Writing Plays and Ruffling Feathers

Sky GilbertPlaywright Sky Gilbert

Is the reluctance to produce challenging work leading to a crisis in Canadian theatre?  Sky Gilbert believes so.  In this essay, drawing from his own experiences and observations, Sky examines the threat to theatrical vitality that’s created when Artistic Directors refuse to present plays that explore controversial territory.

I’ve often written against Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Rent.  “What have you got against megamusicals?” people always ask. Hey I’m as much of an entertainment junkie as anyone (these days, my favorite TV program is Flowers Uncut!) but that it seemed to me the Phantom was creating a whole new generation who would not understand that theatre isn’t defined by special effects – helicopters or chandeliers falling on their heads. Well, I think I can safely say that the philistines have won; the megamusical has vanquished Canadian theatre. We are now reaping the rewards of generations of schoolchildren being taken to see Phantom and Miss Saigon instead of Passe Muraille’s Farm Show. Torontonians don’t know what real theatre is. And when they do, they don’t want to see it.

Case in point, the November 2009 two week run of August, Osage County at the Canon Theatre, produced by Mirvish Productions. In the June 18, 2008 issue of the Toronto Star, Martin Knelman wrote about the Mirvish struggle with making the Pulitzer Prize Award-winning play a part of it’s 2009-10 season.  The problem for producer David Mirvish was the language. According to Knelman, subscribers would accept the F-word in plays,  “but they won't tolerate the C-word, which also figures prominently in Osage.” You may have noticed that August, Osage County played recently for only two weeks in Toronto, was not part of Mirvish’s subscription season, and Mirvish was giving away tickets at $25.

What is going on here? It’s called the dumbing down of theatre, and commercial theatre in Toronto is very much responsible. Toronto was arguably the birthplace of a Canadian ‘legitimate’ theatre. We who did our best work in the 70’s and 80’s, were proud to be part of collectives, director-centred work, text-based plays (and even some musicals) that demanded a thinking, literate, issue-conscious audience who wished to be fundamentally challenged. Those days are over, and I think much of the fault lies with increasingly incompetent artistic directors – who typically are often called ‘artistic producer’ these days.

I can give you a recent example from my own life. Six years ago I moved to Hamilton, Ontario. Late in 2008 Ron Ulrich (the new artistic director of Theatre Aquarius) proposed I write a play as a rental for my small theatre company. In February 2009 an article in the local newspaper about the abuse of a young Hamilton man caught my eye, and I wrote a play called Why We Tortured Him inspired by (but not based on) the case. I sent off my idea for the play to Ron and he immediately said yes. Jump to late July 2009 when a columnist for the Hamilton Spectator, Susan Clairmont, wrote a column – without having read my play and without talking to me – suggesting that my play might prejudice the jury of a future trial, and that I was victimizing the victim. In the headline Hamilton’s Police Superintendent denounced me. Ron asked me to meet with him and it was incredibly traumatic for me. He said he thought my play was exploitative and that he had received pressure from his board to get my play out of his theatre and that certain members of his staff did not want to work on my play.

Ultimately, I withdrew the play from the Theatre Aquarius lineup. It went on to have an enormously successful run elsewhere in Hamilton. But I think I was very badly treated by Ron Ulrich. Though the theatre had a copy of my play, he did not read it until the article appeared in the Hamilton Spectator. It was clear to me that Ron had never really been interested in my play or my vision as a playwright, he had merely taken the opportunity to add a ‘controversial’ playwright to his lineup only to cancel it as soon as there became any signal that it might cause actual controversy. This is much like Marty Bragg who alternatively scheduled, then cancelled, My Name is Rachel Corrie for his 2007- 2008 season at The Canadian Stage Company. As reported by Knelman in the Star in December 2006 Bragg was first impressed with the play, but after seeing it on stage in New York Bragg said “The truth is it just didn’t seem as powerful on stage as it did on the page – and the audience wasn’t buying it." Bragg, like Ulrich, was not concerned about the ideas in the play or the quality of the writing, he did not lead his audience but instead followed in fear, acquiescing to the possible disapproval of even the most hysterical, illiterate subscriber. I call this the “Used Car Salesman” school of artistic directorship, and I am afraid it is going to kill the Canadian theatre that we nurtured for the last thirty years. As Stratford puts the plays of the bard himself on the backburner and heavily promotes American musicals, as Soulpepper continues under its mandate to do non-Canadian works ‘peppered’ with a few old Canadian chestnuts, we are watching Canadian plays die.

What to do about it? Support theatres programming Canadian plays that contain words, ideas, music and/or images that challenge audiences. And try and remember what a thoughtful, visionary artistic director can do.

– Sky Gilbert