I just closed a production in a theatre festival of what was supposed to be about new ideas. Actually it was a homogenized collection of mainstream scripts. The play I chose to direct was one of the exceptions. The playwright Gina Femia played with conventions of character, time and setting, as did I in my direction. Not surprisingly, this was the most challenging piece to grasp and appreciate for the fundamentally conservative audiences.
While we were still in rehearsal, a cohort and friend who (several years ago) was one of my students made the front page of a major paper for distributing allegedly inappropriate material to his students for a stand-up comedy unit. The story was picked up by other media outlets across the country and Jeff was subsequently and rather hastily and unceremoniously dismissed from his 12 year position as a teacher with the Toronto District School Board. It didn’t matter that students, colleagues, parents and alumni all rallied to support this teacher and to explain that although Mr. Jones may be conceived as unconventional, it is because he is genuine, honest and authentic that he is so effective as a teacher. Jeff made a difference in his students’ lives.
I belong to a very small minority of people who don’t really enjoy musicals and other forms of big box entertainment. I can’t count the number of times I went to see a show that got rave reviews from audiences, but I walked out feeling “meh”. Students and many of my friends are shocked when I announce I wasn’t particularly wowed by Rent, seduced by Chicago or touched by My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. I understand the appeal of such shows, but the outcome is not much different than the way I feel after I eat a Big Mac. The two beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – all on a sesame seed bun may satisfy billions of cravings, but for me the greasy, salty burger with chemical laden sauce makes me feel a little sick and a lot guilty. The Big Mac will never, ever have the tender, rich succulent satisfaction of a prime, grass-fed filet mignon.
I do not go to the theatre to have my appetite for entertainment satiated. I need and expect theatre (and literature, film, music, art and dance) to feed my imagination and nourish my spirit. I expect to be confronted with new ideas, perspectives and questions and I hope my equilibrium will somehow be shaken, and my boundaries be pushed. Give me theatre that makes me think hard, feel deeply and it’s okay to make me feel uncomfortable. I’d so rather attend and pay good money for an unsuccessful production with noble intentions than sit through a glittering, shiny multimillion dollar production that has next to no substance.
I felt the same way about teaching. It wasn’t about teaching my students to become entertainers – tap-dancing musical theatre performers or God help us, reality television celebs. It wasn’t about encouraging kids to get an agent so they could audition for McDonalds’ commercials and make lots of money so they could pretend they were actors or artists.
What I did try to teach was critical thinking skills. I wanted my students to create, not imitate, to use the arts as a form of communication for ideas, values and issues that were universally important, and to connect in meaningful ways in order to better understand our shared humanity beyond social class, ethnicity, religion or geographical and political divides. I wanted my students to listen to others, to empathize with those who may be different, to keep their minds open, to be accepting and to to think outside of the proverbial box. I tried to show them that creating something worthwhile was always difficult and requires serious work ethic, tenacity, determination, sacrifice and passion. I tried to create a safe space to explore, where they could be honest and open and real and where it was okay to fail.
So, here we are in 2013 and in many ways the world I live in has stepped backwards. My friends still teaching in the trenches are now second-guessing themselves and their curriculum because conservative nay-sayers, book-burners, paranoid administrators and witch-hunters are on the loose and empowered by their sense righteousness. Literally, there is a climate of fear. Based on what has happened to Jeff, I believe we are now entering an age of McSchools and McDrama classes. The best teachers: the daring ones, the non-conventional, the brave and the creative – they do have reason to be frightened. Theatre too, is becoming increasingly safe and insipid. Artistic directors have become afraid of punitive funding cuts by conservative governments. While razzle dazzle shows like Wizard of Oz and Cats are still attracting crowds to Toronto theatres, the really brilliant work by talented Canadian playwrights, directors and actors is only seen and appreciated by a few.
It really is a Catch 22.