some thoughts on the lifespans of mayflies and emerging artists


czech playwright karel čapek’s 1921 text insect play is one of many weird pieces of aesthetically radical writing to come out of inter-war avant-garde in europe. the allegory is a bit obvious—even pixar has ripped it off by now—it depicts different facets of human interaction with bugs. love & sex is told with butterflies, capital & industry with crickets and dungbeetles, and war & imperialism with ant colonies. the whole piece is more than a little on the nose, but it’s got one great device going for it: through the whole play, there’s this mysterious un-hatched chrysalis hanging somewhere over the stage, writhing and crying out things like “I’M COMING! I AM THE FUTURE! I AM HOPE AND GOLDEN LIGHT! THE NEW WORLD IS COMING!*”

(*i’m actually paraphrasing from memory because i lent my copy of čapek to someone and i forget who that was so if you’re reading this and have my book please give it back.)

i’m a bit of a geek for the avant-garde movements that came out of this inter-war period, and their sub-and counter-movements. the surrealists, expressionists, italian futurists, russian futurists, formal purists, cubists &c. europe had been rocked, shocked, and had its borders redrawn in the great war, and had to be rebuilt from the rubble of what came before. these artists thought could influence the new society that was being built through radical aesthetics and formal innovation. they believed that art could DO things to the society and culture it reflected, and they were hungry for change. they were hopeful. (isn’t that kind of sweet to think)?

aesthetic movements rivalled each other, and factious wars happened within them to define their missions—you could get kicked out of the surrealist club if you stepped on the wrong toes. they wrote plays filled with wild imaginings of possible futures. robots, time machines, phosphorescent oracles, marxist utopias, and an age when bedbugs were extinct. poetic language, experimental narrative structures, and lots of dumb slapstick comedy & fart jokes. they wrote manifestoes like they were going out of style.** there was passion and belief in what they did.

(**marinetti, the italian futurist ringleader, was much better at writing manifestoes than plays, and had a printing press in his apartment—which was also futurist HQ. i imagine him hopped up on amphetamines, wanking about locomotives and electrification, pounding out manifesti in his attic. they aren’t very good, and mussolini’s fascism borrowed more than a little from his ideas, but they’re passionate.)

back when, when i was finishing my undergrad and transitioning into being, well, whatever “not a student” was—an “emerging artist” maybe—these manifestoes really spoke to me. i wanted to walk into the theatre scene and flip tables over and shit, expose the system as corrupt, burn it all down and stage an aesthetic revolution. disrupt all the folksy canadian naturalism with explosively transgressive splashes of abstract colour and form, more pig guts and barfing and nudity, and definitely more fart jokes. i even thought my ideas were original enough to be capable of this, and that art mattered enough to our culture for this to be noticed.

i was a little bit naïve, but i was passionate, angry, and hopeful. i also had never heard of IATSE.


back when i really thought of myself as “emerging,” and could still write a manifesto without either an overwhelming sense of futility or a heavy dose of irony, it seemed self-evident to me that institutions and audiences should be excited by new aesthetics and new voices. it seemed that in a healthy artistic ecology, a change from the status quo, a surprising new approach to narrative, a focus on problems and questions that we haven’t examined yet would be welcomed and endorsed. i held this to be true on an abstract level—i.e., not just in terms of all the ultra-brilliant and super-revolutionary work i hoped to rock the world with, but that in general terms, exciting new artistic voices that offer something new should be encouraged and supported (even if they weren’t mine). if art’s function was inherently disruptive and interrogative, shouldn’t radical young voices be supported?

we are suffering from a problem of overcrowding. not just in the “emerging” category, but generally. for years, we’ve had too many theatre schools with class sizes that are often mandated by university administrators without any experience in the field, and without the baseline class-size, programs get defunded. so theatre schools take more students than can reasonably be sustained within an impoverished and overcrowded industry, churning out hundreds of new graduates each year, many of whom are likely to return to school to change professions within 10 years. and those who stick it out are only given the platforms and resources their work deserves more than a decade after they’ve begun slogging their way through self-producing.


in recent years, there’s been an attempt to address this disparity. our theatre community has created countless “emerging” units and other development programs, to carve out spaces where young creators can practice their crafts through apprenticeship and evolving work.

this should be great news—a space for emerging artists to have their work recognized, to even get a bit of money to help make it, and some support from a larger institution. but it’s also kind of problematic.

  1. because of our problem with overcrowding, people who get the spots in these programs are usually only dubiously “emerging” (if at all). many don’t come with an age cap (though buddies’ emerging creators unit does). i’m even guilty of it. there’s a backlog of new artists: recent graduates that would really benefit from early integration into the industry, who are waiting to work their way up the line.
  1. and even once you do make it into the bracket of people being considered for these “emerging” opportunities, it’s hard to make it out. people hop from program to program, trying to sustain themselves off the little stipends that come with each. i’ve been at this game for a while—i’ve two degrees, and even have some grey hair coming in, and yet still make up a good chunk of my annual income by making cases for needing “more professional development opportunities.” i needed these positions some years ago a lot more than i do now, but i can’t say no to the cash.
  1. this begs the question: what is going on in our theatre schools if we are spending 4+ years training artists who need to go out there and keep training endlessly, jumping from development unit to development unit?
  1. these development units are often funded by corporate sponsorship from organizations that have identified “youth & emerging” as their funding priority. ever notice that almost every “emerging” opportunity in the city has RBC’s name attached to it? it means that institutions are (at least in part) motivated by accessing funding in the creation of these programs. it’s also a condition of receiving charitable status that arts organizations have an educational component to their mandate. none of these things are necessarily problems in and of themselves, but i certainly question the efficacy and value of the initiatives when they are not motivated by a philosophical belief in the value of the work of new voices.
  1. these “emerging” units create a hierarchy, at least optically. the work created through them are viewed as lesser—less refined, less skilled, less rigorous.
  1. the assumption behind hierarchizing work through tiers of established vs emerging is itself a little paternalistic—that artists don’t have something to say or the skills to say it until they’ve proven their competence by toiling in the emerging category for long enough. when do you become a “real” artist?
  1. healthy programming at any of our institutions should include a range of artists, from every generation. work from younger makers is every bit as legitimate as work from more experienced artists. in many other countries, works from 30-year-old directors play in rep with work from 70-year-old makers. the best show i saw in berlin was by a 30-year-old director (christopher rüping’s romeo & julia), but i had to do some digging to find out his age. a few years back, the young vic’s highly-lauded doll’s house was directed by a 31-year-old director and played two sold-out remounts—and her youth was not part of the show’s promos.
  1. i’m already anticipating rebuttals along the lines of “—but _________ just directed a big show at _________ and (s)he’s only ___!” —as was the case when holger syme raised this issue about canadian casting a few years back. it happens, i know. every so often companies take a chance and hand shows to young directors. i’ve been lucky enough to be offered a couple of these jobs. but the problem is that it’s still regarded as taking a chance—with the implication that these are artists so raw and unrefined that they have the potential to completely botch it. even when some of these young artists have trained as directors and spent several subsequent years in the purgatory of “emerging” units. and meanwhile, when established actors in their 40s and 50s with no directing training at all are given similar gigs, no one panics that they lack the skills to avoid completely fucking it up.
[the chrysalis is starting to sound a little less sure]: I’M COMING! I AM THE FUTURE! I AM HOPE AND GOLDEN LIGHT! THE NEW WORLD IS COMING!

i’m being hard on the institutions, i know. i don’t actually think the problem lies entirely with them. in fact, i know a lot of really thoughtful artistic directors who desperately wish they had the space and resources to support more work from younger artists because they recognize its merit.

this same overcrowding is one end of the problem. the relative proportion, the amount of the general public who have an appetite to see theatre versus the number of members of said public who want to make theatre isn’t sustainable. it’s a supply & demand issue.

most of the people who are actually going to the theatre are doing it for very specific reasons, reasons i would go so far as to say are the wrong ones. theatre is still a relatively bourgeois activity here, it’s a way of affirming a certain social and political position. and this means they have expectations of what they’ll see. the capitalist entitlement to a kind of “customer satisfaction” means that these audiences want the expected, not the unexpected—or if they are going to encounter the unexpected, it should still look and feel a certain way. i’ve kvetched lots about the problem with what canadian audiences seek and expect from the theatre tickets they buy in previous posts, so i won’t go on at too much length this time. but because our larger institutions are so dependent on ticket sales for survival, it makes it hard for artistic directors to take risks on new creators.

something i have witnessed here in canada is poor trust between audiences and curators. audiences here are fickle and don’t have trust that their artistic leaders to program thoughtfully. high-quality, rigorous, and exciting shows play to 30% houses because audiences aren’t willing to take a leap into the unknown. this makes taking artistic risks with seasoned artists difficult enough, but bringing in a new artist with a new take has to be highly considered and can’t deviate too much from the company’s extant aesthetic. our (small) audience holds the power, and their risk aversion has made our whole industry risk-averse.

add to this the issue of access—because box office & subscription sales make up a relatively high proportion of a theatre’s annual operating budget, prices have to remain at a level by which a theatre can sustain its operations. most countries in europe subsidize admission to many cultural events for students, artists, and those under 30. €9 per ticket—cheaper than a movie. people are a lot more willing to take a risk when they aren’t paying $100 for a ticket.

by the time most artists start moving on from the “emerging” category, they’ve become safe. they’ve tailored their aesthetics and form to fit the mandate of an existing institution so that they can prove themselves viable programming choices. they aren’t the hopeful, passionate radicals they were ten years ago. by now they’re writing mandates instead of manifestoes; meek statements of what they’d like to do in an ideal world with reality taken into account, rather than fist-pumping declarations of how much they’ll change and what they’ll burn down in the process. which is a bit sad. shouldn’t we want a little arson with our art? at least metaphorically?

[the chrysalis is growing hoarse and tired]: I’M COMING! I AM THE FUTURE! I AM HOPE AND GOLDEN LIGHT! THE NEW WORLD IS COMING!

we spend a lot of time generally lamenting the fact that the canadian audience is aging, that not enough young people are going to the theatre. i deeply suspect that there’s a correlation with the lack of young people making our theatre, and the difficulty accessing it. i don’t really want to leave my house in february go see something that’s not talking about my problems and concerns, especially when it costs $30. i want to see my sense of humour and rhythm onstage, i want to see my anxieties embodied, i want the political problems that i’m angry about. south park is offering that, and i can illegally stream it. when tarragon starts doing the same for a price i’m willing to pay i’ll choose it instead of south park.

so how do we fix this? i think the solution to all these problems lies in better integration. our theatre system has grown up haphazardly and organically, schools developing separately from institutions. the emerging artist programs are a bandaid solution added in later. what about co-ordinating these to work towards a functional industry? the theatre community could collaborate with schools to collectively lobby universities to reduce class sizes and stop graduating so many students into an oversaturated industry. have schools co-operate with our institutions, to share resources and give students an opportunity to gain practical skills—something like a co-op program, placing students as apprentice directors to observe rehearsals at a professional theatre as part of their course of study. then they’d be graduating with mentors in community and a practical skill-set. allow the emerging artist opportunities to be a stepping-stone into the industry. maybe.

in other countries, directors graduating from theatre schools (post-secondary, not graduate programs) are hot commodities scooped up quickly by regional theatres to keep them offering their audiences cutting-edge work. is a canada where that happens possible?

[the chrysalis is about to give up, but then begins to crack down the side]: I’M COMING! I AM THE FUTURE! I AM HOPE AND GOLDEN LIGHT! THE NEW WORLD IS COMING!

the epilogue of čapek’s insect play is titled “the dance of the mayflies.” five dancing mayflies pirouette onstage, giddy with the thrill of being alive. the chrysalis finally hatches, and it turns out she’s a mayfly too. they all twirl and dance and exalt and sing more idiotic shit about being the future and having finally arrived. then they all drop dead, because the lifespan of a mayfly after hatching is woefully short. all that time in the chrysalis, only to spend 24 thrilling hours eating, fucking, and dying.

in northern ontario, i was lucky enough to see them come out at solstice once. the air was so thick with bugs you had to breathe through your teeth. one magical night of fame and freedom, and the next morning the surface of the lake was covered in a layer of carcasses. the upside is that the fishing is great that day, because all the big fish come up for the easy food source. the mayflies though?—nature’s air-drop of food supplies for another species entirely. and none of them wrote blog posts about speeding up the emerging process so they can buzz around for a few more hours in june before being consumed by the big fish. hm.

ted witzel

ted witzel isn’t sure how he’d like to be described.  he makes theatre things with his theatre-making thing, the red light district.  [he’s making a series of theatre things in residence at buddies, about a girl named LULU who has a lot of s-e-x then comes to a bad end because it’s a tragedy after all]. his column appear (mostly) every month.

Read all posts by ted witzel

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