Sunday, 16 April 2017
First of all I want to say this: I am very pleased J. Kelly Nestruck exists. It’s heartening to know someone is writing a column in a major newspaper about theories of the theatre. In this bottom-line, mega-corporate, digitally dominated world, the fact that a heterosexual male holding a position of power is interested in debating aesthetics gives me hope.
That said, I must take issue with all this talk about ‘liveness.’ J. Kelly, like Jordan Tannahill before him (in his recent book Theatre of the Unimpressed) is intent on stressing the seemingly statutory imperative of the day -- that all theatrical performances must acknowledge that they are ‘live,’ and that we must immediately cease attempting to suspend our disbelief.
Respectfully, I disagree.
I am certainly tired of having ‘liveness’ stuffed down my throat. I saw two productions last week in which an actor from the play stepped forward at the end and spoke directly to us to remind us that we were watching a play. One of the plays was fabulous, the other was not -- this device didn’t stop me from enjoying the one play and hating the other -- but I am just dreadfully tired of a technique that has become trendy but doesn’t make sense.
At the heart of this discussion is the fallacious notion that there is such a thing as ‘reality’ in the theatre. The notion that if we are watching actors who are playing themselves or who -- as is mentioned in J. Kelly’s recent article -- even bother to acknowledge that they are acting in a play, then we are watching something that is more ‘real’ than a play in which actors are playing fictional characters saying made-up lines. But why would anyone think actors onstage are ever being real? Let’s leave aside the ultra-loaded post-modernist question (What is real?), or the issue of whether or not we are ever ‘real in real life. As soon as people walk onstage and perform, they are doing something fake. They are, at the very least, being themselves for ‘public consumption,’ and in this era of celebrity worship we know exactly what that means. Let me tell you, I know a lot of actors personally, and as much as I love them, they are masters at keeping you away from what they are really thinking -- because they are, well -- actors. That’s their job.
As far as I’m concerned, Brecht took the whole matter as far as it can go. Everyone loves the notion that we are improving, that our theatre is getting more and more ‘real’. But though Brecht acknowledged a play could alternately engage you and alienate you, that actors might step in and out of their parts -- he never completely abandoned plot, or the notion of fiction or characters. He was smart enough to know it was folly to imagine that theatre could ever be ‘real.’
When directors create what they think is the ultimate ‘reality’ in theatre it usually ends up feeling a lot like group therapy.
There is no craft. (I know, I mentioned that horrible word, craft).
Anyway, pillory me if you like, or just ignore me (which is most likely) or call me old-fashioned (which many have done before).
But I’m awfully tired of ‘liveness.’
Saturday, 1 April 2017
There’s something wrong with theatre these days.
There are two, maybe ten people turning up sometimes. Is it because the plays are bad? Or is it because the audiences are stupid?
I’ve long enjoyed bashing audiences. And as condo-dwellers take over the downtown core and we all becomes more suburban, I can’t help noticing that audiences are becoming stupider.There’s not much we can do about that. Kinky Boots sure seems experimental for those whose main entertainment diet consists of Batman and Cinderella.
But I’m not going to complain about Toronto audiences here; I’m going to complain about the plays.
After all, a really good play can tempt even the most complacent suburban patron to leave the house.
But the plays these days are dull. No wonder people aren’t going.
In Theatre of the Unimpressed, Jordan Tannahill makes the case that the best theatre emphasizes its liveness.
I think liveness is important, but you can be as ‘live’ as you want, and still devise a bad play
These days, from the moment a play starts you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Period. And I’m not talking about melodrama, or ‘whodunnit.’ I’m talking about the moral issues that a good play might choose to debate, present, or hide as subtext.
These days plays are about oppression, or wrongdoing, or evil, and the author always tells us who the oppressors, wrongdoers or evildoers are.
So where’s he moral suspense?
Where’s he dangerous fun?
We don’t know much about Shakespeare; but we do know he could write a great play. And it isn’t so much that Shakespeare isn’t interested in ideas or opinions (actually his plays contain lots them) it’s that he mastered one of the most important principles of classical rhetoric:
Never let the audience know where your real sympathies lie.
A great debater can convincingly argue both sides of the abortion issue; a great playwright can make us believe that any character -- even Macbeth, Richard III or Iago is still somewhat sympathetic.
Bad plays aren’t going to stop me from going to the theatre; believe me, I love all theatre, no matter how bad it is.
But if we’re going to lure Toronto audiences away from Broadway pap, we’re going to have to do better than that.
Thursday, 16 March 2017
Dear Stephen Sondheim,
I'm writing this because I was sitting on the bus this afternoon listening to Barbra Streisand sing ‘Send in The Clowns’ on my ‘Best of’ Barbra Streisand album. Now usually, when I’m listening to anyone sing ‘Send in the Clowns’ I can’t get Elizabeth Taylor from the movie version out of my head. You know that moment Steve (can I call you Steve, like Oscar Hammerstein used to?) -- that moment when Elizabeth Taylor gazes down at her own humungous breasts in that terrifyingly low-cut gown and inquires “Are we a pair?”
But today it was another lyric that struck me --
“Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer? Losing my timing, this late in my career?”
Okay, I’ll say it.
Why, oh why Steve, did you have to use the word ‘queer’? I mean couldn’t you have written --
“Isn’t it rich? Isn’t odd? Losing my timing this late in my job?”
Hm. I guess that’s not quite as good.
Maybe that’s why you’re Stephen Sondheim and I’m not.
But you see the point is Steve that there are loads of words that rhyme with ‘career’. The problem with queer is that it doesn’t just mean ‘odd’ it also means ‘homosexual.’ And I’m sure you’re aware of this Steve -- as you are gay -- a lot of little gay boys just love your musicals. And when they run to their parents to play them their favourite song they have to watch as Dad winces when Barbra (Elizabeth Taylor, or Glynis Johns) sings ‘isn’t it queer’ thinking ‘Oh no, Dad knows what that means. It means....me!’
Now I could understand if you don’t want to do this right now. Maybe you don’t want to change the lyric at this late date.
I mean after all, A Little Night Music is kind of a masterpiece, and all.
I have another idea.
There’s still time for you to write that big, gay musical! (Jerry Herman did it!) I mean do you want to die (sorry to bring that up, really I am, but-) without writing your big gay ‘opus’? You don’t want to end up like Edward Albee, do you? Gay, dead and no gay opus?
I wouldn’t think so.
I hope I haven’t offended you.
It was...well it was just a suggestion.
And I hope I didn’t step out of bounds by calling you Steve, Mr. Sondheim.
It’s just that after hearing your work I just feel we are so close.
Saturday, 11 March 2017
I eagerly attended the documentary about James Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro. I was especially excited because Baldwin has always been somewhat of a hero for me; a gay misfit whose iconic and beautiful gay novel Giovanni’s Room changed so many lives.
Well lo and behold, as I sat through the flic I became more and more befuddled. Had I imagined it? Was James Baldwin actually straight? He certainly doesn’t talk about his gayness in this particular documentary -- although at one point in the movie Baldwin answers someone’s accusation that he was a homosexual (without speaking of being gay).
So just to set the record straight (or should I say crooked?): James Baldwin was gay. Or perhaps to be completely accurate, I should say he was homosexual (as the term ‘gay’ didn’t come into common parlance until the end of his life). His sex life was somewhat complicated by the fact that he was quite effeminate and not beautiful in a traditional way. Also, his preference was for straight and bisexual men. The love of Baldwin’s life was Lucien Happsberger, a 17 year old, white, bisexual Swiss artist whom Baldwin met in Paris. Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room (published in 1956) tells a very tragic -- some might say discouraging -- gay tale; but no one could argue that it was not enormously revolutionary for its time.
So why make a documentary about Baldwin and ignore the fact that he was gay?
The most obvious answer is homophobia. It would appear that anti-racists are afraid of muddying their cause by bringing sexuality into the discussion. If you are trying to convince racists in a homophobic society that black people are okay it might hurt your argument to admit that some black men are gay.
However, the buck doesn’t stop with I Am Not Your Negro. The film is just one of many instances of race trumping sexuality. When someone is black and gay it seems to be more important to talk about racism than homophobia.
I heard via the grapevine that the Academy Award winning film Moonlight was a film about a gay black man. I went to see it, and outside of one brief scene of adolescent masturbation the leading characters are unable to come to terms with their sexuality; as adults they can hardly speak of their teenage shenanigans, and they barely touch. The website rogerebert.comsays the film is about “a boy and then a man who has trouble figuring out his place in the world.” Elsewhere I have seen the film described as being about ‘friendship.’
I am (as you may have guessed) a white gay man. Some will say that I don’t have any right to talk about this because I don’t understand what it means to be black. I will accept the latter but not the former.
Believe me, I don’t want to write about this. But someone has to.
Thursday, 2 March 2017
Have you heard about PrEP?
Well if you have, you could be forgiven for being confused.
PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a drug that stops HIV negative people from becoming infected with HIV. Simply put, if you are HIV negative and you take it and then have sex with someone HIV positive who is not wearing protection, it is highly unlikely that you will become infected with HIV.
But exactly what you know about PrEP depends a lot on where you get your information.
The San Francisco AIDS Foundation says that “for people who take 7 PrEP pills per week, their estimated level of protection is 99%”
Sounds great! I’m gonna get some PrEP!
The Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta says “Daily PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%.”
Hm...that doesn’t sound quite as good.
And what does Toronto’s own associate officer of medical health Dr. Rita Shahin say? “People on PrEP … could be more likely to acquire STIs because they may not be using condoms.”
Gee Whiz. Thanks for the useful information, Rita!
What is going on here? What is the conspiracy of silence -- which is really a conspiracy of lies -- surrounding a drug that could change our lives? Why is it that the only time we hear about PrEP on CBC is when a doctor is advising us not to take it? PrEP is a major breakthrough in the fight against AIDS. HIV negative people can now protect themselves from being HIV positive. Why isn’t this news being shouted from the rooftops?
Most importantly, why aren’t gay men happy about PrEP and why aren’t they ‘spreading the news’?
Could it be guilt? Could it be shame? Could it be that all these years of people telling us that AIDS is God’s punishment for our sexuality has actually made us hate ourselves? I understand that PrEP doesn’t protect against Syphilis, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia and Hepatitis, and people should still wear condoms. But that is a separate issue.
The real news is this: THE PLAGUE THEY SAID WOULD KILL US ALL IS NOW UNDER CONTROL!
Is there some reason why no one seems to want people to know about the effectiveness of PrEP?
It’s a question that plagues me.
And honestly, I’m very afraid of the answer.
Saturday, 18 February 2017
Have you ever heard of Titus Burgess? I had not seen nor heard of him until, recently, I happened on a horrible commercial that features him. Let me say right off the bat that Burgess is a very talented actor (and I’m sure, singer) and none of this is his his fault. I don’t hold him responsible; he was offered a high paying gig and he took it.
I do, however, hold our homophobic culture responsible.
The offending commercial can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlvgDQhEBZI .
In this commercial, Titus Burgess extols the virtues of -- of all things -- Unstopables In-Wash Scent Boosters by Downy.
Please do rush out and buy these pretty little beads so you can drop them effortlessly into your wash.
Titus Burgess is a large, effeminate, out, gay black man. But it should be evident to anyone that he is gay because he has made somewhat of a career being Broadway’s premiere ‘gay’ actor/singer. Wikipedia tells us that he is known for his high tenor voice. In 2013 he performed "And I Am Telling You..." from the Broadway musical Dreamgirls at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraising concert. He was the first male cast as The Witch in Into the Woods in 2015.
Let me tell you, nothing could be gayer than Titus Burgess.
So let there be no doubt that Titus Burgess -- being the only out gay Broadway star I’ve ever heard of besides Nathan Lane -- is, in this Downey commercial, meant to represent all gay men, since -- when was the last time you saw a real gay man playing a gay man in a commercial, anyway?
In this detestable ad Titus says “Downey Unstopables last up to twelve weeks -- which is longer than any relationship I’ve ever been in!” Then he cries. That is, he cries fake tears about his inability to maintain a long-term relationship.
I know what you’re thinking. Can’t I take a joke?
In a word, no. What if there was a joke in a commercial about how Asian men have small penises? Or about how women aren’t very good at math? These ‘jokes’ might be funny to some people but that wouldn’t stop me from finding them offensive.
Just to set the record straight, what this commercial is saying about gay relationships is not true. Have you looked at the heterosexual divorce rate in the USA? Basically one third of marriages will end in divorce. Gay marriage, in fact, holds a much greater promise of success than straight marriage because we queers tend to be more honest about infidelity than straights; some of us even admit to having open relationships, or champion polyamory.
I have to say it’s disheartening to see the old gay stereotypes trotted out once again in 2017. Has nothing changed? And this commercial is not just homophobic but racist. Downy thinks the ‘exotic’ quality of a black man will help us to tolerate his flamboyant gayness (blacks are very, well - flamboyant, don’t you know?)
This commercial is homophobic and racist and should be off the air.
Thursday, 2 February 2017
If you’re like me, you’re tired of those gorgeous young people stepping forward to stand and deliver those sappy, untuneful songs from RENT, reducing us all to tears with their mundane stories about pretty dying drag queens who -- conveniently for all of us -- have had very few lines to say and very few gay kisses to share onstage.
If you’re like me, you’re hoping that RENT -- that smarmfull heap of sentimental liberal garbage -- written so that middle class people can congratulate themselves on how much they care about the poor and the sick -- will never be produced in Toronto again (especially at the actor-exploiting Lower Ossington Theatre).
Because, unfortunately, RENT has now come to Toronto for real. Apparently THE STOREFRONT THEATRE has been kicked out of it’s downtown digs, where it has been providing challenging Toronto theatre fare for years, because of (what’s he excuse?) oh yes, fire regulations.
Right. If the City of Toronto and the Government of Ontario care so much about fires, why don’t they give the TAC and the OAC enough money to fund THE STOREFRONT THEATRE so that they can bring their old space up to code? Instead these governments are complicit in destroying Toronto’s most vital performance spaces.
I’ll tell you what the problem is. People are moving to downtown Toronto so that they can be a part of a vital culturally exciting city that nurtures the arts, right? But what happens when there is no vital culturally exciting arts city anymore -- because real artists can’t afford to live and work there?
I don’t know how to tell you this, but not everybody is old and rich -- which means that not everyone prefers to hobble to their seat at the Opera, the Ballet and Soulpepper.
Not everyone is a young trendy Annex family that wants their ‘experimental’ French Canadian dance/theatre piece at Canstage to be over by 9 pm so they can hurry home for a cup of cacao-free cocoa.
No. Some of us want to drink and stay out all night, and yes -- get laid. And to facilitate all that, we want the theatre to be stimulating, perhaps shocking, and perhaps even cause us just a little bit of very sexy discomfort (there’s nothing like a little friction to turn you on!).
I fondly remember Brandon Crone’s foray into gay kink -- NATURE OF THE BEAST that featured a sexy boy tied up in the basement. I remember Tyrone Savage directing his own parents in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF -- if that’s not perverted, what is? I remember a lot of other shocking, groundbreaking productions at STOREFRONT, and some of them were actually Canadian.
The Storefront theatre is now looking for a new home -- and I sure hope they find it. But what if they don’t? And what if they can’t afford the new space? And what is happening to the small theatre community in this town? Does anybody care?
Think of that the next time you’re crying your salty tears for Angel in RENT and patting yourself on the back for caring about the arts community by going to see a stinking pile of hypocritical crap for the thousandth time!
Yeah. Think about it.