Canadian Star System

This essay first appeared on the March 1 episode of Stageworthy Podcast.

Have you noticed that we don’t have stars in Canada? Now I don’t mean those people that we all know the names of who’ve gone to the U S or to England to become famous, but we still claim them as our own. No, I mean, we don’t have any home grown and fostered theater stars. By that. I mean, we don’t have names that are a draw. We don’t have actors whose names can go on a poster. And just by being there become a draw in other countries, like in the U S and in the UK, an actor’s name can work as a draw, but in Canada, That’s such a rare thing. And sometimes we don’t even see any actors names on a poster.

Now, a cynical person would think that maybe this is a tactical decision on the part of the producers, because weighing the value of a star. They have to think that perhaps it’s better to pay actors less than to have actors whose name have recognition because a star can make demands. A star has power.

So perhaps the wisdom is to ensure that we have no stars, no names that can be a draw so that we keep everyone just thankful to be working so that no one questions how much they’re paid. And that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We’ve seen the death of theater, journalism, and arts journalism as a whole, as the media landscape shrinks.

And it becomes harder for theater companies to get media attention, then promoting the actors in the show and pushing them to any media that still pays attention to the theater would not only be a way to keep audiences coming, but an investment in the future because an actor with name recognition is a draw a way to sell tickets.

But of course you can’t do that if you have no recognizable actors and I’m not talking about actors whose names are recognizable within the theater community, we have lots of those. Those names might be well-respected, but they don’t necessarily sell tickets. I’m talking about names that can be recognizable to the general public.

But we can’t have that. If an actor is largely unnamed from show to show, I can’t think of a Canadian theater actor who could star in a play whose name would make the general public want to purchase tickets. Occasionally in the past, there have been productions of shows that have brought in an actor who was legitimately famous.

For example, there was the famous – or was it infamous – production of Hamlet that started Keanu Reeves. And it’s obvious that this was stunt casting and attempt to bring in a movie star to sell tickets. But why does something like that happened with a movie star who I’m sure was paid a lot of money, but there’s no chance of that with a Canadian theater actor who isn’t already a movie star.

The movie star is allowed to be an above the title draw but what other Canadian actor can boast the same? Is the problem the lack of entertainment coverage in Canada? As a member of the media, I am regularly sent press releases for shows, and those press releases always list both the cast and creative team.

Now I’m a weekly podcast with a modest reach, and I try to interview as many people as possible, but I can only get to so many, but with a daily paper, with a large reach, you would get so many more press releases than I do. And often the ones that stand out are the ones with a PR person that the reporter knows.

And in those cases, the PR or public relations person is going to try and get some kind of write-up for the production. And maybe this might’ve been easier years ago when there was more coverage, but there are so few publications doing regular theater coverage. It seems nearly impossible now. So maybe the death of arts coverage is part of the problem, but that isn’t all of it because the problem has existed for longer than the recent deterioration of the media landscape, because we haven’t ever really had theater stars in Canada.

And I know that while there might be good things about a star system, there’s also plenty of bad. Isn’t it? Nice to think that all the actors get this same, that there’s an egalitarianism to being a working actor in Canada, but that’s not quite true because if I have the lead in a show, I do get paid a little more, but I’m not a star. Not really not like in other places.

Of course, anyone who’s spent any time paying attention to the entertainment industry in Canada knows that we don’t have stars. And we don’t really consider anyone a star until they’ve had success elsewhere. And for a while, I thought that was just a part of being Canadian, but on reflection, I don’t think it is.

Maybe it’s more about the entertainment media that we do have spending more time talking about American artists than it does our own home grown talent. Maybe that combined with producers who want actors to just be thankful to be working, keeps the Canadian artists small. But I think that we deserve better.

We deserve to have homegrown talent that stays here and becomes a household name. Canadians need to see themselves on their stages. And that includes seeing Canadian names above the title and celebrated for being a Canadian artist who stayed in Canada rather than leaving for the U S.

The “Theatre Community”

This essay first appeared in the Feb. 22, 2022 episode of Stageworthy.

Here’s a question that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Just what is the theatre community? We often talk about the quote unquote theatre community. What does the community think about this? What is the community doing about this?

And I love the idea of the theatre community, but often a moment after I talk about the theatre community, I find myself wondering what exactly is the community and how do I find it? Because a community is a social unit with a commonality, like a, an identity or a religion or values or, or passions. Or in the case of the theatre world of vocation, but a community needs to be a social unit.

Now I live in Toronto, which is a pretty big city for theatre, but there are small pockets of theatre all over this city. Lots of theatre cliques for want of a better word. There are some names that everyone knows, and a lot of names that might be known within a single clique, but might not be known in another.

The problem with these clique’s is that they are both the theatre community and not, they are the community because for the people involved in that group, that’s their community, but they are not the community because they’re a small group for the larger theatre community. That’s something that’s more complicated to describe.

When I think about the theatre community, when I’ve asked people to tell me what they think about when they think of the theatre community in Toronto, the only thing they seem to be able to think of is the fringe tent or the patio or whatever we’re calling it. Now, fringe seems to be the one time of year when the theatre world comes together and forms a community.

We gather, we have a few drinks, we have some conversation. We talk about the amazing theatre we’ve seen. We talk about the things that we’re working on. We hang out and just enjoy being with other theatre people. And for 10 ish days, we have this place that we go. And when it’s over, that’s pretty much the end of the community for the year, because it’s the only time we seem to gather as a group.

When I first came to Toronto, when I first started hanging out and being in the world of Toronto as an adult, I learned that there was a bar called the Green Room and I assumed that was the theatre bar. And I thought to myself how amazing it was that there was this place where all the performers and other theatre people in Toronto could go and hang out.

Well, imagine my surprise and disappointment when I discovered that it was just a bar. Occasionally you would find some theatre people there, but it was not a theatre bar. And I think about New York city, where there have been restaurants that were integral to the theatre world, like the Edison cafe, sadly, no longer with us and a cursory Google search assures me that there are other cafes and restaurants that are theatre centric where people go, we don’t have that here.

There are a few places that have become central to the theatre scenes in cities here and there. At least during the fringe season, someone will have to let me know if they’re theatre hubs all year long in Winnipeg. The Kings Head becomes the bar of choice for fringe casts and crews. And in Edmonton, the performers shunned the beer tents and instead head to Steel Wheels.

But to my knowledge, these places, these hubs of the theatre community are temporary and mostly related to the local fringe scene, but it would be great to have a place that could be more of a regular gathering place, where we could talk about things happening in the theatre world, where we could meet where we could have community instead of making Twitter, our theatre commons, because Twitter is no place for discourse, but when we have no place to gather on the regular, how can we be a theatre community, I guess in the end, I don’t have an answer because I still don’t know what the theatre community is.

It’s something we talk about as though it was a thing and every now and then we get a taste of what it could be and then it’s gone, but I long for it. And maybe you do too. The only question is what do we do about that?

Disposable Theatre

This essay first appeared on the Feb 15, 2021 episode of Stageworthy.

Honest question. What is with the disposable nature of plays in the Canadian theatre? Yeah, I can only think of a couple of plays – one in recent memory – that have had a life outside of their initial performance. On average, we produce a play once on one of our major stages, say for example, in Toronto, Theatre Passe Muraille, Tarragon, The Factory.

And then for the most part that play is then disposed of and forgotten and never really heard from again. And we’ve been doing that, pretty much since the 1960s, when the Canadian theatre scene really began in earnest. Every so often a play like Kim’s Convenience comes along that is so undeniably good that it gets a life after its production.

But for the most part, it seems that in Canada, we produce a play, it runs for a few weeks, and then when it’s over, it’s gone and we never hear from it. But for American and British plays, those will often tour or get a Canadian production or be performed by community theatre groups. But aside from Kim’s or the drowsy chaperone or come from away, when was the last time a Canadian play has gotten a production outside of Canada.

I remember a number of years ago, Howard Sherman, who was then the head of the American theatre wing, posted that he found it curious that he knew plays from Britain and of course plays from America, but he could not name any shows from Canada. Of course, a lot of Canadians helped out and named their favourites, but at the time, even he found it odd that he couldn’t name a single Canadian play.

Why do you think this is? What is it that prevents the plays that we create here from going on to be performed in the US or Britain or elsewhere, but what’s even more concerning to me is the fact that we rarely see them produced at home. So often a play is produced, and like I said, it runs a few weeks and it closes.

And it doesn’t get to breathe to grow. And it certainly doesn’t get to become a hit the way shows from elsewhere get to. And I do understand that part of that is logistics. In Toronto, we have only so many theatres dedicated to producing new work, and there’s only so much time that could be dedicated to a given play in each season. And because of that, a production can only run a few weeks.

But that keeps us from having a show that gets to be a big hit. Because if a show does well, there’s really no mechanism in place that lets a show go on to another life. Nothing that lets a show get picked up to continue on under another theatre’s umbrella and run for longer or anything like that. I guess for me, the sad thing is that Canadian theatre will never be able to get worldwide acclaim or even respect unless we find a way to give a play life after its first production.

Not that a play has to travel to Britain or the US to be successful, but at the very least, should we not have some path to further productions in Canada to give our shows the same shot at being remembered that shows in Britain in the U S. Why don’t we value the theater we make here enough to give more of our plays, a future?

Don’t our homegrown playwrights and actors and directors deserve that? Don’t they deserve better than just being disposable?

Truth and Honesty in the Theatre

This essay first appeared on the Feb. 8 episode of Stageworthy.

We have an honesty problem in theatre, and I’m not talking about on stage, we talk a lot about truth on the stage. We want where we portray to be as truthful as possible. We pursue on the stage for a scene a moment to be as honest and truthful as possible. offstage, there may be many times when we feel like we can’t be truthful and honest. Think about a time when you were unhappy with the way that the audiences were reacting to a show or even you were unhappy with the turnout of audiences to the show, you felt like the show could have been getting more audiences but wasn’t getting the audience’s it deserved.

But could you say that? Could you post on social media about how disappointed you are? It’s pretty much understood that you don’t, at least not in a place where anyone but your closest friends might see it. You have to publicly remain positive. And if you’re frustrated about things happening behind the scenes, or if there’s something toxic happening in the rehearsal hall, whether it’s from the director or producer, or even another actor, can we call it out? Do we call it out? Do we talk about it, regardless of whether or not we should we often don’t.

We don’t talk about these things. And often, it was our theatre school experience that laid the groundwork for that silence. When I was in theatre school, I did not have a great experience. I wouldn’t say that my experience was toxic. I just wasn’t very happy. And part of the problem was that to be completely honest, I was one of those students that rode the edge of being cut from the programme. Back when that was a regular occurrence. I’m told we don’t cut people from programmes anymore, which is good. But it was something that hung over my head for the entirety of the three years I was at school. And I wasn’t the only one. All of us knew that we could be cut from the programme and that they wouldn’t have to give any reason. And their reasoning if they gave one wouldn’t be questioned. We went through our days in fear. And so if we saw problematic or toxic behaviour, we didn’t say anything. We learned not to rock the boat.

I’ve been doing this podcast for about six years now. But occasionally I’ll find out that somebody I’m interviewing went to the same theatre school that I did. And I would ask them as somebody who went to that school and really curious, I’d ask how their experience was, and they would get this frozen smile on their face. And they would say, Oh, it was great. But I could tell there was something not quite right there. And so we just gloss over it and move on.

And then afterwards, when the recording was over, I’d asked them again, about their experience. And I would hear stories about how their experience was toxic, but they didn’t feel like they could say that out loud, that they couldn’t call it out.

And so they just didn’t. And they tried to put their theatre school experiences behind them all while it taught them that the most important thing for them to do was keep their mouths shut.

How are we supposed to change things when we can’t talk about them?

It’s hard enough to be an artist without having to bottle up the truth without having to bottle up what you’re feeling like things are not going your way or when you’re being treated unfairly or where you just want to be able to admit that you’re disappointed in something like the turnout for a show, as I mentioned before, or a bad review. It’s hard enough to get a bad review for a show. And again, we don’t complain about that we take our lumps and we try to let it slide. Even though we want to respond. We don’t because that’s not how it’s done. That’s not professional. And so we shrug and pretend that it doesn’t bother us. But of course it does. But we can’t see that it does we have to remain positive.

And I wonder sometimes if the public, the people who aren’t artists see this and wonder if we’re being disingenuous. Do we seem artificial to them? Because we put on that brave positive face all the time? Does it make it difficult for the non artists to relate to us? Is that why muggles have this idea that so often portrayed in the media that we’re really fake people? I believe that people can sense when we’re not being honest. And when there’s something we’re not saying. And we know it too. It eats at us. I know what eats me when I do it. And I wish I could just say what I’m thinking. But I don’t because that’s just not what we do. And why isn’t it something we do? Why is that kind of honesty frowned on.

Why is it that if I get an unfair review, I can’t say anything? Why is it if if I had a bad experience in the rehearsal hall, I can’t say anything?

I wish I had an answer to the whole thing. I wish I knew how to fix it. But maybe if we talk about it, we can take a few steps towards fixing the toxic aspects of the industry, and also be a little bit better to ourselves. 

It Sees You When You’re Sleeping is Almost Here

In just a few days, my holiday horror audio drama, It Sees You When You’re Sleeping launches, and I am super excited for you to hear it!

It Sees You When You’re Sleeping follows a Christmas-loving single dad who gives in to his daughter’s request for a certain elf toy and finds himself face to face with an evil he could never have imagined.

Inspired by the idea of the Elf on the Shelf doll and its accompanying traditions, this audio drama imagines what might happen if there was more to the toy than felt and plastic. Something more…sinister.

It Sees You When You’re Sleeping is the second part of a trilogy of audio dramas for the holidays that started with last year’s “Saint” Nick and the Big F*ck Up, and will conclude next year. The first episode arrives on November 17, and each of the six remaining 10-15 minute episodes will weekly until the final episode on December 22.

Elves are in the zeitgeist.

Myths and legends about elves were part of the inspiration for It Sees You When You’re Sleeping, and play into the story as it unfolds. But apparently, I am not the only one who has been thinking about elves, as just this week, I saw a trailer for a Danish film called Elves on Netflix. The trailer is just…amazing. Give it a watch.

It reminds me a little of the film Rare Exports, which offers an alternative Santa Claus. Have you seen it?

Don’t Forget to Subscribe!

Make sure you are subscribed to It Sees You When You’re Sleeping on your favourite podcast platform so that you don’t miss any of the episodes. You can find on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, and all the usual podcast services.