Theory and Practice
- Andrew Houston (Editor)
Environmental and Site-Specific Theatre: Vol. 8 of Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Michael McKinnie (Editor)
Space and the Geographies of Theatre: Vol. 9 of Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Malcolm Page
Theatre studies used to be about what, when, and where, with some attention to who. Now queries have replaced calendars of events, with the asking of why and a more searching what. This is shown by the welcome volumes of this series: two books on dramatists, two based on race, one on a province, one on sexual orientation, and one essentially theoretical, on feminism. Of the two latest, one ambitiously presents varied approaches to space and the other examines a type of performance. Both present a sample of relevant material, largely leaving the reader to create connections and coherence.
Michael McKinnie writes in his Introduction to Space and the Geographies of Theatre that “the purchase of geographical research within theatre studies has never been greater.” No professional geographers, however, write in the book. McKinnie sees this collection as dividing into three sections about three geographies, environmental, political, and cultural. His bibliography, on the other hand, divides into two parts, “Canadian Theatre Criticism” and “Spatial Criticism.” Of the forty books and articles in the second half, most have such titles as The Fall of Public Man and Cities in a World Economy, by sociologists and urban planners. At most ten of the citations relate to theatre.
Six of the essays locate the reader comfortably in Canadian theatre: Diane Bessai’s seminal 1980 description of regionalism; Alexander Leggatt on rural Ontario in theatre; Sherrill Grace’s deep scrutiny of “the North” in Canadian work; Anton Wagner on Herman Voaden and landscape; Guillermo Verdecchia on what should be written for the MT Space in Kitchener, and Rob Appleford on Floyd Favel Star’s rewriting of Uncle Vanya as House of Sonya, to demonstrate the spatial shift from Russia to Aboriginal Canada.
The remainder pressure the reader to make connections, to look in new and different ways at theatre and space. Alan Filewod engages with Canada seeking definition separate from Britain and the US, and Erin Hurley looks at the effect of globalization on national culture. Mayte Gomez shows Verdecchia in Fronteras Americanas reproducing and subverting “the ideology of multiculturalism.” The others are about Toronto. McKinnie contrasts the 1960s reasons for building the St Lawrence Centre and the 1990s reasons for putting up the Ford Centre in North York. Robert Wallace places Buddies in Bad Times in their two theatres but also in “the strategy of ‘positionality,’” and Laura Levin, in the only new essay, considers the origins and possibilities of new forms for the city. Ric Knowles explains effectively how the impact of a production can be changed, even neutralized, by buildings and their ambiance. I found this collection somewhere between a misfired brainwave and imaginative ways of looking and thinking. Coincidentally, Gay McAuley has just edited Unstable Ground: Performance and the Politics of Place, which makes a similar study in Australia.
The subject of Environmental and Site-Specific Theatre is what happens when actors leave a theatre to perform elsewhere, whether indoors or out, a situation which provides “engaging and affirming challenges.” Though the distinction between “environmental” and “site-specific” is never clear, focus is on shows and sometimes on what might be labelled “performance art,” rather than on plays and scripts. The thirteen individuals and groups examined—mainly by the creators, though from assorted perspectives—range from coast to coast: Theatre Skam, Victoria; Radix, Vancouver; Murray Schafer near Banff and in Peterborough; Shawn Dempsey and Lorri Millan in Banff; Rachel van Fossen’s community plays in Saskatchewan; The Bus Project in Regina; The Weyburn Project in Saskatchewan; Krizanc’s Tamara, the work of Hillar Liitoja, Necessary Angel’s Newhouse and bluemouth, all in Toronto; Hildegard Westerkamp’s sound piece in Peterborough; and the Mummers’ Gros Mourn in Newfoundland.
Most of the essays find it necessary not only to discuss the intentions behind the productions but to offer a theoretical basis for these. Keren Zainotz, to take an example, almost writes that bluemouth operates as it does because Michel de Certeau told it to. Some may find it easy to decipher a line like Houston’s “A key insight into the use of Soja’s trialectics of being as a frame of analysis comes from understanding that none of the elements of the trialectic have a priori privalege.” Much of both texts is demanding, requiring a second reading.
The problems and rewards of these kinds of theatre are covered, with a section of bluemouth entitled “Please dress warmly and wear sensible shoes.” The book leaves the impression that all began with the Mummers at Gros Mourn in 1973, while also leaving the reader wondering what Liitoja, Krizanc and Necessary Angel have done in the last twenty years.
I know a special quality enters as I follow actors through Stanley Park or watch performers in a swimming pool. But was Radix’s show baffling to shoppers in Ikea, and what did passengers in Regina make of The Bus Project? Comments on this are sketchy. Van Fossen asserts: “It’s vitally important, I believe, that a community play is written with the audience of the community in mind.” Liitoja remarks, “I love to see the audience figuring things out—in vain!” While D.D. Kugler says of Newhouse: “Lots of times I heard people say ‘I didn’t like it.’ I asked them, ‘Did you move around, try to follow it?’ ‘No.’”
Two final comments. Photographs would have helped: I would like to see how the set of Newhouse “evoked the layout of the medieval cathedrals.” Both editors might have found useful, less accessible, journalistic material, including reviews. In Space all essays are by academics, except for Verdecchia, while Houston has looked little further than Canadian Theatre Review, where eleven of his twenty appeared.
- Geographical Attachment by Deborah Bowen
Books reviewed: Falling into Place by John Terpstra
- Canada: Migration and Exile by Suzanne Marshall
Books reviewed: Fluid Exile: Jewish Exile Writers in Canada 1940-2006 by Eugen Banauch and Migration and Fiction: Narratives of Migration in Contemporary Canadian Literature by Martin Loschnigg and Maria Löschnigg
- Factored Dramaturgies by Alan Filewood
Books reviewed: Schoolhouse by Leanna Brodie, Rootless but Green Are the Boulevard Trees by Uma Parameswaran, The Berlin Blues by Drew Hayden Taylor, and Bone Cage by Catherine Banks
- Staging Northern Ghosts by Martin Kuester
Books reviewed: Staging the North: Twelve Canadian Plays by Lisa Chalykoff, Eve D'Aeth, and Sherrill Grace
- Memories, Dreams and Borrowed Reflections by David Ferry
Books reviewed: The Riddle of The World by David French, Girl in the Goldfish Bowl by Morris Panych, and Two Plays: Gentle Rain Food Co-op; One Man Masque by James Reaney
MLA: Page, Malcolm. Theory and Practice. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 161 - 162)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.