A response to “An open letter to the newer generations of Toronto theatre artists from one of the old farts”
Dear Old Farts,
You are absolutely right: “The issue is far larger than the firing of one AD”.
This is perhaps why you don’t see as many young members of our arts community getting up in arms about the firing of one AD as you might like. It’s not because we’re apathetic, it’s because we’re busy fighting those bigger issues and making art.
We’re opposing our governments at all levels. There are those who wish to corporatize the arts, and those who wish to politicize them, either by cutting funding or by moving resources away from arms-length funding bodies and into community events and festivals where the risk of political or dissenting art is low. And, in some cases, not allowed.
We’re engaging in municipal processes that are supposed to be about creating new culture plans for our city, to determine cultural priorities, how money should be invested, how best to build and maintain a cultural ecology. We wrote about those consultations extensively here on praxistheatre.com. While I tweeted live from many of them, I was surrounded by young, active, vocal members of our community. Though I must say, it is rather dispiriting to realize you’ve been invited to contribute to a document that was written before you arrived.
Throughout those rooms the voices present asked that the city talk about art not just in terms of financial investment and return, but about the less tangible contributions that a healthy cultural community can offer a vibrant city. You’ll not see any of those voices included in the new culture plan. When it became clear that any voices in opposition to “creative class theory” would not be included in the report, I asked that my name be removed from the “Consultation Participant List”. I was not consulted, and nor were many of the people in those rooms.
We’ve been speaking up about our own professional association that was built based on old models of making work that no longer reflect today’s realities. Young artists often find the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association to be one of the biggest roadblocks to the development of their work, another issue we’ve written about extensively. You’ll find no apathy on this topic. Younger artists have been working together for years to bring change to this important but out-dated organization, and that work is hopefully about to pay off, despite the fact that some of the old farts have been vocally opposed to reforms that would empower the younger generation of theatre-makers.
The Toronto Indie Caucus is made up of “emerging” and “submerging” artists alike and populated by some of the most driven and passionate young people in this community, and it continues to grow. The work of these artists has contributed to some highly significant votes for change within the association, the development of an Independent Theatre Review Committee, and a possible new indie agreement on the horizon. Let’s hope these extensive consultations to which we have lent our voices will actually take those voices to heart.
We have also spoken out about Luminato, our most recently created arts festival. It was not created by a collective of artists, but by two Toronto businessmen who used their connections with the government to get millions of dollars in funding to create an arts festival as a way of luring tourist dollars back to the city after the SARS crisis. They wonder why, after 6 years they’re failing to find a dedicated audience, community support or “brand awareness”, though I don’t suppose I need to remind our readership that their most recent season included no Toronto theatre artists in its lineup.
And finally, we’re fighting those very structural models upon which the Factory Theatre, and companies like it, is based. For years, arts organizations have been forced to fit into a certain mold in order to appease the various funding bodies. So we’ve incorporated, we’ve set ourselves up as not-for-profits, we’ve created our boards of directors, and we’ve gone after charitable status. This worked for a number of years while there was enough money to go around, but that’s no longer the case.
So we’re researching, we’re investigating best practices in other cities, and some of us are working with Arts Action Research in a program called Theatres Leading Change, which is all about discovering new models that are best for the work that we create, and the way we go about creating it.
When we’re asked to consult, we show up. When there are debates and votes happening at City Hall, we’re there too. When Equity tries to bully us, we get together and push for reforms. When our institutional leadership fails us, we speak out. Also, when elections happen, many of us work our arses off canvassing, letter writing, phone calling, and video-making.
This is not apathy, but a quiet community of passionate and dedicated artists working away at changing what no longer works. I am not silent, I sit on no fence, and I am not complicit. I’m just offering my voice to a different fight.
In “The Empty Spaces, Or, How Theater Failed America”, Mike Daisey had this to say:
“I’ve gone drinking with the artistic directors of the biggest theaters in the country and listened to them explain that they know the system is broken and they feel trapped within it, beholden to board members they’ve made devil’s deals with, shackled to the ship as it goes down. I’ve heard their laughter, heard them call each other dinosaurs, heard them give thanks that they’ll be retired in 10 years.”
So yes, you’re right, this issue is larger than one AD, and those bigger issues are the ones we’re trying to tackle.
Yours in action,
by Mitchell Cushman
In his best-selling biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson details at length the Apple founder’s infamous reality distortion field—his ability to “bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand”. Isaacson recounts how Jobs used this knack for re-purposing the truth in order to dream up seemingly impossible products, but also as a way of restructuring past experiences in a way that best suited whatever current narrative he was in the process of spinning. In this way as in others, Steve Jobs was a storyteller—a practitioner of theatre. And over the past two weeks, we have received a powerful reminder that monologuist Mike Daisey, creator of the play The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, is as well.
As new evidence has shown, Daisey has been employing his own reality distortion field, and has bent many a fact to fit his purpose. (I won’t list the embellishments here, but they have been everywhere in the news; for those interested, I would highly recommend listening to the March 16 episode of This American Life, “Retraction”). For Daisey, the purpose at hand has been inspiring North Americans into demanding better labour conditions at the Chinese factories that manufacture our various electronics. And to this end, Daisey has achieved a real measure of success. The New York Times and many other major news organizations have taken up the fight and Apple’s Foxconn factory has become a household name. In response to these pressures Apple and Foxconn announced this past week, in a landmark admission of corporate culpability, that they will be implementing a massive overhaul of their labour practices, hiring more workers, eliminating illegal overtime and substantially improving the safety protocols in the factory. A direct line can be drawn between the growing profile of Daisey’s play, and the attention surrounding its cause.
Daisey’s ill-advised foray into journalistic territory—adapting his play for This American Life, appearing on various news outlets—has clouded the fact that he began by creating Agony as a piece of theatre, an art form in which invention is not only permissible, but kind of the point. When we attend a play, we are willingly offering ourselves up to be taken in, to suspend our disbelief, in order that we might connect to some underlying truth. This is exactly what Agony has done for its audiences. As host Ira Glass pinpointed during Daisey’s first appearance on This American Life a few months back, Daisey has done something “really kind amazing”, namely make people newly question an unjust system which on some level most of us have come to accept. “Which,” as Glass maintains “is really quite a trick, you really have to know how to tell a story to be able to pull something like that off.”
Knowing how to tell a story means something very different in the theatre than it does in journalism. Daisey has publicly regretted and apologized for his conflation of the two, and any damage that this may have caused, either to the cause or to the journalistic organizations whom he let take his words as fact. The uncomfortable question to consider is, had Daisey not included these fabrications, had his show just rested on the staggering statistics documenting the inhuman working conditions, without any of the what we now know to be the theatricalized moments, without the disfigured line worker apocryphally calling Daisey’s iPad “magic” or without the imagined gun-toting factory guards, would the same call to action have resulted? Would Apple and Foxconn have been driven to publicly vow to do better? Or would we all simply have tuned out these numbers, and relegated them to the statistical scrapheap in the back of our minds? Is this an instance where theatrical storytelling, more so than journalistic reporting, has been necessary in order to prompt change?
We’re interested in examining these questions, and so we will be continuing forward with our upcoming production of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, adapting the show to engage with this new level of narrative complication. We hope that you will come see our show in May, and sift through these many layers of distorted reality, even as, like with any worthwhile piece of theatre, we attempt to catch you up in them.
Outside the March, in association with Theatre Passe Muraille, presents:
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Adapted from the monologue by Mike Daisey
Starring David Ferry / Directed by Mitchell Cushman
Coming to Toronto May 2012, in a secret location near you
Ticket information to be released in early April.
Advanced ticket requests can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Daisey’s visit to Canada was overshadowed by that of another charismatic Yankee who rose to success through a combination of excellent public speaking skills, fully harnessing the potential of the internet, and the notion that a broken system requires change. So it goes.
The basic premise of Daisey’s argument is thus: A system that encourages artists to incur $100,000 + debt while the average wage of graduates hovers somewhere below the poverty line, is a corrupt one that will eventually collapse under the weight of its inability to provide a return for its investors.
This scheme implicates academia, a large swath of artistic institutions, and of course American Theatre Magazine
, whom in a matter of months it seems Daisey has singlehandedly de-legitimized as voice genuinely representing the interest of American artists through a critique of its role promoting and benefiting from deeply flawed institutional and educational models.
If it costs roughly $40,000 a year to go to New York University, and $4000 to go to York University, is NYU ten times “better” than York? What added value does your extra $36,000 a year buy you?
Although there are a number of excellent undergraduate or certificate conservatory programs, there are actually very few MFA theatre programs in Canada period. What’s up with that? Are MFAs necessary at all – or do we not have enough? Two thirds of the cast of our recent production of Stranger
(and the producer) trained in the US after completing an undergrad degree in Canada…
American monologuist and regional theatre reform advocate Mike Daisey has thrown down a blistering response to Theatre Communications Group executive director Teresa Eyring’s How Theatre Saved America, which was published in the current issue of American Theatre.
Eyring argues that the current repertory model in the U.S. is in fine working order:
“Many actors – instead of performing in several shows with a single theatre company in the same season – construct year-round employment by performing in different theatres throughout the year.”
“If actors manage to create community and continuity IN SPITE OF the institutions, no credit for that reflects back on theaters that refuse to support artists in a meaningful fashion: with staff positions, with health insurance, with a modicum of respect and dignity earned by working craftsman anywhere. Dribs and drabs of roles given when artists can jump for them are no substitute for real institutional support, and to claim otherwise is absurd.”
Daisey ends with a challenge to the magazine to devote an entire issue to the concerns raised in his hit monologue, How Theatre Failed America, opening its pages to “informed bloggers and theatrical luminaries.”
University of North Carolina drama professor and oft-quoted theatre blogger Scott Walters agrees enthusiastically with the suggestion, here.
What do you think? Are theatre’s regional institutions looking out for the artists? Or are they simply working to preserve their own outdated apparatus?