Living in the Theatre, Living in the Life

       What is “applied theatre?” It is an umbrella term “embracing a wide range of theatre practices that share an intentionality to provoke pr shape social change” (What is Applied Theatre). Applied theatre consists of several fields in our societies, it could be simply a doorstep music band on the street, a health promotion collaboration, or an intergenerational dance project – it is a space for communities to tell stories – the bridge that blends the beauty of mundane lives and art forms together. It is true that any theatre, as an art form, pursues and creates beauty on the stage; however, applied theatre challenges the traditional meaning of the stage, exploring the beauty of everyday life and society. In a traditional theatre, there is “the fourth wall” that separates actors and the audience; applied theatre tends to deconstruct this wall, seeing the audience not the outsider but both the author and the actor of the show. Why would we need theatre? It is not only an activity of entertainment but an artistic creation that helps us understand the world and ourselves through stories. We come to the theatre expecting to watch the story, but we gradually forget that the story we seek from the stage could come from ourselves and our communities.

       It could be just a ritual, an action, or a random adjective in our lives as a source of beauty. Applied theatre extols that the heart of theatre is not to create beauty but to find the beauty inherent in our lives. We need a space to learn this beauty within our communities and us. In Sue Mayo’s intergenerational dance project, “I Live in It,” with Mulberry School for girls and older women from Tower Hamlets. Women in this project dance, write and create music together to think about thanking our own bodies. She stresses that the concept of “I live in it” comes from radio where a young woman says this phrase; this project allows intergenerational women to feel their bodies and to feel that they are alive. By recognizing our bodies, we could feel the world and our existence – it is the real beauty we have already possessed.

Me in a Dancing Project

      Applied theatre explores a new meaning of theatre: the openness of stories. The openness of stories comes from the connection between life and art because we can never design the ending of life – what we could do is to embrace it. Through connections to communities, theatre discovers more stories that help people feel the collective consciousness, giving them the opportunities of storytelling – because all of us need to express. As Fişek endorses: “The relationship between theatre and community is characterized by the flexibility and unpredictability of both terms;” and because of the openness to possibility, “theatre looks like an exemplary space of community formation and collectivity” (Fişek, 55). Theatre is not only for actors but for the ones who want to say something through drama.

Works Cited

Fişek, Emine. “Efficacy and Agency.” Theatre & Community, Macmillan International, 2019, pp. 44–55.

“What Is Applied Theatre.” What Is Applied Theatre – The University of Auckland, http://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/education/research/research-centres-and-units/critical-research-unit-in-applied-theatre/what-is-applied-theatre.html.

Finding Unrestricted Creativity in Confining Times

This year I had the privilege to experience this first-hand in Theatre Western’s Drink to Me Only as an actor, which resulted in a performance that while exciting for the cast, struggled to create that essential connection to audiences due to limitations of streaming and the show’s conventional nature. While we made the most out of a difficult situation, I think this experience demonstrated the limitations we have placed on ourselves in what stories we tell onstage.

Theatre Western’s Drink To Me Only

The experience that has stood out to me was Split Britches’ Last Gasp WFH and the workshop with Lois Weaver, as the most unique aspect of this performance was that despite being a performance slated to occur on a stage, when the pandemic forced them into lockdown they managed to recalibrate with only a small team which comprised of “Weaver direct[ing] and the two women [Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver] handl[ing] the sound and lighting themselves, with the help of a remote team that included technical designers and a choreographer” according to the New York Times.

A screen shot from the show, which was scheduled to be presented live and ended up on Zoom
Credit: via Split Britches

Due to the duo’s ingenious decision to not even try to remain within the conventions of theatrical performance, I think this navigated the problems which digital attempts of more conventional performances can not avoid. Despite Peggy Shaw not being able to remember lines anymore, this too is creatively circumvented by Peggy “wear[ing] big headphones to listen to the words Weaver feeds her during monologues” that remarkably demonstrates “there is no attempt to hide what’s going on” (The New York Times).

It is this unfiltered, painfully earnest experience where the strength of Last Gasp WFH really lies. While the filmmaking utilised may offend some theatre purists, this is exactly what helped convey the story in such a creative yet reflective manner. In the workshop with Lois, she mentioned that she sees herself as a performer, but not necessarily an actor as she only conveys her own story, never someone else’s. While this may seem like the antithesis of acting and theatre, Lois’ approach to performance creates exciting and insightful art which thrives without necessitating a group experience.

A photo of my performance draft from Lois’ workshop. While nothing out of this world, the instinct Lois encouraged helped me create something different yet entirely authentic to me.

In the workshop, Lois frequently discussed acting on “instinct,” which was baffling as acting for me usually requires a great deal of thought in preparation to work with others. But as the last year has demonstrated, it does not matter when the communal spectacle of theatre is unavailable. With lockdown forcing us all to look inward, more than ever we need to creatively express our own stories to process this trauma together. Ultimately, the most insightful experiences from the limitations of this year are not a result of chasing some idea of conventionality, but like Last Gasp WFH embraces the isolation as a chance to experiment. Even though personal, grounded stories may seem like the last thing one would want when “normalcy” returns, it would be a huge mistake to not follow the cues of Spilt Britches and champion theatre that attempts to make sense out of our chaos.

The Women of Shakespeare: Revitalizing Gender in Theatre

Theatre is something of a battleground for female roles. Time and time again, an exponentially talented pool of women compete for roles that are few and far between. This is sometimes worked around by repurposing male characters, but many production licensing agreements mandate against changing character names or pronouns. The works of William Shakespeare are something of a breath of fresh air to this headache: as the works are in the public domain, there is huge breadth for diversity in creative vision, and casting.Why then, with so much creative license, are we so often tied to casting Shakespeare according to traditional gender roles?

Many of Shakespeare’s shows blur the lines of sexuality and gender. Original Practices at the Globe, exploratory research and creative practice that strives to create Shakespeare’s works as closely as they may have appeared when first performed, is admirable for its dedication to experimentation. But with any quest for accuracy, there are inevitably conversations about what traditions we are – and aren’t – willing to accept.

Johnny Flynn as Viola and Mark Rylance as Olivia; The Globe, 2012

A 2012 production of Twelfth Night starring Mark Rylance as Olivia utilized an all-male cast and white stage makeup, in line with the traditions of the 17th century. Still, these female roles would have been played by boys in Shakespeare’s time, not adults like Mark Rylance, a fact that hardly concerned reviewers of the production.  Accuracy is influenced by our own norms. The reality is that all of the Shakespeare’s roles were written to be played by men. Our casting decisions that are sticklers for traditional gender reflect our own outdated biases, not Shakespearean level accuracy.

For every production that experiments with gender and sexuality, there are critics who lament changes to roles, or who demand justification. Mainstream reviews often treat it as a gimmick or cool way to spice up a production, or place it as central to marketing schemes. Women cannot be cast in male roles without having to answer for it: often, conversations around gender become about the change rather than the quality of production as a whole.

Seana McKenna as Julius Caesar and Michelle Giroux as Mark Antony; Stratford Festival, 2018

There are many theatre artists who are doing great work that push the boundaries of gender in Shakespeare, or rewrite histories entirely. Phyllida Lloyd’s reimagining of Julius Caesar and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s production of Emilia are two such works where gender is central, with all female casts that ask audiences to think differently about the types of shows they are used to. Newly appointed Globe artistic director Michelle Terry crafted productions that were entirely gender-blind, cross-casting roles in both directions and leaving interpretation to the audience. The Stratford Festival did The Tempest and Julius Caesar, with women simply using male pronouns in male roles. Each production explored gender as they saw fit. Gender doesn’t always have to be ‘justified.’

Shubham Saraf as Ophelia; The Globe, 2018

Original Practice means having to confront the White, male, privileged history of theatre, casting, and creative decisions. With so much opportunity for interpretation and revitalization, we need to rethink how we talk about and market gender in Shakespeare. There is so much opportunity for rich, diverse casting that is bogged down by old gender traditions and myths of accuracy. This means gender-conscious casting that is a normative, expected part of Shakespeare, which can add new depth to a production, or simply, just be.

Pandemic Arises Theatre will still Strive

Being in destination theatre, my viewpoint from the beginning of the class to now has tremendously changed. At first going to main campus to a class that was very interactive, I remember the first day I was nervous. Did not know what to expect or if I would like these people, I was about to go abroad with. Now, coming to the end of the course, I am so extremely sad that I could not have traveled and visited the fabulous London England with great people. COVID-19 pandemic sadly is withholding the second part of our class to continue to the UK, but there wasn’t a second that I was not looking forward to it. Having been out of theatre for years, taking this class really awakened my mind back into what it was like to deconstruct, analyze and enjoy theatre performances. Whether it was little warm up games in class, elaborating on meanings and ideas in theatre books, or watching performances on my computer, I felt like I was really at the National Theatre. 

In one of the texts, Theatre and City (Jen Harvie 2009) explores relationships between theatre, performance, and the city. The question raises how it can affect ideologies, social power dynamics and people’s identities? Urban activism and architecture are both looked at in this book. Theatre in my city is something always I have known and witnessed firsthand. However, theatre in London England was going to be an experience I wanted to see, learn, and encounter from a traveler’s point of view. As well, explore with locals and see their insights about the variety of locations for viewing performances. Exploring how it really is in the eyes of someone who lives in the theatre district, can help a visitor with other unknown viewing locations. The one thing I looked forward to share with Kim and my fellow classmates was a visit to The Globe Theatre. One day in class we made tallies on the white board of what we wanted to see and where we wanted to go when in England. A show at The Globe Theatre was on my top 3 list, a long side with seeing The Great Gatsby in a real-life setting, and a show that went on for 24 hours. In London Ontario we do not have theatres with great history and places like The Globe. Close to home in Stratford Ontario, the city immerses itself in William Shakespeare’s work such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet. However, to witness a historical piece of work in a theatre that creates a renaissance feeling through its architecture, enhanced my excitement to venture there and see different ways of theatre viewing. I can imagine watching a performance by standing in front of the stage or from the tiered seating, being able to feel the connection with the artists; basically, observing as if I was part of the show. After watching Frankenstein played by Benedict Cumberbatch at the National Theatre and seeing Every Brilliant Thing at the Grand Theatre, it really ignited my crave for theatre and reminded me just how much I used to love watching performances. Being engaged as a part of the performance Every Brilliant Thing at The Grand Theatre last year encompassed the audience’s participation and intimacy for the actor which relates to the possible feeling I could have experienced at The Globe.

In conclusion, with the pandemic going on across the world and not being able to study abroad with my newly found friends in destination theatre, I am overall happy with the experiences and things I learned along the way. From the beginning being a nervous old time theatre kid to now feeling like myself again, happy and enlightened by what memories I have made in destination theatre hopefully I will make it to England one day to immerse myself in London’s diverse theatrical culture. 

A Change Is Gonna Come

Amidst the social turmoil and shutdown of a global pandemic, we have been forced to make some changes to everyday life. For certain industries, work has been able to carry on at a rate similar to pre-pandemic life and carry-on business relatively undisturbed. But the performing arts have seen a different story play out. In most cases live performance remains on hiatus from being able to open doors and accept live audiences. Theatres everywhere were forced to close and remain closed at this time. What this has meant for theatre is that if “the show must go on”, then theatres are going to have to find a way to improvise and adapt so that they can maintain some functionality during these times. And to their credit a lot of theatre companies have been doing a great job at keeping the spirit of theatre alive.  

This got me thinking: theatres have proven their ability to make shows accessible, so why not take this opportunity to go further and make theatre more accessible to different kinds of people as well? Graeae Theatre has shown how this can be possible. After watching their production Reasons To Be Cheerful I found myself incredibly impressed by how well they were able to make a show accessible and enjoyable to people with certain disabilities. The performers were mostly made up of actors that have some form of disability that Reason’s To Be Cheerful frames beautifully as their ability. Subtitles were present on a screen behind the actors to allow for closed captioning for any viewers with auditory disability. In addition to that there were performers on stage signing in BSL throughout most of, if not all of the show. The show worked prosthetic limbs into character choices – my favourite example being the distinction between Dave (Janine’s ex-boyfriend) and Nick (the guitarist). Graeae made it so that when the actor, Max Runham, was wearing their prosthetic arm they were Dave and when it was off, they were the guitarist. This is an incredibly creative way to incorporate unique aspects of the actor into components of storytelling.

And it’s not just I who had these thoughts on the production. The show was received incredibly by audiences with many describing the atmosphere on-stage as “electric”. To quote Musical Theatre Reviews: “Stephen Lloyd [is] an immediately likeable lead who performs with an infectious spark. Fortunately for us, the entire ensemble more than live up to his energy”. In a show performed by actors with disabilities, the show does not turn their disabilities into a central focus and only minorly pays any attention to that quality. What this has done is foreground these actors in such a way that we see all of it as normal, not something to be absorbed by and the reviews follow suit. In all the reviews I read, it was seldom that I ever read an author mention these qualities for more than a sentence or two, if at all.

Graeae’s ability to deliver such a successful production shows how possible increasing accessibility in theatre can be. With all this said, I think it would be an absolute shame for theatres everywhere to not take advantage of this change happening in the world to also change the way that theatre is accessible to the public. I would have loved to have been in the theatre experiencing this show, but I could feel the performers passion bleed through the screen, nonetheless. At the end of the day, you know you’ve got something special when a play can absolutely riveting and simultaneously inspire change.

Theatricality of the Online Stage

By now I’m sure most of us are used to hearing about how the global pandemic has had an impact on different aspects of our day-to-day, and how we have had to adapt to moving most things online. I wanted to reflect on what my experience has been online from a theatrical perspective, as I discuss the “performance” of online-studenting.

First of all, I have been “performing” in a public discourse class (Speech 2001) where the majority of my grade is based off a series of speeches I have had to write and record. I normally feel pretty confident talking in front of a crowd, since I can adjust my delivery based on how an audience reacts to and interacts with me. I get nervous recording, and then later watching myself in the recording makes me cringe! The other part of a recorded performance is the pressure of being overly critical. Since I can re-record every time I make a mistake, I continue to think that I could improve with one more take.

Second of all, I feel like I am centre stage with a spotlight every time I’m in a zoom class. Even though I know most people are paying attention to the prof (or not paying attention at all), it always feels like everyone is watching me in a way that is totally different from an in-person lecture. Zoom is centred solely on our faces, limiting the amount of body language we can pick up on. This all makes me consider the setup of Athena Stevens’ show “Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels”, which was filmed on ipads within the two actresses separate homes. The story is a series of monologues of two women who have different relationships with the same man, and tackles the topic of consent. Like we discussed after viewing the show, communicating with someone in a professional or performative manner through screens feels quite intimate, even like you’re intruding. With a major part of the plot in Athena Stevens’ story being how ‘A’ feels guilty for seeing something she shouldn’t have (the topless selfie of her friend’s girlfriend), the audience also experiences an uncomfortable guilt of peering into the characters’ houses and phone conversations through the eerie camera angles and moody lighting. In a review by Brooke Snowe, she connects the digital platform with the topic of assumed consent by pointing out: “themes of the dark inner workings of the Internet and false perfection on social media come to a head, matching the plot and making it much more sinister” (Snow, 2021). 

This all makes me wonder what about the screen makes me feel like I need to be performing? Perhaps it’s the fact that I really don’t know what could be going on in the environments of my classmates; or perhaps it’s the fact that a lack of participation from the class feels a million times more uncomfortable on zoom, so I feel pulled to contribute whereas in a normal lecture, I would find it easier to hide and stay quiet. 

“Performing” virtually has been both a challenge and a blessing, and through the experiences I have had, I have grown a lot in being aware of how I am perceived by others, and how I can effectively communicate a message to others without relying on the responses and reactions of an audience.