The lovely folks at Playwrights Guild of Canada chose me as their Featured Playwright last month – I say lots of words about theatre, writing, diversity and community. Thanks PGC! You can read it here.
On Monday night at the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards, I was honoured to received the Sydney Risk Prize for Outstanding Script by an Emerging Playwright for Selfie. I also got to get up on stage with my very best friends in the world to accept the Jessie for Outstanding Musical – Small Theatre for Stationary: A Recession-Era Musical.
Awards are weird and wonderful (and then weird again). In an industry where merit and success so rarely meet, it’s a bit odd to take one night a year to declare a winner. But I think the real impulse is to celebrate and to come together – to recognize the hard work and to (try to) get all our beautiful, vibrant colleagues in one room to say, as Dawn Petten so beautifully put in her acceptance speech, that this is ‘our town’.
One of my favourite phrases is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. I believe this, absolutely. It’s the guiding principle of everything I do in the theatre. When we are at our best, we all win. And this experience has reminded me that I have been lifted by the people in this community – I am the beneficiary of programs and people who made room for me at the table. Sometimes as artists we live in a culture of scarcity that can trick us into thinking we can’t afford to lift everyone up, when in fact the truth is that we can’t afford to leave anyone behind. That night reminded me of the incredible generosity I’ve been shown in my short time in the professional world, and I intend to pass that kindness on to anyone I can. Win or lose, feast or famine, it won’t always be this good – so when the tides rise and we cast our nets, the bounty will be so much greater for having everyone on board.
I’m happy to be a contributor to the SpiderWebShow once again, this time as a thought resident for February 2015. What is a thought resident? According to Artistic Director Sarah Garton Stanley, “My desire is to offer a brief holiday from the mantle of your own thoughts and to give you the opportunity to unwind over a 30-second interlude with some of our country’s most interesting performance creators. Each month, I invite an artist to join us in our thought-space. In turn, we invite you to listen to their thoughts. New thoughts are born online each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. It is completely free and digitally intimate.”
Pretty neat eh? It starts today, and will have three thoughts per week until it rolls over to another artist. Tomorrow’s thought contains the word “nudity,” so if fall short in intellectual intrigue I can always fall back on sensationalism.
Thanks to Sarah and the SpiderWebShow team for inviting me to take part.
My dear friend and collaborator Mishelle and I wrote a little holiday song last night. Like the rest of the year, the holidays are as beautiful as they are sad, as joyful as they are hard. Here’s to surviving it all and sticking it out for another round.
I hate having my picture taken. I can’t remember when I started hating it, but the impulse to cringe every time I see a lens is muscle memory now. And in a sort of delicious circular irony, my self-loathing is evident on film and makes each picture worse than the last. There’s a feedback loop that follows – feeling bad, looking bad. And someone always makes the comment: “Aren’t actors supposed to love the camera?”
I think we all know now what young women (and people of all kinds, but I can only speak about what I know) are up against when it comes to self image. Women are given a million things to be, and only allowed a tiny space to do it in. And sometimes I feel like being an actor means jumping straight into the fire – until we add to and change the canon of Western theatre and drama, we’re often expected to embody the tropes that are part of this damaging system we grew up in. The more I look for it, the more I see it – women in plays whose beauty (or lack thereof) is as crucial a demonstration of their character as their words and actions. It strikes me that even in the medium that I love and trust, being beautiful is still an utterly essential thing to be.
And if you set yourself on the outside of that thing – for whatever reason – you wonder where your place is. I think about every time I ignored someone who said I was smart because all I wanted to be was beautiful. It’s hard to admit that, because beauty is political and frivolous and important all at the same time. It’s everything and it’s nothing, and it’s tied to history and privilege and capitalism and a million things that are hard to understand all at once. It’s also hard to talk about, because comparison is a weapon that is used to scare us all into silence. When someone speaks their personal shame, I may swallow it along with them because in my eyes they’re closer to some unattainable standard – if she’s not beautiful, then what am I?
We live in a shallow culture that deplores vanity. It’s this contradiction that makes me fascinated with the rise of the selfie. Egotistical, perhaps, but also a celebration of one’s own (personally vetted) beauty? Or is it the feedback loop again – seek approval to feel approved of? I want to participate somehow, but it doesn’t work for me. Every time – snap, cringe, delete. The only selfies I’ve kept were a hilarious series of ‘exhaustion selfies’ I took this summer when I was working too hard and looked like hell. The series culminated in a hospital selfie following a surgery resulting from a ridiculous (but minor) bike accident. I don’t know why I took them. I guess it’s because they were not beautiful at all, but they were the real thing.
I hate having my picture taken, but I love taking pictures. I decided to challenge myself to take a self portrait (I suppose it’s a selfie if it’s on an iPhone and a ‘self portrait’ on a DSLR, no? That’s what I’ll go with). I think, maybe with complete agency, I can do this – I set the lights, I pick the lens, I make my mirror face until I realize how dumb it really looks. I will set up the shot and then set the timer and snap away at myself until I find my perfect face. A beautiful face.
I only liked three photos, which were taken before I was ready. They are a portrait of myself in a moment where I am not concerned if I am beautiful or not. In these photos I see myself starting to slowly unclench, finger by finger, letting go of the bullshit I’ve held onto for so long. I see myself not giving a fuck if I’ll ever be a leading lady or not. I see myself existing just for myself. And for once, I see myself as beautiful.
I expected it to be quiet at Joe Creek. I’m here at The Only Animal‘s beautiful artist retreat thanks to Playwrights Theatre Centre, who gave me a week here to work. It’s a beautiful, bright cottage nestled between forest and ocean. It’s a perfect place to be creative, and I have the place to myself.
But I brought the noise with me.
I came here knowing I would do rewrites on a couple plays already well into their development, scheduled for production and with a host of other people involved. However I mostly came here to work on a new piece, a quiet little voice that’s been whispering to me.
When I was younger, I was a total romantic. The list of my favourite movies and plays reads like an index of tragic romance. I can’t seem to help it. The thing is, I’m also a brutal pragmatist. Since romantics aren’t known for their survival skills, I’ve found myself leaning more and more to that side of myself, hearing the violins and proclamations of love fading farther and farther away. But this little voice insists there’s a story to tell – a love story about everything I know now.
That damn pragmatist is being too loud. Every time I start to write, I hear a barrage of is it produceable? Is that trite? Don’t you think that’s a bit derivative? And so I frequently storm out of the cottage into the outdoors, looking for quiet. There’s a beautiful forest right on the property – due to my almost compulsive refusal to do things the way I’m supposed to, I immediately forget the paths that Kendra showed me, crashing through the forest, carefully leaping over saplings and ferns. How can I start without structure, what’s the action of this scene, what’s the thematic- SHUT UP SHUT UP and the forest loses this time. I take a few gulps of air and I head back.
Either I know nothing about how to write a play, or the things that I do know are making it impossible. My heart and my brain are at war. So I pack my bag and run down to the beach. I want to swim in the ocean. I want it. My heart wants it. But the beaches here are rocky and hard to walk, the water thick with seaweed. Beautiful to look at and so hard to tackle. I remember the warnings in the artist’s handbook. I remember the repeated warnings of my mom and boyfriend to be careful. I’m on a mission though. When I get to the beach I looked, awed, at the shimmering blue of the water, the immaculate clear sky. I drop my bag, pull off my shoes. My feet sizzle on the rocks so I keep moving.
I hit the water and wow, it’s cold. This seemed like a nice idea but the pragmatist guarantees it will not end well. I push on. I can no longer see my feet and they slip on seaweed then catch on sharp barnacles – I fall and slice my hand on something sharp below the surface. It looks nasty and deep but while it’s bleeding hard it doesn’t hurt much and is clearly not fatal. On I go – how, I saw some teenagers swimming here yesterday, how did they do that? Are they born with callused feet or what? Quietly, I hear so get off your feet. Right. I launch into a doggy paddle, just deep enough not to kick the bottom. My breasts immediately fall out of my fashionable but inefficient bikini dammit dammit dammit but I realize there’s no need to be mortified because there’s no one around to see. And despite there being no one around, I am not suddenly pulled under by some invisible current, not dragged below by a patch of seaweed. I am awkwardly flopping along the water but I am still alive. Please, please, I beg. Don’t make me feel stupid for wanting this. Let me have this. And then years of community centre swim lessons come back to me and I roll onto my back, a starfish on the surface of the water. The ocean’s invisible hands buoy me up and I am floating, the sun winking above. Now it’s still, and the only sounds are the water lapping against my ears and my breathing slowing down.
Every act is an act of courage. You need your heart to push you on and your brain to keep you safe. One without the other, and you’ll drown for sure. I did it. There it is, the quiet.
I can hear it now. My story.
For the first time in 5 years, I’m not working at a theatre box office. Before I started university, I decided I’d rather my day job be in the theatre – in any capacity – rather than not related to the arts at all. Eventually, I ended up working for 3 different box offices. I feel like I’ve sold thousands of tickets – and I probably have. For the first time since getting that job five years ago, my artistic pursuits now take up my entire schedule. I’ve said goodbye to the box office. It’s extremely exciting, a little bit scary, and most surprisingly, it’s a little sad.
Because for as much as I have been driven insane with typical customer service absurdity (there’s a tumblr for it) I have also had the pleasure of meeting countless wonderful people and been privy to some pretty special stories about how the theatre has touched people’s lives. There are too many to tell of. The awkward first dates. The middle-aged man who decided to perform the balcony scene to me from my box office window at Bard in front of his mortified family (obviously I joined in). The group of old friends – now elderly – who come to the theatre together each month, even as their numbers dwindle as the years go by. These are the people that fill the seats of our theatres, and they are in so many ways the heartbeat of a professional theatre.
I’ve learned a lot about theatre audiences over the last five years, and I want to write down a few things so that I never forget them.
AUDIENCES KNOW WHAT THEY LIKE
Honestly, there’s nothing I hate more than hearing artists or administrators express contempt for their audiences and their taste. Yes – I absolutely agree that as artists, we have a responsibility to uphold the standards of the work in our community, and to always be improving and exploring our practice. And we can do just that by executing populist programming with the same care and rigor with which we approach all other work. But how dare we say that audiences enjoy shows we deem ‘unworthy’ because they don’t know any better? Ridiculous. Theatre audiences have TV, they have Netflix, they have a billion movies to see. They have plenty of choices. But they put the money down and come to certain shows because they like them. And they come back because they want to share the experience again. And if it’s crap? They will not return. I would love to stop dismissing these audiences and shows, and rather see them as the beginning of a love affair between patron and theatre. Maybe it took a blockbuster show to get them in the door, but if we treat them well, invite them back with care and consideration – they just might come to your Butoh-inspired post-modern Hamlet with lots of projections you want them to see.
COMING TO THE THEATRE IS A BIG DEAL
There’s a special place in my heart for the patrons who overcome significant physical, circumstantial or financial difficulty to come to the theatre. There are a lot of them, and our work means more to them than I think we understand. And sometimes I wonder about how these are the folks who tend to end up with the worst seats, with the bumpiest audience experience. Accessibility is an essential word – what is the experience like for someone with mobility issues? Someone with vision or hearing impairment? Every person’s budget for entertainment is different, but why should someone for whom a theatre ticket is 50% of their monthly budget have a different experience than someone for whom it’s 10%? These are tricky questions, and I think our audience services practices in Vancouver have moved closer to tackling this in some ways, and much farther away in others.
Regardless, spending endless hours on the phone with patrons has revealed to me the stakes involved in coming to see a show. Buying a ticket has more than monetary value – it’s what someone has chosen to do with their one evening off, what they choose to show their aunt from out-of-town, the special treat they’ve given a spouse or child. There is value there far beyond what they paid for their ticket. And sure, for us sometimes it’s just another night of work, another show in and out, another house count. But for most patrons it’s the highlight of their week or month and a highly anticipated event. How can we support that value in the way we treat our patrons before and after the show?
AUDIENCES ARE AS COMPLICATED AS THE WORK ON STAGE
My wish is that everyone reading this says the word “target audience” three times out loud and then never again. STOP saying that you are targeting an audience. It sounds like you are going to shoot them, and I honestly believe the thinking behind it is as mean as its imagery. Non-profit theatre is desperate to “engage” audiences, and to find those eagerly sought-after demographics. To rip them from their homes and strap them to a theatre seat, shouting “THIS IS FOR YOU! DO YOU LIKE IT?!” Kay, that might be a bit dramatic, but that’s what it feels like sometimes. But I will say this – to me, art is all about embracing both the oneness and diversity of the human experience. Every story is a unique snapshot of a critical moment in time – and guess what? So are our real lives. When you create and market a show assuming or hoping that all “middle class women between 45-65” (or my favorite cryptic demographic, “young people”) will enjoy it, the work is likely to be as generic and non-specific as the people you’re targeting.
The people sitting in the house each night have lived. They’ve met people, loved them, married them, lost them, buried them or are sitting next to them. They’ve traveled, made mistakes, made families, had killer careers or did drugs in a basement suite for 3 years before moving to Montreal. Stop assuming that their age, gender or income is going to tell you what kind of show they’re going to like. An example – when selling tickets to a highly lauded new American play, we warned audiences (as of course, I believe we should) about the content and language. The assumption was that the older people would be turned off by that. The number one response I got from elderly ticket buyers? “Sweetheart, I’ve heard it all.”
The plays people love the most are fiercely original, bravely vulnerable and honest to the last word. It doesn’t matter what the show is – I’ve seen hot sell-out shows that were musicals, puppet shows, character dramas or solo shows. Those shows have nothing in common except the ferocity of the work on stage, something no ‘targeted’ marketing can create. And nothing touches me more than to have patrons see a show, and call back the next day to buy more tickets because they must share the experience with the people they love. That is how the job is supposed to be done. We tell stories of critical importance that make those watching feel known, that bring us together. That’s the gig, guys.
It’s not as if we are not all always trying to be better at bringing in audiences. But if anything, writing this out is a way to purge my many long-held beliefs about audience services before I bid it adieu. But I can’t do something for 5 years without learning from it and wanting to share those things. So in brief, some thoughts:
ARTISTS – I honestly believe that every theatre practitioner should work with audiences (Front of House or Box Office) as much as they can, especially early in their careers. You will learn things about our work that you’d never think of on your own. It will change your perception of the value of theatre, and it will change the rigour with which you tend to your craft. And when you go back to work, don’t forget the people putting on the show on the other side of the curtain – y’all have a lot in common.
LEADERS – EDs, ADs, GMs, APs or whatever you are calling yourself – if you run a theatre, take one day during every run to get out of the office and come to your theatre instead. Come early. Watch who shows up first. Where do they sit while they wait? Who is taking care of them? Talk to them. Find out why they come to your theatre. Watch the front door. Can people with mobility issues easily access your facility? Do your staff have the resources they need to help them? How does the lobby feel? Can you hear people complaining about your ticket prices? Can they take drinks into the theatre? Do your staff have the resources they need to make things go well? Talk to the people who are there alone. Talk to the people who never miss a show. They will tell you a lot. Treat your front-line staff well, make sure they don’t burn out, and LISTEN to them. The people who talk to your patrons every single day can tell you a lot about programming and marketing.
BO/FOH/BAR – Stay patient, stay nice, and stay fun. Sometimes putting shows in feels like hosting a party every night. Sometimes it feels like a war zone. Fight for the resources you need to do your job properly, and speak up if you feel your company is treating its patrons badly with policy or practice. And never, never stop sneaking snacks into the box office.
AUDIENCES – Keep coming to the theatre. Bring a friend. Buy a ticket, come with an open mind. Talk about it after, and tell the theatre what you like or don’t care for. Write down your order number and for God’s sake, show up on time, okay?
And thank you, thank you for coming.