Archives for April 2016

Increasing the diversity of voices in theatre criticism

Are you a person of colour who would like to develop their chops as a theatre critic or maybe just reach a wider audience? In the interests of creating more diversity in Vancouver’s community of theatre critics, I’d like to offer my mentorship/support/whatever I can. 

I’m open to discussing how this might work, depending on the needs and desires of the person I’m working with—and there’s only going to be one at a time. Here are some of the possibilities that have come to mind so far: we could talk about what I’ve learned—and what I continue to learn—about writing reviews and situating myself in the broader theatre community; I could help you to polish your material, if you’re into that; I could help you to get a toehold by posting your reviews on my blog or by linking from my blog to yours.

I’d also like to be able to draw from your experience and analysis as I negotiate my relationship, as a white theatre critic, to the experiences of people of colour.

I hope that I get some responses to this initiative. Assuming that I will get more than one, I’d like to ask potential participants to submit a sample review of anywhere from 200 to 500 words. It would also be great if you could tell me how you see the mentorship/support going. What can I offer you? What can you offer me? What would your goals be in this process?

And, if you could tell me a bit about why you think your perspective is underrepresented, that would be great, too. My sense, for instance, is that younger voices seldom get a lot of attention.

Please feel free to share this offer as widely as you see fit.

And we’ll see what happens. ?

Folks who are interested can contact me through the email address on my blog.

Viva rEvolver!

While many larger companies routinely fail to represent the diverse cultural make-up of this city, the rEvolver Festival is doing a bang-up job of it.

Of the twelve ticketed shows that will be on view at the Cultch May 11 to 22, seven have been created by artists of colour and Latinx artists or have such artists in significant leadership roles.

I’m particularly interested in Never the Last, which Christine Quintana, who is Latinx, has created with Molly MacKinnon. It’s about violin prodigy and composer Sophie Carmen Friedman, who was born in 1919, and the love she shared with painter Walter Gramatté. Delinquent Theatre, which also brought us the Jessie-winning Stationary: A Recession-Era Musical, is producing. There’s music in this one, too. Hang onto your hats.

And okay.odd intrigues me. Based on the concepts of concentration, mindfulness, and visualization, okay.odd promises to be “Part spiritual retreat and part commentary on our image-inundated affect-obsessed society.” Yeah, baby!

A company called Hong Kong Exile is behind okay.odd. That company consists of director and performer Milton Lim, choreographer and dancer Natalie Tin Yin Gan, and composer/media artist Remy Siu.

Not to forget intersectionality: seven of the shows have also been created or directed by women. And there’s a queer piece called Charisma Furs by Toronto’s Katie Sly.

Good for rEvolver, a relatively low-budget initiative, for showing the larger companies how it can be done!

Congrats on your nomination, Aaron Cully Drake!

Do You Think This Is Strange? Brindle and Glass, Aaron Drake, Colin Thomas

Aaron Drake’s new novel is a thing of beauty.

A book that I edited has been nominated for the First Novel Award! Hooray for author Aaron Cully Drake!

Aaron’s book, Do You Think This is Strange?, is narrated by an 18-year-old autistic boy named Freddy. Freddy remembers everything—except for the circumstances surrounding an event ten years earlier: his mother walked him to a train station, kissed him on the forehead, and disappeared from his life forever.

The novel is often very funny: Freddy notes that his father often addresses him by a name that’s not his own, Jesus Christ. And, as Freddy starts to figure out what happened around his mom’s disappearance, the book is sob-inducingly moving.

As soon as I started reading Do You Think This is Strange?,I knew it was the real thing. Congratulations to Aaron, and all the best to him on May 26, when the winners are announced!

Thank you, Crystal Verge

I’m feeling a bit like Paul on the road to Damascus. I think I might be having a conversion experience.

I spent all day yesterday (Saturday) writing and rewriting my response to—well, to the shit storm. At times, that response was very lengthy. I spoke to a number of people during the day, trying to sort things out.

Early Saturday evening, during our third conversation, Crystal Verge said an extraordinarily helpful thing: she asked if I thought my pleasure in the Haberdashery production of The Motherfucker with the Hat justified the suffering that it unintentionally caused the artists of colour who saw it as emblematic of their systemic exclusion. Or at least she said something like that. And I found it persuasive.

I had spent hours parsing and re-parsing perspectives on the relationship between casting, ethnicity, and performance—and, all of a sudden, my obsession started to look not so important.

White privilege? Yeah. I guess. Just a bit.

I’ve still got all sorts of questions, of course, about choosing shows and casting shows and who gets to play what characters. I am wary of artistic restrictions. But the frame has shifted. At least I think it has. There’s a possibility, I suppose, that my conversion experience is really a Cultural Revolution confession, that I’m exhausted and it’s easier to fold, but I doubt it.

I want to keep asking questions. I look forward to sitting down with Carmen when she gets back to town. And I hope I get to speak with Omari again.

And, right now, I want to include a paragraph that has stayed constant: I’m aware that, although it certainly wasn’t my intention to do so, I have hurt and offended a number of people. I framed Friday’s post in terms of Haberdashery Theatre’s The Motherfucker with the Hat because specifics make discussions more concrete. That said, I apologize for taking such a hard swing at actor Francisco Trujillo. I also made a factual error. I thought John Cassini grew up in New York. He lived in New York, but didn’t grow up there. I take responsibility for all of these things, and I apologize for them.

I also want to make it clear that, in finding a new perspective, I don’t respect the artists of Haberdashery Theatre less. I still believe there was some revelatory work in that show, some really terrific acting. That bunch has been through the wringer with this controversy and the folks I know who are associated with Haberdashery are good people.

Oh, and, by the way, a couple of people have asked why I bothered to write the post at all—and why I posted so long after the production was up. Fair questions. I was grateful for the forum “Because it’s 2016: An Open Invitation from the Latino Theatre Community to Discuss Representation”. I appreciated how nuanced, respectful, and stimulating that discussion was, and I had been thinking about it. I’m still thinking about it.

I was particularly intrigued by the question of authenticity, which arose at the forum, and I wrote the first draft of Friday’s post about a month ago. I didn’t feel like I’d thought the piece through enough, though, so I held it back. And, then, when I thought I’d framed my questions adequately, I posted. My mistake.

I want to thank everybody who has engaged in this discussion in whatever way and with whatever opinion. I want to thank Crystal in particular for recognizing my sincere intentions, accepting that where I was might not be where she was, and helping me to find my own path through this.

I know some people will still be pissed or suspicious. Some people will say, “We’ll see what he does next.” That’s fine. Some people will think that I’m not taking enough responsibility for the hurt and anger I’ve caused. But I am sorry. And this is a process. Thanks for giving me a boot.

George F. Walker, rape jokes, and the C-word

There’s a bit of a shit storm happening about playwright George F. Walker’s response to Erika Thorkelson’s review of his play, Dead Metaphor in the Vancouver Sun. That shit storm is about rape jokes, use of the word “cunt”, comedy, and artistic context. It’s kind of a doozy.

In the dark comedy, Dead Metaphor, which the Firehall Arts Centre is producing, a demented 70-year-old lefty named Hank gets hopping mad with a vicious, self-serving, right-wing politician named Helen. Helen wants to send Hank’s son Dean, who is a vet, back to active service in Afghanistan. Helen wants Dean out of the country because Dean has started to blow the whistle about the illegal campaign funding she’s receiving from churches. At the height of his rage, Hank yells, “I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore!”

In her review, Thorkelson accuses Walker of “playing threats about having sex with her corpse and multiple uses of the C-word for comedic effect without ever acknowledging that they are problematic.”

Taking umbrage with Thorkelson’s review, Walker emailed her: “A guy with frontal lobe dementia calls someone a cunt and you call it ‘gender based profanity’? I guess you know nothing about my work. How women are treated in my work. How they are usually at the centre of my work. The only other critics to bring it up was an on line woman writer roughly your age I think. So what’s going on. There are many deserving targets for that kind of response. I’m not one of them. My three daughters (one of whom has a degree in Sexual Diversity) and all of whom are feminists are truly saddened and a bit disgusted by your review. Put some of that presumption out of your head before you come anywhere near my work in the future. It’s just idiotic.”

Before we go any further, I want to pause for a little public service announcement: I want to make it clear that I like Thorkelson a great deal—which is why I’m going to refer to her by her first name from here on—and I have enormous respect for her work as a critic. Erika is smart and she’s knowledgeable. It’s great that she’s writing in the Sun. For the record, I ran this piece by her before posting it—and altered it somewhat as a result of that discussion (which is not to imply Erika’s endorsement of anything I’m writing here). I disagree with some aspects of her review, but I am addressing that disagreement in a spirit of collegial respect—because the issues are really fucking interesting.

Okay, let’s return to regular programming.

Clearly, Walker’s you-disgust-my-feminist-daughters argument is ridiculous. It’s the equivalent of “Some of my best friends are black” or “Some of my best friends are gay.” And what does Erika’s age have to do with it? (Perhaps more pressingly, where can one get a degree in Sexual Diversity, and can you get credit for life experience?)

This absurd part of Walker’s self-defence aside, my take is that not all of the analysis that Erika applies in her review stands up to scrutiny, although some of it does.

For starters, believe it or not, there’s a context to “I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore.”

After he delivers this line, Hank exits, and Helen explodes, “Fuck my corpse?! No one’s gonna fuck my corpse, pal!!” On opening night, this was one of the funniest lines in the play—for me, anyway—because Helen is so intoxicatingly furious and powerful when she says it. Comedy thrives on unleashed energy and Hank has unleashed the furies of Hell. Helen, who is willing to have people murdered, as we will soon discover, is anything but a victim.

Speaking to her husband Oliver in the next scene, Helen relates the exchange and allows that “it was a little scary”, but Oliver points out that Hank has dementia: “Sometimes his wife drags him to church and he yells out stuff during the service. Last Sunday he called the minister a freeloading cocksucker.”

Besides, Helen isn’t focused on fear; she’s focused on shutting down the scandal at all costs: “Well, even if he is out of his mind, that old man cannot be allowed to tell people about our…arrangement with the churches. I need him silenced.”

I acknowledge that Hank can be offensive. As a gay man, I go into high alert when I hear cocksucker getting tossed around. (Don’t try to tell me that cocksucker isn’t almost always a homophobic slur.) But, obviously, it would be a mistake to conflate the character’s position with that of the playwright. For all of his left-wing heroics, Hank is also a reactionary old fart on some levels. And I’m okay with that. He’s a character. He gets to be flawed.

Erika argues that the script is more sympathetic to its male characters that its female characters and, to a significant extent, this is true: an Afghan vet, Dean struggles with both PTSD and limited job prospects, and the dying Hank is facing a potentially torturous decline. Helen, the villain of the piece, is a woman. But Dean’s wife, Jenny, is arguably the smartest character in the script—and, in Walker’s work, the women are almost always smarter than the men.

In everything from Tough! to The Crowd, which Studio 58 recently premiered, to Dead Metaphor, the running gag is that men are a bit like dogs—earnest and a bit simple—and women are far more savvy. In Dead Metaphor, Jenny makes this clear: she tells Dean that her parents think he’s a little slow and, when he says that he didn’t really understand that she divorced him once just to make a point, she adds, “Then you actually are fucking slow.”

I’m talking about this to add a little more nuance to the discussion—but, not, on this point, to defend Walker. On the simplest and most apparent level, Walker consistently celebrates the intelligence of his female characters. But putting women on a pedestal is a kind of sexism, a kind of obliviousness, and, as Erika argued in our phone conversation, a deferral of male responsibility. I would further argue that presenting implicitly archetypal visions of maleness and femaleness, as Walker does, is reactionary. So, especially after our chat, Erika and I see this point similarly.

Now, about cunt. The language in this play is generally salty. Motherfucker gets tossed around. Both men and women use profanity. It’s the lingua franca. But some language causes damage. When Dean tells Oliver that he and Jen refer to Helen as being “cunt smart”, it’s vicious, and, especially after talking with Erika, I’ve come to see Walker’s use of the phrase to get a laugh as lazy—which is not to say that all sorts of ways to use that word, as an artist, with integrity.

We’ve got to be careful with one another. Analyzing the underlying values of a work is part of that care. For me, Dead Metaphor provides adequate context for the line, “I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore!” It doesn’t provide adequate context for all of its uses of cunt.

We’ve also got to make sure that we don’t overapply our caution. Characters have to be able to say offensive things. If they can’t, they just become voices of orthodoxy and that’s boring.

Besides, one of the fundamental purposes of art is to challenge the status quo—no matter who is articulating it.

[Read more…]

Arts Club double whammy


This week, I have two shows to recommend: Good People and Onegin. Both are from the Arts Club.

If you haven’t already seen Onegin, buy your damn tickets! The run is selling out—partly because people are seeing Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone’s vivacious adaptation of Pushkin’s verse novel three and four times.

The regular run of Onegin continues until April 10. And the Arts Club has been able to add three more shows: Tuesday, April 12, at 7:30, and Wednesday, April 13, at 1:30 and 7:30.

So grab yourself some seats. Don’t let those piggy repeaters suck them all up.

And Good People has just opened at the Stanley. The Act 1 set-up is laboured, but Act 2 catches fire.

Set in Boston, largely in a poor neighbourhood called Southie, Good People examines the stories that we tell ourselves about economic class.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s script asks nuanced questions and it’s often funny.

Laughlin Johnston’s set is superbly cinematic. Just wait till you see those rooms sliding together like puzzle pieces.

And there are some terrific performances, especially from Colleen Wheeler, Scott Bellis, and Jenn Griffin.

Vancouver theatre artists often diss the Arts Club. It’s a big commercial theatre, so it’s a large target, and it’s good for producers, large and small, to be held to account. But, right now, let’s give the company credit for two solid shows, one of which is an original local creation.

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