More collaborative writing

A few weeks ago I co-authored a review essay on the musical Fun Home with my student Rachel Windsor; that pleasurable, rejuvenating exercise was exactly what I needed at the end of a long and tiring term.

So I’ve been at it again: this time with a terrific postdoctoral fellow who works with me at Western University, Dr Erin Julian.

Erin and I are currently collaborating on a research project about diversity and inclusion at the Stratford Festival, a large repertory company grounded in the plays of William Shakespeare. Stratford has been working hard in recent seasons to shift its image as a straight and white kind of place, making big strides in hiring younger, more ethnically, racially, and gender-diverse cast members and thinking outside the old, familiar box of “what the playwright intended” (as if we could ever know that, anyway).

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(Please, people. We all know Shakespeare intended to go to the beach!)

All of these strides are great, of course. But what, Erin and I wondered, does it really mean to practice diversity and inclusion at Stratford, as opposed to just representing those things? That is, what does it take for a non-straight, non-white perspective to become the seed for work, the grounding place for a vision, and also (crucially) the starting point for new working practices, rather than just the thing a theatre company wants the public to see, perceive, or believe about it?

We can – and should, of course – ask the very same questions of our educational institutions, our employers, as well as our own classrooms.

As Erin and I developed our project’s research questions, we were inspired by the important work done by Toronto’s Modern Times Theatre Company in their “post marginal” initiative (read more about that here), and especially by the associated symposium, “Beyond Representation,” that took place in Toronto in April 2017 (read the final report from that superb event here, or check out video of the speakers and panels here). We were also inspired by the work of Keira Loughran, a playwright, actor, and director who works for Stratford as both the head of its playwrights’ unit and Forum public engagement series, as well as in her capacity as a theatre artist.

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(The fabulous Keira Loughran)

Just around the time that the “Beyond Representation” symposium got me thinking deeply about diversity as theatrical practice, Keira told me about her vision for her summer 2018 production of Comedy of Errors at Stratford. She wanted its world (called Ephesus in the text) to be gender-fluid, as well as generationally and ethnically crosshatched: in other words, a world that all of the characters could inhabit completely comfortably, in both their similarities (the play is littered with twins and mistaken-identity plots) as well as in their profound and meaningful differences. She told us about her plans for the script, for casting, and for building links with the trans community, particular via artist-consultants from that community who came on board once rehearsals began in March.

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(The fabulous Sunny Drake, one of the consultants on Keira’s production)

Erin and I decided that Keira’s production would be a brilliant way for us to dive deeply into the challenges practicing diversity in a thorough-going way, at all levels of theatrical development, can pose at a large, resource-rich, but also traditionally-minded and subscription-audience-driven festival like Stratford. We had some hunches about what these challenges might be, but we were also willing to be surprised about both the good and the not-so-good.

Truly, we simply wanted to take the measure: when you commit to working diversely and inclusively as a starting place, when that kind of work isn’t your workplace norm, what happens next?

We’ve been shadowing Keira’s process since early winter, including attending rehearsals and workshops, and we were thrilled to be invited to a dress rehearsal in early May. The show opens this week, and we’re excited to see how audiences and critics respond.

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(The promo image for Keira’s Comedy of Errors, featuring Jessica Hill and Qasim Khan as the central twins. It’s selling out – grab tickets soon!)

Erin and I also recognize, though, that with our privileged perspective as academic insider-outsiders comes responsibility: the responsibility to help audiences (including critics) to see something of the complexities of process lying behind the stage world they will encounter at Comedy of Errors. Keira’s version of Ephesus isn’t going to be what a lot of audience members will be expecting; how might we, with our nuanced sense of the production’s development, help them get oriented, find their feet in this different-looking place?

Audiences, we think, not only should know, but need to know at least a bit about how the incredible care taken and commitment shown by Keira, her cast, and her entire team to building a thoughtful, deeply humane world of body inclusivity has shaped the final product they will see. Seeing only the product is tantamount to seeing diversity only as representation, not as lived practice or indeed as workplace practice. In relation to this production, that feels wrong.

So last week we reached out to Keira to ask if she’d permit us to write a preview article for Stratfordfestivalreviews.com about our shadowing of the production, what we observed and what we felt about our observations. Keira – who is deeply aware that some Stratford audience members may feel somewhat alienated by the world her team has created – readily agreed.

I’m now really pleased to share the article with you. In addition to being a window onto a gender-diverse and non-conforming Shakespeare production, I hope it can also serve as a bit of a primer, inspired by Keira’s thoughtful directorial guidance, on how we might all practice body diversity and inclusion in more effective ways in our classrooms and rehearsal spaces – not just representing it, but living it with our students and thus modelling inclusionary perspectives and actions as new cultural norms.

As Keira’s process reveals, diversity practice is genuine, proper work, but it’s really not that hard to do: it simply requires us to begin, as Donna Michelle St-Bernard noted in her “Beyond Representation” keynote address last April, from this basic question.

What would happen if I imagined that I was ACTUALLY the centre of the universe?

I’d know I was not the most oppressed person in the room. I’d have to turn around to see who was behind me.

Click here to access my and Erin’s preview, “The Comedy of Errors: Building Inclusivity at the Stratford Festival.” Thanks in advance for reading!

Kim

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Collaborative Writing, with Undergrads

Those of you who read regularly know I’ve been jonesing for collaboration lately. I talked about it extensively in my recent post for Gary and Lena at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, and I reflected on my need for more of it in my last post, which focused on what’s next (or might be next) for my writing practice.

Then, a couple of weeks ago – just as the semester had reached the “oh lord, just shoot me now” point that is early April – an opportunity for an ideal collaboration, with a senior undergraduate student, fell into my lap.

Keith Tomasek at Stratford Festival Reviews had invited me a while back to review the Canadian premiere of Fun Home, the Lisa Kron/Jeanine Tesori musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name. (NB: Bechdel test? THAT Bechdel.) The tickets finally came through (along with yet another dump of late-season snow) and I realized I had a spare ticket to give away.

Cue the moment when I ALSO realized that my fourth-year honours thesis student, Rachel Windsor, had spent the last six months researching and writing about Bechdel’s memoir. Might she like to come along? She jumped at the chance – and also at the chance to help me out with the review. Her writing on the memoir was stellar, original; I knew she’d be a great collaborator, even if a novice reviewer. Our team was born.

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Here’s Rachel, in her headshot for our review.

The night of the show was another blusterer (thanks, winter. Fuck off now like a good pet, please), but we had a fabulous time. It was opening night, so the crowds were thick in the tiny main-floor theatre lobby, and many were dressed up and partying in the second-floor lobby bar. The cast began a little bit out of tune, but that lasted no more than a few minutes. In no time, the inescapable enthusiasm and raw talent of the young members of the cast (there are three children in the show) shone through, and we were laughing hard and clapping harder at the signature number “Come to the Fun Home” (Fun Home = Bechdel family funeral home) – with the young Bechdels Jackson-Five-ing it in and around the casket they are polishing.

After the show, Rachel and I walked back to Dundas Square and chatted about what we liked and didn’t like; what we’d expected, gotten, and not quite gotten, from the 90-or-so minute show. We hatched a plan to compare notes the next day.

The next morning, in the middle of one of my final exams, I had a bit of a revelation: what if Rachel and I restaged our post-show chat as a dialogic review? I sketched a raw outline and shot it over to her. She began filling in answers to my mock questions, and we were off.

The results are now up at Stratfordfestivalreviews.com, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s turned out – not least because this review practically wrote itself, what with the fun of re-enacting our dialogue on paper and the pleasure of working with a genuinely talented and capable collaborator.

Here’s a short excerpt; for the full review, please click here.

Kim: Rachel, you’ve been working on Bechdel’s memoir, on which the musical is based, for over a year. That’s a whole lot of back story to bring to an adaptation! Going into the performance, what did you most want to see translated from page to stage?

Rachel: I definitely walked into the theatre with a lot of anticipation! My own work on the memoir has to do primarily with its powerful engagements with trauma and memory – both Alison’s and her dad’s – so I was really hoping to see the actors grapple with representing these challenging concepts on stage.

Bechdel describes her work in the original memoir as “tragicomic,” but a large part of the premise of “Fun Home” is Bechdel’s own father Bruce Bechdel’s suicide. It’s hard to make that scenario lighthearted – which is at least somewhat necessary in a musical! – and so I was very curious to see how Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori would go about building this central, traumatic situation into the entertainment value that musicals demand.

Kim: I’m someone relatively unfamiliar with Bechdel’s memoir (your thesis introduced me to it, in fact!), but I’m familiar with Lisa Kron and her legacy as a member of the Five Lesbian Brothers performance troupe (in New York in the 1980s and 1990s). I therefore expected a story that would foreground lesbian experience from a specifically queer-feminist point of view, but also from a quite personal perspective. (Kron has written other popular autobiographical works, including 2.5 Minute Ride and Well.)

The musical’s primary focus, in fact, is on Alison’s coming-out story, and especially on the way that story intertwines with Bruce’s life as a closeted gay man. Given Kron’s background, that personal-is-political framing made sense to me. So did the use of three Alisons to add rich context and scope to this particular lesbian life.

(Small Alison is played by Hannah Levinson; college-aged [Medium] and adult Alison are played by Sara Farb and Laura Condlln respectfully. The latter two are regulars with the Stratford Festival, as is Evan Builing [Bruce], and Cynthia Dale [who plays Helen Bechdel]).

Fun Home, Toronto, Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson, Laura Condlln. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson, Laura Condlln.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Rachel: The three Alisons were brilliant; thanks to them, the musical adaption really foregrounded the role and function of memory in the story. The graphic memoir carefully resists the kind of linear timeline that we associate with autobiography, and I think the adaption would have lost an important quality had it reverted to the traditional past-to-present structure typical of memoir storytelling.

And the Alisons interact! For example, I really enjoyed when adult Alison cringes hilariously at Medium Alison’s awkward attempts to woo her first crush. This strategy allowed the musical to employ a more embodied process of remembering, and to make room for lots of welcome laughter.

Kim: The musical dates to 2013. But, even in 2018, the commentary the musical embeds about the incredible personal challenges that coming out in real life entails is as essential for me as it ever was. I often worry that, for all the good it can do, the current media vogue for gender-queerness risks masking the fact that actually living a gay or trans life is not as easy as selling a look on TV. Queer and trans folk still face real barriers, enormous discrimination, and violence.

All that said, I also hoped for a bit more politics in the musical. Sometimes it felt too easy to empathize with Alison’s story – as though all human experience at bottom is the same.

Sara Farb’s stand-out performance as Medium Alison is a joy to watch and hear, especially as she belts out the lines to “Changing My Major,” the iconic song in which she “comes out” to herself after a night with her new girlfriend, Joan. But Farb’s gorgeous accessibility is also, politically, for me a bit of a liability.

A young woman who just wants to be able to draw cartoons and love another woman with her parents’ blessing: in 2018, who can’t get behind that message? But, of course, the story Bechdel tells is nowhere near that simple.

Rachel: I had similar feelings about the musical’s rendering of Bruce. I wish that we could have seen more emphasis on his affairs with underage boys.

The character Roy (played by Eric Moran) in the memoir is one of Bruce Bechdel’s current high school students. The musical ages him up to become a recently graduated student. But part of the discomfort of Bechdel’s memoir comes from the reader’s reluctance to understand Bruce as a predator, or even as a pedophile.

As readers, we can’t really fall into easy generalizations of Bruce as a one-dimensional villain, because he’s such a loving and inspiring dad to Alison. At the same time, though, the memoir constantly reminds us that Bruce groomed and took advantage of young boys throughout his life as a teacher.

In the musical, there is still a sense of that predatory nature in some of Bruce’s interactions with Roy. For example, there’s a moment near the end of Helen’s solo when Bruce offers Roy a drink – on the condition that he takes off his shirt. Still, I found the musical left out a lot of the immoral and criminal actions that make Bruce such a complex character.

I can’t wait to do this again! Maybe I’ll make a point of taking students to ALL my future commissions. Thanks, Rachel, for such a joyful and revelatory writing experience!

Enthusiastically,

Kim

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

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