Andrew Snowdon

Archive for the ‘art’ Category

The Tao of Theatre: SubDevision and The Extremely Short Play Festival

In art, Ottawa, theatre on Friday 11 May 2012 at 13:40

So tonight I’m going to see King Lear at the NAC. I’m pretty excited; ever since the season launch when it was announced, it’s been on my mind. I want to see it; I want to see what transposing it to an Aboriginal context adds to (or takes away from) this timeless classic.

But I don’t think it’s the most exciting thing going on theatrically in Ottawa right now.

Actually, there isn’t a most exciting thing going on theatrically in Ottawa right now.

There are two.

Taoists will be unsurprised.


Another show I was waiting for since it was announced was New Theatre of Ottawa‘s Extremely Short Play Festival. It’s hard not to get excited about something when (NTO artistic director) John Koensgen is talking about it; his eyes genuinely light up whenever he talks about a project he believes in. I even briefly considered submitting an extremely short play (defined here as under ten minutes in length) myself; I quickly discovered what a challenge the short form really is when you’re not just writing a one-gag sketch. I wondered what level of quality the submissions would have.

Now, I didn’t get out to see this until the second week, which I sort of regret since it far exceeded my expectations both as to the quality of the writing and the quality of the production itself. There were plays from known A-list playwrights like Pierre Brault and Lawrence Aronovitch (whose Late made me both glad I had abandoned one particular piece I was working on and eager to pick it up and rework it), as well as those known primarily for other genres of writing or acting, Dan O’Meara (yes, of Ottawa’s celebrated Manx Pub) and Geoff McBride, and emerging writers (Jessica E. Anderson, Kelley Tish Baker, Andrea Connell, Adam Pierre, Tina Prud’homme and Kevin and James Smith) with considerable potential. Then, the actors interpreting the work were top-notch: Kristina Watt’s effortless versatility, Brian Stewart’s arresting stage presence, Kate Hurman’s comic grace, and Adam Pierre’s freshness and energy infused the characters and situations with life. I was impressed with the lighting, the sound, and John Koensgen’s direction. I was also glad that on the soggy, stormy night on which I went, the house was well over half-full.

So there is hope for traditional playwriting; there are established writers who continually turn out interesting work, there’s a wave of new writers cutting their teeth, and Ottawa is the place they all come home.

Then, there’s the other kind of theatre: that writ not in a chair, but wrought from thin air.


Just down the street (Daly Avenue) from NTO’s home at Arts Court Theatre is a church at the corner of Cumberland that Ottawa theatre faithful will recognize as Mi Casa Theatre’s near-regular off-the-beaten-track venue, St. Paul’s Eastern United Church.

Usually Mi Casa rents out the basement, and puts on a show or throws a party (the distinction is debatable). This time, not only Mi Casa but seven other theatre companies are spread throughout the church—the basement, yes, but also the kitchen, the wheelchair elevator, the sanctuary chapel with its majestic pipe organ and towering stained-glass windows that face the setting sun, and a few nooks and crannies besides.

The event is called subDevision. It’s a crime that tickets are only $20, and a sheer act of treason that it’s only on for three nights, one of which is now in the past.

SubDevision is not a typo, but a clever portmanteau: the venue is subdivided into multiple performance areas, and the works are all devised works, created collaboratively within and inspired by the space. The event itself was inspired by Vancouver’s HiVE co-creation space, and its genesis took place in the same fertile ground that gave us the undercurrents Festival two years ago: a Backyard BBQ attended by the Ottawa theatre community’s core creative elite.

Site-specific devised theatre isn’t an entirely foreign concept to Ottawa, although so far it’s been on a smaller scale. Six: At Home, for example, was wildly successful at the 2010 Ottawa Fringe Festival, despite being located at Laurier House—a long, hot summer’s trek away from the main venues. It’s no surprise that several of the performer/creators who were involved in that production are also members of companies taking part in subDevision.

From a logistical perspective (i.e. how to see which show when) subDevision is a bit confusing at first glance. The performers seem to have been given pretty much free rein with their timing, so not everything fits neatly into a schedule grid. Some shows take eight minutes, some take thirteen, some take twenty, one takes eleven, but they let one person in every eight minutes—and then things start selling out. Then, of the two shows in the sanctuary, one is only before dark and the other only afterward. So there’s a little arithmetic and planning involved; even more than at the Fringe, and with greater urgency.

Attendees can pick and choose performances, and there’s an incredible variety on offer. From women in slips adoring the sun from atop church pews, to a multilingual acrobatic wake, to intimate cocktails in an elevator, to revolutionary yoga, to physically philosophical comedy on the steps outside… the whole defies description (rather, I don’t want to give any of it away) and must be experienced. [Visitorium has done us all the favour of staying up until three in the morning to write his useful take on subDevision. Give it a go.]

There is some overlap between the performance spaces, giving a dreamlike quality to the experience: as you are led up a staircase by a robed figure holding a lantern, you are implored by performers splayed on the steps to join the party in the other room. At times, however, sounds from an adjacent performance intrude on the one you are in (the Bluesfest effect).

When I spoke with the organizers last week, they mentioned with pride the skill-sharing sessions that have been a part of the subDevision creative process, where the members of the different companies share their methods and tactics for overcoming blocks in collaborative creation. There’s definitely been some creative cross-pollination as a result; I noticed May Can Theatre, perhaps unwittingly, use a technique that I recognized from both The Missoula Oblongata’s The Daughter of the Father of Time Motion Study and Mi Casa Theatre’s Live from the Belly of a Whale. I don’t think it goes as far as being derivative, and it’s not a cliché—yet. It does serve to highlight the way in which a particular aesthetic or set of techniques develops organically in such an environment.

Analysis aside, it’s a bloody party.


There are, as always, theatre productions going on—there’s Lear, and there’s Death and the Maiden at the Gladstone Theatre, and next week the Great Canadian Theatre Company will wrap up its season with Circle Mirror Transformation. There are others. They’re each a worthwhile night out. And none of them would exist without some combination of the two kinds of creative process showcased by the Extremely Short Play Festival and subDevision.

Anyway, you don’t have much time left to see them, and you ought to. Theatre, like life itself, is evanescent. The best and most satisfying art often has the shortest shelf life of all.

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Quality versus Popularity

In art, Ottawa, theatre on Wednesday 9 March 2011 at 17:57

Thanks in part, I’m sure, to craptastic weather conditions in Ottawa over the weekend, a spirited discussion of the nature of theatre, audiences, marketing, and economics erupted on Twitter early Saturday morning and continued well into Sunday (when we finally decided on the #OThChat hashtag to dispense with the immense block of @s and keep things “organized”). I hope it continues to continue.

The discussion touched briefly upon a fact which, although it seems self-evident, frustrates the hell out of people who make a living (or aim to) out of creating art: quality and popularity are independent quantities. In other words, just because it’s “good” doesn’t mean it will sell.

Quality and popularity are independent quantities.

There is a fair amount of subjectivity involved in the assessment of quality, to start with. I’m of the opinion that aesthetic value, like any physical measurement or other perception, depends on the observer, that which is observed, and the act of observation. These things are variable. But there is such a thing as technique, and even if it cannot be objectively measured, some value can be established by consensus. We all agree, I hope, that an actor standing two feet to the left of his mark (and well out of his light) is bad quality—the craft is lacking.

Popularity, on the other hand, can be measured by attendance or box office revenue with a fair degree of accuracy. If a show sells out, it is popular; if there are blocks of empty seats, it is unpopular. It’s not that it rained or that there was no parking; unless you kept your show a secret, it’s unpopular, by definition. (Could it have been made popular? Very possibly. But that’s not what we’re talking about right now.)

Here’s where it falls apart: something can be very good, very well-done, yet be unpopular. This is less of a problem in the “durable” arts (the plastic arts, literature, recorded music—anything you can put in a box and save for later) than the performance arts, since tastes may change over the years and decades (unfortunately the creator often dies first).

If the critics are doing their job, the good stuff gets critical acclaim.

We have evolved critics ostensibly to determine what is good, and ideally they will laud high-quality theatre. When the public doesn’t know any better—and they can’t, really, in advance—they must turn to the critic for an opinion with which to compare their own. The critic walks a tightwire strung between public opinion and the accepted (in some cases centuries-old) wisdom as to what determines quality in a given art form. Criticism is, in one sense, the art of thinking about art, and the art of articulating that thought. The role of the critic is, ideally, to attempt to rotate the “popularity” axis counterclockwise so that it more closely approximates the “quality” axis.

Popular theatre is profitable theatre… one hopes.

Since popular means that people showed up and (presumably, or what are you doing?) paid, it follows that popular productions are financial successes (hopefully, they made a profit). The definition of a financial success is an accounting question rather than an economic one, and it’s muddled somewhat by the issue of grants. You can always, however, peek out from the wings and see how many seats are full. Popularity, all other things being equal, can depend upon such factors as appropriateness for season (try producing an intellectually-charged tragedy in the middle of winter) or local relevance. It is rarely influenced by the rain.

Now here’s the diagram that’s going to piss everyone off (with any luck). These are the regions of the graph we might expect professional and community theatre to occupy.

Professional vs. Community Theatre: what we might expect

Let me start by saying that I love community theatre. For one thing, it’s pretty much the only way, in a market like ours here in Ottawa, that we will see plays with a cast of more than four characters on stage. Also, perhaps also because of the state of the market, some of our community theatre is pretty good quality.

On the other hand, I also think that the people who produce/create a product should, if they so desire, be paid in accordance with the perceived exchange value (with society) of their contribution to the product. That means, if you consider that theatre has value (and why are you reading this if you don’t?), then actors (and crew, and everyone else involved with a production) deserve to be paid. Unless, of their own free will, they waive that pay.

Can community and professional theatre co-exist? Certainly. But there are certain conditions that must be met for that to happen.


More thoughts on Language and the Arts

In art, language, theatre on Wednesday 23 February 2011 at 8:00

In my copious free time, I’ve been trying to pick up a bit of Ancient Greek.

There are a few reasons for this. The recent Ottawa University (La Comédie des Deux Rives) production of Iphigénie en Tauride (Iphigenia in Tauris), and the upcoming Third Wall remount of Antigone put the idea into my head. I’ve also been working on a play (that I don’t expect will ever see the light of day) that has its basis in Greek mythology, and I find it helpful to get as close to the source material as I can.

The more fundamental philosophical reason I occasionally choose to pick up the basics of a new language, however, is that it changes the way one thinks.

Many, if not most, human beings are verbal thinkers. This shows up in language itself; the English word logic comes from the Greek word λόγος (logos) for “word”, suggesting that all thought is, or can be, expressed in words (and conversely, that all words express thoughts). A few major religious philosophies, Zen Buddhism being a notable example, concern themselves heavily with divorcing thought from the limitations of language.

Language does define, to a certain extent, the way one thinks about certain concepts. Once you’ve gone beyond naming things and actions that we can all agree upon (cat, for instance, or kick), languages diverge markedly when it comes to “higher”, less tangible, concepts (love, peace, serenity). An oft-cited example is “I am hungry”. In English, it’s a state of being. But in French, it is “J’ai faim“; as in many other languages of more direct Latin descent, it is a condition one has. This is a subtle difference. More dramatically, in Japanese, a (polite) request may be phrased a number of different ways: social hierarchy is built into the language, such that one implores a social superior to “hand down” something, but a social inferior to “hand it up”. There are countless examples across many different languages.

The utility of being familiar with how a similar concept is expressed in different languages, or through different artistic disciplines, is one of perspective. Knowing more than one language can free one from thinking about things in one or the other language entirely. The awareness of there being more than one way to express a concept in words permits one to recognize that no one system of words “perfectly” captures that concept, and that concepts can exist independent of symbols.

We can look at the artistic disciplines as a set of languages insofar as they are different ways to express similar ideas. You can take an idea (democracy), a feeling (hopeless bleak despair), or an event (the Spanish Civil War), and one person can paint it, someone else can turn out a song about it, someone else could write a poem, another could write a play, make a sculpture, do a photo montage; each one of these is a valid, valuable interpretation. Each of them is different, even if based on the same inspiration.

Is there a parallel benefit, then, to appreciating more than one artistic discipline?

I certainly believe so. There is no doubt that an appreciation of theatre is increased by the study of literature or dance. Likewise, an appreciation for visual art and sculpture often go hand-in-hand. There is a fantastic trend in the “new media” (primarily electronic- and computer-based) arts to combine sculpture, visual elements, motion, and music in ways that defy categorization.

Science-fiction author Robert J. Heinlein once wrote that “specialization is for insects.” As much as it applies to the rest of human endeavour, I would say that it applies especially to the arts, and we are provided our richest aesthetic experiences by works that cross disciplines.

One day, I may even be able to say that in Ancient Greek.