Ego. When is it too much, and when too little?
In July, I had a late afternoon catch up with a former student whom I will refer to as D.H. Currently she is in the middle of a four year performance program at a highly respected theatre faculty in Toronto, where by all accounts, she’s doing exceptionally well. D.H.’s show had just closed at the Toronto Fringe, and she received excellent reviews for her performances. While we sipped on our Margaritas, and talked about the Fringe, school and dreams. D.H. confessed she was seriously considering dropping out of her theatre program. When I asked her why she told me she hated how they stripped the students of their confidence and any and all ego they might have. There is a culture of emotional oppression of “self”. What’s the point, D.H. asked, if theatre students were too afraid to take risks, too afraid to fail? Isn’t school a place to be nurtured? Aren’t students there to explore and try and safely fail and try again so they can grow as artists?
What is the point, indeed?
Most theatre schools do take the same hard-nose approach and there could be a number of reasons why. Kids often come from high school programs where they were “stars”, many with egos bigger than the state of Texas. It’s difficult to teach someone who thinks they know everything, when actually all they know is a drop in the bucket. Or maybe the schools take such an approach because that’s how the instructors themselves had been treated when they were in theatre school? Could it be what goes around comes around? Or perhaps, students who really want to follow a career in the arts MUST be reduced to nothing, in order to truly understand and the pain and the joy of the human condition. Maybe this is theatre schools’ method to their madness – to determine which students have the strength, tenacity, love and passion to go on despite the inflicted wounds.
Are theatre practitioners not often humbled by critics and nay-sayers regardless of talent, reputation or quality of their work ? We put our work out there for audiences and we hope for praise but must also expect to be hurt. Some people say theatre artists have to be full of themselves in order to write the play, stand metaphorically naked on stage or direct others in what and how to play the play. And yes, many extroverts do become performers. They love being in the spotlight and often they are very well crafted in their staged personae. Still, it always seems to be the introverted artists – the ones lacking a love of self, the shy ones, the quiet ones, the still ones – who usually steal my heart. I think those actors and playwrights have spent most of their lives listening, observing, and processing; whereas the extroverts have focused too much on presenting themselves to the world.
I remember having a conversation with Rob Kempson of Theatre Passe Muraille, and the current Director for the Paprika Festival . Rob is also a qualified and very talented drama teacher who I used to love bringing into my classes (and I very highly recommend as a guest artist or supply teacher). We were talking about performing artists who become teachers. Rob observed that in order to professionally develop as an actor, one needs to be focused on oneself; whereas, those who teach need to be focused on their students. He felt that knowing how to switch from one to the other may be quite challenging for some theatre artists.
What recently happened at the Factory Theatre between Ron Struys and his merry Board of Pranksters and founder Artistic Director Ken Gass was a clash of ideas, but also a butting of egos. And then there’s Morris Panych’s hysterically funny but also distressed response to critic Kelly Nestruck’s Globe review of Wanderlust. The tennis match between the two of them, is yet another example of ego and the artist. You can read the review and Morris’ subsequent response at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/theatre-reviews/stratfords-wanderlust-merely-serviceable-entertainment/article4411194/ (By the way if you do take the time to read the review, be sure to link on to the comments that follow the article.)
There were a number of amazing new plays at this year’s Summerworks Festival including the deeply disturbing Terminus, the equally extraordinary Iceland and Daniel MacIvor’s new play I, Animal. I mention these plays because all of them consisted of extended monologues delivered by three separate and disconnected characters. I loved the first two scripts and the productions but something bothered me. Is this a new trend for playwrights? There was little action, little blocking and virtually no interaction between characters. In the rare moments when the dialogue segued I leaned forward in excitement, hoping for more physical connections between the characters. None came.
I used to think that one-person shows were egotistical and selfish but the truth is their popularity is derived from the fact they are so much cheaper and so much easier to produce. I understand that, but why have three characters on stage in total isolation? As an audience member I hunger for human interaction and tension between characters. How can this trend toward monologue-cum-play serve a stronger dramatic purpose? Or is it that playwrights no longer know how to develop relationships between characters? Is it reflective of how alienated we’ve all become in our world of twitter, FB’ing, texting and blogging? If we function alone in bubbles, how can we not focus on ourselves and our own egos? We talk and talk and talk, and write and write and write but characters having a dialogue on stage is becoming a rare treat indeed.
Which brings me back to my original question. How much is too much ego? How much is too little?