Archives for March 2012

Wilde Thing

In my review of director David Mackay’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, I said that his take is vulgar. Because it is. There’s a fart joke, a cunt joke (yep using the word), and a penis joke (see the above photo). Rather than concentrating on Wilde’s language, in which the characters unwittingly skewer their own upper-class idiocy, Mackay lays on slapstick. And, instead of letting the characters’ superficial good manners play against their underlying viciousness, Mackay turns the Stanley Theatre’s stage into a physical combat zone—ruining the joke.

So far, that review has generated 36 comments. The conversational thread has unraveled now but, for the most part, I’ve appreciated the level of the discussion very much. (Check it all out at http://www.straight.com/article-642931/vancouver/arts-club-theatres-importance-being-earnest-exercise-vulgarity.)

I’m concerned, though, that some who have commented seem to think that I’m saying there’s only one way to perform The Importance of Being Earnest. I’m not. I just want to see a production that works. For me, the problem with Mackay’s interpretation is that it is rarely funny; all of the desperately coarse goop that he lays on top of the script obscures its superior comic riches.

Yes, I do think it’s important to respect the nature of the text, but there are a lot of ways to do that. Even within relatively traditional productions of The Importance of Being Earnest, there’s plenty of room for discovery. I have seen some very funny and very different Lady Bracknells. I haven’t seen a revolutionary production of Earnest but, if a company can successfully re-envision a play—any play—in a fundamental way, more power to them.

I remember Larry Lillo’s interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Playhouse a number of years ago. I see that script as a dialectic between Eros and death, and Lillo was certainly working within that framework. In doing so, he respected the nature of the text, in my view. He also gave me an experience of the play I’d never had before, an experience in which death held a stranglehold from the beginning. At the time that Larry was directing that show, he was sick with AIDS and, in his Streetcar, death was everywhere. The set’s heavy metal ceiling loomed above delicate cloth walls. There was no hope, as there usually is, in Blanche’s courtship with Mitch; Blanche was so vicious and Mitch such a wimp that you knew if they ever got together she’d eat him alive.

More recently, at Bard on the Beach, director Rachel Ditor reinvented The Merchant of Venice for me by putting Antonio’s love for Bassanio firmly in the centre of the production where it has every right to be. The text supports that angle. And I loved Dean Paul Gibson’s playfully postmodern vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Bard and Scott Bellis’s steam-punk A Comedy of Errors at Studio 58.

I agree that it’s a terrible idea to try to treat theatrical works as museum pieces, which is why I complained that, although Blackbird Theatre’s recent production of Waiting for Godot was admirable in many ways, it also felt overly familiar.

So by all means open up the text for me, but please don’t pave it over.

One more thing before I go: In the comment thread, some people champion the idea that it’s okay to bastardize scripts to get bums in seats. Mackay’s Earnest may or may not do well at the box office. But, as I see it, that’s not the point. The point is that pandering to the lowest common denominator degrades the experience of going to the theatre. We’ve already got Wipeout on TV. Is that the direction we want to go at the Stanley?

What I DO when I’m editing your work

If you’re a writer, you might want to know what I actually do when I’m editing your work.

Basically, I read your manuscript three times.

THE FIRST READ

The first read-through is all about my visceral responses to your story. On this reading, I take very few notes, but I do record the places when I laugh or cry or get bored. And, if I’m really into the story and I get that little knot at the base of my skull that tells me I’m excited, I’ll make a note of that.

By the end of the first reading, I’ve got an overview of what’s working and what’s not, so I record my impressions.  What images do I remember? What characters do I like?  Do I care about what’s going on?

THE SECOND READ

On the second read-through, I do the bulk of the grunt work. I break every chapter down into units of action. It’s a time-consuming thing to do but, in paying such close attention, I get to know the mechanics of the book intimately. It’s amazing how fruitful this process is. And, as a bonus, I get a step-by-step reference guide to your plot.

As I’m breaking your chapters down into units of action, I pay close attention to the narrative structure. What’s the hero’s goal? What steps does she take to try to reach her goal? How does her understanding of her goal change and deepen? This is where the three-act template, which I’ve also written about on this blog comes into play. What steps of that template are in place? What steps are missing? Are there steps that could be strengthened?

As I’m considering these questions, I’m also formulating strategies that I might offer to you, the author, approaches to the story that might help you improve your next draft. I might come up with suggestions for missing steps, for instance. Or, if I think a plot progression isn’t working, I’ll try to think of an alternative order that might help to clarify the story or increase its tension.

Most substantive editors don’t offer as many suggestions as I do—many offer none at all—but I find that offering plot points makes the discussion more concrete. It helps me to think things through. And you’re still the author; you can do whatever you want with my suggestions. You can use them as-is.  You might find that they spark new ideas in you. Or they might simply illustrate a principle that I’m trying to get at.

When I’ve finished reading your manuscript for the second time, I begin to compose my notes for you. In my author’s notes, I always start off by praising what’s working. Then I identify the areas in which I think that there are opportunities for improvement. And, as I do so, I offer strategies for improvement. After I’ve addressed the big, conceptual issues, I sometimes do a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of more detailed issues.

These notes are hefty; I go into much more detail than most substantive editors do. It’s not unusual for me to write an author letter that’s more than 20 to 50 pages long on a full-length manuscript. But authors tell me that the notes are helpful and they appreciate the thoroughness and attention to detail.

THIRD READ

Before I send my notes to the publisher, if there is one, and to you, I read the manuscript for a third time.

This read-through is to make sure that everything I’m saying actually makes sense and that I haven’t gone off on some theoretical tangent or missed something that’s really obvious.

Virtually every time, I refine my notes as a result of this reading.

FOLLOW-UP

I always ask authors to get back to me with questions or concerns, which we can usually handle by email or over the phone.

When authors send me ensuing drafts—often, it’s a good idea to do two or more rounds of substantive editing—I am always gratified and sometimes amazed by the improvements. In my experience, authors are a responsive and creative bunch.

If you have questions about the editorial process, don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

Up Close and Dysfunctional

If you can get in, the show to see this week is Bob Frazer’s production of Hedda Gabler at Roedde House in the West End.

Anna Cummer (above) plays Hedda and, in Cummer’s interpretation, Hedda feels almost sociopathic; it’s clear that she just doesn’t understand the feelings of people around her yet, paradoxically, she longs for beauty. Very nice.

And, playing the much more sympathetic Thea Elvsted, Dawn Pettern delivers the best work I’ve seen her do.

My take is that the melodramatic script would be more at home in a less intimate setting. That said, it’s great to watch these actors working at such close range. You can check out my full review at straight.com.

Hedda Gabler runs at Roedde House until March 31, but they only let in 20 people a night, so book now if you can.

Goodbye to the Playhouse

Max Reimer can’t be held responsible for the death of the Playhouse. I don’t think Max was the right person for the job, but nobody has been the right person since Larry Lillo; Glynis Leyshon wasn’t and Susan Cox certainly wasn’t.

The Playhouse couldn’t have had a nicer guy at the helm than Max. He’s generous, warm, and approachable. Under his leadership, the Playhouse became a genuine community player, more open than it has ever been to acting as a resource for smaller companies, sharing resources such as rehearsal space, props, and costumes. And Max has been involved in some terrific cooperative initiatives, including the recent and unforgettable co-pro with the Electric Company, All the Way Home.

The Playhouse was already sinking when Max came onboard and he was hired under ridiculous terms. He was expected to be both company manager and artistic director. Those are two full-time jobs and, not so long ago, the Playhouse announced that it was going to divvy them back up, with Max staying on as manager—which is, I suspect, where his skills really lie.

It seems pretty clear that, when the Playhouse board hired Max to be artistic director, they hoped that they were getting a fixer. Max had steered the Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend, Ontario, through its most lucrative years and, as director of Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius, Max resolved a five million dollar debt and won himself a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Business in the Arts.

But, in hiring a business fixer, the board left out an important part of the equation: artistic vision. That’s the element that has been missing at the Playhouse for decades.

Artistically, Vancouver is a long way from Hamilton or Grand Bend. And, within Vancouver’s theatre scene, the Playhouse occupies a prestigious position.

When Larry Lillo took over the Playhouse, he opened his first season with Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, a tough, poetic show about violence and gender. In doing so, he served notice that we were in for an exciting ride. Don’t get me wrong; Larry also served up some middle-of-the-road fare, including Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. But, generally speaking, he kept us on our toes, with revelatory interpretations of the classics, including Much Ado About Nothing and A Streetcar Named Desire, and unabashedly political work by Dario Fo, Athol Fugard, and Michel Tremblay. By challenging the audience, Lillo built the subscription base to record levels.

Then Susan Cox took over. Nice woman. Music hall queen. Completely wrong sensibility. Enough said.

Glynis Leyshon looked good on paper. Glynis is a very, very bright woman. But, in my conversations with her, she spoke more than once about programming for a “mass audience” at the Playhouse. But the Playhouse audience isn’t a mass audience; it’s an elite audience. And I’m not just talking about them being well heeled; I’m talking about their level of artistic sophistication. As I see it, this is an audience that wants to be challenged; condescending to it or failing to live up to its expectations will only result in a drop-off in subscriptions, which is exactly what we’ve seen. When the Arts Club took over the Stanley, artistic director Bill Millerd consciously programmed up for the space; he knew that, in that kind of venue, the audience would expect a greater level of sophistication. That’s what was needed at the Playhouse.

I’m sure that, through the seasons, the various boards of governors at the Playhouse have worked extremely hard to keep the institution afloat. I’m not knockin’ ’em, but I am saying that, in an arts organization, artistic vision can’t take a back seat to business concerns.

And, of course, the Playhouse was a leaky ship in many ways. It was ridiculous, for instance, that the city allowed them so little control over their venue that they couldn’t hold over their hits and that they had to move their sets to accommodate weekly afternoon concerts.

Before I shut up, I want to wave the tattered Canadian flag. Canadian arts funding has helped to create a culture in which audiences relish challenge. You don’t see that so much in the US theatrical scene, which runs on a more free-enterprise, lowest-common-denominator model. Supposedly big-deal shows that come out of the system are consistently disappointing. Think of Intimate Apparel or, God help us, Circle Mirror Transformation, both of which the Arts Club has produced recently. In the US, these shows are touted as adventuresome, but they’re boring. That’s why we have to continue to defend Canadian arts funding against philistines like Stephen Harper, and why artistic and social challenge, as well as fiscal responsibility have to remain priorities in our artistic institutions.

There have been some interesting comments on this post. Thanks for sending them. To read ’em, hit the Comments hypertext at the top of the post. – CT

 

 

Save Frog and Toad!

The teachers’ job actions, which I fully support, may have an unintended casualty: Carousel Theatre’s production of A Year with Frog and Toad. I saw this production last season and it’s lovely. Todd Talbot is a charmingly effervescent Frog, and Josue Laboucaine is replacing Alan Zinyk as Toad. The material is clever and Yulia Shtern’s costumes are a treat.

So don’t let Frog and Toad get squished!

My Picks: Genocide and Dementia

Michael Redhill’s script, Goodness (pictured above) has been touring internationally for seven years. Both the production and the script have been getting rave reviews everywhere from Edinburgh to New York.

The play is about a recently divorced guy who travels to Poland to investigate what happened to family members during the Holocaust. On his way home through London, he meets a woman who survived a more recent twentieth-century genocide. Apparently, the script asks tough questions in compelling ways.

Goodness runs March 6 to 11 at the Firehall as part of the Chutzpah Festival. My sense is that this is going to be one of THE shows to see this year.

I also encourage you to bathe yourself in the talent that’s washing around the tiny stage at the Havana Theatre in King Lear.

It’s directed by Kevin Bennett, the same guy who brought us such an exceptional Hamlet at the Havana last season. Simon Webb’s somewhat mannered performance in the title role didn’t always work for me but, when he gets to the heart of the matter, it’s moving. There’s always lots to watch, including Emma Slipp’s Regan and Sebastien Kroon’s Fool. And Bennett’s staging is both innovative and effective. This show runs until March 17, but seating is limited, so book now.