of the space because everyone knew that the building was about to be torn down, so the actors could be as experimental and destructive as they wanted. This was a vital corner for the Alternative Movement in Toronto, which Thompson characterized as a collection of misfits, but who were particularly good at levitation. He said that many of the original members of Theatre Passe Muraille could stay off the ground for between four and five minutes, and that given the right vehicle, like Eric Peterson playing (William Lyon) Mackenzie (King in 1837: The Farmer’s Revolt), he was so high off the stage that he couldn’t come down! In 1974, Thompson says, Toronto “invented sex,” and suddenly there was a previously unforeseen surge in sexual content, not just onstage, but in society in general. There was a series that used to happen at Theatre Passe Muraille which included a literal act of levitation, which perpetuated the theatre’s reputation for being outrageous. It was called The Human Levitation, and, according to Thompson, a woman magician would come onstage wearing white gloves with a top hat and when she pulled the hat aside, there was a hole in the flat behind it through which there was an actual limp penis of one of the actors, although his identity was always kept a secret. The magician would show the audience that she would not touch the penis, but that within two minutes they would see it magically rise. Of course, behind the flat was some actor reading porn.
Thompson says that ultimately it was the success of this show (along with their plays, of course) that allowed them to buy the new home building for Theatre Passe Muraille. The Collective at this time shared equally all the money they made, and at this point they were literally making, in Thompson’s words, “more money than they knew what to do with”- so Thompson decided that he would give a percentage back, and so all the actors gave the same percentage back and that accounted for 30% of what they needed to buy the building. Once they were in the new building, he said, he believed in freedom and anarchy and would just toss artists the keys saying, “go build a play, just make sure you close the damn doors when you leave!” Thompson credits the actors that he worked with at this time as being “gutsy” and knowing WHY they were doing what they were doing and not backing down to censorship, even when there was a police presence (the Morality Squad) in their rehearsals. The Morality Squad actually helped to edit some of the early Theatre Passe Muraille Shows. For example, since they objected strongly to the word “blow job” they instructed that the actors use the term “give head” instead, as it was deemed less offensive.
Paul Thompson has a great analogy that he borrowed from his mother’s love of Royal Dalton Figurines; he considers theatre that only reflects the affluent, white, traditional, Anglophone experience to be the theatrical equivalent to a Royal Dalton. He urges contemporary theatre companies and institutions to have the guts to break out of this demographic and to expand their vision to be more inclusive and more receptive to other cultures, stories, experiences and ways of thinking and creating theatre. He says this issue was particularly apparent to him when he worked at the National Theatre School of Canada sayig, “I was running the fucking place and I couldn’t change it from being so whitebread.” Thompson says that we have to keep fighting, and inventing and that we have to start inventing our own audience, which is what happened in The Farm Show. He says, when they were going to real farms and performing the show in barns, where animals had been bought and sold, for real farmers who had maybe never seen a theatre show in their lives, he was forging a new audience for the theatre. He went to say that his cousin, who lived in a small farming town in Ontario, was so impressed by The Farm Show that she started to go see plays regularly in Blythe with her husband, a dairy farmer, and soon they were going to see plays at the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake and they wanted to talk to him about them afterwards. In this way, Thompson says, that through this show, his collective found a way of opening up a dialogue with a completely new, completely invented audience, and in this case, his cousin found Royal Daltons that she liked!
If you would like to learn more about Theatre Passe Muraille, The Farm Show and/or Paul Thompson, you should firstly check out the AMAZING new Theatre Museum Canada website and check out the interviews of Paul Thompson conducted by R.H. Thompson. Secondly, you should also attend the Season Opener of The National Theatre of the World’s Impromptu Splendor (12$), where they will improvise a play for you on September 26th at 9:00pm in the style of The Farm Show. Join Paul Thompson, Naomi Wright and Original Farm Show cast member Ann Anglin for the Impromptu Splendor Reading Series, where a group of other theatre aficionados and artists will be discussing and reading this important Canadian play. It all begins at 7:30pm at Theatre Passe Muraille.

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