THE TROUBLE WITH NORMAL: Do We Really Want to Return to Theatre’s Status Quo?

The following article appeared in Critically Speaking (Winter/ 2021), the newsletter of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association.

Normalton. Is it a place where any of us would want to live?

I was moved recently by an op-ed piece that appeared in the Toronto Star, written by author and poet Dionne Brand, who questioned the concept of returning to things the way they were when the pandemic finally begins to recede. In it she said: 

“Those in power keep invoking ‘the normal’ as in ‘when we get back to normal.’ I’ve developed an aversion to that word normal. Of course, I understand the more benign meanings of normal; having dinner with friends, going to the movies, going back to work (not so benign). However, I have never used it with any confidence in the first place; now, I find it noxious. The repetition of ‘when things return to normal’ as if that normal was not in contention. Was the violence against women normal? Was the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism normal? Was white supremacy normal? Was the homelessness growing on the streets normal? Were homophobia and transphobia normal? Were pervasive surveillance and policing of Black and Indigenous and people of colour normal? Yes, I suppose all of that was normal. But I and many other people hate that normal. Who would one have to be to sit in that normal restfully, to mourn it, or to desire its continuance?”

Theatre critics throughout the world today are in a unique position with regard to our working environment. Unlike the television and film industry, which has been able to limp along somewhat painfully while abiding by new health and safety protocols put into place because ofthe pandemic, our workplace has been almost completely shut down. In this regard we have always been the poorer sister of the three, so our pain is keenly felt.

It is a tragedy of epic proportions, but it might also afford opportunities to hit the reset button where it is necessary and ask ourselves the same question that Brand is posing; was the old “normal” really that great? Perhaps we should start thinking about the possibility of change on a wider scale – rebooting and beginning fresh. This would, of course, require re-examining beliefs, conventions and notions that have become the routine over the years and set the artistic standards that we currently hold dear. Routinism ad nauseam one might say. If only it was as easy as hitting delete. Let’s begin with the artists who, so far, have not been well-served by the prevailing calculus.

Actors on (Not) Acting

Of all the performing artists, the actors who work primarily in theatre are under-appreciated an under-rewarded for their service. As everyone knows, the advertising industry uses their skills to great effect. Actors sell us hamburgers, life and accident insurance, financial services, coffee, automobiles, make-up, skin creams, toothpaste and other toiletries including sanitary products. They create voice-overs for the radio that we wake up to and suggest various sleeping aids for us to use at bedtime. This retail-salesperson work many times affords actors the opportunity to do what they were trained to do – act. But it also leads to a mindset whereby that nationally syndicated commercial I am auditioning for tomorrow can become more important and promising to my career in an economic sense than is winning a role at a major regional theatre company. 

Today, the actor’s trade is captured in that great throw net of job classifications – the independent contractor. Your average rank-and-file actor can only aspire to someday enjoy the same job security, salary level and benefits as the average police officer, firefighter, schoolteacher or civil servant.

The pandemic has laid bare the tectonics of the actor’s profession. The actors were the first to be let go and will be the last to get called back to the workplace. In the meantime, there is dithering from government bureaucrats around what kind of a pittance in government bailout funds might assist and sustain them (“Now let’s see, does an actor-independent contractor qualify for this program or that program?”) while the actors themselves seek out other part-time employment wherever they can find it. Some will leave their chosen profession never to return.

There is some good news. The Canadian Actors’ Equity Association (CAEA) and the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT) have recently ratified a new contract (2021-2024) and in it is included much new language that is applied to wider inclusivity frameworks for auditions, “as cast” provisions (now thankfully gone entirely), and the need for theatres to up their ante in areas such as equity and diversity in staffing at all levels, as well as anti-harassment, anti-racist and anti-oppressive policy language that will now be enshrined in  the agreement. All of this is consistent with many other organizations (including the CTCA) who are attempting to be responsive in their mandates and make it clear what they expect of their members. This is a discussion that will be ongoing and not without some creative tensions here and there. But it is a necessary debate, nonetheless.

UPDATE: In addition, after extensive lobbying from various unions and associations within the performing arts community, the Ministry of Canadian Heritage has recently announced an additional $181.5 million to stimulate job creation in the arts community. Of that amount, $116.5 million will be distributed by the Canada Council by way of its new Digital Now initiative.  Applications for funding may come from non-incorporated arts collectives as well as established companies currently receiving funding from the CC with deadlines for submissions set at March 31st and April 30th.

Respect for Acting?

A note here on the actor’s training at the post-secondary level. Just recently, I came across this piece entitled “I Am So Tired of Old Toxic Theatre Programs,” being circulated widely on the internet, that confirmed my suspicions, so I’ve included it here

Many university theatre departments still operate on a conservatory-style system that is very competitive and keeps those who choose an acting major on tenterhooks throughout their studies. A student should only have to audition once for a university drama department and that should be it. The idea that, at the end of each year, the instructors will meet and cut the class down in size because they believe some students just don’t deserve to be advanced to second, third or fourth year, is outmoded and completely out of touch with progressive education.

Students in whatever major are a hard-working lot who should progress through their major courses by way of the grades they receive. In drama, an acting student should audition for and participate in as many productions as possible. Their time at university should be intense, hopefully rewarding and not demeaning. The hard-knock life of an actor in the free-market economy after graduation, or “the blood sport of theatre,” as actor R.H. Thomson once referred to the profession, will separate those who can make a success of it and those who cannot. And many times, those who you might least have expected to cobble out a career, do so quite admirably. A cohort of theatre instructors in a drama department working with all kinds of subjective, prejudiced and culturally biased criteria that determines “merit and talent” should not be the final arbiter here.

The Empty Spaces

If your theatre or arts organization (including arts advocacy groups) has been receiving core funding from the arts councils over the years, then you might be in luck regarding a bump-up in your funding because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Canada Council has awarded a 25-per-cent increase in funding to all their clients this year. For many companies, however, it will only mean that they can plug up a revenue hole due to no box-office sales, maintain basic infrastructure needs, keep the heat on in the winter so the pipes don’t freeze, and continue to pay upper management who now have “property manager” added on to their job descriptions.

Unfortunately, if your organization does not yet receive core funding from the arts councils and is still working in the “project grant” category – and many BIPOC-centred organizations are still in this category, or are only lately out of it – then you are working at a disadvantage. For example, in 2019, a symposium entitled Cripping the Arts was held at Harbourfront Centre. The symposium featured presentations, exhibitions, workshops and performances focussing on best practices in accessibility, leadership and representation as well as intersections between indigeneity, race and disability. Would Cripping the Arts receive any of this 25-per-cent top-up? 

There had been much talk in the city of Toronto even before the pandemic about what to do with the civic performance spaces such as the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts and the Meridian Arts Centre that have not been performing well. The latter has sadly sat dark and shuttered much of the time, even after an expensive renovation that carved up the spaces to make them more hospitable to small and medium-sized productions.

Meanwhile, many smaller companies are working out of storefronts and church basements. Why such a wide disconnect? Unless you aspire to be a character in a 19th-century opera, there is nothing at all romantic about living in a cold garret and performing on the street.

The Meridian Centre in North York and the St. Lawrence Centre on Front Street have both been problematic for some time, not so much because of the spaces themselves but because of the programming (or lack of it) that has gone into these venues. Visit their respective websites today (now administered by TO Live) and all you see is “For Rent” signs. This is not just because of the pandemic, it has been this way for some time now.

There they sit, as looming eyesores within a major urban centre, while deserving groups perform in storefronts because they are cheaper rentals. Canadian Stage seems to have given up entirely on the St. Lawrence Centre’s Bluma Appel Theatre, once the company’s mainstage, and de-camped to its 26 Berkeley Street digs.

And let us not forget the commercial sector when it comes to major performing venues in Canada. Why is it that commercial film and television companies (many of them originating outside Canada) get significant tax-credit breaks, whereas commercial Canadian theatre producers do not? It would help to create more productions along with more jobs if they did. And it would also help the not-for profit sector. Currently, a commercial producer can rent a non-profit theatre space and receive the incentives mentioned above whereas the actual theatre company – because of its non-profit charitable status – cannot!

Playwrights and Plays Wronged

Can you really make a good play with three weeks’ rehearsal time? I think you can make an average mediocre play in three weeks, but I’m doubtful that you can make a great play in that amount of time, which is the standard rehearsal time for many small to mid-sized companies. Or at least it used to be. Shrinking rehearsal length continues to erode production values and today directors might find themselves lucky to have a full three-week rehearsal period that does not include tech rehearsal and dress rehearsal.

Without meaning to be prescriptive with regard to time, performance venue or country of origin, common working norms indicate that when a new creative team starts work on a new play bringing together playwright, director, actors, set designer, costume designer, etc, who in many cases have not worked together as an ensemble previously, that a bare minimum standard for best practice would be a six week rehearsal period (not including tech and dress rehearsal). This would  raise production values considerably in a “new normal,” post-pandemic theatre working environment. Although there would certainly be significant budetary ramifications involved in implementing this new standard, especially for small to mid-size theatres in Canada, it would be appropriate for arts councils and other funding agencies (both public and private) to take note that the change is long overdue in this pre-production phase of the creative process.

Theatre going over the past few decades has demonstrated that playwrights seldom get the opportunity to work on a large canvas and produce a script that has more than four or five characters, so they restrict themselves right from the git-go, opting for a concept and story line that will accommodate only a few actors. This is just where we are now.

Let us imagine that one of our most notable playwrights wants to offer a new work to a mid-size theatre. The work has built-in challenges; a large cast of 25, period costumes and, even though it is a drama, the need for musical underscoring, which will require three musicians for each performance. Everyone is excited about the play and the theatre wants to do it, but it would take every ounce of their resources to mount it in the coming season.

Would the funding agencies even understand an application from Theatre X that is projecting only one production in the coming season when normally they mount a subscription season that includes five or six plays? Would the subscribers understand the enormity of the undertaking for the company and continue to buy tickets in advance? And oh, by the way, the rehearsal period would have to be extended to three months in order to do the work any justice at all. Regrettably, we have gotten so far away from the ability to think bigger, that we have no template to make it happen. For playwrights today the overworked phrase “less is more” is not true. Less is always less.

Of course not every new play is a great play. But the playwright has taken the time (often without commisson or reimbursement of any kind) to fashion an idea into a fully fleshed out dramatic work that has been deemed worthy of production by a theatre. This process may have taken months or even years in some cases to complete. Now the work is finished and headed for an opening night. Why would we hobble this creative process with a flimsy, tight rehearsal schedule that can never do the work or the playwright’s labors justice? That is the point here.

Alternative outlets for production are also shrinking. The CBC Radio drama department is a shadow of its former self. Although their website enthusiastically encourages independent producers (apparently there is no in-house production anymore) to make their submissions, and notes that “we read over 1,000 scripts a year,” good luck in getting one produced!

Towards a Rich Theatre

We really need to enrich the entire ecosystem of our theatre community. In 1962, the province of Ontario established the Ontario Arts Council. The theatre section of the OAC has had only six theatre officers from the inception of the arts council to the present. Today, I marvel at the fact that arts administrators and their staffs, over the long arc of their careers, enjoy a good salary, job security and, at the end of the day, can even boast a pension for a lifetime of service to the arts.

Would it were also true for the artists that they administer!

Our governing structures also need to be enriched by boards of directors that more accurately reflect the arts community as a whole. Arts consultants hired by boards of directors to tell them how to operate their theatres used to have a stock mantra when instructing companies on the type of individuals they should recruit to serve on their board. “The three Gs” is the term they gave to it. You need to have people from the professional classes who can Give (money), Get (other people’s money), or if they do not, Get Off your board! I would add a fourth G here and call it “the pillar of white supremacy G:” Get More wealthy high-profile white professionals on your board to oversee and implement the first three Gs.

This is what has passed for wisdom in the arts community for some time now and is reflected in many board-member compositions, from major regional theatres to small and mid-size non-profits in the arts. It really must stop. To quote Fran Lebowitz: “You know I go to a lot of cocktail parties. Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘Pssst, see that one over there? Made a lot of money in poetry!’”

Boards of directors are completely out of joint and need to be re-structured from top to bottom. Boards exercise power in the workplace and currently people from the business class take up far too much oxygen in the room. CEOs, lawyers, accountants, banking and brokerage executives, HR specialists – if you’ve got an MBA and have a passing interest in the arts, you’re in! Please join our board! Meanwhile, the younger generation of artists, who are increasingly running these theatres, are more about dismantling the hierarchies of capital rather than replicating them or building new ones.

Our artistic directors should be choosing people to serve on their boards who reflect their communities and the life of the cities and towns in which they live. Some ADs no longer even use the title anymore because they have no interest in playing king-of-the-castle. They choose to think of themselves more as “curators” working in small groups, rather than as the individual artistic head of a theatre company.

Theatre boards today should include actors, directors and musicians; playwrights, set designers, choreographers and stage managers as well as people from the community at large. Philip Akin’s recent appointment to the Shaw Festival’s board is a small but positive step in the right direction with regard to board composition.

I believe strongly in a mixed economy and want to see business people continuing to sit on boards, but only in a minority position. Let the banking executive sit next to the person who runs the local daycare centre on one side and the coordinator of the town’s food bank on the other. If there is a challenge to this line of reasoning, I would suggest that workers on the not-for-profit side of the ledger are just as careful and scrupulous about the stewarding of public funds as are those who put their faith every day in the international stock exchange and the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Sponsorships and donations from the corporate sector go disproportionately to the larger regional theatres and performing arts organizations because they give a higher profile to the donor. A prominent member of the board of the Canadian Opera Company once told me, only half-jokingly, that he expected one day to read in the program that “the intermission for Carmen today is being sponsored by the Bank of So and So!” And when I hear from governments over the years that smaller organizations should look to the private sector for more funding and want to see that reflected on their grant applications, I shake my head. It is a chase after fool’s gold that will waste an inordinate amount of your time and only yield a slight return.

Bound for Broadway or Bound to Broadway?

There was a time when the local commercial producer might want to advertise the fact that a play or musical being listed for the coming season was a hit in London’s West End or a smash on Broadway. In the early days of our theatre, to be able to advertise “the original cast” or original leading man or woman would be a selling point. “Only engagement in Canada” was also persuasive.

Today, it has turned around. We see independent producers in the commercial as well as the not-for-profit arena developing projects in Canada with Broadway as the ultimate goal. Advertising the opportunity to “see the show before it opens on Broadway” is growing more common. Whether or not the play really does open on Broadway is beside the point. The point of sale for ticket buyers domestically is the point. Whatever gets them to the box office.

Of course, we are all delighted to see a Canadian theatrical success also succeed abroad, but that should not be the driving motivational goal to produce the show. The pandemic has forced our theatres to carefully reconsider their seasons with a whole new mindset in regard to values.

While re-building relationships and coaxing subscribers back to their theatres, the lure of Broadway should be the furthest thing from their minds.

As Nina Simone wrote: “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life…”

And it’s a new generation of theatre leadership that is coming into its own, with encouraging signs of BIPOC representation and more women playing leading roles. Courage, knowledge and love for their craft will compel these new leaders to look at the world through a wider aperture. Although sidelined for now because of circumstances they did not create, they are heartfelt organizers who know their craft well.

They also know something about the meaning of discipline. They have come of age when wars of aggression abroad and oppressive policing practices at home have been the lived reality of the streets where they grew up. They understand that the daily micro- and macro-aggressions of these oppressions call for discipline and careful planning on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully, they now will take the various disciplines of their art form and turn them toward the creation of new life and a better world.

This might be the beginning of the “new normal” that Dionne Brand was imagining. Because what is art, if not a work of the imagination? Why live in the old world when we could be creating a new one? Otro teatro es possible!

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