Written by Natalie Kaye
I have a secret I’d like to share with you. Please don’t spread it around—
Like melted butter—
Oh no, not again!
Like melted butter—
The secret spreads seamlessly
Across verbal toast
I didn’t want you to find out this way, this is so embarrassing! Alright, the fact of the matter is, when I get passionate about a topic…I break into bad poetry. Over the years I’ve tried many different tacks to control this literary tic. And when all else fails, I quit—the debate team, my incipient political career, every argument with my sister (she just laughs at my Cyrano-style attempts to trounce her). And, sadly, the pressure of a deadline renders this impulse increasingly difficult to control—
Harder than a tortoise shell, my difficulty perches on the soft body of doubt—
(Shut up, Natalie! Spontaneous poetics are fucking inappropriate for an online literary magazine of this motherfucking caliber!)
So when Rachel Ganz approached me to write about the Toronto theatre scene (what I’d like to change, what I’ve observed, what I‘d like to change, how to change it), I immediately felt the stanzas gurgling and bubbling up inside my chest like a phlegmy cold. I get worked up when I talk about theatre; I love it, and hate it, and love to hate it. When a production is good, I revel in it. When it has failings, I rip it apart with joyous abandon. For me, it comprises both the sacred and the ridiculous. All of it! From Albee to Zoo Story…wait. That’s not very broad. Well, you get my point nonetheless. So please bear with me, dear audience, as I do my level best to quell this versified impulse. If I launch into a topic and become overwhelmed by poetry, I’ve found the best thing to do is simply to change topics. Now, to the point at hand…
The thing I’d most like to change about the Toronto theatre scene is the audience! Alright, alright. I’m a jerk I admit it. But I don’t mean the whole audience anyway. I’m not that mercenary. Just the repressive, judgmental, controlling element; the lady that noisily shushes you for laughing at a comedy, the man that glares at you for whispering to your friend during the announcement to turn off all cellphones. I often feel stifled sitting in the audience. Their every gesture and facial expression enforcing a set of rules, commanding me not to move, breathe, or react. And what’s so awful is that they’re someone justified in doing so. After all, if you respect the theatre, how can you argue against being quiet and respectful in a theatre? But you have to create a balance between respect and engagement! What’s the point of going to the theatre at all if your level of respect for the theatre is inhibiting your engagement with it?
I’m telling ya, too much respect makes for dead theatre. There should be an exchange of energy between the audience and the actors. Too much cold, distant respect builds a wall between them and cuts off the juice! Seriously, a couple decades of acting have taught me I’d much rather be booed than get hit by an impenetrable wall of perfect silence.
I get it though. Theatre is supposed to be half art and half business, right? If you’ve paid $100 for a ticket, you want your money’s worth. You want to be left with some pleasant bon mots or to feel refreshed after your 2 hour nap. You don’t want to be ruffled by a risky, scandalous experimental theatre piece you were forced to sit through. And of course it’s generally in the theatre’s best fiscal interests not to offend their subscriber base.
I also blame the Wagnerian conceit (and I use the word pointedly) of darkening the houselights to black to force focus onstage. Now, I’m not saying we ought to return to the days of yore where the theatre was principally a social gathering and all was noisy, boisterous chaos…actually that sounds fucking sweet, doesn’t it? (Ah! Memories of Rocky Horror at the Bloor!) But no, I love words too much to have them drown out by gossiping aristos “Oh mon dieu! Who is that charming girl coiled around the Vicomte de Pomme? She’s so charming…her father must be a snake!”
We must find the middleground between respectful coldness and boisterous flippancy. There should be a sense of audience involvement without outright heckling or forcing the audience to participate. Here’s an idea! Every audience member should arrive at a play fully equipped with a purse stuffed with gold bullion and a ripe, juicy, beefsteak tomato. During the performance if they enjoy what they’re seeing, they throw the gold onstage. If they hate it (or think the actors look malnourished), they throw the fucking tomato!
Bracing myself for censure,
Repressed Philistines repressing
Wielding a tsk tsk and a grimace—
Um. Maaaaybe I’ll come back to this when I’ve calmed down. Let’s switch to a more positive topic. How about we discuss some recent changes I’ve witnessed in the theatre scene? Yes, let’s shall!
One promising shift I’ve witnessed over the past decade or so is the increasing number of small theatre companies around the city; The Box, Storefront theatre, Red Sandcastle, and Unit 102 (now sadly gone). Such theatres offer a more accessible and inclusive alternative to larger, more entrenched companies. And I’ve found they have the uncanny ability to create a stronger sense of theatre as a social gathering.
I’ve also noticed some people are branching out into more of a multidisciplinary approach to theatre. Torey Urquhart’s Shakepeare in Hospitals, which plays with the intersection of theatre and healthcare. Katie Sly’s Bi Visibility Cabaret that fuses theatre and queer politics. Amanda Parris’ Ride or Die involves both theatre and black activism. Playback theatre is where therapy meets theatre. This is a rich area to explore and I’d love to see more of this. Where does the theatre meet the law, social protests, housing, education? This opens up a discussion about the nature of theatre, its utility, and allows access to alternate forms of funding. This multidisciplinary approach also combats zombie audiences by opening up an extra avenue for the audience to participate (healthcare, education, housing).
Indie theatres sprouting up
Truffled and decadent
These forest mushrooms plucked up
conssoméd and consumed—
Fuuuuck—I thought I had this under control. Ok, ok. Breathe! Quickly, let’s move onto to something else. How can we fight against theatrical stagnation and zombie audiences? Yes, that sounds like a safe enough topic.
We can take inspiration from the past and from other cultures. The Glass Menagerie, meet Verfremdungseffekt! What about a No theatre version of King Lear? And how amazing would it be to watch A Doll’s House as inspired by the Theatre of the Oppressed? Just stop the action at the first “my little squirrel” to analyze the intersecting power imbalances, like a political Choose Your Own Adventure!
We need new plays! Lots of them! Plays written for, about, and by youth, people of colour, local writers, the queer community, marginalized groups, and unheard voices. We must find ways to change or sidestep the infrastructure which is currently failing to produce such works in favour of homogenous, canonical works. Free and/or accessible courses that teach people about writing, budgeting, and self-production could really help with this approach.
While I think all of these approaches are worthwhile, it’s counterintuitive to be too prescriptive when it comes to art. Ultimately, the theatre is a mystery. In the words of the immortal Rik Mayall: “What are you, Theatre? I don’t know […] ask Vanessa Redgrave!” Take my last play at Fringe for example.
Mood Swings (Unspoken Theatre at Fringe) was in the tiniest venue I’ve ever encountered. There was just enough space for 5 audience members. Yeah…super duper small. I was worried it would be claustrophobic; any shuffling, whispering, or coughing would be inescapable. I expected the issues I was outlining earlier, the oppressiveness of a zombie audience, would be magnified. But on the contrary, this intimate space bound the actors and audience together. People involved themselves in the action, they engaged with it, responding to direct addresses, laughing, focusing on the action sans Wagnerian conceits. It was magic. It was alive. And although I have a plethora of theories, I’m still not certain why. You can dissect that experience, but that would likely kill it. And even if you discovered the secret behind it, nothing is entirely re-creatable. That’s the thing about theatre, it’s ephemeral. It lives for a brief moment then dies. And therein lies its magic. Its vulnerability makes it precious. The trick isn’t to kill and preserve it for reuse, but to engage with it while it lives, then let it die.
Editor’s Note: Natalie Kaye was one of the first writers to contribute her work to Newborn Theatre’s Odds and Ends Festival. Her intellect is a stunning resource for hilarity, core truths and pretty well anything worth knowing. Her writing reflects this intellect as does it reflect her ability to create authentically no matter the story or medium. I am thrilled to have her engage with this month’s topic.