Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama
Coach House Books, 2015
When a particular art form loses its place in the cultural hierarchy, sliding down towards irrelevance, those who still hold it dear generally fall into one of two camps in explaining its lost prominence: those who blame the audience and those who blame the artists. Fortunately, in Theatre of the Unimpressed, playwright and theatre director Jordan Tannahill lays the blame for live theatre’s declining cultural position squarely at the feet of the artists, making for a more productive conversation. The question facing theatre artists today is, as he puts it, “what elements [make] an invitation to the theatre feel more like a trip to the dentist and less like scoring Beyoncé tickets?” (10)
For those who prefer dental work to live theatre, the idea of reading an entire book about contemporary theatre practice in Canada may seem about as appealing as a high school production of Death of a Salesman. Tannahill, however, makes the subject matter accessible even to those without much interest in dramaturgy. He avoids the bad habits that plague much of arts writing–prolixity, abstraction, and unnecessary jargon–and instead, investigates his central question through lively interviews and stories from his own career, all told with wry humour and an infectious sense of enthusiasm. The book is as much autobiography as analysis, as much an investigation into Tannahill’s own passion as the public’s seeming lack thereof. A chapter on what makes a dull play, for example, begins with the author discussing audience participation with a man at an orgy in a Montréal hotel room, before segueing into a comparison between boring orgies and boring plays: “People go through the motions, they do what’s expected, they make the sounds they’re supposed to make, but it’s not really as surprising or exhilarating as you hope or imagine it will be.” (21)
Tannahill’s account of producing Sheila Heti’s play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid at his own cinema and performance lab, Videofag (co-founded with William Ellis in 2012), is a high point, and nowhere does he better capture the thrill of the shared risk between artist and audience than in his description of the staging of this “sprawling, disorienting” (45) play with non-professional actors.
“The spectre of failure loomed pleasurably over the whole event, with the audience delighted to watch these unlikely performers working in the impossibly small confines of Videofag, sincerely committed to the task of mounting this supposedly unstageable play. There was a thrill and a tension in the possibility that the whole house of cards could come cascading down at any moment.” (50)
This is really the central argument of the book. For Tannahill, risk is the essence of good theatre, and without it, we’re left with warmed-over rehashings of well-trodden classics and new work that has been workshopped to bloodless perfection. “What I am advocating for,” he says, “is a little more impulse and mystery in place of reason and structure.” (38) In addition to this central thesis, he addresses a range of more specific issues, including the benefits and drawbacks of the subscription model for theatres, the role of imperfections in creating compelling performances, the impact of the internet and cinema on live theatre, and the origin of today’s common play structure.
The book has its imperfections. Its reliance on anecdotal evidence could have been better balanced by actual data and research. Tannahill gets lost in tales from his own career and spends longer than necessary relaying stories that contribute little to the arguments he sets forth. Still, in these passages, it’s easy to be forgiving as his excitement for the medium shines through, and his evocative descriptions and wicked humour keep the reader engaged. Like a good play, Tannahill’s book is flawed but personal, imperfect but captivating.
Bryce Doersam is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and theatre, currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. His non-fiction has been published online by the Terry Project and the Georgia Straight. His short play, Carl Williams, was produced for the 2014 Brave New Play Rites festival. Visit him online at www.brycedoersam.com, or follow him on twitter @brycedoe.