This One Goes to Eleven: Ian MacKenzie

Welcome to the inaugural edition of a continuing series on The Next Stage. When I started this blog back in March my intention was to offer a glimpse behind the curtain of a neophyte theatre company mounting its first production, a chronicle of our formative period to hopefully drum up some interest and inspire conversation of a kind that I had been looking for on the craft of stage art today. What I have found since is that there are a lot of people who want to join in that conversation; smart, talented, and passionate people with opinions that deserve to be heard. This interview series, then, is the natural evolution of this site’s objective, and its intention is to motivate even more discourse, debate, and enthusiasm for the contemporary theatre by hosting the ideas of artists devoted to its perpetuation.

The idea for these interviews is one that I borrowed (well, stole, actually). I was thrilled to discover that there are many other theatreists using this medium to communicate ideas, and they taught me a lot about its potential for cultivating a larger community of theatre ideologists. In this regard I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Theatre is Territory, the Praxis Theatre’s blog from Toronto, whose 10 Questions series became an immediate addiction for me and continues to provide illumination on the current state of theatre. It seems only fair that the author of the site and the inspiration for this series be the one to kick things off over here on the West coast edition. Ian MacKenzie is the director of marketing for The Room and a true man of letters.

Ian MacKenzie

1.) In one word, describe your present condition.
Hypoglycemic.

2.) In as many words as you’d like, describe the present condition of Toronto indie theatre.
There’s a tremendous sense of optimism among independent theatre makers in Toronto. Our peer group is starting to win more grants and awards, we’re making better work and securing prestigious internships. At the same time, many of the community’s ideas about theatre are maturing. We’re getting more access to resources. And it looks like we’re finally in a real position to start challenging the status quo. All signs that a new generation of theatre makers is coming in to its own.

One thing seems clear: what worked for the previous generation of theatre makers is not going to work for us. The golden era of Toronto arts funding is over. There’s more competition than ever for consumers’ arts-and-entertainment dollars. And there’s a brave new world at our doorstep that we need to try to make sense of in our work. There’s lots to be done, for sure. But I think people are doing a great job of responding to these challenges.

There’s also a trend toward inter-organizational collaboration. Toronto’s various independent theatre companies are sharing actors, resources, ideas. It feels like we’re listening to one another and developing a model for doing business that is relevant to the realities of our situation.

In terms of arts funding, Toronto is at the bottom of the barrel. (Toronto’s per capita contribution to arts is just $14.64. Compare this to Vancouver’s at $17.71 and San Francisco’s at $86.01.) But, whatever, we’d be fools to let that stop us.

3.) What is the major obstacle in Toronto to the popularization of indie theatre?
A lack of specialization. We’re a group of generalists trying to sell our wares in an economy that privileges specialists. I can see how it happened. Theatre attracts artists – who are, by their nature, creative. We like to make things. So we make our own posters and programs, do our own marketing and PR, produce our own shows, throw fundraisers, do our own makeup and costumes, design our own sets, run our own lighting boards and video projectors . . . and pretty soon there’s no time left to focus on the tasks we were originally trained to do. The work suffers – the shows do poorly – and then we’re back at the beginning again, designing posters for the next show nobody outside the community is going to see. Sometimes it’s easier to do it all yourself than it is to run around finding trained specialists to cover your organization’s basic needs. But this is short-term thinking and it’s no way to run a business.

There is a host of reasons and explanations as to how we got into this predicament. And it’s probably well worth talking about them. But my primary interest is in figuring our way out of it. How do we attract accountants and trained marketers to our industry? Why do we assume that lawyers and producers aren’t interested in working in independent theatre? Have we tried talking to them recently? I think the onus is on us to answer these questions and to reverse our community’s drift toward professional generalization.

When we start to nail every aspect of the production cycle, we will win the full engagement of our communities – and a new legion of spectators and participants will follow.

4.) What is the role of the critics in the proliferation of a theatre movement?
From what I understand, theatre critics are writing for their readers, not the artists whose work they’re critiquing. So as far as theatre artists are concerned, the role of the critic is to market their show. It’s a shame that it’s come to that – and I think it’s become a more adversarial relationship than it needs to be. I hate the idea that the critics are going to make or break your show. It’s a straw man. Make a good show, market it well, and it will matter to you a whole lot less what the critics say.

On the other hand, mainstream theatre critics, generally, could be doing a better job of championing the little guy of independent theatre. We need reviews of our shows, sure, but we also need arts reporters to bring news of our other accomplishments and failures to a wider audience. Some critics do a great job of this. Others seem stuck in an outdated, review-based model of arts reporting.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to generate buzz surrounding our own work. Once we’ve assembled our armies, the critics will have no choice but to react and report back to their readers on the status of our staggering genius.

5.) What do we, as artists, owe to the theatre scene in terms of choice of content?
Art exists to challenge the status quo, I really believe that. So in developing content, art makers need to think about influence, we need to explore new ideas and, I think, the work needs to be guided by a sense of compassion. That’s why we don’t kill kittens on stage. You may be able to make an art argument for it, but it’s simply not a compassionate thing to do. So we find another way to say it.

If we’re challenging the status quo (whatever that means to you) and letting compassion be the tie-breaker on close artistic calls, we’re doing our jobs. It’s a form of pragmatism and I think we owe it to ourselves.

6.) What is the relationship, if any, between TV/film and theatre in Toronto?
That’s a huge question. I don’t have a cohesive answer for it. The production methods of these forms has some overlap, especially for actors. I know theatre actors get paid relatively well for appearing in television commercials. But I’m at a loss to come up with any unifying theories on this right now.

7.) Where will Toronto theatre be five years from now?
In the early bloom of its renaissance.

8.) The blogosphere is a potent new weapon in our battle for patronage. Discuss.
I hope so. Blogs can be an effective way of communicating complicated messages in an easily digestible format. The theatre community has fallen short in terms of really opening up theatre and theatre ideas to the general population. Look at film – everyone’s an armchair film theorist. But people who aren’t regular theatergoers simply don’t have the language to talk or even to think about theatre. This lack of language alienates them from the form. Blogs can deliver theatre language and ideas to a wider audience, which helps improve theatre literacy, generally, which, in turn, makes people more likely to come to our shows and give us their money.

9.) Through your immersion in the blogging community, what do you know about theatre now that you didn’t a year ago?
Pretty much everything. Praxis Theatre’s “10 questions” interview series gives me the opportunity to follow lines of inquiry that I simply did not have the resources (or the inclination, for that matter) to follow previously. So I ask my peers, “Do you think conservative, right-wing politics are somehow fundamentally at odds with the arts?”, for example. And I thank God they have an answer, because if you’d asked me that a year ago, I wouldn’t have had a clue.

Also, reading other theatre blogs has opened me up to whole new worlds of theatre-related discourse. I read about a dozen theatre blogs regularly and probably another dozen intermittently. So, if you detect a note of dogma in the tone of my writing, it’s probably because I’ve absorbed so many new ideas this year – I’ve had to find concrete ways of organizing them in my head.

10.) What are your top three must-reads right now?
I read for a living, so the idea of wading through pages and pages of long-form copy on my spare time doesn’t really turn me on. I do a lot of shorter-form reading online:

I. Scott Walters at his blog Theatre Ideas. He’s a drama professor at the University of North Carolina and one of the first theatre bloggers I came across. I’m a sucker for his professorial tone. Also, I didn’t go to school for theatre, so having access to a good drama professor is a real pleasure and a competitive edge. This quote from one of his recent posts sums up his offering nicely:

“Most theatre artists don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to graze in all kinds of books, and write, and ponder. They’re just trying to keep their heads above water! To my mind, academia ought to be the R&D for the theatre. We should be trying things out, coming up with ideas, documenting performances, and spreading the word about what is new and exciting. And we should be putting this into readable, accessible forms so that the exhausted artist can grasp the ideas easily (as opposed to the jargon and obscurity in academic journals, for instance). To me, blogging is a great way to do that.”

II. David Cote at his blog Histriomastix. It’s become a bit of a theatrosphere cliché to mention David Cote in the same breath as Scott Walters – they’ve publicly traded barbs on numerous occasions. But watching a couple of heavyweight, contemporary theatre thinkers going at it online is a sight of considerable spectacle. Sometimes I feel like Gilligan standing between the Skipper and the Professor while they’re arguing. I’m like, “He’s right. No, he’s right. Oh, you’re right, too.” And then the Skipper hits me with his hat and says they can’t both be right.

David Cote is a theatre critic at Time Out New York. His writing has a directness to it that has had a big effect on my own writing. I, like many young writers, started out with an abundance of confidence and a scarcity of skill. As the years passed – and I grew to more appreciate the challenges of being a good writer – my confidence waned, and the hollow tones of apologetic diplomacy crept in to my voice: “Here’s an idea, you know, but it’s not the final idea – I mean we could change it if you want.” Cote inspires me to reconnect with directness – and maybe to shelve the diplomacy every once in a while. His ideas about theatre are presented with clear-minded insight, creative flare and a sometimes-brutal honesty.

He’s also a question-heavy writer – “Where’s the political theatre?” – a trope I’ve shamelessly adapted for my own writer’s toolbox. Because, you know, questions are the answer.

I had the pleasure of interviewing both Walters and Cote recently, and in both cases, I was blown away by their generosity (of time and ideas), facility with language, and passion for theatre.

III. The letters section of my local arts weekly, Now Magazine. I don’t laugh much, but sometimes letters to the editor just make me howl. People are so clever!

11.) What’s next?
An aggressive campaign of compassionate localism. Whatever your battles are – the appalling practice of factory farming animals, declining theatre attendance, global warming, tasteless oranges – chances are they have something to do with the 20th century’s unprecedented centralization of power.

The debate between capitalism and communism is over. Capitalism won. The great political argument of our time is between centralization and decentralization – global and local, if you like (that’s John Livingston). This, incidentally, is why theatre is poised for its renaissance: It has a natural resistance to commodification, which prevented it from being centralized in the first place. (Unless, that is, you follow the argument that film is the natural evolution of theatre, in which case theatre has been successfully commodified and practitioners of its traditional methods are doomed.) So theatre, in many of its forms, remains a remarkably local pursuit.

I’m optimistic that theatre can be a major player in unifying communities and asserting a localist agenda in which average artists are recognized with fair compensation for their contributions to the local economy and the greater good.

So what’s next? We all need to step up, start buying locally manufactured goods when possible, stop commuting so much, stop letting geo-political borders determine our levels of compassion and engagement, and commit to making our communities as local as they can effectively be. It doesn’t mean turning our backs on the benefits of globalization, just making sure we fight tooth and nail in pursuit of the greater good.

17 thoughts on “This One Goes to Eleven: Ian MacKenzie

  1. “Once we’ve assembled our armies, the critics will have no choice but to react and report back to their readers on the status of our staggering genius.”

    hey simon and ian, want to start an army? Oh wait that’s right…

  2. This is an outstanding interview, and I applaud you for getting Ian to be the interviewee rather than interviewer. While the entire interview is fantastic, Iam particularly jazzed about his response to Question #11 — I love the phrase “compassionate localism.” Great stuff!

  3. Hey Simon,

    Thanks for the kind introduction – and for those great questions. It definitely gave (and continues to give) me a lot to think about. It also was instructive to be on the interviewee’s side of the fence for once.

    I look forward to seeing the rest of the series.

    Regards,

    Ian

  4. Ian – any gratitude owed is mine, your considered and well-articulated position on the state of our union has me inspired and writing like mad. And I fully agree with Scott, your entreaty for “compassionate localism” was instantly incorporated into my own lexicon of theatre ideas. Bravo, and thank you for setting the bar for my little series at such a generous standard.

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