ted witzel joins us this month with the first in a series of posts. he’s a smart guy, so we asked him to talk about what he’s thinking about and what he thinks we should be thinking about – as theatre makers, as artists, and as queers. here’s ted:
i’m not sure i know how to really think anything. not anything definite, at least.
(this is maybe a poor position to take in a thinker-in-residence series).
maybe it’s just that beginnings are the hardest.
mark asked me a while back if i would do this thought-series or column or whatever it is on the blog. i didn’t anticipate how difficult i would find it. i’m generally pretty full of opinions and thoughts, and i’m not usually shy about them. sometimes i feel obnoxiously vocal about them. but thinking out loud in rehearsal or jamming ideas with collaborators is very different than putting them on a blog—be it buddies’ or anywhere else—on the internet you have to be prepared to defend the things you say in a pages-long comment-section battle.
i struggled to articulate what i thought about some kind of thing that was queer & subversive & had to do with art & culture. i figured the first post ought to be good and provocative and stuff so i scanned through most of my politically incorrect ideas for something incendiary that i could stand by, have a clear and concisely formulated opinion about, to start this thing off with something resembling a bang.
…and i had NOTHING. no provocative queer thought with a clear answer for which i would ride into the flames of an angry comment-section, at least.
a lot of people seem to feel like the world is a pretty black and white place. i feel like i live out most of my life in a massive, yawning abyss of grey area. and i like it here, even if most of the time i feel like my brain is melting out my ears from all the “yes but—“ i tend to think.
i change my mind constantly about things. sometimes i’m amazed that i ever manage to get a show open, but i suppose that’s the hard mercy of an opening night. you have to stop thinking, stop sending actors voice memos from your bathtub at 4am, and stop changing your mind and just let the thing be.
i like to think that thinking lots of different thoughts about lots of different things is what makes me a decent artist, but as a blog contributor it had me off to a shitty start.
the nice thing about being a director is that i think my job is more or less to orchestrate disagreements. usually disagreements that have bad outcomes that are really big & dramatic & stuff. but you don’t necessarily have to reconcile the points of view, you just have to show why they’re not very compatible.
i fake it in rehearsal a fair bit. a group of actors turn to me and ask “is it this or is it that?” and i make something up because sometimes it hasn’t even occurred to me that it was a possible question, and three days later the question catches up with me and refocuses the whole piece. that’s what rehearsals are for. and after that, it’s what the remount is for.
i’m not big on answers, despite making some effort to appear to have a lot of them. most of my prep is lists of questions. does the line mean this or that? or should we just cut it? when that character says that, are they lying or telling the truth?
more often than not, i rely on my collaborators to push back against my assumptions and change my mind, to ask the right questions that cause me to reconsider the whole piece. i’ve added whole new scenes or restructured a piece’s dramaturgy to accommodate the perspectives that contradict my own. i usually find the conflict between thesis and antithesis more interesting than the half-baked synthesis that might result. it often feels like a canadian middle ground.
more than once when i was training, i was given the question: “yes, but what’s the answer you want the audience to come away with?” the question irked me. god forbid you assume the audience is a singular entity who have all come to be told one thing and understand it through the same ethical, cultural, and moral filter. more than that, i bristle at the suggestion that, as an artist, it’s my job to answer my own questions.
—not that i don’t often see artists trying to do just that.
i recently had someone tell me that they thought i was making an “issue play” and it made my skin crawl. not because it wasn’t true, but because it suggested a certain dramaturgy to me.
there seems to me to be a fundamental structure underlying the classic canadian “issue play”: it’s about a TIMELY & RELEVANT topic that the urban progressive small-l liberal regime has SPECIFIC IDEAS about. we get shown the point of view that we know is the RIGHT ONE, then are thrown for a loop when we are shown why the PERSON WHO IS WRONG might have UNDERSTANDABLE REASONS for being wrong. then we sort out our complicated emotions about the person who is wrong, and ultimately conclude that we were right all along so we can go home sleeping easy because we are good people who can understand complicated feelings, but know what is really right. and it’s all very accessible & relatable, of course.
we do “issue plays” in this country to prove that theatre isn’t dead, that we need it, that it’s still a space where important discussions can happen. to prove that theatre is still RELEVANT. but instead of including the audience in the discussion, we save them the trouble, hand them some pat answers, and send them home feeling reassured. not even brecht’s lesson-plays were that paedagogical.
—at the same time, i’d hate to be accused of doing a piece that wasn’t about some kind of issue. i would just hate to do one that was reassuring. it strikes me as a little bit narcissistic, and maybe even corrupt, to assume that our role as artists is to educate a singular audience on the difference between right and wrong.
maybe it’s a matter of having become acclimatized to the big grey void i live in, but i like to walk out of an encounter with a piece of art bursting with infuriated questions. i like having my most basic values and assumptions challenged and exposed as fallacious, simplistic, dangerous, even a little bigoted. i’m pretty sure that’s what art is supposed to be for. at least, that’s the art that excites me most.
i only get truly angry at art when it condescends to me, presuming to have answers i don’t. or worse, if it tells me i was right all along. this happens a lot when i see the “issue plays” that tell me “homophobia is bad” or “destroying the environment for capitalist gain is selfish & bad” or “victorian medicine was intrinsically misogynist and that’s silly & funny but also bad.”
ambiguity and uncertainty seem to make us wildly uncomfortable. and they should. there’s a lot of it out there. but we’re loath to stand up and admit that we’re confused.
the need to have an immediate answer or a moral is crippling our art. (not to mention my attempt at writing a simple blog post).
maybe it’s got to do with culture. i’ve observed that we canadians are particularly uncomfortable about feeling dumb. no one wants to “not get it,” and if they struggle to understand something, it’s pretty quickly dismissed as “highfalutin.” not something you’d want to talk about in a tim hortons.
maybe part of it comes from the funding structures in this country—i’ve certainly felt the pressure to offer a peer-assessment committee a clear statement of what the thing i make is going to be & look like & what it will say & mean. i often see shows that make me wonder if the creator is just finishing the thesis they posed in their grant application.
and then there’s also the prevailing notion that you ought not to complain about problems if you can’t offer a productive, practical solution. otherwise you’re just a whiner. and do we really want our tax dollars going to artists who just whine about the status quo and undermine our value system?
are we too timid and afraid of alienating our already woefully-small audiences to pose difficult questions that are frustratingly devoid of concrete answers? they did pay good money for those tickets, after all; they must want to be able to go home and tell their friends what they saw and what it was about and what they learned. we want to make them feel like good people for buying theatre tickets to see plays about the issues they know are relevant & timely, so they can feel like relevant, timely, good people who care about issues and buy theatre tickets. that way they’ll buy more theatre tickets to relevant timely issue-plays.
or that’s the way the thinking seems to go.
but maybe they don’t. how many people are actually buying those tickets? maybe they’d be less difficult to coax into seeing art that told them something they didn’t already know or think, or at least asked them to question what they do know or think. maybe then they’d have a reason for going. in the places where i’ve seen the most exciting theatre and most excited theatre audiences, everyone was there for the questions, and no one knew the answers. we were all present and energized because we were confused and challenged.
but can we alter our own theatre culture to collectively surrender to not-knowing? how do we convince audiences and artists that it’s ok to feel confused, conflicted, maybe even a little bit dumb, or bigoted, or helpless? how do we get comfortable feeling anxious & uncomfortable? and how do i write a blog post that i can be sure i won’t change my mind about later?
i don’t know.