On theatre as an (urgent) public good

When I started this blog in March 2013, I picked as its tagline “because pedagogy is a public practice.” This choice was an homage to my time at the University of Texas at Austin’s “performance as public practice” research stream. (That was back in 2005, but PPP is still going strong in the Department of Theatre and Dance.) It was at UT that I discovered, for real, just what a public good theatre could be; sure, I’d been studying art through a social lens for some time, but in Austin, working with acclaimed feminist and queer theorist Jill Dolan, and watching performance workers – from Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw, and Deb Margolin to the Rude Mechs and even my own colleagues – making stuff that impacted directly on the well-being of often-marginalised communities around us, suddenly the logic of it really hit home for me. It shaped the teacher I would become, in every way.

When bad stuff happens in or to the public spheres in which I live and work, I turn to theatre and performance for solace. For grace. And for help: theatre is, as Brazilian director Augusto Boal famously said, after all a rehearsal for the revolution. Not a violent one, but one based in shared dialogue, discovery, enchantment, and exploration. These are the things – the inherently democratic things – that happen at the (public) theatre.


Boal in New York, 2008

Last Wednesday night I went to see a show, and when I woke up the next morning I realised that I had seen no less than three pieces of theatre since the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This was entirely an accident: it’s that time of term on university campuses when the stuff students have been working on since September goes up on public view. But it was also, of course, no accident at all.

Sometimes in the wake of high term, when the work is lying around in messy piles and the nights are dark and cold and my HEAD.ALWAYS.HURTS, I say no thanks to the theatre and stay home to brood. But this November, brooding seems a big mistake. I’d rather be in public, in that “special” public space where we share an urge to understand our world, to see it better together.

Anyone on earth with a social media account knows where my scare quotes around the word “special” above come from: The Donald reacted with a typical, historical, epic fail to Brandon Victor Dixon’s address from the stage (and toward VP-elect Mike Pence) at the end of the Broadway smash-hit Hamilton one night last week.

Here’s the clip of Dixon speaking after the curtain call:

In reaction, Trump tweeted:

Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen!

The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!

As gazillions of theatre scholars, critics, and lay commentators have since noted, Dixon was doing nothing “harassing”, but was rather respecting both Pence and the audience enough to use the stage for the purpose for which it was designed: the provision of public discussion, in the public’s very best interest. (My favourite of the many commentaries I’ve seen so far is here, by J. Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail.)

So: in honour of Dixon and the cast’s bravery (for it is brave indeed to take on a powerful man with no knowledge of the past, and no boundaries in the present), and in homage to the incredible potential of the theatre in times of public crisis, I offer below three brief reviews of the three shows I saw in the wake of Trump’s election.

And, in the spirit of efficacious arts reviewing – reviewing as a public practice, let’s say – in each case I highlight not who or what was “good” or “better” or “bad” on stage, but rather how each contributed to the public discourse, at this urgent time.

Stop #1: The Daisy Theatre


The colourful, whimsical curtain at The Daisy Theatre

Ronnie Burkett is one of the most talented puppeteers on earth; Torontonians are proud to claim him, but he’s actually an Alberta boy. He designs and makes all of his puppets (with help, of course – there are dozens in each show), but he operates them alone on stage, creating brimming worlds of animated wooden bodies with dozens of diverse stories to tell. Burkett is openly gay, and his puppets are the queerest around. They are those whose human avatars we’d prefer to ignore, out on the street. At the puppet show, though, we can never turn away.

The Daisy Theatre is an old-time variety show, which I saw at London’s McManus Studio on November 9. Like the best cabaret, it mixes raunchy set pieces with hilarious, pointed, topical improvisation – and so it was the night after the election, when Ronnie inserted plenty of political banter, including a marvellous exchange between the carnies “Franz” and “Schnitzel”.


Rude mechanical Franz, and queer child Schnitzel; The Daisy Theatre by Ronnie Burkett

In this particular post-election schtick, Franz attempted to explain the difference between “stage left” and “stage right”; Schnitzel got it spot on, in the end. (Ex: Schnitzel to Franz, “…is it my imagination, or, since I’ve been over here on the right… Franz… have I GOTTEN WHITER???”) That kind of stuff delivers the laughs, even in a white, conservative town like London, ON – because it’s frankly pretty hard not to laugh at puppet banter, especially when Ronnie is working his hardest to make his space of extraordinary difference (queer puppeteer; queer puppets; 16x rating…) as welcoming to all comers as possible.

And truly, for me, this is the most political thing about Ronnie Burkett: he will not compromise his content or his politics, ever, but he will aim to make the space in which he delivers that content inclusive enough to enable an experience across difference for all spectators. That’s not the same as making theatre “safe”, as Trump’s notorious tweet put it. The crucial difference: Ronnie makes his puppet theatre a safe space to do uncomfortable, challenging things. That’s as it should be.


Ronnie with members of the cast of The Daisy Theatre

Stop #2: Hamlet’s Bad Quarto “done good”

My department’s fall show this year was offered in honour of Shakespeare’s 400th death day (1616 – 2016). Rather than doing Hamlet the old-fashioned way (SO BORING!), director Jo Devereux chose the “bad” quarto, in which “to be or not to be” is not “the question” but “the point”, and various other bits and pieces of venerable text are mashed about in a script that’s not, well, fully baked yet. The show Jo mounted was huge: an on-stage musical quintet provided melodies written for the occasion; a pre-show invocation came complete with tumbling and drunken rabble-rowsing; and there were enough speakers in the end to yield a curtain call two full rows thick. Put all that together in a tiny black box theatre at London’s terrific downtown arts incubator, and, well… you get a cheek-by-jowl experience that’s anything but literally “safe”.

In that kind of a venue, every single actor takes a massive risk: you’re just so close to your audience that every mistake will be seen and noted. And when you’re not an experienced actor, well, the risks multiply: what if they see me mess up and know I’m no good? (I have so, SO been there.) But not one of Jo’s brave cast let that stop them, nor were they cowed by the complex poetry (even in drafty form) of the world’s most famous wordsmith. In fact, if there is one thing this performance of the “bad quarto” taught its audiences, it is that even Shakespeare isn’t so incredibly sacred – because nothing is. Even Shakespeare wrote some serious crap!


The terrific Q1 Hamlet poster: “the bad quarto done good”

Speaking Billy Shakespeare’s “messed up” lines on a tiny stage, sometimes imperfectly, these actors reminded me of the political, public power of messing up, of learning from error, and of then moving on and through to do better next time. This is a lesson, indeed, for right now – and for those about to stand up on much bigger stages.

Stop #3: 12 Angry Men

The following week, it was time for Western University’s celebrated independent student theatre troupe to put up their fall drama. Theatre Western‘s AD Hailey Hill chose 12 Angry Men as the script back in the summer (presciently, as it turned out), and in a gladiatorial arena-style space, with banks of seats on all four sides, the resulting production unfolded in perfectly-choreographed black and white (though it was blind-cast to include persons of multiple genders and colours), directed expertly by students Danny Avila and Jack Phoenix.


The blood-red powerful poster for the spare, revealing Twelve Angry Men, directed by Danny Avila and Jack Phoenix for Theatre Western

The play begins in certainty and rage: a young man is on trial for murdering his father in an inner city Chicago ghetto, and all but one of the jurors (white, male) around the table are sure he’s guilty. But then doubts begin to rise; the lone holdout is invited to speak about his (in this case, her) “reasonable doubt”, and gradually, by talking reasonably and calmly about the facts before them, the group around the table comes to the conclusion that there simply is not enough evidence, barring prejudice, to convict.

Sitting in one of the four front rows with my colleague MJ, I was at turns stunned, moved to laughter, gut-wrenched, and so proud of our students for pulling off one of the hardest tricks in performance.

They took a script by a white guy, half a century old, about white men’s pain, and they used its own words, its bare narrative, to tease out its much broader and more diverse nuances. Then they put it up in front of a raw audience, just ten days post-election, and let the text speak, subtly but with extraordinary resonance, to the moment we are in right now.


Trisha Kershaw as Juror #5


The cast at work around the jury table


David DiBrina and Alex Gaistman as Jurors 7 and 8

How can we get past glib certainty and back to conversation? From prejudice back to the power of fact, of hardscrabble information carefully and fairly parsed? From yelling at each other across a breach to speaking with generosity of spirit across a table?

These are open questions. They are the kinds of questions implied in Brandon Victor Dixon’s words to Mike Pence from the stage last week. They are the kinds of questions the theatre, democracy’s most powerful public space, always, always asks.

They are not, however, safe questions. They are anything but safe.


On teaching as “practice”

Last night I participated on a panel at Birkbeck, University of London, speaking to students on the Master’s course in Text and Performance (from which I graduated in 1999!) about the relationship between scholarship and artistic practice in the academy. With me were my distinguished colleagues Allan Read, from King’s College London, and Dan Rebellato, from Royal Holloway. Allan, whose route to the academy came through years of grass-routes theatre-making, offered a lively talk about that history; Dan, who is a playwright as well as an internationally known name in theatre and performance studies, talked about his inclination to understand artistic practice and scholarly work as separate endeavours with separate, and unique, spheres of influence. (For those of you not inside the profession: this is a rather contrarian perspective – usefully so.) I wasn’t nervous going into the panel, but I was nervous (a bit, anyway) after hearing Dan and Allan speak so naturally and eloquently about their work as theatre makers. They clearly have an artistic practice, as well as being scholars. I am not an artist, and I have never identified as one. I am simply a scholar, and a teacher. Suddenly the things I wanted to say seemed rather irrelevant, even small.

Now, I should qualify my looming anxiety by saying that, of course, I had felt it earlier: I felt it when my friend and colleague Aoife Monks, who runs the Birkbeck course, asked me to participate on the panel, and I then thought about it throughout my preparation for the event itself. The questions I asked myself, as a result of this feeling and thinking, were:

If I’m not an artist, what’s my practice?

What is my relationship to art and theatre-making, practically as well as theoretically, as a scholar of performance who works in a community of artists as well as academics?

And, perhaps most important:

What does “practice” mean to me, anyway?

This series of self-searching questions got me to think a bit about the word “practice” as such – not in isolation, of course, but nevertheless outside of the specific, theatrical context in which Aoife’s prompt for the panel was embedded.

In its simplest form, “practice” means to try something a bunch of times in the hope of getting better at it. I “practice” the piano. I “practice” riding my road bike really quickly up the hill. I “practice” reading the monologue in front of the mirror while I try not to crack up laughing. That kind of thing. In its most practical form – which is connected to craft work and to the labour of making that work – “practice” means the same but more: I make this work again and again, in slightly different and (maybe) more sophisticated iterations each time. I learn from mistakes and develop what I’m doing as I go. In this sense, I “develop” my “practice” at the same time as I develop my craft – I build on what I’m doing, physically but also psychologically and pedagogically, and I learn in a meta-critical way about what is working and what is not (in other words, I practice learning about my craft, about what works and what doesn’t, even as I do more of the things that work and drop the things that don’t). So “practice” here means specifically to evolve, to grow, to search, to learn, to discover. Really, it’s a term that describes a way of living and being and working in the world – far removed from the sense of onerous and painful rehearsal that I associated with it as a kid.

Now, back to the panel – and specifically to the moment when Dan ended his presentation and I had to get up and tell the students that I was, anticlimactically, not an artist and had no exciting slide show of work to share. I need not have worried. As it turns out, not only were my colleagues and the students receptive to my “riff” on the idea of practice in place of a thoroughgoing discussion of my (nonexistent) art, but I also drew strength from the idea of taking what Allan and Dan had put on the table and shaping it a bit differently – practicing it afresh, maybe.

I shared some of my scholarly background to start, talking about how influenced I have been by the time I spent in Texas, in 2005, when I was a postdoctoral fellow in the “Performance as Public Practice” program at UT Austin. That program, I realised even as I spoke, shaped for me my first sense of “practice” as something that teachers and scholars, as well as artists, do to and for and in the world – that we do as acts of conscious public-ness, as acts of open (and hopefully critically generous) engagement with the many communities in which we are embedded. From Austin, I went on to work casually with a number of different artists, including Tara Beagan and Jennifer H. Capraru, learning from them and in turn offering them support in the academic dissemination of their work; I think back on this labour as a crucial part of my practice as a scholar of contemporary performance. I also learned, from my time at UT, to think about the teaching of performance as itself a practice – a variation on the making of performance as artistry.

What’s at stake in calling my teaching in and about theatre and performance a “practice”? A labour of craft, one that I rehearse and refine, again and again, in the hopes of learning about it, discovering new things, improving? What are the outcomes of such a practice, for me and for my communities?

One of the benefits of using this term in this context, I think, comes from its malleability, but also from its precision. If I am to have a practice, I need to understand something of its workings, and to think about those workings regularly (keeping them oiled, maybe, like my bicycle chain). I need to have, maintain, and hone an ethos about the relationships engendered in my classrooms and my broader teaching spaces (including my office, my inbox, the coffee shops where I meet my students). I need to understand my methodologies, so that I might unmake and remake them. I need to have strategies for managing problems and failures, and I need to reflect on these regularly. I need to know what ideas and plans to keep working on, and what stuff to leave alone because, for now, it is in optimal shape. I need to treat the work of teaching, perhaps, just a bit like the tough yet fragile clay in a potter’s hands – with quiet respect as well as urgency.

Further, if “practice” as a verb (“practise” in the UK) means to work (on) one’s metier, “practice” as a noun – for me anyway – signifies a collective. I go to the practice to meet my friends and become a better soccer player. We meet to practice our scene together. (Or my favourite, from the gloriously craft-focused, community-driven TV series about post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme: Big Chief Lambreaux and his cohort meet every week for “Indian Practice”, more often just before Mardi Gras, when the whole city practices together.) So when I “practice” as a performance scholar and teacher, I hope always (or as often as possible) to do it in a group – whether that group is a cohort of students, or a small clutch of peer collaborators, or sometimes both. Thinking about when and how my practice is solitary, and when and how it is messily collective, is also a useful prompt to thinking about the ways in which the work of teaching performance ebbs and flows out of the solo and into the community.

One small, innocuous word, yet so much to think on. Thanks Aoife, Allan, and Dan for the opportunity.