Friday, 8 May 2015

Welcome To Basement Theatre!

You’d better get used to it.
Last night I had the privilege of attending the workshop of an outstanding new play called Idle Lessons, devised by the Raw Matter Project. This is a fascinating, challenging — and yes — exceedingly raw — project created by a group of recent York University graduates confronting the controversy over the new sex education curriculum in Ontario. The play is an incredibly important one. If nothing else, the actors’ intensely personal, revealing confessions are stunning.
But silly me. I spent much of the performance gazing at a leaky pipe in the wall.
Yes, Idle Lessons is one of the many new plays you are likely to find in Toronto occupying a basement or squeezed into the back of a store. 
And here sadly, lies the future of Toronto theatre.
And sadder still — the newest generation of Toronto’s theatre practitioners seem to be eagerly embracing their fate.
As far as I can tell, it’s a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Perversely, the victims have come to love their torturers. Artists today have grown up being told that there is less and less money available for the arts (oh, we’re so sorry, they say). And they had also better understand that they will be held to a corporate model if they hope to get any funding at all (Is your board raising money? Do you have a ‘brand’ for your ‘product’?). 
Before going to see Idle Lessons I saw a play at one of the ‘storefront’ style theatres that are so much in vogue. It was in another basement. The kitchen of a restaurant was overhead, which meant the banging and clanging of pots and pans distracted the audience during the show. But that didn’t stop the artistic director (an older chap, close to my age — he should have known better!) from bounding onto the stage, flashing an endearing grin, and bragging: “We do all this without government grants.”
Wow. There was a time when the fact that you couldn’t get government grants wasn’t something to be proud of! When I began doing theatre in the early 1980s, my colleagues taught me an important lesson: “Because you’re work is so challenging, you must pursue government grants for your work. It’s what you deserve.”
It took me a long time not to feel guilty for taking what many saw as ‘government handouts.’  But I became part of a generation of Canadian theatre artists who built many of the theatres that are considered part of the alternative theatre scene in Toronto today.
Never before has our culture so needed the arts. The global mega-entertainment industry is beyond depraved; preying on the vices and weaknesses of the young, churning out endless violent superhero movies for boys and princess flicks for girls. Children don’t read Dr. Seuss and move on to Shakespeare and Lord of the Flies, instead they play video games and move on to Harry Potter. When they grow up, modern culture offers them the choice between two bewildering and decadent lifestyles: mind-numbing consumerism or mind-devouring fundamentalism. We live in a world where nothing seems to have value anymore except getting rich enough to buy a condo, a car, and fancy clothes fashioned by slaves working for a penny an hour in a third world country. And who besides Linda McQuaig is ready, willing and able to challenge our western capitalist excess? Certainly terrorists of the extreme religious right.
Well I think art might get us out of this mess. Art teaches, inspires, challenges, and insures we remain spiritually alive. 
But, alas, there is no space for it in Toronto because it rarely makes any money.
I feel really sorry for the Raw Matter Project who are must workshop their fine play in a basement the size of a postage stamp, lying on cold bumpy floors under leaky pipes that look as if they might burst and drown us all at any moment — and on top of that they have no choice but to be happy about it!
But hey, welcome to Toronto theatre in the 21st century!