In which a theatre attempts an experiment with criticism, and critics lose the plot

Now here’s an interesting one.

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Guillermo Verdecchia and Adam Lazarus in the Factory Theatre’s promotional image for The Art of Building a Bunker

This past week, Toronto’s Factory Theatre announced that they are inviting the media to their upcoming production of The Art of Building a Bunker by Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia five days after the show opens. The reason for this, according to Aislinn Rose, producer of the show for the indie company Quiptake, is to see “if the conversation [about the production] can be more open and free, and more inclusive of a greater variety of voices, before the voice of authority comes in” – the voice of authority being, of course, reviews by theatre critics in mainstream outlets.

The voice of authority – in the form of J. Kelly Nestruck, theatre critic for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper – is not impressed.

In a mega-Twitter strand that grew to over 100 Tweets on September 24-25, Kelly (I refer to him by his first name because I know him) referred to the Factory’s move as “amateur hour”, “an insult to audiences”, and “unprofessional and unethical.” In a follow-up piece in the Globe and Mail, he says he is “outraged” at the Factory’s “attempt to sideline professional critics” and further asserts that the Factory is trying to “pick a fight with professional critics.” While Kelly’s voice of protest has been the loudest, another critic, the Torontoist’s listings editor Steve Fisher, Tweeted that this move is “hostile to critics” and that it is “attempting to silence… the ppl who are best qualified to evaluate” The Art of Building a Bunker. Now Magazine’s Glenn Sumi sees this as “part of a larger trend of keeping critics away.”

Really? As Rose said repeatedly in the Twitter conversation, this is not silencing or picking a fight or barring; after all, critics are welcome – just three performances (which works out to be five calendar days because of dark nights over a weekend) after the general public and the theatre community.

That this so inflames Kelly, Fisher, and Sumi, and provoked several blogs from other Toronto theatre commentators professing concern and bafflement (and also considered support) indicates that this is about more than five days in the life of one show. It’s touched a nerve about how arts criticism is changing radically in the digital age and how, as a part of this, the authority of voices rendered powerful by dint of their mainstream outlets is being challenged. By initially prioritizing voices other than mainstream reviewers, Factory and its season partners are acknowledging that there are important conversations going on about theatre other than those led by paid professionals. They’re suggesting that there are others out there – artists, the arts community, and maybe even **gasp** members of the public – who not only “qualified to evaluate” their work, but qualified to lead an evaluative dialogue about it.

I see this latest kerfluffle as part of the same set of concerns as the previous kerfluffle I blogged about a few weeks ago, about the central role that bloggers and online critics are playing in a renaissance of theatre criticism in London (UK), despite protestations by mainstream voices that criticism is in crisis. In response to my blog, Jill Dolan commented that: “All the ‘death of . . .’ arguments (from the death of criticism here to Schechner’s ‘death of the avant-garde’ in the ’80s) seem mostly self-serving for those who launch them, meant to shore up their own importance when they feel their traditional power dwindling.” This is the context for the aggressive over-reactions here: Kelly, Fisher, Sumi and others are calling foul and even claiming victim status

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Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 9.49.16 PMbecause Factory’s move acknowledges that their power is not what it used to be.

What defines opening night vs. press night vs. gala premiere vs. (in France) couturière vs. générale is a set of conventions, not a list of rules. These conventions shift over the years as conditions of production and reception evolve. In first hearing about this, it seemed to me that Factory must be trying this “experiment” (a word they have underlined throughout) because the current conventions of criticism are not working for them. I wanted to know more, so I called up Rose and Nina Lee Aquino, Factory’s co-artistic director. Aquino says that the desire is to keep “opening night a celebration with peers, the community, and audiences,” and underlines that this move is with the full support of the Factory’s five season partner companies (Quiptake, b current, Theatre Smith-Gilmour, Native Earth Performing Arts, and U.N.I.T Productions). Rose says the plan is to “take a proactive approach in engaging social media and engaging with audiences” in the days after opening, using the Factory’s and Quiptake’s social media channels to foster and circulate audience and artist responses, as a way of extending word of mouth. “Everyone makes fun of hashtags,” Rose says, “but they are such a good way of having a conversation.”

Some have used this as an opportunity to comment on what they see as a dysfunctional relationship between the performing arts in Toronto and its critics. Philip Akin, artistic director of Obsidian Theatre (or someone identifying as such), commented on Holger Syme’s blog that “When you consider the drive by slagging that has been the mainstay of reviews over the last two years it is kind of like an abus [sic] relationship. So why not just walk away for a bit.” Director and dramaturg Jacob Zimmer names the Toronto Star’s theatre and dance critics Richard Ouzounian and Michael Crabb as doing “serious damage to the art forms they review” and says that independent companies do not speak back to destructive criticism because “there is real fear about future retribution.”

Aquino and Rose would not be drawn to direct comment about individual Toronto critics. Rather, their discussion puts me in mind of an astute statement by Holger Syme at a panel discussion on theatre criticism at Brock University earlier this year (in which Kelly Nestruck and Richard Ouzounian were also participants): “How a conversation develops usually has something to do with how a conversation starts…. if you have reviews that are primarily evaluative in nature, that say things like ‘this person is an outstanding actor’ or ‘this person is a terrible actor’ … the response of people who disagree is going to be similarly monosyllabic and underdeveloped in nature.”

“A lot of what has been suggested to me is that this is because we are afraid of criticism,” says Rose. “But this is not about fear of negative press; it’s about craving deeper discourse.” Part of the gambit, for Rose, is that briefly postponing the entry of mainstream critical voices into the dialogue may empower some who might otherwise discredit their personal point of view: “Sometimes I go to the theatre with my mum, and she always has very smart things to say. But she can be a bit old fashioned about the authority she gives to the official press. Sometimes if she thinks something different than the critics, she’ll say ‘maybe I’m just stupid.’ But my mum is an incredibly intelligent woman.” Both Rose and Aquino underline that media voices are welcome, but after dialogue has launched, at which point, according to Rose, they will “enhance the conversation.”

Lois Dawson and others are concerned that Factory will suffer at the box office by not getting reviewed as soon as they possibly could, and Holger goes so far as to equate conventional reviews with “unpaid publicity” – a surprisingly limited point of view from that quarter. Several say that Factory is fostering a dialogue among the already-converted, with Mike Anderson arguing this is a good thing – a celebration of the theatre’s “loyalists” as “even more important than the critics” – while Joshua Hind sees this as part of the “ongoing clique-ization of the Toronto small theatre ‘community.’”

Will the conversation around The Art of Building a Bunker really just be among a small group of theatre insiders if Factory and Quiptake curate it as they intend to, or will it grow to encompass a variety of points of view from people coming at the show from a broader range of perspectives than we usually see on review comment strands and theatres’ own websites? This is a really intriguing question – but the problem is, we may not find out the answer, because critics say they are going to defy the Factory’s strategy by buying tickets and reviewing the show immediately after opening night.

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I fully accept that critics serve a number of constituencies, and that reviewers for mainstream outlets answer first and foremost to their editors and their readerships. Kelly argued to Aquino that the Factory’s plan is unacceptable because it is “asking me to do my job less well”, because he would be failing in his reporter function to write on this opening as news (to which Aquino riposted that sometimes Globe and Mail reviews don’t appear for 5-6 days after the opening because of publication delays and lack of space).

There could be another way about this. In the spirit of embracing our changing media environment, established critics could get on board with this experiment. They could argue to their editors that this is an artist-led attempt to open up dialogue around theatre, the stated intention of which is not to block professional and online critics but to include them as participants in an exchange that is being launched differently this time.

Because, at the end of the day, while the relationship between theatre and criticism is a two-way street, we who write about theatre wouldn’t have anything to talk about if artists didn’t make art. “We’re trying something new here,” says Aquino. “We’re artists and innovators.” Continues Rose, “Isn’t this our job?”

So hey, how’s this: back off, critics. Let the artists do their job and run this experiment as they intend. There are dozens of theatre openings in Toronto in October, and you’ll get your say on Bunker on 21st October. And if you held off and were really being sporting, you’d engage with the online dialogue before writing your reviews, to see how that affects what you write. Maybe you’ll find that loosening your hold on power will make the field you write about – and your own work – even richer than it already is.

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The crisis in theatre criticism is critics saying there’s a crisis

Mark Shenton, chairperson of the Drama section of the London (UK) Critics’ Circle, has opened another chapter in an ongoing discussion about the changing nature of theatre criticism. After Mark commented in a Stage column that there were currently ‘no jobs’ for young critics, the critic Matt Trueman responded on Twitter that Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 8.21.48 AM

Mark has written a new column in response to this, offering the familiar assertion that there are only ‘scraps’ left at the critical table, and that the burgeoning of on-line criticism, which anyone can write for free, is contributing to the demise of ‘quality journalism’. I am writing to challenge the binaries that Mark perpetuates in his piece (I use the first person because I know the parties involved).

I believe that quality criticism can happen for free and is happening for free. I believe that by applying innovation and hard work new models can be fashioned through which critics can make money from their work and/or support themselves through related work in order to maintain their commitment to writing quality criticism. And I believe that it is the responsibility of those of us who believe in quality criticism to apply ourselves passionately and positively towards creating such innovative solutions, rather than just repeating over and over again that the end of the world is nigh.

Let’s start with Mark characterizing Matt’s Tweet as ‘defensive.’ I find this an inaccurate and alarmist description – as indeed does Matt, who responded on Twitter that he’s been making a living doing theatre criticism for three years now and that he is not the only younger critic doing this; in my view he’s going about it brilliantly. Rather than calling him defensive, how about celebrating Matt, and other of our younger colleagues, for their hard work and vital contributions to our field, and admiring them for standing up for their accomplishments? As established critics like Mark have gone on repeating (over and over again…) that the world as we know it is coming to an end, a new generation of critics has been writing excellent criticism, and in many instances creating their own opportunities to see it published.

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The West End Whingers in their trademark ‘don’t pap us’ pose

Those of us who follow and participate in the London theatrical blogosphere know this litany well: since 2007 when the theatrical blogosphere kicked off, Maddy Costa, Diana Damian-Martin, Chris Goode, Andrew Haydon, Jake Orr, Melissa Poll, Natasha Tripney, Megan Vaughan, Webcowgirl and I am sure others (please chip in names, people!) have been making a vibrant contribution to dialogue about theatre in London. In their heyday the West End Whingers wrote some of the smartest, most usefully subversive commentary on London theatre available. The group sites A Younger Theatre and Exeunt Magazine are generating and disseminating fine online criticism; and Costa and Orr’s Dialogue is fostering a horizontal critical practice that disrupts the hierarchies of traditional criticism, inspired by (amongst other things) the visionary work of the American blogger and advocate Andy Horwitz. I have argued elsewhere that if you take on board all that is being written online as well as in print, this is a golden age of theatre criticism in London (an argument I will repeat in a special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review on editing, coming out early in 2015).

Mark’s column also prompts me to congratulate the wonderful Kate Bassett on her appointment as Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Reading. Kate unfortunately lost her job as theatre critic of the Independent on Sunday earlier this year, indeed a cause of concern for those of us who care about quality criticism in major newspapers. Mark characterizes Kate in his column as having ‘h[u]ng up her critical hat’ and her departure from the Sindo as part of a critical ‘rush to the exit’. As Kate has made clear on Twitter, these statements went in advance of the facts. I don’t know the details but I admire Kate’s resourcefulness in now combining academic work with theatre criticism for a number of outlets. Here’s the headline: just because someone does not have a dedicated critic job at a mainstream print outlet does not mean they are not doing criticism. If that were the case, than Mark Shenton himself could no longer claim the moniker of critic.

Academia has long had a role to play in the theatre critical infrastructure, and I would argue an increasingly important one. Established critics such as Michael Billington and Matt Wolf have long supplemented their newspaper and magazine work by teaching American university students visiting London. Critics including Aleks Sierz, Catherine Love (in the UK), Jill Dolan (US), Patrick Lonergan (Ireland), and in Canada myself, Peter Dickinson, Kelly Nestruck, and Holger Syme, among many others, combine academic work with reviewing and blogging about theatre. Academic settings are an opportune place to bring concerns about the changing face of our field to light, and work together in real time to discuss possible solutions. Indeed Mark Shenton, along with Lyn Gardner, Kate Bassett and Ian Shuttleworth enjoyed the hospitality of Royal Holloway, University of London (where I was then working), about five years ago for a panel discussion about criticism organized by the student drama society; and I have organized and participated in similar events previously and since, in London and here in St Catharines, Ontario.

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(From left) J. Kelly Nestruck (the Globe and Mail), Odette Yazbeck (Shaw Festival), Holger Syme (University of Toronto), Jill Dolan (Princeton University), Richard Ouzounian (The Toronto Star), myself, and Brock Dramatic Arts student Michael Caccamo at “The Changing Face of Theatre Criticism in the Digital Age”, a colloquium at Brock University on 22 February 2014.

Another way that academia contributes to our field is that theatre criticism is taught as a practical discipline in a number of UK (and indeed Canadian, Irish, and American) universities. Michael Billington once commented to my colleague Melissa Poll, who was then teaching theatre criticism at Royal Holloway with Diana Damian-Martin, that he didn’t really understand the purpose of such a course, given that the dwindling number of mainstream positions in the field – evidence of the same kind of binary, defeatist thinking that I’m trying to counter here. Studying practical theatre criticism is not necessarily vocational: it provides vital writing training and experience of professional theatre for drama students, regardless of whether they intend to pursue writing about theatre as a career. And student criticism can have an important effect on local theatre scenes: my students at Brock University are now providing some of the only review responses to the work of our several important local companies; and my colleague Robin Whittaker’s students are playing a similar role in Fredericton, New Brunswick. These young peoples’ facility with online platforms and social networking consistently pushes my knowledge and practice forward; I believe new solutions about how to grow our field will come from them. But we’d not be able to provide them the opportunities to come up with these new ideas if we succumbed to Chicken Little-ism and stopped teaching theatre criticism altogether.

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I have a proposal, somewhat inspired by the jar on the mantel that you had to put a quarter into anytime you said a curse word (OK, we didn’t really have such a thing at Fricker Farms in bucolic 1970s Southern California… but y’know what I mean). Next time you, Mark, or Michael Billington, or anyone else reading this has the temptation to say something in the public sphere about how theatre criticism is in crisis or dying: rather than saying that, why not rather do something active and positive that day towards supporting and expanding our field. Perhaps you could read a blogger or online critic’s work and respond to it, thus continuing the dialogue they are working so hard to foster. Perhaps you could raise the question of succession to your editor and put in a great word for a younger critic you rate. You might think of a way to involve the voices of younger critics (or academic critics) in your critical practice. You might reach out to those doing innovative critical practice in your community and offer to help. And – hey, here’s an idea – perhaps those of you who are in charge of critics’ organizations including the London Critics Circle, Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland, the American Theatre Critics Association and the Canadian Theatre Critics Association might review and adapt your membership policies around definitions of ‘professional’ and ‘quality’ so as to welcome rather than block the innovative new voices who are the future of our field.

In the column that kicked this whole thing off, Mark praised the Stage One bursary scheme that helped kick off the careers of many producers now making an impact on the London scene. He is absolutely right that it’s in the interest of the theatre industry, across its many fields, to invest in its future by supporting its emerging talent. What I just don’t get is why it’s so challenging for established critics including Mark to reflexively apply this thinking to their own practice and our shared field. Continuing to cry ‘crisis’ is not helping anything; in fact, in my view, it’s now a big part of the problem.

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Nearly there

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Since I last posted about the making of Juno and the Paycock at the Shaw Festival,  I’ve had three encounters with the creative process; a “work-through” rehearsal; the final dress rehearsal; and then a preview performance before a paying audience.

The first was an extremely technical, slow-moving exercise: work-throughs are the first time that all the technical elements of a production (save costumes, makeup and wigs) are brought together with the full cast on stage. In other production environments, these are called cue-to-cues; the difference, Jackie Maxwell explained to me, is that in work-throughs every line is spoken, whereas cue-to-cues jump over passages of text that don’t have tech cues in them. Maxwell says that previous generations of directors tend to work in the cue-to-cue fashion, but that her generation and younger directors tend to use this as another moment to work on the substance of the material.

The night I attended they were facing some particularly complex passages, starting with the cues that close off the action before the intermission and then the opening moments of their second act (which, as written, is O’Casey’s Act III). These cues involve Paul Sportelli’s original music, Bonnie Beecher’s lighting design, and Peter Hartwell’s set, and there was considerable consultation involved to make sure the technical elements work in the way that satisfies Maxwell and her designers.

joxer and needle

There was a particularly interesting episode in this rehearsal in which an passage of staging was reworked after a performer’s intervention. Early in this second act, Captain Boyle (played by Jim Mezon) goes offstage into the bedroom, allowing Joxer Daly (Ben Campbell) and Needle Nugent (Lorne Kennedy) to enter the apartment, exchange crucial information about the Boyles’ non-existent fortune, and plot for Nugent to steal back the suit that the Captain bought from him on credit and, they now know, will never be able to pay for. An offstage cough from the Captain surprises the scheming pair: they had assumed he was out. As planned in rehearsal, the sequence ran that the Captain went into the bedroom, the sound of a cork popping indicated that he opened a bottle of stout, and pretty much immediately, Joxer and Nugent entered. When they ran this in the work-through, Mezon queried it with Maxwell, saying that it didn’t make sense that the Captain didn’t hear Joxer and Nugent. Maxwell took this point on board immediately, and the team jumped to action to create a new cue. Beecher constructed a subtle lighting change and Sportelli and the sound team put together a passage of music to play for about 15 seconds after the cork pop sound; the message of the new cue is “some time passes.” It took the team about 20 minutes to work out this little bit of business; they ran it a few times, and it’s stayed in the show.

This struck me for a number of reasons. While I’d observed discussions between Maxwell and the performers about characters’ motivations and the ways in which lines might be read, this was the only moment where I’d seen a performer directly question a directing choice; how willingly Maxwell took the note was also striking. I’ve not been present all the time, and it’s possible that other such queries and responses happened throughout the rehearsal process. It did made me wonder how much Mezon’s high status at Shaw figured in this – it’s his 30th season at the Festival, and he works there as a director as well as performer; do others feel as empowered as he does to engage with Maxwell in this way?

On an aesthetic level, this episode underlined to me that this is a production that prioritizes the audience’s capacity to believe that what’s on stage is really happening in real time. Mezon’s concern, which Maxwell and the rest of the creative team took on board, was that the audience could have been jarred out of the flow of the production, which was not desirable. What’s paradoxical is that the “time passes” cue they came up with is actually a break from straight-up theatrical naturalism. It feels like a convention borrowed from a classic film – like when you see clock hands moving in fast forward, or pages of a calendar being blown away. To me this attests to the ways in which contemporary artists and audiences have absorbed representational codes from film and television – inserting a bit of filmic storytelling actually makes a piece of theatre feel more natural (Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call this phenomenon remediation).

This also made me think more broadly about directorial approaches, and about how naturalism remains the dominant mode of mainstream Canadian theatremaking, in sharp contrast to continental Europe, where the notion of the written text as the dominant factor determining any production has been pulled apart for several generations. Maxwell has chosen to deliver this Juno in a straightforward manner: in its original time period, cast and designed for verisimilitude, with the only evident directorial flourishes (and they’re hardly extravagant ones) in the production’s final minutes. O’Casey’s text is the dominant factor here. I asked Maxwell about this and she says that it has very much to do with the Canadian context: if we were in Ireland, she might have considered making her hand more felt in the production, but here she felt the appropriate action was to deliver the play relatively straight-up (on that note, here’s an interesting post by the Irish academic and blogger Patrick Lonergan about question of O’Casey’s familiarity to Irish audiences, which he argues is actually limited to a very small number of his plays). The question of directorial intervention has been a contentious one at Shaw this season: the principal gripe that the three main Toronto reviewers had with Peter Hinton’s staging of the musical Cabaret was that it was over-conceived (a critique I don’t necessarily agree with, but that’s for another blog). It it will be very interesting indeed to see if those same critics will find the (seeming) naturalism and textual fidelity of Maxwell’s Juno to be praiseworthy qualities.

* * * * * (time passes)

After work-throughs, the company had three dress rehearsals; I attended the final of these and found the show in very good shape. There were no stops and starts and no missed cues – it was essentially a performance, with a small audience made up of staff from various Shaw departments including audience services and props. The one piece of new business left to take care of after the final dress was the blocking of the curtain call, a task that surely has its complexities, as it involves choices on the director’s part about who bows when and with whom. In this instance the task felt uncontentious, and was dispatched with diplomacy and swiftness. Haney is given the final solo bow, after Campbell and Mezon have taken theirs; then the three of them bow again together. I asked Maxwell later about this choice, and she said that for her, even though it could be argued that Joxer is a slightly less central role than Captain and Juno, the shifting dynamics between the three characters are at the heart of the play, and Haney, Campbell, and Mezon are all veteran, highly-regarded members of the Shaw company – hence the decision to have the three of them take the last bow together.

juno speechThis feels right to me – but it also feels right that Juno is particularly highlighted as the play’s central character and Haney’s as this production’s central performance. Campbell and Mezon are setting off spectacular comic fireworks in their roles – the production is a fabulous showcase for them. But the range of experiences, tones, and levels that Haney is called upon to play as Juno is of a different valence: in the beginning she is a combination of long-suffering and cynically funny; she then gets to play surprise and joy; then mounting concern and reserve; and finally descends into incredulity and near-despair before delivering Juno’s extraordinary final speech mourning her son, in which she echoes the words of Mrs. Tancred that close the first act. The speech reads like an aria (“Mother o’ God, Mother o’ God, have pity on us all! Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets? Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our heats of stone…”) and is potentially histrionic. Maxwell tells me she and Haney worked together very hard on paring the speech back and indeed, as I have watched her deliver it in rehearsals and now performances, Haney has found her way to a stark, raw communication of Juno’s grief. It has been a great privilege to watch Haney (and the whole company) find their way to a command of the material.

As the show reached the end of its rehearsal process and started to play to paying audiences, Maxwell described the work before her and the company as that of “orchestration”, which I understand to mean the way in which all the elements in the production fit together – the pacing, the flow of energies, the tone and rhythm. Unlike a lot of contemporary playwriting, in which the action is broken into short, staccato scenes and can move around from place to place, O’Casey has written long, symphonic acts set in one room, with subsequent episodes differing greatly in tone and mood, not broken up by blackouts (the fact that short scenes and location changes are the norm has a lot to do with the remediation of TV and film conventions into theatrical form). Maxwell’s musical metaphor has been useful to me in grasping the challenge O’Casey’s style of playwriting presents, and in appreciating the director’s work in a piece which is not obviously “signed” as conceptual. In order to hold the audience’s attention, mood and tension need to build, and paces and levels need to keep shifting in order to create a credible impression of lives being lived. O’Casey didn’t make things particularly easy with some of the sharp tonal switches he requires.

Jerry and Mary

In the first act, for example, in about 10 minutes of stage time, Jerry Devine (Andrew Bunker) goes from bantering with the Captain about going down to Rathmines to put his name in for a job, to pleading with his former sweetheart Mary (Marla McLean) to take him back, an exchange that ends with Jerry refusing to let go of Mary and falling to his knees to “kiss [her] little, tiny white hand” as she tries to push him away. We veer from high comedy – as the work-averse Captain has one of his by-now-predictable bouts of “a pain in these legs o’ mine” at the very mention of employment – to a disturbing moment of what feels, in the contemporary context, like near-domestic violence. Part of Maxwell’s work as a conductor in this passage is to make sure that the comedy doesn’t get too exaggerated, so that the switch is believable and what follows does not come across as  melodramatic. She attends every preview, watching from different angles, and gives notes to the performers individually afterwards, sometimes in person and sometimes via e-mail.

And so, after a lot of hard work, and just over three months after its first read-through, Juno opens tomorrow night, July 25th. I’ll be there, and will post some thoughts about audience and critical response soon.

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Completely circus

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The opening parade of Montréal Complètement Cirque 2014

A fortnight ago I took a break from the Irish classics to immerse myself in something rather different: contemporary circus, as one of 10 writers on a critical residency at the Montréal Complètement Cirque festival. This two-week-long festival, now in its fifth year, has helped cement Montréal’s reputation as the most vibrant place in the Western world today for the circus arts. This year the festival presented 13 indoor shows (indoor includes tents!), one free large-scale outdoor show, an “off” program of talks and activities, a parade, and professional development activities including our residency, which was run by En Piste, Canada’s national circus arts network.

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(from left) Residency coordinator and circus critic Françoise Boudreault, with residency participants Magalie Morin, Sarah Muehlbauer, Andrea Mustain, and Tony Montague. Photo: Zeke Hand.

This residency is modeled on a European programme called Unpack the Arts: the goal is to educate and excite cultural journalists about the burgeoning world of contemporary circus. Given that many mainstream media outlets in Europe and North America are reducing their arts coverage these days, it seems unlikely that dedicated circus criticism jobs will be created anytime soon. The practical response by Unpack the Arts and En Piste is to help critics from other arts disciplines better understand circus, so that we can write about it in an informed way and perhaps advocate for more circus programming and coverage in our home environments. I have been involved in studying and writing about contemporary circus since 2007, largely though the Montréal Working Group on Circus Research, but my ability to see circus shows is limited because very little of the exciting circus work from Québec tours to Ontario or the rest of North America. Thus the opportunity to see six shows in four days along with all the other goodies the residency offered was extremely welcome. Some of my colleagues wrote reviews of individual shows for various online and print publications; and all of us are writing long-form pieces about the festival to be published online by En Piste (mine will be a version of this blog; I’ll post a link to all those essays in due course).

Beyond the knowledge about circus the residency provided, it also offered a great opportunity to think about different ways of approaching the critic’s job. In the traditional model of arts criticism, a review represents a singular, individual point of view; it’s considered suspect if a critic is known to consult with others and take their ideas in board in their assessment. In this residency, we came together as a group to share our thoughts about the shows, and met with artists involved in every production. What I write here is undoubtedly affected by those conversations. So, is what follows enlightened – or contaminated?

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7 Doigts de la Main’s Gipsy Snider and Samuel Tétreault in conversation with our residency group. Photo: Zeke Hand

That’s a purposely provocative question, and I suspect some would argue that because this is a think piece for my personal blog, I can make my own rules; whereas if I were writing for a mainstream outlet, the expectation would be that I fly solo. While there are practical reasons why writing alone remains the dominant paradigm (hard deadlines being the most obvious one), it is also part of a larger value system based on the notion that the most important creativity and ideas issue from the lone voice of genius (a system that drags a lot of historical, hierarchical, gendered baggage with it). As scholars including Jen Harvie, Alex Mermikides, and Jackie Smart have argued, working collectively has become the dominant mode of theatrical creation in our time; and in the blogosphere, critics too are increasingly working conversationally and collaboratively. I wonder: will the solo critic model continue as long as traditional journalism does, or will it evolve into something else before the last newspaper shuts its doors?

A related, striking thing, which I’ve only really come to appreciate after the fact, is how much the ten of us (eleven, if you count our facilitator, French circus expert Yohann Floch) were on the same page in our assessment of the productions we saw: in no instance was there a strong divide wherein some of us loved a show while others took strongly against it. In particular there seemed to be agreement about which productions seemed complete, and which others seemed not fully cooked. This is particularly interesting because nearly all of the group (as was, of course, the point of the whole enterprise) are not circus experts, and part of what we were there to consider were the differences between the aesthetics and dramaturgy of circus and of other performing arts forms. And yet we came to considerable agreement about what the shows were attempting to do and how well they did it. There were gaps, of course: the several circus aficionados among us had a keener eye and more points of comparison about questions of prowess, risk, and innovation, and having their expertise among us was extremely helpful. But the hybrid and interdisciplinary nature of contemporary circus, which draws on traditions and vocabularies of theatre, performance art, dance, live music, and cabaret, allows points of access for those with competencies in those fields, and all of us chipping in with our different insights and ways into the shows allowed for a rich accumulation of information.

“Enough meta-critical throat-clearing!”, I hear you cry. Right then, the shows.

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le Monfort’s Acrobates

The outstanding piece of work we saw at the festival – and one of the best productions I’ve seen in a long time – was Acrobates by the French company le Monfort. This 75-minute long show has been touring for a year and a half in Europe; this was its North American premiere. Yohann insisted we go into the productions without having done research about them, and discovering the complex backstory and content of this production while watching it had a profound impact on me and my colleagues. So much so that if you have any notion of seeing Acrobates (and I really, really advise you to try to) I would advise skipping this section and picking up four paragraphs down.

To try to sum it up: Acrobates is a beautiful, philosophical, life-affirming production about a devastating accident, an untimely death, a circus show that never happened, and a documentary that was almost never made. It is a collaboration between director Stéphane Ricordel, acrobats Mathias Pilet and Alexandre Fournier, and filmmaker Olivier Meyrou; and works with the uncanny on-screen presence of Fabrice Champion, a close friend and former colleague of Ricordel from the legendary trapeze company Les Arts Sauts. The show starts with a montage of film clips in which Champion, who was paralyzed from the chest down in 2004 in a fall during a Les Arts Sauts performance, is creating a circus show with the able-bodied Pilet and Fournier. In this, already, Acrobates stakes out daring territory: circus is all about managed risk, and the question of what happens if something goes wrong is a considerable taboo. These film clips are part of Meyrou’s documentary about Pilet, Fournier, and Champion’s show, and more broadly about the conundrum that is a disabled circus performer.

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Le Monfort’s Stéphane Ricordel (right) in conversation with residency participant Lucie Renaud and facilitator Yohann Floch. Photo: Zeke Hand

About 20 minutes into Acrobates, spectators’ expectations are confounded by the revelation that Champion died in 2011. Acrobates is the four surviving men’s response to this devastating turn of events; it is not, however, a sentimental tribute. Rather, as Ricordel told us after the show, for him Acrobates is “about friendship.” He and his collaborators turned to creativity – to the art form they shared with Champion and still share together – in response to loss. The live, embodied portion of the show kicks in with Pilet and Fournier working in very dim light on a sharply raked platform, running, tumbling, cartwheeling and handspringing, not really interacting with each other. The platform is purposely pitched at a high angle, making these stunts nearly impossible to accomplish: the evident struggle is part of the aesthetic and meaning-making. At one point one of the acrobats throws himself into a passage of choreography with particular intensity as we hear a voice-over from Champion about all the things his injury meant he could no longer do: walk, run, climb, do acrobatics, have an orgasm. We hear him say over and over “J’en peux plus” – I can’t take it anymore – becoming increasingly intense and despairing. The phrase takes on a broader meaning: it becomes about the struggles with grief of the friends left behind; and, for me, it evoked in a very visceral way the extreme frustration of trying to accomplish or get beyond something, and just not being able to. By this point the show had me by the throat.

ACROBATES - A centre panel of the raked platform is then lowered and the two performers work in the rectangular frame it creates, as well as on top of the slope; the lights come up slightly and it becomes easier to see them. Finally, in full light at the front of the stage, the pair execute a wonderfully choreographed series of hand-to-hand and floor acrobatic moves, which they repeat in different variations, becoming more fluid and more in synch with each other each time. The cumulative effect of watching the two men working together, holding each other up, and trusting each other was incredibly moving. This show is demanding for the acrobats to perform, and it’s not easy to watch either. But the crafted-ness of it, the precision, and the increasingly layered signification reward engagement. Small details matter, like the gesture of Pilet pulling down Fournier’s slightly hiked-up  t-shirt before undertaking a sequence. When one of my fellow critics asked Ricordet about this, all of us nodded – we’d all clocked this touching little gesture of care. And it turns out it wasn’t random: Ricordet used to pull down Champion’s t-shirt after his accident, because his friend could no longer feel if his clothes were askew, and then Champion started to do it back to him in a sort of nagging, joking vengeance. And so Ricordet put it in the show as a knowing reference, which took on broader meanings – it reminds us of the offhand ways we interact with, care for, and annoy our friends, of the lateral ways we show our love.

I would never have guessed that this beautiful final section with its detailed, layered evocation of trust, love, and creativity is where Acrobates would end up, given how it began. And (as a final kicker) the themes of art and friendship intertwined even further when Ricordet tells us what he feels this show has meant for Pilet and Fournier: “When you get out of circus school you are not an artist. You are a circus technician, maybe. To be an artist is to give and to get. These two guys were not artists when we started. These two guys became artists on stage.”

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Mathias Pilet (in air) and Alexandre Fournier

The two biggest-news Québec premieres in the Festival were 7 Doigts de la Main’s Intersection and Cirque Alfonse’s Barbu: Foire Electro-Trad. Both are impressive shows, the work of well-regarded, successful companies pushing themselves into new areas of form and content. In both we saw innovative circus acts and high-end production values. It was also my feeling, shared by most of my colleagues, that both shows are not yet fully realized; I hope they continue to mature and tighten up as the companies perform them. In the case of Intersection, it’s particularly difficult to assess its level of completion because one of its performers, Danica Gagnon-Plamondon, was injured the night before the opening, leading to some very last-minute work by directors Gipsy Snider and Samuel Tétreault and the seven remaining performers in reworking the piece around Gagnon-Plamondon’s absence.

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The opening night performance of Intersection

Intersection was performed in le Tohu, the wonderful circus venue in the north Montréal circus neighbourhood where the National Circus School and Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters are also located. The show introduces us to eight (or, as we saw it, seven) individuals whose life paths cross in the course of the production. This theme is evoked by Cédric Lord’s striking set design – two runways forming an X in the centre of the in-the-round performance space. The performers devised their characters; all are twenty-somethings on personal journeys of self-exploration: an unlucky-in-love American bartender, an aspiring Québécoise weather girl, a South American making a new life in Canada. Romantic longing and the search for love are overriding themes. We find out the characters’ backstories via video clips, with performers speaking in their native language (French, English, Chinese, and Spanish). This combination of theatre and physical theatre practices with circus – performers enacting characters and expressing emotional/ psychological states through circus acts; the use of spoken text – are signature aspects of 7 Doigts’ practice.

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Underwood and Bourgeois

For me, the most effective communication of performers’ inner lives was in a Chinese pole duet by William Underwood and Héloïse Bourgeois, which expresses (as I read it) their attempts to develop trust within an erotically charged relationship. The production’s coup de théâtre comes with the arrival of a beat-up BMW onstage: the performers do acrobatic moves on, around, and even through it, parkour-style. This thrillingly evokes urban life as full of excitement, risk, and the unanticipated. Other memorable circus skills demonstrations, whose larger relevance to the theme and storylines are not yet fully clear to me, include a pairs diabolo act by Song Enmeng and Pan Shengnan; and Sabrina Aganier’s aerial hoop number.

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One of Intersection’s pre-show installations

The performance is preceded by a 20-minute long promenade section, in which audience members are encouraged to explore environments at the end of the runways: a dressing room, an attic, a café, and a kitchen. While these installations are brilliantly realized, their relationship to the rest of the show is unclear. This prologue section also features snippets of action in which performers interact with audience members: I found myself a bystander to a bunch of youths banging on pots and pans, and was then encouraged by one of them to hold his skillet so he didn’t get busted by the cops. This seeming reference to the Montréal student uprisings of 2012 and its famous casseroles protests was, disappointingly, not followed up on in the rest of the show.

We found out in discussion with Snider and Tétreault that they took inspiration for this production’s theme and formal structure from movies such as Babel, Crash, and Amores Perros, in which seemingly unrelated lives end up intertwined (a format that film theorist David Bordwell calls the network narrative). It is not yet clear to me what the Intersection company is trying to communicate through this criss-crossing motif. That human lives are increasingly interconnected in our globalized era is a commonplace. Are they trying to question our responsibilities to the many strangers whose paths we cross on a daily basis; and if so, what do they feel such responsibilities might be? Are they implying that contingent events and seeming coincidences in fact have deeper meanings, and if so, are they invoking fate, spirituality, or something else? The creation period for this show was rather short – 25 days – and I expect that more time spent working on character and relationship might allow for the themes and representations to grow richer, and the meaning behind the connections theme to become more resonant.

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Photo: Alexandre Galliez.

I also was struck by the conservatism of Intersection‘s representation of gender and sexuality: every relationship depicted was heterosexual, and overall, stereotypes of strong, tortured man and vulnerable, (in some cases literally!) flighty woman were reinforced. When I offered this observation to a circus expert friend after the show, he said, for him, that the history of freak shows inevitably haunts any circus performance, so that circus bodies are always-already queer and circus shows always-already alternative. I accept this as his point of view, but it made me realise that, unlike him, I don’t associate 7 Doigts’ work with a subversive, queer politics of difference. In both their shows I’ve seen, attractive, fashionably dressed, and dauntingly toned young people performed amazing, cutting-edge circus skills while communicating feelings and thoughts clearly intended for the audiences to relate to. The freakish body was nowhere present in these experiences, for me. I wonder: is the increasingly popularity of circus necessarily or inevitably going to mean a mainstreaming (a straightening out, perhaps) of its representational politics?

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CIrque Alfonse’s Barbu

Barbu: Foire Electro-Trad is Cirque Alfonse’s third show and finds them both building on and busting loose from the attention-grabbing image they cultivated in the first two. The men of Alfonse sport thick beards, wear lumberjack shirts, and in past shows have performed circus acts using objects found in the wilderness: they juggle axes and do a Russian bars act on actual lumber. The core of Alfonse is an extended family from the Québec town of Saint-Alphonse-Rodriguez, a number of whom attended the National Circus School in Montréal and have experience with major circus companies.

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Antoine Carabinier Lépine

It was clear in talking to founding member Antoine Carabinier Lépine that the family, community-based nature of the company is extremely important to them. They make the shows in a converted barn on the Carabinier family property; Antoine’s mother does the bookkeeping; and his father, who is in his 60s and not a trained performer, appeared the show that made the company famous, Timber!, doing comedic bits and circus stunts. Not to paint Alfonse like total country bumpkins: part of their success, in my view, stems from the overlap of the hipster and lumberjack aesthetics, and Timber! (which I saw a couple of years ago) had something of a deadpan, ironic feel, as if they were both celebrating their culture and letting us know they didn’t take it too seriously.

In contrast to the family-friendly Timber!, Barbu is an adults-only experience: it’s an attempt to combine the format and bawdiness of German-style cabaret with circus acts and with Alfonse’s distinctive identity. It was performed in Théâtre Telus, a nightclub and gig venue, with a runway stage jutting out amongst cabaret tables and drinks served before and during the show. There are some impressive circus skills on display in this show; it is at times, particularly in its increasingly bonkers second act, extremely funny; and the live music – a mix, as the title suggests, of traditional Québec music with electronica – is brilliant. Overall, though, I found it hard to understand where the show, directed by Alain Françoeur, was coming from in terms of tone: all the elements did not sit together comfortably.

In the first act, there is an attempt to deliver a real cabaret show, featuring skilled circus acts adapted to fit the low-ceilinged space, including an extended roller skating number and Matias Salmehano’s amazing juggling. The five male performers are in their rural getups and adopt the knowing/deadpan guise familiar from Timber! In the second act, things shift considerably: the men wear only black Speedo-style briefs and do increasingly ridiculous stunts, like juggling ping-pong balls between them using only their mouths. It all turned, somewhat satisfyingly, into a giddy shared joke about the impracticality and pointlessness of everything they were doing (of circus itself?). All of this was somewhat comprimised, however, by the show’s uncertain representation of women. Mostly the two female circus performers serve as secondary figures to male-led circus activity, including one of them being the assistant in the classic put-the-lady-in-the-box-and-shove-blades-through-her magic trick, which ends with the “big reveal” of her intact female body wearing only pasties and briefs.

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SPE-CIRQUE-BARBU

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first act ends with the two women, wearing sports bras and briefs, doing a floor acrobatics act that turns into mud wrestling when the female percussionist, dressed like a dominatrix, pours glop on them and cracks a whip.

SPE-CIRQUE-BARBUTheir manner in this is deadpan, but this communicates something different than the men’s first act hipster-ironic demeanour. The women performed something usually associated with the exploitation of women for men’s erotic pleasure, and there was nothing about them that indicated that they had agency in the display or were enjoying it. Rather, they too seemed exploited. This act would perhaps work better if it came later in the show and were played for humour – if the women acknowledged the challenge and silliness of trying to do balancing stunts and tricky holds while covered in mud. I was also not sure what Alfonse were getting at by the repeated gesture in the second act of the performers (along with some randomly selected audience members) waving rainbow streamers, rhythmic-gymnastics style. It’s one thing to satirize macho behaviour, which is what I think they’re trying to do in the second half; but more work needs to be done to get the show into a state where such a pro-LGBTQ gesture comes off as more than token.

I’ve gone on so long about these first three shows that I’ll just mention the two other productions I saw as part of the residency, and leave the critique in the able hands of my residency colleagues: the American company Midnight Circus’ charming, somewhat shambolic family tent show Small Tent… Big Shoulders (reviewed in La Presse by Jean Siag)…

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Small Tent… Big Shoulders

and the young French Compagnie Lapsus’ promising Six Pieds sur Terre (reviewed in DFDanse by Marion Gerbier)

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Six Pieds sur Terre

I also caught the impressive, 20-minute long free outdoor show Babel Remix.

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Babel Remix

I hope En Piste, the Canada Council for the Arts, and Montréal Complètement Cirque extend this circus residency programme in future years. There is so much more to say about the burgeoning world of circus arts and more work to do in getting brilliant contemporary circus productions from Québec, Europe and elsewhere circulating around the rest of North America. Getting journalists and bloggers buzzing about it is a great first step.

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Organized labour

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The Royal George Theatre, where Juno will play in repertory with Shaw’s Arms and the Man and Priestley’s When We Are Married this season. Photo by Andrée Lanthier.

It’s been nearly a month since I was in the Juno and the Paycock rehearsal room; last week I visited the company twice – once for a run of some scenes in the rehearsal hall, and the next day to watch director Jackie Maxwell and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher set lighting levels in the Royal George Theatre. The theme of this post is labour: the serious, continuous graft that artists and technicians put into productions, much of which is not known about by audience members. Or, indeed, by scholars and critics: this experience of embedding in the Juno production continues to be one of fascinating revelation about the layers of work that go into putting on a production at a well-funded theatre like the Shaw Festival. And labour itself is of course a key theme of Juno and the Paycock: it’s about the working class of Dublin (or in the case of the Captain and Joxer, the avoiding-working class) and the hard realities of life during the revolution and civil war of the 1910s and ‘20s. Given the nature of its mandate, putting labourers onstage (as opposed to posh people in frocks) doesn’t happen frequently at Shaw: “We don’t have a big stock of work clothes,” designer Peter Hartwell admits when talking about the particular realities of costuming this show. While he can pull most of the characters’ outfits from the Shaw’s store of existing costumes and then dye (and presumably somewhat distress) them, the Captain’s much-discussed moleskin work trousers and the Coal-block vendor’s work vest are the only items that Hartwell is designing and building for this show.

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Emily Cooper’s promotional artwork for Shaw’s The Philanderer.

The company were able to run the show all the way through in the rehearsal room two weekends ago, and Maxwell seems pleased where they are at this point in the process: There’s clearly a story being told, she says, a line for audiences to follow. The subsequent week was spent in smaller rehearsals working through scenes, drilling down deeper into particularities of blocking, motivation, and relationship. The rehearsal I attended was, in the Shaw’s lingo, a “secondary”, meaning that another production (The Philanderer) had first dibs on actors, and the company members that Juno had available to it dictated what scenes they’d work on. A byproduct of this was that they were running material out of order, meaning that in some cases the actors had to get themselves into a heightened emotional state out of context, and this is where I particularly saw the professionalism and expertise of the company come into play. No complaining, no visible emoting on the sidelines: Each performer took responsibility for her/his own preparation and way into the scene in question. Maxwell says she enjoys secondaries because they’re quieter and more focused, allowing for a more intense and intimate exchange with actors about their work.

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Gordon Rand, who plays Charles Bentham in Juno and Leonard Charteris (the titular character) in The Philanderer this season. Photo by David Cooper.

The first scene they worked is in Act II, during the Boyles’ brief experience of wealth, when Mary and Juno bring home the new gramophone and the family welcomes Mary’s suitor Bentham for tea. There’s a lot of complex, fiddly blocking in this passage, with characters in their own personal worlds frequently moving around the same small space at cross-purposes. The company also work on navigating the tonal shifts in the scene, from very funny stuff like the Captain’s posturing about “Consols” and the family’s strained attempts to fathom Bentham’s pretentious lecture on theosophy; to Johnny’s angry response to Bentham and his increasing hysteria as he thinks he’s seen a ghost. There are several early moments of brief silence in the passage, and two actors verbalize concern about such moments being able to “fill” or “holding”, which – I think – means being sufficiently imbued with relationship, tension, and signification that they will keep the audience’s attention. Maxwell notes these concerns but doesn’t let them stop the rehearsal; there seems to be a tacit understanding that they’re being patient allowing the material to ripen, and that they’ll address persistent concerns in subsequent runs if needs be. Ninety minutes of rehearsal are spent on seven pages in my Faber edition of the play; taking on a faux-imperious air, Maxwell exhorts the actors to run it one last time: “Just a shaft of brilliance, please, and then we’ll move on…”

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Charlie Gallant, who plays Johnny Boyle in Juno and Gerald Forbes in When We Are Married this season. Photo by David Cooper.

The group then twice runs the scene in Act III that I wrote about in my last blog, in which Juno tells the Captain and Johnny about Mary’s misfortune. The levels of emotional commitment and intensity that Mary Haney (Juno) has added to her performance in the meantime are evident – even in these relatively casual rehearsal conditions, she rivets attention. Then, a switch of gears: stage manager Allan Teichman takes over proceedings to plot out two major scene changes which will be executed by the performers in view of the audience. A spreadsheet Teichman and his assistant have worked up, in consultation with Maxwell, about who moves what piece of furniture or prop piece when draws a big “oooh!” of appreciation from the actors. I, too, am a big fan of a thoroughly conceived set change; this doubtless has to do with two decades of studying the work of Robert Lepage, for whom transitions can be as much an opportunity for the generation of meaning and affect as scenes themselves.

Something particularly intriguing emerges in one of these Juno changes about the performance mode of two characters called the Furniture-removal men (played by David Ball and Jay Turvey). Their raison d’être in the play is to cart away the Boyles’ belongings; then they re-appear during the set change and keep doing this task, but it’s not yet clear whether they are meant to still be in character, or in some other mode executing the same action. To keep the theme going: do they continue to be characters performing labour; or are we meant to understand them as the actors themselves actually labouring, and if so, why — what meaning are audiences meant to glean from this? I’m going to continue to monitor this question with interest — and not just because it’ll be a good concrete example the next time I teach semiotics and phenomenology, putting meat on the bones of the sort of “can a chair onstage ever be just a chair, or is a chair always to some extent performing being a chair?” questions that tend to intrigue and frustrate students in equal measure. Without wanting to spoil too much, I will say that some scene changes contain important aspects of Maxwell’s interpretation of the play… and we’ll have to leave it at that, for now.

When the rehearsal ends at 5:30 pm, another kind of furniture removal kicks in: a crew arrives to pack up the stage furniture and deliver it to the Royal George to have it in place for the lighting levels session at 8:30 the next morning. This is the Royal George’s changeover crew, a full-time team devoted to getting sets on and off the George’s stage in time for rehearsals and performances — a very particular need for a repertory theatre. After that afternoon’s matinee of Arms and the Man in the George, this crew will have struck the Arms set and are now putting in the Juno set, including the furniture they’re taking from the rehearsal hall. When the lighting levels session finishes at 6 pm the next day, a new crew of “call workers” will arrive to get the furniture back up to the rehearsal hall for a 7:30 pm evening rehearsal. All technicians at the Shaw are members of the IATSE union, and the apportioning of these jobs happens for house crews (who actually run the shows as opposed to navigating between them) and changeover crews on a seasonal basis, while call work jobs are apportioned weekly.

Bonnie Beecher, lighting designer of Cabaret and Juno this season. Photo: David Cooper.

Bonnie Beecher, lighting designer of Cabaret and Juno this season. Photo: David Cooper.

These are aspects of the behind-the-scenes labour at theatres that most audience members know very little about; I am certainly on a steep learning curve, and thank my colleague Gavin Fearon, who used to work at the Shaw and now works at Brock, for a crash course! The overall scheduling at Shaw is undertaken by a number of departments working together (including production, stage management, and administration), and the level of complexity is boggling. It must be determined, for example, what productions actors can be cross-cast in; which shows stage managers, technicians, and designers might double up on (Teichman and Beecher, for example, both work on Cabaret as well as Juno, which for Teichman means needing to be available for every performance of each production to call the shows, that is, control how the productions play out by reading cues to the technical team over headsets). Add in other commitments such as fittings, training sessions, talkbacks, and education/audience development events, and it follows that there are two full-time roles (the Production Stage Manager and the Production Coordinator) who undertake, amongst their other responsibilities, schedule-keeping and maintenance at the theatre.

Another thing we mere mortals don’t know goes on: the 12-or-so hours that a lighting designer spends with the director, assistants, technicians, and the stage manager going through every planned lighting cue in a production making sure the intensity of light, blend of colours, positioning of the beams, and combination of areas of light in different areas of the stage look good and convey the desired atmosphere and meaning. Maxwell has recommended specifically that I watch part of these sessions; while acknowledging that for someone not directly involved it can be like “watching paint dry”, she rightly intuits that this is a new and interesting vantage onto theatre production for me. The cast is not called for levels work; rather an individual called the “light levels walker” (in this case a teenage guy named Mallick) is instructed to stand or sit in various places so that the designer and director can see how the light looks on a face and body.

There are hundreds of lighting instruments (e.g., lights themselves) hung in the Royal George this season; some of them are set in place (or focused) for the whole season in a plot agreed by the designers of all three shows in the space (Beecher, Louise Guinand and Jason Hand); and each designer has a number of instruments that they can use for their design specifically. Based on discussions with Maxwell about their overall take on the production, Beecher has created a plot and preliminary set of cues. After she and Maxwell take a first look, there are frequently changes, which Beecher calls out over the headset (“170 through 175 at 40…”) and a lighting operator in the booth executes, while the assistant lighting designer updates the documentation. When the cue is set (for now) they confirm the cue number to Teichman, who writes it into the production’s prompt script, which includes lighting, audio, video, scenery, atmospherics, and actors’ cues; this is the production bible which Teichman will use to call the show. The lighting levels will be tweaked on an ongoing basis as the production further moves into the theatre space, actors and all.

Part of the challenge for me throughout the session is straining to even see the lighting changes; because of the nature of the material, the goal here is not for quick, evident shifts of light (as with a musical such as Cabaret) but gradual changes that the audience doesn’t necessarily notice as they are happening. Maxwell advises me to focus on an item on stage (a table, a chair) as the cue happens to see how the light changes on it, which works up to a point, but I can’t help feeling I lack a certain Spidey sense when it comes to observing light (but, having been to see two theatre and dance productions in the meantime, boy do I find myself being much more attentive to how light works in them!) It’s particularly interesting to hear Beecher and Maxwell talk about how they intend colours of light to reflect changes in mood and tone: when the play is in “wacka wacka funny land” — as in Act II when the Boyles are flush, the characters are relatively happy, and there’s singing and joking — there will be yellow tones in the lighting, but as their fortunes fall, the warm tones will strip away to a starker palette dominated by white light.

They’ve worked their way into Act III when the eight-hour session ends, and Maxwell and Beecher seem happily confident that in one more four-hour session the following evening they’ll have time to finish the task and even go back and finesse certain moments. As the crews take over the space, Maxwell, Teichman, and assistant director Alistair Newton head into a 90-minute break before that evening’s rehearsal… and I head home feeling a bit like a slacker. Next week I’ll see a workthrough, which is a technical rehearsal in the theatre in which the cast are integrated with all the production and design elements (save costuming, which is added in later) for the first time. You’ll hear from me again after that!

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The Act 3 roller coaster

It’s been three weeks since I visited the Juno and the Paycock rehearsal room, and in the meantime director Jackie Maxwell and her acting company have blocked the entire show, and are now going back through each act for a second and more detailed pass at the blocking (Brock Drama student Keavy Lynch offers her own perspective on blocking rehearsals at the Shaw here). Maxwell refers to this as “layering” – the first time out, you get the show on its feet so that entrances and exits, movements around the stage and the location of various key exchanges, are known. This second pass allows for a greater focus on characterization, motivation, and relationship: they’re working out why the characters are coming and going, what they want, what they’re feeling about their situations and each other. They’re also working in more detail on complex bits of stage business, which in the third and final act of Juno are plentiful.

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Playwright Sean O’Casey

This act is a doozy: Maxwell rightly calls it a “roller coaster.” The Boyle family’s life well and truly disintegrates, as the bottom falls out financially, Mary’s suitor has disappeared and left her in a particularly vulnerable state, and Johnny’s past catches up with him. But inserted between scenes of mounting woe (“It just gets worse and worse!” Maxwell exclaims at one point) there are some prime comic shenanigans: the tailor Needle Nugent barging into the bedroom to take back the bespoke suit the Captain’s unable to pay for; Joxer nicking a bottle of stout; the neighbor Maisie Madigan arriving in to collect a debt. Navigating those quick shifts is surely very challenging for the actors; and getting the rhythm and tone right is clearly one of the director’s main tasks here.

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Jim Mezon is appearing in The Charity that Began at Home as well as Juno this season.

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Koslo and Campbell had played in a matinee of Cabaret before the evening rehearsal of Juno discussed here

One thing needs to be said about how rehearsal processes work at the Shaw Festival. In most professional mainstream theatres in Canada (and many other Western countries), rehearsals take place in a compact block of time, from 3-5 weeks, with the company working full-time for 5-6 days a week. Because the Shaw is a repertory company, this process is spread out over a series of months and is not full-time, because performers, designers, and stage managers are usually working on more than one show at once. By now, three productions in the repertory have already opened, and many of the performers at this evening rehearsal have performed in the matinees of Cabaret and The Charity that Begins at Home that day. I’m really looking forward, as this process continues, to talking to some of them about working in this system: how do they conserve energy, and what is it like to shift focus so quickly from one theatrical world – and one stage in a production process — to another?

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Peter Hartwell

Before they move the production onto the stage of the Royal George theatre, Juno rehearsals are taking place in one of the Shaw’s rehearsal rooms, with pieces of furniture in place, and doors and walls indicated by tape marks on the floor. Unlike the first read-through, where numerous people from outside the process were present, attendance at this is more limited: Maxwell, assistant director Alistair Newton, three stage managers, designer Peter Hartwell, and only the actors who appear in the scenes being worked on. Music director Paul Sportelli pops in and out but is not called on to do any work this evening. Hartwell is there to provide information about how the set may affect directing and acting choices; for example, he explains that the front door of the Boyles’ house has a translucent panel up top, so that whoever is standing behind the closed door is still somewhat visible.

The rehearsal begins with the moment when, having seen Mary and Juno leave the apartment, Joxer (Benedict Campbell) and Nugent (Lorne Kennedy) sneak in, hoping that no one is at home. In this act Joxer Daly’s true, complicated, colours really come to light. In earlier acts, he’s the Captain’s good buddy, but by aligning with Nugent to get the suit back, he’s now positioning himself against the Captain. Via Nugent in this scene he comes into a crucial piece of information: the inheritance the Boyles believed they’d receive is not going to happen. In front of the audience in real time, Joxer has to figure out what to do with this knowledge, while at the same time continuing to engage with Nugent. After Campbell and Kennedy make a first pass at this exchange, Maxwell gets on her feet to talk with the two actors, audibly enough so that everyone else can hear. They’re working through the power relationship between Nugent and Joxer – does the former need the latter’s permission or some kind of coaxing to actually go for the suit? What is the impetus that finally gets Nugent heading for the bedroom door? And what’s going on for Joxer as he processes the new information about the Boyles’ nonexistent wealth?

Something seems to fall into place when Maxwell encourages Campbell to consider the “relationship between anger and delight” when he hears this news. This, for me at least, offers a new perspective onto what could be going on for Joxer: schaudenfreude. From what we’ve seen of their relationship, the Captain has been the dominant figure. Now, even if there are going to be no more opportunities for sponging (prompting anger), Joxer has something on the Captain, and therefore gains power (prompting delight). But what kind of person would be so uncompassionate as to get pleasure out of the ruination of some of his supposed intimates? A really, really poor person, would seem to be O’Casey’s point: Joxer’s an opportunist, which allows him to survive a situation of profound poverty. It seems to me that in order for the play to work politically we have to be able to place Joxer’s actions in the larger context, and see him as a creature shaped by the socio-economic realities around him. The complexity of the psychology, layered with the stylistic and tonal shifts, feels boggling. And if I feel this way, what must it be like for the performers, and for Maxwell? They approach these questions as works-in-progress, and the way to get to the answers is to keep working, digging, layering. In their next pass at the exchange, taking Maxwell’s note, Campbell interjects a some delight into Joxer’s reaction, a knowing smile starting to light up his slack face, and this seems to help him travel the considerable distance from incredulity to judgment in the short speech when he hears the news of the Boyles’ downfall (from “Ah, I thought there was somethin’ curious about the whole thing…” to “Ah, him that goes a borrowin’ goes a sorrowin’!”)

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Corrine Koslo

As this process is going on – running the bit of the scene, stopping and talking about, running it again – the other performers sit around the periphery of the rehearsal area. Many of them are repeating their lines quietly to themselves, as if almost like mantras, adding an oddly religious feel to the room. When Corrine Koslo enters as Maisie Madigan to confront the Captain, it’s as if she has been slowly winding herself up towards this hilariously physical outburst. Neither she nor any of the actors come across as if they are “marking” their performances – they are fully in character and in the emotional place they need to be in to execute the scene. For Madigan, this means in full Dublin dudgeon as she haughtily demands her money back from the Captain; she then totally pops her cork when she realises he doesn’t have it. Everyone stops to watch – and laugh to the point of weeping – as three veteran comic actors (Koslo, Mezon as the Captain, and Campbell as Joxer) work out this bit of schtick. A little breakthrough happens when Mezon throws his arms open at the end of a line, offering a veritable invitation for tiny Koslo to lunge for his throat. It works brilliantly; the challenge now is to keep it comically fresh throughout the rest of the rehearsal process and long run.

After a break, it’s time for the actors to navigate much grimmer material: Juno (Mary Haney)’s arrival to tell the Captain and Johnny (Charlie Gallant) what’s become of Mary. Again, I’m struck by the level of focus and emotional commitment: Haney, a slender figure in O’Casey-style round spectacles and an improbable gray sweat suit, absolutely commands attention as she comes in the front door and doesn’t speak for at least 30 seconds. Maxwell pitches her conversations with each of the company members differently, and she speaks most intimately and quietly with Haney, taking a moment after the first run of this little scene for a chat that only they can hear.

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Marla McLean

Another amazing moment of performer presence comes when Marla McLean enters as Mary, her eyes brimming, seeming almost to be sleepwalking with grief. She and Andrew Bunker run the very moving scene where Mary’s former suitor Jerry tries to win her back, and there’s an emotional honesty and simplicity to it that Maxwell praises afterwards, offering very little suggestion for change. The rehearsal pushes onwards and gets more populous as four more actors enter as the removal men and the Irregulars. They’re pushing to get through the relatively complicated blocking and props use here when stage manager Allan Teichman quietly but firmly declares “we’re at time”: it’s 10:30 pm, the stated end of rehearsal, and that’s when rehearsal ends, period.

The next test of the material will come when they are able to run through the entire act at one go, seeing how these quick changes in mood and tone flow together (or don’t). In the next couple of weeks, I’ll go along to a run-through rehearsal and report back on how that goes.

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Behind the scenes at Shaw

It’s finally happened: I’ve gone inside.

For the past year or so I’ve been thinking, talking, and teaching a lot about the concept of “embedded” theatre reporting – that is, a scholar, critic, or student writing about a theatrical production from a privileged vantage point close to the creative process. London-based theatre critic Andrew Haydon first re-appropriated the term “embedded” from war reporting to theatre writing in early 2012; New York blogger and arts advocate Andy Horwitz expanded considerably on the concept in October 2012. Theatre writers such as Maddy Costa and Matt Trueman have experimented with its possibilities; students in the Theatre Criticism course I taught at Brock University embedded in seven different productions during the 2013-14 academic year; and we discussed the practice at some length at a theatre criticism colloquium I convened at Brock in February.

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Jackie Maxwell. Photo by David Cooper

Now, I’m trying it on for myself: I’m following the making of the Shaw Festival’s production of Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey, which opens in July and will run through the end of the Shaw’s season in October. Of all the temptations in the Shaw’s ten-show season, Juno made the most sense for my embedding because it’s being directed by the Shaw’s artistic director Jackie Maxwell, who, intrigued by the concept of embedding, participated in our colloquium discussions and was open to me following Juno as a sort of pilot project (to be clear on the terms: I am not being paid for this work, and it’s by mutual agreement that this writing is appearing on my own blog, not on the Shaw Festival’s website). Having worked as a theatre critic in Dublin for ten years, Juno is a play I know well, and I’m particularly curious to see how it’s approached and received in a Canadian context.

More broadly, it is exciting for me, who is used to responding to theatre once it’s “fully cooked” (to use a culinary metaphor favoured by the Québec director Robert Lepage) to have a few peeks into the kitchen. Like others who are drawn to embedding, I want to better understand how productions come together, how choices are made, and what interactions between director and actors (and designers, and stage managers, and technicians…) look like. These blog posts are an opportunity for me to reflect on what I observe, and for others to get a vantage, via my writing, behind the scenes of a large-scale theatre production. It’s also my hope and expectation that being embedded will give me a greater comprehension and appreciation of the work of theatre artists in the future. That’s the wager anyway….

My first encounter with Juno was its first read-through, on April 22, 2014. When I arrived in the Shaw’s Rehearsal Room C, the first surprise was how full the room was: not just with furniture and other set pieces that the company will use as they rehearse, but also with people. It’s a big-cast show – 17 in the ensemble – and thus one that few theatre companies in Canada outside the major reps could take on. Beyond the 25 or so performers, directors, designers, and stage managers sitting around a big square of trestle tables, there was an outer ring of people observing. I recognized the Shaw’s executive director and various heads of departments (education, literary, publicity) and their staffs; Shaw ensemble members who are understudying the show were also present. There were also a number of older people there, reading along in playscripts; I later learn they are volunteer docents who lead tours of the theatre, who get the privilege of attending read-throughs as part of this work (see above re: the allure of the kitchen).

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Jim Mezon, who plays Captain Boyle

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Benedict Campbell, who plays Joxer Daly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First read-throughs have their certain protocols: introductions; the director’s spiel about her overall approach to the play; the read itself; the presentation of the set model and other key design features; and the going-through of Actors’ Equity rules and regs. For theatre professionals, I expect these rituals add to a sense of comfort and recognition – certainly, there is a strong feeling of familiar, joking bonhomie as the members of the Shaw ensemble greeted each other and took their seats. Maxwell underlined in her introductory remarks the centrality of O’Casey’s work to Irish theatre: Juno was first performed at the Abbey (Ireland’s national theatre) in 1924, and O’Casey has since become the theatre’s most-performed playwright. Though they do not share characters, Juno, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) and The Plough and the Stars (1926) are known as O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy. All are set in the Dublin tenements during the 1910s and ‘20s, and cast an unsentimental eye on the effects on the country’s poor of Ireland’s revolution against British rule. Though not written last, Juno falls chronologically latest in the series: it takes place during the 1920s civil war, as the Die-hards, who oppose the treaty that would keep the six counties of Ulster part of the United Kingdom, battle the Free Staters, who support the treaty.

It took Maxwell less than five minutes to outline this context, and she and I discussed later how relatively straightforward this political backdrop is, as compared to that of The Plough, which the Shaw staged in 2003. That play is set in 1915-16 during the Easter Rising, and for those who don’t know the history, it can be challenging to figure out who’s on whose side and why that matters. Juno focuses closely on the domestic: it’s set in the tenement home of the Boyle family, whose patriarch, “Captain” Jack Boyle, is a drunken wastrel who spends most of his time avoiding employment and domestic responsibilities in the company of his even more wastrelly sidekick Joxer Daly. His long-suffering wife Juno is the only one working in the family: son Johnny lost his arm in the War of Independence, and daughter Mary is on strike. Part of the intrigue is exactly how the political context is connected to this domestic situation: it slowly becomes clear that it’s not just because of his injury that Johnny doesn’t want to go outdoors… but I don’t want to say much more here. Writing that, I realize that it may seem a bit ridiculous not to want to “spoil” the plot of a 90-year-old play; but it is also the case that this is will be an unfamiliar story to the vast majority of Shaw viewers, and part of viewers’ pleasure (and the company’s challenge) will be discovering how the larger political context plays out in the story.

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Mary Haney, the Shaw’s Juno

Another surprise, when the read-through actually started: the actors already had quite credible Dublin accents. Not just Irish – Dublin, which involves some distinct vowel sounds (an extended, nasal “aah” in “father”, for example; and an dipthong-y “eeugh” sound for the “u” in Nugent). Mary Haney, who plays Juno, has so embraced the accent that her facial appearance significantly changes when she speaks her lines: this made me wonder if there is such thing as a characteristic Dublin face (which Hogan may also have access to genetically, if her name is an indication of her roots). O’Casey wrote somewhat in dialect and phonetically, as in: “Father Farrell is just afther stoppin’ to tell me to run up and get him to the new job that’s goin’ on in Rathmines…” Andrew Bunker, playing Jerry, nails the rhythm of that line and the particular Dublin pronunciation of “Rat-MOYNES.” How far along he and the rest of the company are with the language is really impressive. Maxwell tells me later that the Shaw makes dialect training available for ensemble members even before rehearsals start. Oh, proper funding for theatre! How rare and wonderful you are.

Another key element of the play is its interspersing of farcical comedy with elements of melodrama and tragedy. O’Casey’s theatre is rooted in popular traditions of burlesque and variety, and nowhere in Juno is this more evident than in the Captain/Joxer double act, for which O’Casey took direct inspiration from music hall. Maxwell cast these roles out of the Shaw’s top drawer of senior actors, and Jim Mezon’s hunger to get stuck into the Captain became apparent when he literally twirled the tips of his handlebar mustache as his first entrance approached. He and Benedict Campbell, who plays Joxer, didn’t sit next to each other – the actress, Jennifer Phipps, who plays Mrs. Tancred, sat between them – and they didn’t much look at each other during the reading. But the comic interplay and rhythmic feeding off of each other was already well in evidence, and Joxer’s repetitions (“that’s a darlin’ song, a daaarlin’ song!”) and the Captain’s equivocation noise (“e-e-e-eh”) already feel like natural speech patterns. There was evident pleasure coming from Mezon and Campbell – and shared by the whole room – in the thrust and parry of their interplay.

Another thing I found surprising (and familiar, in a theatre-scholarly sort of way) was Maxwell and her assistant director Alistair Newton’s close attention to textual detail. After the read-through they went through the script again, pointing out moments where there is discrepancy between different published versions of O’Casey’s text. Most of the changes have to do with the material realities of staging (different references to furniture as it is brought into and out of the Boyles’ apartment, for example); Maxwell highlighted these points as moments where this company might want to experiment with different possibilities. Textual instability seems to be viewed as an opportunity for local interpretation.

When designer Peter Hartwell presented his set model, he and Maxwell talked about how there are elements in the one room where the action takes place that pretty much need to be included in order for the script to make sense – several doorways, including one looking out on a shared stairwell; a window. Maxwell called them the play’s “stations of the cross.” One thing that jumped out at me was the choice to place one of those stations – the family’s stove – against the (imagined) wall facing the audience. Several key passages of action happen with the characters facing the stove, and I recall that both times before I’ve seen this play in production, I’ve been frustrated that the acting energy in these scenes headed sideways rather than out towards the spectators. This placement addresses this challenge, but presents another – if the stove is a literal object (as it appears it will be), how to work sightlines so that it doesn’t block the view of spectators, particularly ones close to the stage? Something I’ll keep an eye on.

Towards the end of the session, music director Paul Sportelli set the agenda for that evening’s rehearsal with a bit of a surprise: the whole company – not just the actors called on to sing them — were going to learn the several songs that are sung and/or referred to in the play. As Sportelli points out, the songs were standards that everyone at that time would have known, and learning them together would help build a sense of community amongst the ensemble. This idea went down well with the group. The dialect coach was also work with the company that evening, though as she pointed out (and I’ve already made clear I agree) “you all already sound fantastic for a first run.” Then Equity business meant it was time for the likes of me to exit the room.

Travel plans meant I wouldn’t get a next look into a Juno rehearsal for three weeks – and by the time of my next visit, the show will be nearly all blocked. I can’t wait to see what it looks and sounds like on its feet.

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