Saturday, 19 January 2013

Six Things Very Wrong With Toronto Theatre

1. The Audience
            This is the real problem. There was a time when the downtown was a cool place, it was comprised of a variety of communities, ethnicities and classes. Nowadays the cultural divide between the core and suburbs in Toronto is huge (it’s almost apartheid and no one is talking about it). Downtown is full of rich white people and the suburbs are filled with working class immigrants (in the old days it used to be the other way around!). Anyway, the people who come to see plays in downtown Toronto are rich -- either old and established, or young and feverishly working their way up. The last time I went to the theatre (yesterday) the woman sitting behind me was talking much too loudly about how she made $90,000 a year but she couldn’t afford her apartment. People like that (oh dear) want to be entertained and have their worldview confirmed -- they want escapist fun. They like to think they are cultured and intellectual (Soulpepper doing a ‘new take on an old classic,' anyone?) but ultimately, they aren’t interested in anything that challenges their ideas, their sexuality, or their way of life (i.e. making money and spending it). How does one create theatre for these people? Why bother?

2. The Big Apple
            Toronto theatre professionals seem obsessed with New York City. Especially the youngsters. Their goal in life is to write a hit that gets produced on Broadway. There was a time when Broadway was considered the enemy of Canadian theatre. We didn’t want our plays on the Great White Way -- we wanted to create our own idea of a good play might be and play it in Canada, for Canadians. Nowadays people are starting new theatre companies and doing plays that have just been hits in New York, or they are writing their own plays (usually with titles like ‘Drek -– The Musical) and hoping they will get picked up by Harold Prince.

3. David Mirvish
            I don’t wanna be hard on the guy. I mean, I think he’s a reasonably nice person, a capitalist with a soft spot for the arts. He means well. But he has bad taste. I mean -- Andrew Lloyd Webber’s re-visioning of The Wizard of Oz? What a surprise, Webber’s songs didn’t turn out to be as good as ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’  -- who wudda thunk it? The biggest problem with Mirvish (I have said it a thousand times and I will say it again) is that he has changed everyone’s idea of what theatre is. It doesn’t have a helicopter?  What, no horses operated by real live humans? Well it wasn’t such a good play then, was it?

4. No Intermissions
            Okay, I’ve really had it with this. It used to be that you were only expected to sit in one place for an hour at the most. But now if you put an intermission in a play, it’s some sort of crime. (I know from whence I speak -- I still put intermissions in my plays and the critics always say: “I somewhat enjoyed the actor’s performances -- despite Gilbert’s writing and directing -- but the play was much too lightweight to deserve an intermission.”) No, please. The program for the last play I saw warned us that it would be one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission. I was frightened. The play was two hours long, no break. TWO HOURS!!!!! It’s gotten to the point now where they don’t dare tell you how long the play actually is, for fear you’ll bolt. Human beings were not made to sit in a theatre for more than an hour and fifteen minutes without an intermission. Period.
I don’t care what kind of genius you are.

5. Richard Ouzounian
            There was a time when I would have been afraid to criticize Richard Ouzounian, the Star theatre critic. I mean what if he started hating me and stopped coming to see my plays? Hey, no problem. Richard Ouzounian will never come to one of my plays again, because as far as I can tell, he’s stopped going to ‘small’ theatre. It used to be that if a show was paid Equity fees, the Star felt obligated to review it. No more. Used to be that the Toronto Star -- in the good old days of Henry Mitkiewicz and Robert Crew (gee, I never thought I’d say that) -- would do puff pieces about independent Canadian theatre, not just about the search for the lead in The Sound of Music, or the fabulous lighting for Lord of the Rings. I’d even love to get a bad review from the guy -- anything.

6. The Seats
            The last time I went to the big Berkeley Street theatre at Canstage it was like being packed into a cheap charter flight. I’m old and I have arthritis and I’m cranky, but Jesus! My arms (which I’ll have to admit are rather burley and well muscled) were bumping people on both sides, and my knees were scrunched up against the seat ahead. I couldn’t move! Hamilton’s civic theatre is a run by a horrible man named Ron Ulrich (he tried to censor one of my plays and eventually pushed it out of his season!) but there is a lesson to be learned from Theatre Aquarius – they give you a yard of foot room in front of every seat. And these things matter, you know.
They do.

And that’s all I have to say for now.