How do you solve a problem like Kevin Spacey?

I’ve been watching the Weinstein shit-show from the sidelines with the same mix of excitement and horror as the next woman. I’ve not really known what to say; the constant stream of revelations represent, for me, not the watershed of the moment (although it is – knock wood – very much a watershed), but the depth and breadth of the problem we all knew was about but couldn’t constellate fully until now.

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I am very, very lucky: I have no instances of sexual abuse in my past. But let me tell you, I’ve been both gobsmacked and completely unsurprised at the morning’s (every morning’s) headlines.

Because, like every human female, I have a lot of first-hand experience of how patriarchy grants men the impression that they are entitled to take whatever they want, while it grants women – as well as non-normative, queer, and non-cis-gendered others – the keen sense that they should watch their backs.

Let me stress here that this is no one person’s fault – although being a fecking bastard is ABSOLUTELY the fault of the arseholic guys being written up every day in the dailies.

Nope, this is not a post about ass-hatted individual actions.

This is a post about a system. And it’s a post about the theatre.

Aside from a complicated (and contradictory) mix of horror and relief, the number one thing I feel about this particular moment in history is this:

Thank god I am not teaching right now, and don’t have to talk about this with my students.

Don’t get me wrong: I secretly love nothing more than throwing the syllabus away on a news-damp morning and chatting the real stuff out with the gang in the room. But this occasion feels really heavy, really loaded. I can imagine some very tense conversations, some really challenging mediating. I can imagine the emotional toll.

But as I’ve been wading through all of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I might say (maybe, next term, will have every opportunity to say) in the classroom about the issues raised by this extraordinary moment. And, thankfully, I’ve been granted a gift by two remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past few weeks in Toronto – both of which take up, at depth, the issues behind the issues we’ve been reading about in the headlines.

This is a post about them – and about the power of live theatre to communicate aspects of Weinstein-gate that the print and online media can barely touch.

Asking For It (created by millennial Ellie Moon and produced by Nightwood Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest in October) is “documentary” theatre that begins with the Jian Ghomeshi revelations and goes on to explore Moon’s and her peers’ experiences with the challenges of consent. Moon interviewed scores of people (mostly known, some family, lots of friends) for the show, and their stories make up the content, voiced by four actors. In the first two thirds of the piece, performers Christine Horne, Steven McCarthy, Moon, and Jaa Smith-Johnson sit at a square table speaking the interview transcripts from binders into microphones, capturing the vocal intonation and gestures of the words’ owners. In the second half, they act out a handful of telling encounters Moon had during the interview process.

The show begins with Ellie (the “character” – the limits of autobiography aren’t totally transparent here) saying she wanted to know more, in the wake of Ghomeshi, about how consent works in practice: how we navigate it and how we all fall down around it. The show ends with her revealing that what she really wanted to figure out is why she seems to have a lot of rough sexual encounters, perhaps even want them, and what that says about her as a sexual agent, a feminist, and a human being.

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Daughter is a bouffant show (in other words: expert clowning) that masquerades as stand-up comedy; the theme is, “wow, it’s so hard, man, to raise a little girl today!” Performer Adam Lazarus (who is the show’s co-creator, along with Jiv Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, as well as director Ann-Marie Kerr) comes out as “Adam” (the character), all proud dad, wearing his 6-year-old’s butterfly wings and dancing to her playlist.

We love him more or less instantly, and we’re with him – until we can’t be with him anymore. By the end he has revealed himself to be a total jackass who wishes women would just go back to being simpler, the “tits” of his porn collection instead of the “cunts” of the real world. And though he admits to loving his daughter insanely, he also admits to thinking life would be simpler without her.

Toxic masculinity has by this point eaten the show, eaten him – and fucked his audience up completely.

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These two pieces share as much in common as they don’t. Both, however, take issue with a culture that has created a pair of poisoned structures around sex and gender, and is now having to wrestle with their awkward, systemic dismantling.

For Moon, the problem of consent is BOTH that no means no, and that’s that, AND that consent is way, way pricklier and more confusing in practice than one endgame phrase conveys, for most well-intentioned humans, most of the time. For Lazarus, the problem is that love for his wife and daughter drives his character, but the tools he uses to shape his actions toward them were forged in a perilous melange of patriarchy-as-normal and extraordinary access to violent online pornography. He is also – as my colleague Karen Fricker pointed out to me over drinks the other day – apparently without family, beyond the women he perceives himself as responsible towards, and therefore without any (at least somewhat) objective mentorship and support as he flails into chaos.

One of the things that struck me right away about both of these shows was the way they were set up, spatially. (I’m thinking a tonne about space right now, because I’m deep into writing a book for students about theories of space, place, and meaning at the theatre in the twentieth century.)

When I entered the stage area of Asking For It, immediately I felt like a citizen, less like an observer. The space at Streetcar was configured as though for a debate, with banks of audience members facing each other, and more around the sides of the playing space. When the actors entered, they did so from our world: they came into the auditorium as the doors shut, and entered from the side of one of the rakes.

The message? We are all together in what is going to be a discussion, a series of provocations for us all to reckon with in a shared way.

Daughter was configured differently – though with equal critical aplomb. I entered a normal auditorium rake of seating, facing the stage. Shortly Adam appeared on that stage, dancing and flitting in the decorative wings. He was disarming, but also very clearly the (only) performer we were meant to watch. The configuration screamed: “stand-up comic! Also good dad!”

I admit I found Adam quite funny at first, but something about the character bothered me almost from the start. I felt like he had a gift for making everything – his daughter’s musical tastes; his wife’s pregnancy and difficult labour – completely about him. I remember thinking to myself, as he acted out (to hilarious and also astonished effect) his wife’s incredibly painful labour with their little girl: “does this guy really think it’s ok to make his loved one’s physical trauma about him?”

Turns out that question was, actually, the whole point.

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With Asking For It, my experience was different – more cozy, and more personal. (I attribute this to Ellie’s femininity, as well as to some other experiences we shared, though we do not know each other. Similarity breeds patriotism – it really does.) Still, I found remarkable the show’s ability simultaneously to disarm me, and to put pressure on questions of extraordinary significance for me.

A case in point arrives in the second part of the show, when Moon and Horne re-create a conversation on a bus between Ellie and a friend with whom she’s had a boozy dinner, as part of the interview project. The friend notes that Ellie needs to step outside her comfort zone and interview strangers if her project is to have any significance. Push comes to shove, and Ellie approaches a man at the other end of the bus, brandishing her iPhone. She says something like: hey, hi, sorry to bother you. I’m doing interviews about peoples’ experiences of consent. Could I ask you some questions about how you experience consent, and navigate its challenges?

The guy is not interested. Nor is he sympathetic. He takes a totally understandable, very frustrated, position. He says something like: if I had approached YOU on this bus, what would you have thought? You admit you’re a bit tipsy, and you’re asking me about consent, asking me to talk into your phone, for some “project”; how would you feel in my position?

God, do we feel for this guy.

Until Ellie says, bluntly but quietly:

But: I ASKED you.

Adam means the very best – but his experience of love, care, and sex was forged in the crucible of brutal online rape culture. He’s been taught male entitlement in the womb, and the internet has reinforced his genital privilege.

He thinks EVERYTHING is about him. When it’s not, he freaks out – he actually does not know what to do.

So he hits people – including his friends, and his daughter.

Ellie wants answers: why is this CBC douchebag’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour getting to me so much? What’s consent, and what’s crossing the line? Why do I sometimes want to cross the line myself?

Can I be a feminist and cross the line?

In the process, she meets a not insignificant number of people who think she’s being kind of a feminazi, or who think they are feminist allies, except they actually really aren’t.

They want stuff, and they’ve been taught to take stuff, and even though they want to be the most stand-up men imaginable, that training of wanting and taking stuff is deep, and it’s engrained.

I’ve thought about both of these two remarkable productions an awful lot in the last four weeks. It’s not lost on me that Moon’s piece is comprised of interview material – other peoples’ voices, however mediated by her expert dramaturgy – while Lazarus and his co-creators have deliberately built a show that demonstrates how powerful, seductive, and ultimately toxic a single, virtuosic, male voice can be, when offered as funny and chummy and bro-ey.

Until it makes you kind of literally feel sick. (I literally felt sick, by the end of Daughter.)

Toxic masculinity is a formation driven by parallel but totally contradictory assumptions: that men should be upstanding, good guys with a fair amount of feminist sensibility, but that they continue to deserve to be number one in the equation in all circumstances – because that’s what patriarchy teaches straight cis-men, full stop, OR ELSE. The end result of this messed up formula is easy to guess.

Moon’s character isn’t without selfishness, without problems. But the show constructed around her is polyvocal, and works actively to find others’ voices, to honour them, and to discover her own problems and challenges through the revelations they provide.

Daughter avoids polyvocality – deliberately – because Adam isn’t capable of admitting others into his worldview in a real and meaningful way.

Dismantling this logic – the logic of toxic masculinity – is the work ahead, or else. The point of both of these productions is that patriarchs aren’t always easily visible, but that they are always conditioned by the poisoned binaries of gender vs gender. Because the system under which we labour – in which men come first, have always come first, and anything else is an “accommodation”, even now – is entrenched, and dismantling that system is not just about deciding to be a good guy, or an easy-going girl.

It’s much harder than that. And it requires all of our labour. Together.

Kim

 

 

 

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Who decides?

I know it’s autumn, because lots of great theatre has been happening around me. I was recently in Big London and saw the hands-up-incredible (student!) production The Fall, as well as the incredibly moving The Unknown Island (which my colleague Dan Rebellato and I discuss in an upcoming episode of his podcast, Stage Directions – stay tuned for that one). Back home in Ontario I caught The Komagata Maru Incident at the Stratford Festival, thought-provokingly directed by Keira Loughran, and, last Sunday, Other Side of the Game by Amanda Parris, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams in an Obsidian Theatre/Cahoots Theatre co-production.

These last two shows were remarkable for me in the way they normalized the practice of diversity on stage – something I’ve been thinking a lot about since the “Post-Marginal” symposium I attended back in April (read my thoughts on that event here).

Canadians are used to “diversity” as a brand – part of the hip and multicultural, Justin-fronted salad-bowl nation. Yay Canada! Except maybe less yay Canada if you are, you know, a visible, ethnic, or other minority (including those who identify as disabled) and are constantly on the receiving end of subtle or not-so-subtle discrimination, well-meaning but superficial curiosity that borders on harassment, or, in more cases than we care to acknowledge, gruesome racial profiling.

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Justin hearts diversity. But it’s really not that easy, people.

All the more reason to get over talking about diversity as “a good thing” (says the brilliant Donna-Michelle St Bernard, someone I never tire of quoting), and to start thinking about it as a practice – an artistic practice, an intellectual practice, a pedagogical practice, and a practice of ordinary citizenship.

But how do we do that, really do that?

How can artists, scholars, and teachers model diversity-as-practice for others, as a necessary public good?

These two shows struck me as just such models. But then they also, inevitably, got me fretting about how to talk about them effectively as such. To communicate this modelling of diversity-in-practice as central to what they do, accomplish, offer to the public sphere.

That’s separate, a very separate, issue from whether or not they are any “good” as pieces of theatre.

[And btw, I think they both really are.]

This is all a slightly roundabout way of saying that these two productions got me fretting about theatre reviews – and in particular about the kinds of power reviewers wield, for better and sometimes for worse, as they more or less just do their jobs.

Reviewing is hard; I know this from personal experience. It’s a huge responsibility, and the reviewers I know (including for the major Toronto dailies) take that responsibility very seriously indeed.

But reviews as a genre embed some big problems. For me, the largest one is this: they are required to level judgement every time, but they are not typically flexible enough to unpack the question that ghosts that very quotidian act of judgement:

Who has the authority to decide what is “good” theatre?

What are our criteria, and why?

I was really upset to read the reviews for Komagata Maru Incident. Some of them very correctly pointed out that the play itself – which was written decades ago, and is about a boat full of Sikh migrants turned away from the shores of British Columbia in 1914 – comes from a settler perspective (that of white playwright Sharon Pollock), and lacks the capacity in its dramaturgical structure to represent refugee experience in a thoroughgoing way. Others, however, were unnecessarily rough on Loughran and her team. One was truly mean, and bordered, in my opinion, on an abuse of the reviewer’s power.

Why did these harsh reviews drive me around the bend? Because what Loughran had done in her direction of Pollock’s play was infuse it with an ethos of inclusivity and diversity, in an effort to decolonize the problematic script.

Quelemia Sparrow in The Komagata Maru Incident, Stratford, 2017

The production was far from perfect, in lots of ways the reviews captured. But it was also incredibly important as a piece of public engagement – and this the reviews either downplayed or missed.

Loughran’s cast were, in the vast majority, actors of colour. Her emcee/narrator figure was the stunningly talented Musqueam artist Quelemia Sparrow, whose evocative physicality contributed to a useful distancing of the play’s central voice of authority from its governing settler imagination. Sparrow played the role as a “traditional” (read “imaginary”) Indian figure overtly costumed as a British officer; the only authority she therefore inhabited was performative, the ability to talk herself into authority – as all imperialists do. (There’s a quite good reflection piece on this casting choice in the London Free Press; click here to take a look.)

The “real” officer figure in the play, the Immigration Department’s Hopkinson, was embodied with studied, well judged awkwardness by Omar Alex Khan, who is also not white and not British; as he and Sparrow interacted (she inhabiting the role of his superiors in these meetings) I saw and heard “Britishness” as an effect of settler colonialism, loud and clear.

Meanwhile, the most moving relationship in the play developed between Diana Tso and Jasmine Chen playing ambitious immigrant women in a Vancouver brothel. There were moments when I wondered if Chen, Tso, and Loughran had layered lesbian desire into these portrayals, and I was grateful for the prompt to think differently about what could otherwise seem conventionally sexualized Asian female characters.

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Diana Tso, Jasmine Chen, and Omar Alex Khan in The Komagata Maru Incident, 2017

In other words, I saw a lot that was rich and instructive and worth talking about in this show. Stuff that the reviews were not able, given their generic constraints, to capture.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when my friend Keith Tomasek, who edits Stratford Festival Reviews, asked me to review Other Side of the Game, which is about Black lives, and in particular Black women’s lives, historical and contemporary, in Toronto. (And yup, that eponymous reference to the Erykah Badu song of the same name is both intentional and quite perfect.) I recently reviewed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for Keith, so Other Side seemed a nice match. When time came to book the tickets I asked, unwittingly, for a preview show (it fit my schedule); Keith then told me I should skip the review (previews are previews for a reason, people) and write a “think piece” about the show instead.

This was totally accidental and yet a perfect gift; I realized after seeing the production that I could do more with/for/alongside what Parris, Williams, and their creative team have done by skipping the inevitable judgement part and reviewing, instead, the process by which we judge theatre in salad-bowl Toronto in 2017. I hope along the way I captured a bit of the diversity-in-practice I saw on stage and caught from Parris’s and Williams’s program notes, as well as from my research.

 

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The gorgeous playbill cover for Other Side of the Game

But you tell me; I welcome your thoughts. Please click through to SFR‘s site here to read my article, and feel free to leave comments in that space or this one.

Certainly, I’ll be aiming to lift more work like this, in this way, up to our view in future “review” commissions. I’ve just seen the superb Asking For It by Ellie Moon at Crow’s Theatre, which could not be more timely in its verbatim excavation of how we talk about consent. It’s a teaching tool if ever there was one: rigorous in its exploration of sexual ambivalence and awkwardness, which makes it, frankly, ideal as a model for figuring out how to navigate the challenging waters of talking to and with young people about sexual safety, comfort, and pleasure. Look forward to a post on that very soon.

Kim

On making a feminist show

High summer! Perfect time to think about, oh, you know: lemonade and sangria, lazing at the beach… and creating complex feminist theatre for a major Shakespeare festival in southwestern Ontario.

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Members of the Bakkhai chorus Sarah Afful, Quelemia Sparrow, and Bahia Watson. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Today in Intermission Magazine – a fabulous, Toronto-based, online performing arts industry publication co-edited by May Antaki and Maija Kappler – I’ve got a piece about the creation of Bakkhai, directed by Jillian Keiley and currently on at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.

The article tells the story of how this iteration of Bakkhai (translated from the Euripides by poet Anne Carson) evolved into a complicated work of feminism – that is, into a show that doesn’t celebrate women so much as it reveals the challenges of living as a human being under patriarchy, for men as well as for women, but especially for women (and especially for women of colour).

You can – and I hope you will! – read the whole thing here. (Below, as a teaser, is a brief excerpt.)

Enjoy that beach day!
Kim

***

When I met the group one Wednesday morning in March, we began with a cheery warm-up game that included every single one of us. I instantly felt part of the team. Then we sang “Happy Birthday” to cast member Graham Abbey, which caused me to experience a minor fangirl moment (I think I hid it well). After this light-hearted start, we sat in a circle, the normal configuration for the “debate and discussion” portion of the cast and crew’s time together. I felt strongly the sense of bondedness, the ethos of community, that animated the space (and that, I later learned from Dunsmore, animates all of Jill’s rehearsal rooms as a matter of course).

When I had agreed to come to the rehearsal, I thought I was stealing an hour of the cast’s practice time in order to “explain” feminism to them. I didn’t realize that I had, in fact, been invited to enter a space of rigorous discussion that the creative team inhabited together all the time.

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Members of the Bakkhai company.

Bakkhai rehearsals always began with debates over big ideas related to the play-world—is there a god? do we have free will?—in which cast and crew were assigned sides. These provided nuance into the many ethical issues tabled by the play: Do I have a responsibility toward my community to temper my pursuit of pleasure? Should women be supportive of one another regardless of whether or not they like, or agree with, each other? Is violence a just response to personal or community oppression?

But the debates also offered key embodied insight into the experience of fundamentalism—and into just how easily one can become prone to it. As cast member Diana Tso told me, always being assigned sides meant cast members were asked repeatedly to live inside multiple, divergent perspectives, exploring where individual perspectives and orthodoxies originate, when “someone is so pro-this, or pro-that.”

The debates gave the cast a chance to peg their characters’ developments to the social, cultural, and historical contexts shaping the play. Even more importantly, though, they provided an opportunity for team members to get to know and understand one another personally but also intellectually, on a level playing field, and in a room designed to be utterly open, absolutely equal, and completely safe. (This included paying special attention to gendered language. As Dunsmore and Gowdy explained to me, team members of all genders were encouraged to check their use of diminutives like “girls” and “boys”.)

I got a sense of the eclecticism and openness of the cast and crew’s discussion space during that first meeting with them. The cast were warm and respectful, but their questions were hard. If the Bakkhic women are brutal, violent, full of fundamentalist rage, how can they enable a feminist politic? Where do the men fit into a vision that inherently excludes them? (Does it?) With the women being “foreigners,” what role might intersectionality play in a feminist approach to this play? How can we reconcile to feminism the most pressing contradictions in the play—for example, when the Bakkhic women celebrate Agave, but then use her to feed their violent revenge?

I talked about feminism as a critique of patriarchy, and patriarchy as an ideology that deploys both men and women to uphold the damaging binary (men vs. women; men above women) on which its power rests. I explained that women often make the best patriarchs: if you sense you can make the system work for you, you sure as hell are going to try. Together, we discussed feminism as a critical practice that tries to unpack the violence patriarchy causes and also to imagine more equitable alternatives to it. That mandate includes both women and men as participants: as victims, as villains, as supporters, and as resistors.

Feminism, in other words, is not straightforward, and it’s rarely “nice” in any traditional way. Maybe a feminist show shouldn’t be, either.

 

More theatre treats

Oh my gosh folks, I’ve been AWOL! This may be the longest I’ve ever gone between writings (haven’t checked, don’t hold me to it…). April spit up on me, that’s my only excuse.

I’m emerging now, and will have a post on active learning in the graduate seminar room for you next week, followed by my promised further thoughts on the diversity-in-practice symposium I attended in Toronto last month.

Meanwhile, I’ve just done another review for Keith at Stratford Festival Reviews, of another compelling show featuring not one single white person. (Hey diversity in practice! ROCK ON.)

It (also know as ‘for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf’, by Ntozake Shange and directed by Djanet Sears) was truly incredible (autocorrect wanted to make that ‘edible’… maybe it was that too!!). If you’re in the greater Toronto area or plan to be within the month (hi, friends at CATR!) please check it out and grab some tix.

The link is here.

Enjoy, bon  weekend, and I’ll be back very soon.

Kim

On diversity, on Canadian stages, right now (part one)

It’s end of term and I’m swamped. I have LITERALLY no time to write ANYTHING… but then I went and promised a review of Anusree Roy’s brave new piece at Factory Theatre in Toronto to Stratfordfestivalreviews.com.

Bugger.

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Happily, I’d spent several days previous at an industry symposium at Modern Times Theatre in Toronto, where we talked at depth about what practicing cultural, gender, and ability diversity in our artistic and academic labour means right now – in the rehearsal hall, on stage, in the the audience, on the page.

Equally happily, my new friend Dhurin agreed to come to the theatre with me, and give me his perspective on the show (a full-on diasporic, new-to-Canada-living-in-Mississauga perspective, yo).

Click here to find out what happened next.

And, once I surface from the marking, look forward to a post on the meatier, more challenging, aspects of our discussions at the symposium.

Almost there!!!!

Kim