This One Goes to Eleven: Colin Thomas

I feel fairly confident in stating that no one in Vancouver experiences more of its theatre than Colin. The long-time contributing theatre editor at the Georgia Straight, his is the thumbs-up review every company publicist in town hopes for, and the thumbs-down we all fear. With a hard-earned reputation for candor tempered with an abiding adoration of the art of theatre, he has carved for himself a singular niche atop the totem pole of Vancouver critical media. And lest there be any aspersions cast on his ability to practice that which he preaches, Colin is a prolific playwright whose works have been critically acclaimed themselves, produced internationally, and translated into French, German and Japanese. It’s a true pleasure to welcome him to This One Goes to Eleven.

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Muddled.

2. Removing any restrictions on length, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

I think there’s an abundance of acting talent, a decent supply of design talent, and not enough directing or playwriting talent—although I’ve seen three new plays recently that have given me hope on the playwriting front.

Bill Millerd made some exciting choices for the Arts Club this past season, but there hasn’t been much of a sense of adventure at the Playhouse for years. That’s a real problem; for better or for worse, the Playhouse defines Vancouver’s theatrical identity for many people. Bard on the Beach is generally a solid example of a successful commercial operation that’s willing to take risks.

Still, it’s largely the graduates of SFU and Studio 58 that are producing the most innovative and original work, and they’re doing it through smaller companies such as radix, Theatre Replacement, The Chop, and The Electric Company.

The PuSh Festival has turned into a very stimulating annual showcase of risk-taking work—although I’d like to see some more challenging content there to match the innovations in form.

And this summer, Vancouver gets to host the Magnetic North Festival, which should be a blast.

3. Developmentally, what stage are we at in our evolution as a theatre town?

I feel like we’re in a state of suspended adolescence—perpetually on the cusp of growing up.

That’s frustrating, because there are some tremendous artists here. You’re not going to see a better actor than Jonathon Young, even if you slap down $200 on Broadway.

I also think that the audience here is smart, adventurous, and generous. Daniel MacIvor told me once that he likes premiering work in Vancouver because audiences here are so on-the-ball and because we’re not nearly as snooty as the folks in Toronto.

But the amount of media coverage and the level of that coverage are disappointing. Art isn’t part of the public discourse in the way that it needs to be if it’s going to become a flourishing and integrated part of this city’s culture.

4. What responsibility, if any, do theatre artists have to their community, in terms of their choice of material?

Social responsibility is what it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned. We go to the theatre to consider how we behave, and to imagine alternative ways of being and understanding.

Theatre is the most social of art forms. And it’s informed by compassion. Every good actor knows that you can’t do justice to a character if you judge them; you have to find what makes them human, where they live in you. It’s not that different for audience members. As we sit in the dark, we too get to imagine ourselves into the skins of other people.

I think it’s important to remember the transformative potential implicit in all of this and not fuck it up.

The theatre is also erotic, of course. It’s a celebration of life.
In a way, that also implies a kind of responsibility. It’s important to choose material that really rocks you. If an actor’s not enjoying what they’re doing—if they’re not celebrating life in a fundamental way—they shouldn’t be onstage. Think of Colleen Wheeler in 4:48 Psychosis. I can’t imagine a heavier play. And, on a fundamental level, Colleen was having the time of her life.

5. Given the choice, which would you prefer to see; a new work in progress or a well-credentialed established play, and why?

All other things being equal, I’d rather see a new play. A premiere is like a birth.

6. Do you review based on a prioritized set of criteria, or are you looking for an overall, emotional experience from a production?

I try to stay open to what the production gives me.

Caryl Churchill is one of my favourite playwrights because she consistently confounds my narrative expectations. I’m usually pissed off and confused at first, but if I hang in there, she delivers the goods.

In Ice Cream, which is the first Churchill script I saw, for instance, there is no justice, there is no moral order. Most plays rely on the fictitious notion that moral order exists. I hadn’t noticed that until I saw Ice Cream.

7. What position do critics occupy in the proliferation of a popular theatre?

I’ve written my own job description. Here it is: My role as a critic is to contribute an informed opinion to the discussion of theatre. My primary responsibility is not to the audience or the artist, but to the art itself.

In other words, I think that critics are here to celebrate—and to defend—the potential of the art form.

Vancouver has too many cheerleading critics, which is one of the reasons that the level of public discussion about theatre is low.

Incidentally, I think that theatre artists have a responsibility here, too. Part of that responsibility is learning how to differentiate between themselves and their work. We’ve got to be able to talk honestly, respectfully—and frankly—about the art form we all love.

What’s the difference between a theatregoer and a hockey fan? When the home team loses, a hockey fan isn’t afraid to pick apart the team’s performance to see what worked and what didn’t. Sports fans aren’t afraid of offending the players, for God’s sake; they want them to get better and to win.

8. What do you see as the main stumbling block to theatre becoming a more common entertainment choice for Vancouverites?

It would probably help if where we lived weren’t so damn beautiful. Vancouver isn’t a city that looks in on itself very much. We’re too busy looking out at the mountains and the ocean. I’m not knocking that; I love the sensual nature of this city. I think it’s something we’ve got to take into account, though.

Some companies are addressing that sensuality in their work. I’m thinking of Boca del Lupo’s summer shows, for instance. In general, site-specific projects seem well-suited to Vancouver’s physical and adventuresome nature. Bard on the Beach works largely because it makes its setting into an event.

And, as I said, I think that the media coverage of all of the arts needs to be better. Why don’t the Sun and the Province cover every show at the Fringe, for instance? They’re dailies. They could do it.

I don’t have any statistics to back me up here, but I bet that, in cities where there’s more public discussion about art, more people take it in.

9. What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring playwrights?

Take acting classes. Nothing will teach you more about how to tell a story. A character wants something and they can’t get it at first, so they try different strategies.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Hmm, I don’t read a lot of theatre theory, but I’ve always loved reading reviews.

I’m really enjoying John Lahr and Hilton Als’ reviews in The New Yorker these days. (John Lahr has a book of collected theatre writing called The Light Fantastic.)

I think good criticism of any kind stimulates critical thought and Pauline Kael was one of the best critics ever. She wrote about film but I’d still recommend her collections Reeling and I Lost It at the Movies.

11. What’s next?

I don’t know. My horoscope in the Courier says that this is going to be a very good month for sex, so I’m looking forward to that.

10 thoughts on “This One Goes to Eleven: Colin Thomas

  1. “What’s the difference between a theatregoer and a hockey fan? When the home team loses, a hockey fan isn’t afraid to pick apart the team’s performance to see what worked and what didn’t. Sports fans aren’t afraid of offending the players, for God’s sake; they want them to get better and to win.”

    I love this quote, and it dovetails nicely into one of Tony’s posts from a bit ago (link)...

    I would love to see our theatre considered (or considering) part of our national identity again. This is a good direction of discussion.

  2. Okay folks, speak up.
    One of the great frustrations I have as a critic, is that I want my voice to be part of a discussion, but people hardly ever talk back.
    Within the theatre community, a weird kind of etiquette seems to have developed that limits artists’ choices to two: either you keep mum about reviews (and are either happy with themor develop deep and simmering resentments) , or you vent your rage in personalized attacks in letters to the editor.
    I’d really like to have a rigorous, respectful exchange—about the work, not about personalities. But I can’t do that on my own.
    By the way, the Straight seems to be inviting online responses from readers. Check out the little microphone icon at the bottom of the reviews. It would be great if people took advantage of this opportunity.
    And I’m all for thoughtful letters to the editor. I can and do learn from them.
    Because I’m a critic, my voice will always be disproportionately loud, but the letters section is the most-read part of the paper.
    You can contact me personally, too. My full name is in the phone book, and you can email me through the Straight.

    • Recently I began to writing reviews for Vancouverscape.com. I too scratched my head about the lack of feedback but considered this to be normal and didn’t give it much more thought. I was happy enough to write and move on. I was therefore very much taken aback when a couple of thoughts in a very recent review elicited quite a spirited response from the producer. I am still processing whether I enjoyed the ensuing protracted exchange or not. Interesting it was for sure. Are your views expressed above still current? Any new lessons learned in the past eight years you’d like to share?

  3. I just wanted to add to what Colin is requesting. I did a show in the Summerworks festival here in Toronto last year, which led to a great discussion about the work between me and Jon Kaplan, the reviewer from NOW Magazine. It was really helpful for me to get deeper information about the strengths and weaknesses of my work, and Jon told me later he really appreciated the opportunity to go deeper than the word limit he was allowed.

    So I’d encourage artists to take Colin up on his offer.

  4. am thinking a lot about the relationship of the critic to the form and the artists (and their relationship to the form).

    In short – yes something more substantial in term of communication would really seem to be required in the public forum, to talk about about theatre as art and to talk about art as if it matters

    and just wanted to cross link this to a similar discussion on a Toronto blog: http://chrisdupuis.blogspot.com/2008/04/problem-with-arts-journalism.html

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  9. I LOVE COLIN THOMAS!!!!!!!!!!!

    Best profile picture of them all.

    Get talking people. Rant, Rave and Celebrate…but don’t be silent about the state of our theatre.

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