Sunday, March 11, 2012

I am what is wrong with theatre in Vancouver. (Thoughts upon the death of the Vancouver Playhouse.)

Last night, Saturday March 10th marked what is expected to be the final performance of the Vancouver Playhouse. That is shitty. My circle of friends is full of people who do or have made their money in theatre from time to time.

I have made my money in theatre. Not now. Not for some time now. But once upon a time I had collected a paycheque from what I guess was a number of live performances that numbered in the plural thousands. I never performed on the Playhouse stage. Arts Club GI – check. Queen E. – check. Performance Works, Shadbolt, Playwrights, The Cultch, Production House, Gateway – check, check, check, check, check, check, and many other small local theatres extant and otherwise, as well as stages in every province but the Rock and the Territories.

I love making theatre.

But I fucking hate going to it.

I haven’t really made that much of a secret, but if I’m ever really going to be public about it, it may as well be now. Seventy five percent of the time that I am in a theatre I just want to get the hell out. I can sit through the worst of movies, but as soon as a theatrical production gives me the tiniest crack to slip a sliver of disappointment in… the entire house of cards is wedged apart.  But to be clear, I hate theatre so often, because I love good theatre so much.

I was raised on theatre. Our family went to every single production of every season by the Prince George Theatre Workshop (which is also barely holding on these days) as well as any touring shows that passed through town and the shows by the smaller am-dram-cos in PG that did one show every year or two. My first paid job ever was in a theatre. I took theatre in college. I started my own company at age 20 and toured Canada, the US and Australia for six years steadily. I owe so much of who I am to theatre. But the greater majority of what I see falls on the spectrum between disappointing to loathsome and/or boring. I am what is wrong with theatre.

It began during the 1995 Fringe festival. I hadn’t noticed it yet, but I was already becoming weary of watching mediocre theatre. And then… I saw Theatre Simple perform The Master and Margarita. It was awesome.... and it made me so fucking mad.  It occurred to me that this was totally wrong. The quality level of theatre should not be pitched at a level where the best thing I have seen in eons is based on a piece of (formerly) banned Russian literature that I would otherwise have precisely zero interest in. For christsake the baseline ought to be such that I see The Master and Margarita and I think “it was good, but I wasn’t so keen on the source material.” Anything else is theatrical laziness. Sure, there would always be shows that miss the mark, but those ought to be the exception, not the rule. But no. The Master and Margarita was far and away the best thing I had seen in ages. Yes, that event turned be into a creative snob – an elitist intellectual knob.

Gradually since then I’ve become FAR more selective about the theatre I go and see, and as a result I see much more on average that is genuinely good. But still far too often what I do see isn’t that good. The only thing that makes me angrier than feeling like I should walk out at intermission is when I don’t and I should have. Thankfully the last thing I saw at the Playhouse was one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen. Studies in Motion. That was the 2008-2009 season. 2008-2009. Oh yes, I am what is wrong with theatre.

The Playhouse’s subscription based dropped by half we are told, and that isn’t enough income to maintain a company. No secrets there. Theatre is expensive to make – just look at the prices it costs to get in. At those prices is it any wonder I get grumpy when I feel let down? Is it any wonder that half the Playhouse’s base apparently feels the same way? Now, I don’t want to point fingers at the Playhouse and declare that their quality is the cause of their downfall. I don’t think that’s the case. I think that the Playhouse consistently has put the most intriguing seasons together of all the local companies – often by a long shot. But that is an issue too. I’m not proclaiming anything new when I point out that the majority of the audience wants to see something familiar – probably because then it something they feel they can trust. I mean Jesus Christ, even the once original and edgy Mom’s the Word has been sequelled and re-hashed in so many ways over so many years that if I were to make a crack about the next iteration being titled Grandmom’s the Word and if the original cast read this, I honestly think there would be an even chance they’d look at one another and say “how the hell did he find out?” Sorry ladies, no disrespect intended. I wish I had a credit like that on my writing CV, but that’s probably pretty empty coming from someone who is what is wrong with theatre.

But back to my point… I am not alone. Too many people feel as though they can’t trust theatre. That is not our, the audiences', fault. Don’t for a second look at the unwashed masses and mutter to yourself how they just don’t care for culture. The question is “what about culture has made them want to care?” I have all but walked away from theatre and theatre was who I was for most of the first four decades of my life. I am not for a moment suggesting that the level of theatre has to be dumbed down. The Master and Margarita was an excellent example of that. Theatre just needs a serious overhaul. It needs to get its head out of its ass and look around at the wasteland surrounding itself. Theatre is broken. It is dying. I don’t pretend I can fix it, but I think it is fixable. Theatre must change. The Playhouse may be saved if the passionate voices who gathered in front of the theatre last night have anything to do with it, but that may not be what theatre actually needs.

Theatre must appeal. That is non-negotiable and self-evident, yet theatre too often abjectly fails to do so. Demanding that the audience must raise its game and figure out theatre is the wrong approach. Theatre must work harder to reach a wider public in an accessible way. Crying for more funding from the government is a backdoor demand upon that same uncaring public - that's a good way to not win them over. Theatre must lower the barrier for entry and invite the world back in. No one company can do this alone. Indeed individual companies are accomplishing this, but the disinterested public thinks of theatre as a whole entity. I find myself thinking of theatre as a whole entity, and I've been on the practitioners' side.

That entity – theatre – has to: Simplify (I do not think it was a coincidence that the company that did The Master and Margarita called itself “Theatre Simple.”) and innovate. Spend more time crafting with the intention of fascination, and make it more affordable to get in the door. Yes, that is a tough balance, but theatre was a beggars’ art in the past, its biggest folly may be that it is trying to pretend it isn’t best served by being be so today. Theatrical artists will scoff at the notion that they are being greedy, but fairly consistently, with only few exceptions, the best theatre I have seen has been made by those who could barely afford to get their shows on stage initially.  The well funded theatre is counter intuitively too often the most likely theatre to stink, and it bears the ticket price that is most guaranteed to disenfranchise. Many of those shoe-string efforts that have excelled, in the end, due to demand, make good money in the long run.  Shows become sensations and the creators have won the lottery artistically speaking.  As I write these words, it seems to me that this is practically speaking, a libertarian model – let the free-market decide what is good. (Okay, that was not where I imagined this was going, but it fits.) That may not sound like a healthy place for theatre, but it is a destiny that the theatre entity can choose to control. But what do I know. I am, after all, what is wrong with theatre.

And if the theatre entity doesn’t choose to control its destiny? Then it is going to continue dying. I doubt it will ever die. But it will continue to keep dying. It will whither. The pockets that remain will probably be rag tag and range from appallingly hackneyed to brilliant and subversive, but it will quit being culture. It will be relegated to sub-culture. That may seem like a romantic notion to some, but if you ask me, it would be a shame. ‘Cause as much as I dislike far too much theatre, when it is good, many many many people ought to see it, ‘cause it is fucking glorious!