Recently I listened to a theatre podcast out of New York City. The people on the podcast had chosen the lifestyle of living away from home in order to further their careers in NYC. Other places, it seems, don’t have the same quality of work, or the same opportunities, or the same money.
As they debated the merits of moving to the other fame-and-fortune city of LA, I quickly got bored and turned it off. American theatre is not my context. But the NYC-centered attitude kept bothering me days later, and made me think of our own Holy Grail, Toronto (or Vancouver, if you like nature). I’m a pretty ambitious human and so sometimes I dream of throwing myself into these theatre-centers-of-the-world, plunging myself in headlong just to see if I can swim, and taking delight in the sheer number of talented artists around me. I’m not saying that I’ll never do that. I love travelling around to learn and to see what’s up.
But I just can’t believe that congregating in the big theatre cities is the most meaningful way to create art. All art work comes from a place, an actual geographical place where the artists socialize, make money, get grants, eat food, vote. Each place is bound to have it’s own flavor. I don’t want to only see theatre that is NYC-flavoured, or Toronto-flavoured, or big-city-flavoured. And when I create work, I want it to taste like the place where I live.
I want my work to mean something more, or at least something different, to the people in my community than it does to that people who see it on tour. Call me crazy for that last statement, but isn’t that how we can mean something to our audience, who are quite literally the people around us –they other people on the bus, on the street, the people living next door?
Creating on a local level is also the best way to create a national theatre identity. We don’t need theatre artists all in one central place creating work, which often turns into artists creating work for other artists. We don’t need another remount of a British or American play. We need stories from specific communities told by artists who have lived it, are living it. The best Canadian theatre has developed these stories –think Leaving Home, The Crackwalker, Balconville, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. They are beautifully Canadian and beautifully real in their specificity of place and time.
Ottawa-flavour isn’t always my favourite. Like anyone, I have strong positive and negative feelings about home, my original home being the Maritimes and my adopted home being Ottawa. Ottawa is terribly square sometimes; compared to other cities it’s very middle class, homogenous, polite, and sadly apathetic towards its artists. But, it’s my city. Ottawa is home to some of the best friends I’ve ever had. Ottawa is full of smart, highly-educated people who care about the future of the country, who engage with national politics whether they like it or not, and who really enjoy going to festivals. Ottawa is my home, and I can create something in this context that could not be created anywhere else. I believe that is the first step to creating a piece that in its specificity explores universal themes in new ways, allowing the piece to transcend place and time.
That’s the kind of work I want to see. Work from tiny towns in Alberta as well as from downtown Toronto, work that takes me on a trip. Not a vacation to a shiny, impossible world, or yet another trip to 1500s England or the Big Apple, but a trip to a place where the artist has lived, with a peculiar and specific story. A place that might be next door to me, but that I’ve never visited before. Even in a polite capital city in a notoriously polite country, I believe that work that consciously creates from a geographical place can then be adventurous.
Of course, communities are not limited to geography. A theme that keeps finding its way into my writing work (whether I like it or not) is God, spirituality, and the Christian religion. When I write on these themes, I know my work is geared more towards specific communities scattered across the country than for the general population of Ottawa. But I think the same principle applies; the work should come from the community and the artist’s investment in that community. Then, whether it’s a naturalistic drama or a surreal piece of performance art, the work is likely to be imbued with a sense of something real.
So I say let’s not dream of Toronto or NYC, and let’s not only be friends with each other (I love you, theatre-friends, but I can’t only love you). We should dream of all of the rich stories next door to us that we haven’t heard yet. Or the stories in our hometowns that we’ve heard so much that we’ve forgotten how interesting they are. Then create from there, and show the work there, to see if our neighbours and communities agree, Yes, that’s what it’s like. That’s me. That’s us. Whether in a small town backyard or a big Mirvish stage, that would be work worth its snuff.