Theatre for ourselves?

The Indy’s arts columnist reflects on Newfoundland theatre and the stories it tells

A complaint I’ve often heard in the theatre community in St. John’s is that the only audience is other theatre people.

Making theatre for ourselves.

Given the battles faced right now by theatre companies everywhere, particularly if they deal in contemporary or experimental theatre, the question at the beginning of every production must be – will people come? Will we be able to lure an audience away from Netflix or get them out in bad weather? The thing here in Newfoundland, it seems to me, is that they will come – if it’s a familiar story.

The summer theatre season in Newfoundland is in large part exempt from this problem of attracting audiences. Not only do the productions in Trinity and Cupids and Torbay draw visitors to the province, but half the seats in the audience are filled by locals playing tourist at home, coming out to see plays which vary from new shows by local playwrights to Shakespeare to well-loved and well-worn shows that tell Newfoundland stories. What I find myself wondering, as the summer season has finally wrapped up and the tourists gone home, is whether that local component of the audience will reappear this fall for a new show at the L.S.P.U. Hall or Rabbittown Theatre. Some will. Most won’t. I wonder then if this might be due to the fact that what’s produced here in town in the fall and winter may not be stories necessarily as well-known and familiar.

A preoccupation with our own stories

We have all grown up on stories of the old Newfoundland: the struggle that was simply surviving, the struggle to adjust to the new way of things. It’s not that I have a problem with these stories. They are very real and legitimate if, much of the time, sepia-toned and nostalgic.

Okay, I guess I have a small problem. Not with the stories, but with the way they are inevitably told. I find myself thinking about those ubiquitous tourism commercials. My issue with the images there – Nanny’s quilts blowing on the line, red haired children running through tall grass to the sound of something lilting and Celtic – is not that they are false exactly, but that they are flat and simplistic pictures of what is to me a very complex place and community. But of course they are; it’s marketing. The point of the commercials is to sell this place to potential visitors, and they work, and our visitors have come in droves.

Why is it that we never tire of seeing a tarted up and romanticized version of our home and culture reflected back to us?

But when it comes to theatre, I wonder if our preoccupation with our own stories is getting in the way of experiencing art and theatre that will resonate with us when we least expect it. Why is it that we never tire of seeing ourselves reflected back to us? Let me rephrase that. Why is it that we never tire of seeing a tarted up and romanticized version of our home and culture reflected back to us?

It’s not that I have any problem with writing about what we know. It’s that I often feel that I would like to see more plays about Newfoundland that deal with the place as it really is. And by that I don’t necessarily mean grit for the sake of grit, which is really just the same as the glossy nostalgia – it’s too simple.

It’s something I have thought a lot about: why we seem to make work around the same themes over and over again. I think we are still pre-emptively defensive about being from here, and that seems not to change regardless of our economic situation. We still feel ourselves the ‘pet culture’ of Canada, and we are out to beat them to the punch. See? We have a sense of humour, we can laugh at ourselves. And see? How different we are, and how special. If these things are true, shouldn’t we already be convinced? Can’t we just know all this ourselves and let that be enough? And then ask some new questions?

Looking beyond the familiar

I went to a couple of readings this summer given by a poet visiting from Winnipeg, a friend of a friend. And though his poems were all about his own city – descriptions of expanding urban borders encroaching on the rural, attempts to identify with ‘the prairies’ while having grown up in Winnipeg – it all spoke to my own feelings about this place in a way that a nostalgic re-telling of an old story from here never will. The fact that his work resonated with me despite the fact that I am mostly unfamiliar with the particular landscape and culture about which he was writing made it all the more provoking and exciting.

Of course, as I said, we write what we know, and it is entirely valid to make plays about Newfoundland, and yes, entirely valid to make plays about the past in Newfoundland. It’s not that there’s harm in re-telling stories, in taking your children to see something that you can share with them about the Newfoundland you possibly remember, even if it is made shiny for the stage. But I think we are cheating ourselves if we don’t look beyond those stories, beyond the familiar, for another kind of audience experience.

It’s worth going to the gallery when you’ve never heard of the artist. It’s worth going to see a contemporary dance performance when you don’t really know how to take modern dance.

That feeling that you get from art that speaks to you – to a part of you that has struggled with something – it also comes from stories that you think at first to be totally foreign. And is usually all the more powerful for that. We get at the universal through the specific, and when it’s someone else’s specific on stage or on the page, poems about the prairies, a play set in the Vienna of the 1920s or in a dive bar in the St. John’s of today, when you are not expecting it to speak to some broken or confused part in you, or to ask of you a difficult question, that’s an indefinable kind of experience, and to me, a large part of what art should do. It’s worth taking a chance on a show you know nothing about. It’s worth going to the gallery when you’ve never heard of the artist. It’s worth going to see a contemporary dance performance when you don’t really know how to take modern dance.

The fall will bring many opportunities to take a chance as an audience member. I hope we take advantage of them.

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