Sunday, 16 April 2017

I Disagree With You, J. Kelly

First of all I want to say this: I am very pleased J. Kelly Nestruck exists. It’s heartening to know someone is writing a column in a major newspaper about  theories of the theatre. In this bottom-line, mega-corporate, digitally dominated world, the fact that a heterosexual male holding a position of power is interested in debating aesthetics gives me hope.
That said, I must take issue with all this talk about ‘liveness.’ J. Kelly, like Jordan Tannahill before him (in his recent book Theatre of the Unimpressed) is intent on stressing the seemingly statutory imperative of the day -- that all theatrical performances must acknowledge that they are ‘live,’ and that we must immediately cease attempting to suspend our disbelief. 
Respectfully, I disagree. 
I am certainly tired of having ‘liveness’ stuffed down my throat. I saw two productions last week in which an actor from the play stepped forward at the end and spoke directly to us to remind us that we were watching a play. One of the plays was fabulous, the other was not -- this device didn’t stop me from enjoying the one play and hating the other -- but I am just dreadfully tired of a technique that has become trendy but doesn’t make sense.
At the heart of this discussion is the fallacious notion that there is such a thing as ‘reality’ in the theatre. The notion that if we are watching actors who are playing themselves or who -- as is mentioned in J. Kelly’s recent article -- even bother to acknowledge that they are acting in a play, then we are watching something that is more ‘real’ than a play in which actors are playing fictional characters saying made-up lines. But why would anyone think actors onstage are ever being real? Let’s leave aside the ultra-loaded post-modernist question (What is real?), or the issue of whether or not we are ever ‘real in real life. As soon as people walk onstage and perform, they are doing something fake. They are, at the very least, being themselves for ‘public consumption,’ and in this era of celebrity worship we know exactly what that means. Let me tell you, I know a lot of actors personally, and as much as I love them, they are masters at keeping you away from what they are really thinking -- because they are, well -- actors. That’s their job.
As far as I’m concerned, Brecht took the whole matter as far as it can go. Everyone loves the notion that we are improving, that our theatre is getting more and more ‘real’. But though Brecht acknowledged a play could alternately engage you and alienate you, that actors might step in and out of their parts -- he never completely abandoned plot, or the notion of fiction or characters. He was smart enough to know it was folly to imagine that theatre could ever be ‘real.’
When directors create what they think is the ultimate ‘reality’ in theatre it usually ends up feeling a lot like group therapy.
There is no craft. (I know, I mentioned that horrible word, craft).
Anyway, pillory me if you like, or just ignore me (which is most likely) or call me old-fashioned (which many have done before).

But I’m awfully tired of ‘liveness.’

Saturday, 1 April 2017

What’s Wrong With Theatre

There’s something wrong with theatre these days.
There are two, maybe ten people turning up sometimes. Is it because the plays are bad? Or is it because the audiences are stupid?
I’ve long enjoyed bashing audiences. And as condo-dwellers take over the downtown core and we all becomes more suburban, I can’t help noticing that audiences are becoming stupider.There’s not much we can do about that. Kinky Boots sure seems experimental for those whose main entertainment diet consists of Batman and Cinderella.
But I’m not going to complain about Toronto audiences here; I’m going to complain about the plays.
After all, a really good play can tempt even the most complacent suburban patron to leave the house.
But the plays these days are dull. No wonder people aren’t going.
In Theatre of the Unimpressed, Jordan Tannahill makes the case that the best theatre emphasizes its liveness. 
I think liveness is important, but you can be as ‘live’ as you want, and still devise a bad play 
These days, from the moment a play starts you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Period. And I’m not talking about melodrama, or ‘whodunnit.’ I’m talking about the moral issues that a good play might choose to debate, present, or hide as subtext.
These days plays are about oppression, or wrongdoing, or evil, and the author always tells us who the oppressors, wrongdoers or evildoers are.
So where’s he moral suspense?
Where’s he dangerous fun?
We don’t know much about Shakespeare; but we do know he could write a great play. And it isn’t so much that Shakespeare isn’t interested in ideas or opinions (actually his plays contain lots them) it’s that he mastered one of the most important principles of classical rhetoric:
Never let the audience know where your real sympathies lie.
A great debater can convincingly argue both sides of the abortion issue; a great playwright can make us believe that any character -- even Macbeth, Richard III or Iago  is still somewhat sympathetic.
Bad plays aren’t going to stop me from going to the theatre; believe me, I love all theatre, no matter how bad it is.

But if we’re going to lure Toronto audiences away from Broadway pap, we’re going to have to do better than that.