swordfights vs serial sex murder: have i sold out?

(or, where’s my goddamn espresso machine?)

ted witzel is 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:

this winter, i spent several weeks rehearsing my rhubarb piece in a tiny art gallery that was only a few degrees warmer than the frigid february we were having.  buddies supported us with rehearsal space as much as it could, but outside those hours we had to find outside space.  we rehearsed in coats and mitts, and most of our blocking was done in a space a quarter the size of the stage floor.  the piece had just barely enough funding to pay the electricity costs of the space heater, and give a token pittance to each of the artists involved.  we didn’t even have a stage manager, and i carted around props and costumes and sound equipment in the trunk of my car.  on opening night, an unforeseen conflict between stage blood and industrial plastic (who knew it might be slippery?) had me and my assistant director spray-gluing cornmeal and sugar and coffee to a 20‘x20’ sheet of plastic in the park beside buddies in the minus 25 degree cold.

but man, when we weren’t feeling frostbitten, we were feeling pretty badass.  subversive.  radical. what we were doing had to be IMPORTANT, because none of us were there for the money.  or the heat.  (one of the actors brought a heating pad to every rehearsal).  we were fucking proud of that piece, and it had partly to do with what we endured to create it.  in some ways, our supposed “suffering” gave us cred.

i spent a lot of time during that show fantasizing about my ideal rehearsal hall—a palatial room with perfect temperature control, world-class stage management, an adjacent green room (that wasn’t the assistant director’s bedroom), a printer on site, regular cleaning staff, an espresso machine (just so i wouldn’t have to go hunting in the snow for a caffeine fix).

here in stratford, where i’m working now, we have a 4000 square foot rehearsal hall with 16’ ceilings, a sprung floor, and three stage managers in rehearsal.  i’m getting paid more than the entire production budget of the show in the winter.  there was heating in april, and now that it’s june there’s air conditioning.  there’s no espresso machine, but that’s about the only lack i’ve been able to identify thus far.

and i can’t help but feel guilty.  as though the abundance of infrastructure and lack of suffering involved in this piece’s creation might fundamentally undermine its integrity.  is it important?  valuable?  essential?  is my contribution rendered less meaningful by the fact that i’m able to make a little cash and being put up in a decent apartment?

the obvious answer is, “no.”  it’s not unreasonable for an artist to be paid for their work.  but nonetheless, coming from the indie scene in downtown toronto to the largest repertory festival in the country, there’s a certain amount of internalized systemic prejudice to overcome.

in the indie scene, we often scorn the over-funded, over-attended, over-privileged infrastructures of canada’s larger theatre organizations, especially the more commercial enterprises like stratford, shaw, and mirvish.  we like to make ourselves feel better about the conditions we have to create in by dismissing the value of large-scale institutions as capitalist (and thereby artistically bankrupt).  they are driven by ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, and are thereby risk-averse, in both form and content.  we are inclined to assert that they play to the middle ground, the lowest common denominator, and choose financial security over artistic rigour.

the attitude mirrors somewhat the view of the suburban bourgeoisie from the perspective of downtown lefty intellectual cultures—you know, those in wards that remained staunch olivia chow supporters to the bitter end (i include myself among them).  in our critique of the menacing force of darwinian free-market capitalism—inarguably a dangerous and destructive one—we demonize and dehumanize the wealthy and the privileged because it is rhetorically expedient.  lack of privilege and marginalized status become cultural currency, creating credibility in an ethically-challenged and morally-bankrupt society.

all of this is a product of the increasing visibility of a class divide that shatters the utopian north american myth of the classless society.  the american dream of a meritocratic culture where hard work and talent are rewarded for their own sakes has been growing threadbare for some time, and the radically accessible discourse of the digital age has rendered it increasingly transparent, just as the marginalized and long-silenced voices of the under-privileged are accumulating a critical mass.

the corrupt values that corporatization embodies have been exposed, and from the outside looking in, it is easy to view the wealthy as collectively unscrupulous, privileged, and entitled.  in reality, the stereotype has been perpetuated since before dickens even invented ebeneezer scrooge—it has existed since free-market capitalism began.

and the stereotype exists because, in some cases, it is accurate.  there are absolutely unscrupulous and entitled capitalists out there driving the corporatization of our culture, and doing all they can to ensure their wealth isn’t redistributed and society isn’t restructured to their own disadvantages.

the thing about privilege is that, in many cases, people can’t help not having it any more than they can help having it.  i didn’t ask for my privileges (being born cis male, or white), any more than i asked for the marginalizing aspects of my identity (for example, my queerness).  i value the experience of both.  carrying privilege responsibly requires reflexivity—understanding the advantages one has been assigned by circumstances within or without one’s control.  actually, i would assert that compassionate reflexivity is an important quality for responsibly enacting most identities, whether privileged or marginalized, though the random power given by privilege implicitly carries with it greater responsibility.

there are a lot of wealthy people out there who are doing their best to be responsible, ethical human beings, and trying to figure out how best to use the advantages they have been given to make a positive impact on the world, be it on a micro or a macro level.  and there are self-serving, unethical, and corrupt people too.  some of them haven’t got any money or privilege at all.

when i was a teenager and didn’t know much about theatre, stratford was the long game—i would have been over the moon to be working here.  but as i trained, learned more, and was exposed to different aesthetics and artistic practices, stratford quickly faded from my thoughts.  i could have taken it or left it.  and it wasn’t without certain reservations that i came here.  i wasn’t altogether certain what was artistically possible or achievable, and how much of it would be of interest to me.  if my rhubarb show played here, the old ladies might be fleeing to the box office in droves to ask for their money back—at least those who hadn’t had aortic aneurysms when lulu asked “and why not lick this cherry cunt ice cream?”

on the other hand, stratford hires an astonishingly talented roster of actors, designers, directors, and technicians, and i am pretty sure most of them aren’t setting out to make middle-road art to please corporate sponsors.  they’re trying to make work that engages in an honest communication with their audiences about questions that interest them.  many of them have also work in the indie scene at some point, and are well-aware of the differences between the institutional structures.  the most astute of them are trying to recognize the privilege that working here entails, and work within this framework to create meaningful theatre that engages this audience.

and this is a different audience than you meet at the rhubarb festival.  they have different questions, come from a different cultural experience, and have different tastes.  so communicating with them requires a different approach.  i have a hunch that they prefer swordfights to serial sex murder.  (though this one’s got some incest and eye-gouging but aristotle thought it was good so maybe they’re taking him at his word).  it’s worth taking into account if you actually want them to engage with a piece—which i think many of these artists try to do, albeit with varying degrees of success.

i’m not saying that i have connected with all the work i’ve seen here.  i’m tough to please, and i’m definitely not the target audience.  but i recognize that these are worthy artists with lots of craft and talent who are mostly interested in doing their best work.

i am here primarily because of the faith i have in the director with whom i am working, and i trust that his vision and line of questioning can both have integrity and engage this audience—which makes this work meaningful. (it also helps that it’s one of the short runs in a smaller house so we can be more experimental and show some genitals onstage because it’s less tickets lost if it offends).

it is absolutely a fact that the programming at a theatre like this is, in part, governed by the influence of many more interest groups with much more conservative taste than, say, rhubarb.  my lofty ideals are definitely opposed to the idea that an audience should be able to dictate to artists the kind of work they want to see—work that affirms their cultural values rather than challenging them, or at least leaves their politics well enough alone in favour of a nice romance.  but that’s why i prefer to see underground queer performance in toronto.

the best shows i’ve seen here over the years have managed to be playfully subversive while also appealing to the audience’s tastes, but it’s a tricky dance to do in an institution driven by subscription sales.  (and actually, i think we ought to give the old ladies more credit—most of them are pretty sharp and probably want something to talk about on the drive back to michigan, though it may not be the whore of babylon).

not to say that the amount of wealth and resources available to the work being produced here doesn’t frustrate me, knowing the conditions of creation most of us are dealing with in toronto.  0.1% of stratford’s operating budget would have been 6 times lulu’s budget.  but at rhubarb, we don’t making the kind of work that (currently) appeals to most people with wealth and resources.

like our economic class structure, the problem is the system—in the case of theatre (and art in general) the problem is the north american relationship to art works as consumer commodities, rather than objects and experiences of intrinsic cultural value.   class in theatre-making is determined by access to audience, because most companies are dependent on ticket sales for funding.  in this relationship, the artist must offer the audience a work of art that is pleasing—which in many cases is interpreted as unthreatening, safe, and affirmative.  in the other system—where artists are looked to and valued as cultural critics—the artist offers the audience an artwork that contains a challenging perspective, and asks them to engage with it.

without changing our cultural relationship to art, to its function and value, shaw, stratford, and mirvish could all go bust, and all that production money could be redistributed, but there’s a good chance that the old ladies would stay at home and play bridge before they would show up to rhubarb looking to have their understanding of gender constructions subverted in an interactive installation.

and who knows what will happen to institutions like the stratford festival (or the underground indie scene for that matter) if we can transform our culture’s understanding of the value and function of art works?  maybe then the wealth could be redistributed?  or maybe purist pumpkin-pants shakespeare shows will go underground, and a subculture of radical neo-aesthetes will emerge, fighting against politicized queer work with a rallying cry for shakespeare-for-shakespeare’s-sake, while stratford programs post-dramatic gender-bent deconstructions of shakespeare texts, and fay slift leads a chorus of robotic hedda gablers in space on the shaw festival stage.


i ran into a director friend yesterday who asked me (maybe a little skeptically) how i was handling the vibe and the work here.  i could answer honestly that i’m enjoying the work, and enjoying feeling valued as an artist, even though there’s a bit of culture shock.  but i’m still not sure if i would have been any less proud of the show we created for rhubarb if it had had 3 stage managers and a palatial temperature-controlled rehearsal hall with an espresso machine in it.

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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1 Responses to swordfights vs serial sex murder: have i sold out?

  1. ted witzel says:

    i feel like i should add to this that there are still obvious and fundamental problems with the way the “privilege” of working at stratford is distributed, and that i am not arguing for complacency in this. the casting practices still reflect a pretty inaccurate picture of canada’s actual ethno-racial, cultural, and gender diversity, and straight white male directors still outnumber people of colour, women, and queers by a long shot. there are people within the festival working hard to change this, and i am anxious to see these changes enacted faster. change is often frustratingly incremental when addressing systemic issues, and the “titanic doesn’t turn on a dime” excuse is something i only have so much patience for.

    i am arguing that the individual artists who are brought to stratford from indie work across the country are doing their best to work with integrity at an institution that is governed by its audience’s taste, and this audience’s perceptions of the function and value of theatre. i have been pleasantly surprised to have my own biases challenged in encountering the humility and rigour with which many of the artists at stratford address the tension between their privilege and their own artistic values. and i suspect that many of them have done time gluing cornmeal to plastic sheets, or something similar at least.

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