Letters, Reviews & Speeches

Every time I sit down to start work on a new play I ask myself "What can I do to make this play different from the last one." Like most writers I tend to work with a repertoire of characters who sometimes reappear in different guises and to offset that I try to find a style for the story that's somehow different that what I've done before. When I started my newest play, Cold Meat Party, I had to take into account the preceding play, Snake in Fridge.

Snake in Fridge is perhaps my last word on the poetry of profanity, the grace of violence and the intoxicating freedom of theatrically exploring nearly every sexual deviation known. So when I sat down to write Cold Meat Party I asked myself the usual questions about how this script was going to be different from the ones that came before and, with a dawning horror I realized what I had to do was write that play I always said I'd never write. The kind of play I'd made my career and my name rebelling against. The typical two-act, one set, characters meeting and sharing a common past that illuminates their present life and moves them toward the future in some watered down version of real time action.

I thought, "FUCK". I hate those kindsa plays. In my opinion most of them are the death of theatre. However I had become concerned that it was too easy for me, as a writer, to provoke a reaction from an audience with an arsenal of confrontational language and disturbing images. The challenge was to make the play interesting to myself while writing in a style and form that I essentially found repellant. The more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me. Maybe it was possible to write that kind of play without falling into the many writerly traps I've seen in earlier models. Or to at least I could acknowledge the traps and comment on them in some way. Certainly, I thought, whatever I might attempt couldn't be anymore dire than the sort of American and British plays that are programmed across Canada what with might be termed a certain "tepid success".

Now, as luck would have it, at about the same time I was gestating Cold Meat Party Canstage in Toronto and the Royal Exchange decided to embark on a co-commissioning project that involved getting three Canadian and three British playwrights to write shows that would be produced in both countries. I pitched everyone involved my idea for Cold Meat Party, which was basically The Big Chill with more interesting characters, funnier lines and less wanky personal crises. They all loved the idea, especially since I was very clear about the show not breaking any of the traditional theatrical taboos. I was encouraged to write it for Canstage's main house- the kind of theatre I've been trying to break into for years and so I spent the new two years writing and developing that play.

What followed was a farce of such preposterous proportions that I couldn't hope to condense it into a fifteen minute speech. The abbreviated version is that: first everyone loved the play, then some people hated the play, then they loved it again and it was programmed for the main stage at Canstage. Then it was decided by someone, I was never told who, that the play was now too daring for the main space and could only be done in the smaller Berkeley Space- in 2005/2006 as a co-production with the Royal Exchange. It was 2002 at that time. I sent my official response declining the offer, citing my valid reasons or doing it and essentially ending my relationship with Canstage after its artistic producer, Martin Bragg, sent me his official reply, literally telling me to "Fuck off"- which, by that point I was quite happy to do, once they'd actually paid me for the commission.

That was the end of Cold Meat Party's history with Canstage. Luckily, and uncharacteristically, it was not the end of the play.

Flash forward one year. Manchester, England. I am at the Royal Exchange Theatre. This theatre has, over the last ten years, become my artistic home. Its artistic DIRECTOR, Braham Murray, is not only a kick ass director who understands exactly how my material work, but he's also been the greatest supporter of all of my scripts. He understands that if you support a playwright, you support everything that playwright creates, not just the hits but the even more important plays between the hits that allow the artist to develop. Braham Murray has directed more of my plays than any Canadian director, has produced more of them than any Canadian theatre and offered me money to write when most Canadian refused to even respond to plays that were sent to them. I hold Braham in very high regard and trust him implicitly.

So imagine my shock and indignation when I showed up for the first preview and saw warning signs posted at the every entrance of the theatre. I can't remember what the warning said exactly, something to the effect of "This play contains material that may disturb some people." It doesn't matter what the exact wording was, the important thing was- there was now a warning on a play I'd written specifically not to have warnings. I'm not against warnings per se. I think people have a right to know what they're going to see if the experience might include nudity, profanity, violence or any of the other obsessions of our society I've been accused of exploiting. But that wasn't the case with Cold Meat Party and I immediately sought out Mr. Murray for an explanation.

I wish I could say that this man whom I love and admire so much gave me an adequate explanation for the warning, but he didn't. There was a lot of lame double talk, but what he ultimately seemed to be saying was- "even without sex, profanity or violence, Cold Meat Party was not an easy play. It contains ideas and images that audience members are going to find disturbing. Some people aren't going to like it."

And that's when I first thought, "Oh my god. We're warning audiences that the play they're about to see contains ideas and images that they might find disturbing. We're warning them that there might be points in this play when they're uncomfortable. We're warning them that people are going to express opinions they don't agree with. We're warning them that they might have to THINK. My career in the theatre is over."

When I started in this business I had some very fine people who taught me that the theatre was not a place of literal construction, but a place of suggestion- a place without limits, where stories had an obligation, not only to entertain, but also to enlighten. A place of magic where the most exciting part is not knowing what's going to happen next and the only certainly was that you would, if the play was good, be forced to confront and deal with questions and ideas that you may not have even considered before. There isn't a play I've written where I haven't felt an obligation to confront not only the audience's prejudices and preconceptions, but my own as well. That's why I write plays and it's why they get produced. Or at least that's what I thought. But apparently I was wrong.

Somewhere in the last ten or fifteen years things began to change and I missed the boat. All these years I've been writing plays to make everyone think- I was now being told that was wrong. I was supposed to be writing plays that everyone would LIKE.

Most people don't believe it when I say this, but it has never been my intention to write a play everyone likes. While popular success is great, and while there's nothing wrong with sheer entertainment, I personally think the theatre works best when it transcends mere entertainment and manages to actually say something valid about the human condition and complexity of life.

For me, theatre through its shared intimacy and immediacy, is the most powerful medium of all. It isn't reliant on technology, it isn't delayed by technology. It exists only in the here and now. There is no recording of it. It lives on only through memory and interpretation. Good theatre, in writing and in execution, forces the audience to become complicit in the experience because it engages their imagination, it forces them to do some of the work and it doesn't answer all of their questions for them.

So it has always made sense to me that, if you want to do this kind of work, there are some people who aren't going to like it. There are going to be audience members who disagree with you and with one another. I thought that was the point. To my mind, the mark of a truly successful play is not now many people liked it, but how much people talked about it. There's nothing more horrifying to me than watching people come out of the theatre going, "That was good. I liked it." "Yeah. Nice. I liked it too." Then they walk away and never discuss it again. That's not just the worst kind of theatre, it's the worst kind of anything.

In my opinion, if the show doesn't provoke passionate debate, if it doesn't create conflicting emotions, if it doesn't challenge preconceptions, it isn't successful. Reviews have nothing to do with the success of one of my plays, the acceptance of my peers as nothing to do with the success of one of my plays- the only gauge I use to calibrate my own success is the audience. Were they honestly interested and held while the play was on, and did they discuss it afterwards?

But, as my experience with Cold Meat Party has made clear, I seem to be hopelessly out of step with my time.

I should've seen the signs, but frankly, I was too busy. All of a sudden people stopped being artistic directors and became artistic producers. What does that mean anyway? Producers aren't supposed to be artistic. They handle the business end of things. Who wants a producer to be artistic? Isn't dealing with the true artists, writer, directors, actors, designers and so on hard enough? Besides, what the hell is so artistic about producing plays that have already been hits elsewhere. Does the advent of the artistic producer mean we'll soon be dealing with the corporate artist? Can't wait for that.

I should've seen it when they started putting those mystifying and completely arbitrary stars on reviews. How many times have you read a review that seemed overly negative only to realize it's been given four stars? How many times have you read a seemingly positive review only to find it's been given two stars? Why do they rarely match up? Because the writing of the reviews is generally so bad, it's easier just to stick stars on them and pray no one actually reads them- which seems to work. I mean, if it didn't work, how would the Toronto Star- for example- get away with hiring one of Canada's most indifferent and least distinguished playwright slash directors to criticize the work of his peers- while he's still working in the theatre?! Is this not a conflict of interest? Is there no danger of such a powerful position being abused by a person of limited talent? It's often said that I hate critics but that's untrue. There have been truly brilliant critics through the ages and you'll know when you find one because you learn far more from their constructive negative reviews than you do from the most facile positive review. I appreciate a good critic very much. They are a godsend to a business that spends a lot of time looking into its own anus. But good critics are even harder to find than good plays and good directors. In fact I can't think of one currently writing in this country.

Another affiliated warning sign I missed was the theatre's rampant overuse of review quotes as the only tool with which to sell a show. I know there used to be times when reaching the kinds of people who don't read theatre reviews- and that's most people- was important. When specific demographics were targeted and other forms of advertising, including original and eye-catching posters, special event give-aways, interviews and even word of mouth were used to make a potential ticket buyer aware of a show. The abuse of this selling tool has reached such an extreme point that I've worked at theatres who stop advertising a show when it receives bad reviews because they don't see any point in even attempting to change the public's perception of said show, even though, quite often, the show is a fine one that would catch on with a little support.

Even the press does it, although in an even more negative way. When Cold Meat Party opened in Manchester it got the best press of my career. I read it months after the event and while not all of them were out and out raves, most were rather intelligently written and overwhelmingly favourable, comparing me to Wilde, Coward, Orton and Priestly. The quotes were amazing. Yet when the Canadian premier was announced at Factory Theatre, my biggest supporter, the Toronto Star still followed a brief synopsis of the play with the phrase- "opened to mixed reviews". That phrase has actually plagued me since Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love as if I ever had anything but mixed reviews. The only good review I've ever had in the Globe and Mail was for a production of Poor Super Man that I detested. And yet suddenly it seems that so many of us- particularly the Artistic Producers- can only judge the success of our work by the opinions of people whom, if they were doing anything other than writing for the local newspaper, we wouldn't give the time of day. And not only do these people have to like us, they have to like us unanimously. That's sad.

Second productions. That was another sign I missed. This one doesn't really apply to me as I've been very lucky with the fact that even my least well reviewed shows have gotten second and often more productions. But other playwrights have been grumbling into my ear about successful shows, award winning, ticket selling shows that did well in Vancouver, Edmonton or Toronto, but were never produced elsewhere. This is disturbing in itself because plays are very mutable, sometimes slow to mature things and a second production can mean the difference between a good play and a great play. And yet this very important step in the process of becoming a playwright is denied to so many of our native talents even as our major regional theatre continue to program scripts from other countries that, in all truth, were no more or less successful than many of their Canadian counterparts.

And on top of this, we're also subjected to statements from Artistic Producers like "We can't seem to make Canadian plays work on our main stage." This, of course, is being said after a single Canadian play has FINALLY been allowed into the season. What seems to get forgotten here is that said theatre also produced any number of other scripts that were equally unsuccessful- and most of them had multiple productions. Yet no one ever says, "We can't seem to make- Irish, American, English, whatever- plays work on our main stage." That's because they're called what they are, bad productions that didn't work for some reason. You only have to sit through a full season of any of our A houses to learn a play doesn't have to be Canadian to get a bad production. And, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if a Canadian script can fill houses in a 200 seat theatre for twelve weeks, as was the case with Remains, Poor Super Man and Outrageous, those scripts should also be able to fill a 900 seat house for three weeks.

There were so many signs. Artistic Directors not responding to plays submitted to their their theatres- even if they'd asked me for the script. That fact that the price for commissioning a new play hasn't changed since I started doing this twenty-seven years ago and yet theatres are asking for a bigger share of participation rights. The sudden increase in the numbers of "dramaturges" and the national obsession with the well-made play that has given us any number of well structured plays to sleep through, the obsession with not offending the subscription audience while failing to develop valid work that speaks to and attracts a new audience, the fact that my musical Outrageous had to close in Toronto when attendance fell to 85% after three months because somebody got too ARTISTIC in their producing. The gradual cutting of rehearsal time until we've reached a point where a new play has three weeks to be realized, which, as anyone whose done it knows, is not only foolhardy, but also impossible.The signs were all there and I should've seen them. But, like a parent with a child who's on drugs or a lover whose spouse is having an affair, it wasn't until I was faced with that completely unnecessary, pointless but inescapable warning for Cold Meat Party that reality hit me in the face.

But of course this is not a problem confined to the theatre. One would hope after the terrible events of 9/11 we would be brought closer together as a people, but instead we're at war and any one who takes an opposing opinion to the status quo is not just a dissenter, they are also a traitor. Speaking out and expressing an honest opinion has become dangerous. Controversy is now something undesirable because some people dislike it. Asking intelligent questions, daring to question authority, rebelling against rules that make no sense- these are discouraged. People no longer disagree with respect, they hate anyone who doesn't share their point of view. Artistic success is no longer measured by innovation, truth, daring or impact- it is measured by the largest amount of money earned in the shortest period of time. People of art, of learning, of accomplishment are no longer our public figureheads, instead we have stars with carefully cultivated personas that never offend and never really inspire. The people who lead our countries are not leaders at all. They care nothing about improving the life of the average citizen, they care nothing about doing what's right- they are in power simply to advance a particular economic and/or moral agenda. Censorship has overruled education and truth. Free speech is restricted to only those people we agree with. Humanity seems to be losing its ability to empathize and its ability to care. We are being divided, ruled and conquered by fear and it's reflected in every facet of our lives and our art.

I learned a long time ago that it's pretty much impossible for any playwright to earn a truly consistently prosperous living while writing for the theatre. My earnings from the theatre have been considerable, but the real prosperity has always come from the film, television and journalistic work. The reason I've continued to work in the theatre is because, when the experience is what it should be, no form of popular media offers the same freedom, power, prestige and immediate gratification to an artist or an audience. There is nothing quite as exciting as the opening of a new play. No one has any idea what is going to happen when the lights rise on the stage. It might be horrific, it might be offensive, it might be mediocre and, in the best of all worlds, it might just be magical. But the magical is never achieved without many failures and limited successes, which can also be very exciting in a completely different way.

However, at this moment, it feels as if, we the people creating theatre, have become so afraid of the possibility of failure that we don't know how to achieve real success. As if our concern for possibly offending the audience in any way is overruling our love for what is truly theatrical or the discovery of a truly original voice. We're created a world where the biggest hits are musicals based on pop songs and intellectual plays that look and sound just like every other play before them and seem to consciously buffer the audience from any real emotion. We're created a world where plays are not chosen because they're exciting, but because they're not offensive. And finally, we created a world where we have to warn people that the play they're about to see may possibly make them THINK.

That's not the world I signed on for. Not at all. Of course I want to entertain people- that's the whole point. But that isn't all I want to do. I want to make people think. I want to force them to examine their prejudices and their beliefs. I want to shock them. I want to make them feel in that intense, visceral way that only happens in the theatre. And I want those same things done to me- every time I go to the theatre. Because the theatre has many unique properties and a very special power. And if we're not utilizing those unique properties, and if we're not tapping into the special power, then all we're really creating is second-rate television. And if I'm going to asked to write television then I'll write real television, thank you very much. The money's a hell of a lot better and, frankly, in the cable universe, you have a lot more freedom.

Thank you.