Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Death of the Canadian Play -- Does Anybody Care?

            I hate to say “I told you so.”
            But I’m going to.
            Let me draw you back to Toronto’s dark, dim artistic past; the late 1980’s. I was on the board of the Toronto Theatre Alliance (which is now the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts: TAPA). I was annoyed that the Toronto Theatre Alliance included both commercial and non-commercial theatre companies as members. I have always believed that commercial theatre (which rarely involves Canadian plays) is fundamentally different from indigenous Toronto theatre (which is often Canadian, small-scale and not-for-profit). Big mega-musicals -- which were just beginning to dominate the Toronto scene back then -- are about making money, whereas not-for-profit theatre is about making art. Way back then, I pointed out that even New York City has the Tony’s (for Broadway plays) and the Obies (for off Broadway plays). Even New York City recognizes two very different kinds of theatre that require separate categories for judgment.
            No one listened to me.
            I quit the Toronto Theatre Alliance soon after and quit my job as artistic director of Buddies.  One thing that spurred my resignation was a letter from the Toronto Arts Council in the early 1990s saying (and I am paraphrasing) “Why can’t you just put on ‘Angels in America’ -- and get some bums in seats?’
It just seemed to me that nobody understood my love for Canadian theatre.
            Set your clock ahead to 2011. Last spring I invited the critics to see my new play The Situationists. Richard Ouzonian was too busy. J. Kelly Nestruck, was also too busy, but was nice enough to send second stringer Martin Morrow (who was nice enough to massacre my play. But hey, that happens). I understand that Ouzonian and Nestruck are somewhat helpless in the face of pressure from their bosses, who often assume Canadian theatre doesn’t sell newspapers.
            Is that why Canadian plays are dead? Well the fact that the newspapers seem to prefer puff pieces about American actors, writers and directors visiting Toronto to interviews with Canadian playwrights – that’s certainly a huge problem. But more importantly, arts councils have abandoned their support for Canadian work. I’m sure that people still want to write Canadian plays and still want to see them, but indigenous not-for-profit artists working in the shadow of a giant megamonster like the USA need lots of tender encouragement (remember Nathan Cohen?).
Soulpepper and Canadian Stage are a case in point. Arts councils vied for the opportunity to give the privileged white folks at Soulpepper piles of dough for seasons built around a preponderance of non-Canadian classics. Canstage seems to be hell bent on encouraging experimentation from around the globe. Hey I loved Stuart Hughes in the fabulous Soulpepper production of The Time of Your Life. But where is the Canadian Saroyan? And why are Toronto’s best funded theatres ignoring her? I choose Saroyan as a poignant example because he was – ironically -- a champion of diversity. Some mid-size theatres seem to be struggling to put on Canadian and non-white work. However, though we have Cahoots, Fu-GEN, Native Earth, b-current, and Obsidian, among others – these are all smaller UNDERFUNDED theatres trying desperately to develop the non-white Canadian play. I would argue that as long as government funding agencies reward theatres with the biggest bucks for producing the latest The International Avant-garde Sensation or the new Big New York Hit or time honoured Edifying Classic From The Past -- you can kiss the The Canadian Play goodbye.
Yes I know, ‘theatre’ and ‘plays’ – and even the adjective ‘Canadian’ seem old-fashioned to some. But a play is certainly no more old-fashioned than a piece of ‘performance art.’ And writing a Canadian play isn’t important because we love Canada, or just to wave the flag, but because it’s necessary to write about where we come from and where we live, not about lives made up by others for us.
Yes, I know we all have ipods and itouches and blackberrys glued to our heads and up our asses (frankly). But these global gadgets don’t tell us much about ourselves. Entertainment we gobble up from the web just tells us how fabulous we are so that we’ll keep buying stuff. That’s not self-exploration, analytical thought, or deep understanding. Unless I’m wrong (and I may very well be) we will always need our own writers to explore the self that has not yet been downloaded into a hard drive.
            Don’t we?
            Of course…I may be wrong.