‘Camp Is Such An Interesting Space For Failure’: An Interview with Jordan Tannahill

We talk to the theatre artist and author of Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama about working with non-professional actors, failure, and the terrible persistence of blackface.

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The...

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My first attempt at interviewing Jordan Tannahill was appropriately a failure. McDonald’s restaurants, it turns out, are not really equipped to handle Skype calls. So the playwright biked over to meet up and talk about his new book Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama IRL. That accidental serendipity is what Tannahill’s text, half manifesto and half personal essay, seeks more of onstage. Surveying theatrical professionals and bored civilians alike, describing the 19th-century tradition of the Eugene Scribe’s “well-made play,” invoking queer-theorist ideas of futurity, and finding metaphor in a bad orgy he once planned, Tannahill argues that risk and rupture can dislodge theatre from its position of obligatory, edifying drudgery. A passage on tritely site-specific productions concludes: “The only thing worse than watching a dull production of Hamlet is watching it play out on a fire escape.”

Tannahill’s waspish prose carries some dense historical-materialist analysis, examining the regional nature of most drama, why English-language theatres have come to rely on and fear their subscribers. He knows this dilemma himself, running a gallery/stage/cinema called Videofag in Toronto’s Kensington Market with his ex-boyfriend William Ellis—the kind of space where you might see both the feminist science fiction film Born in Flames and a bearded drag queen singing “I Want to Be Evil.” That cramped storefront was where he (with Erin Brubacher) first mounted Sheila Heti’s long-unproduced play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, a Jane-Bowles-ish comedy of absurd desperation that recently transferred to New York. Tannahill’s own work streams live over YouTube (rihannaboi95) or casts non-professional teenagers in a dystopianDecameron (Concord Floral), the tightropes improvised from iridescent wire. Theatre of the Unimpressed imagines playwrights and actors as Scheherazade, entertaining oblivion with each new story. Unlike the Thousand and One Nights, our Q&A is a little abridged.

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You start off by talking about the idea of the “boring play,” almost in a primal way. But for you it seemed more like infatuation. You don’t really elaborate, so I was wondering how that happened for you.

I think I could trace it back to … very early queer rumblings of, like, the love of dress-up. I would spend hours with my brother lost in our own invented scenarios, making up cities, making up worlds, making up characters. Complex sitcom situations or whatever. I was just very fortunate to live in a family where that was encouraged, or there was space made for it. We had a lot of empty hours in the day, we weren’t too scheduled or too programmed. Our summers, for instance, we spent the entire time at our grandparents’ house in the country, so we had lots of time for make-believe. That impulse was present, and I think when I got into school my first role was—I played Gollum in the The Hobbit when I was in grade six, and I had this amazing wetsuit that was kind of slightly erotic [laughs]. There was this grade-eight boy who would slather me in Vaseline before going onstage every night, and I was like, “oh, this is great, I love this.” There was lots of smoke in my scenes, I remember the smell of the smoke machine being really resonant and evocative.

Costume rooms, greasepaint makeup, all those things, it was tied to my coming-of-age and coming-out and I felt like I had an aptitude for acting. The next year I played the Beast in Beauty & The Beast, and then in grade eight I played Oberon, king of the fairies … dot dot dot. That was the genesis of the infatuation, I think. And then I went to an arts high school in Ottawa, called Canterbury. It was a bit of a utopia, actually. I mean, I was able to come out, like, first week of grade nine, and have this incredible group of friends who were into theatre. It’s funny, I just went back a week ago to give a talk and I felt like a fucking rock star coming back. In what universe does a Canadian playwright come back to [their] high school and get mobbed with questions from teenagers about their life? It’s the most incredible surreal bubble, which I was able to grow up in.

Did you have the standard theoretical education in theatre? Like, Aristotle, Brecht, Artaud …

You know, it’s funny, I went to film school, actually. So beyond high school I never formally studied theatre. But I’ve had a really great practical education in theatre from mentoring by some artists in the city. I would cite Brendan Healy, Franco Boni, Evalyn Parry … kind of this dual capacity of mentor and curator, or mentor and artistic director. Someone who is programming your work and then working with you to build your voice at the same time. So it was a lot of learning by doing and voracious reading on my own, but never a formal education. And that’s interesting because there’s a chapter in the book I ended up cutting because it was a bit tangential, and it was a bit out of my field of expertise.

I wasn’t totally comfortable writing it, but it was a chapter about pedagogy and the ways in which our theatre schools are oriented towards pounding out actors for the Stratford and Shaw festivals. And there’s very little awareness of the broader discourse around contemporary performance internationally. So it’s like, how do you expect these students to graduate with an artistic voice if they don’t even understand the conversation that they’re entering into?

It’s kind of ironic, since you mention in the book the idea that theatre people are just frustrated filmmakers [laughs]. Do you still feel like you learned anything useful from film school?

I think someone mentioned to me that we all do our second passion [laughs], like there’s the thing that we really want to do and then what we end up doing for our lives is our second aptitude or our second favourite thing. I started thinking that way about film, I love film so much but I’ve also found myself frustrated with the medium and there are things that theatre affords that film cannot. I learned a sense of internationalism from film. Having a film at [the Toronto International Film Festival] recently, I was able to have within one weekend conversations with artists my age from Iran, Japan, China, Brazil.

That has never happened to me in a theatre context so far. I’ve been practicing for years now as a theatre artist and I’ve never been in a context where I’m showing work alongside peers my age from around the world. So film has taught me how to engage in an international artistic conversation, about semiotics or aesthetics or politics. Theatre feels profoundly regional, partly because of the nature of the medium itself but also probably because Canada is so isolated from international touring networks.

Yeah, it has a sort of talismanic effect if you’re only ever seeing plays right where you are, out of this social obligation. Were you thinking about the history of theatre at all when writing this book?

I am very aware of the fact that I’m not a theatre historian, so I was wanting to acknowledge that. I really attempted to ensure that the book was a kind of personal essay, because I’m not a theoretician or scholar. But I do think that these symptoms are rooted in historical factors. Like, I do think that there’s a commercial tradition in—the Anglo-Saxon [theatrical] tradition is a profoundly commercial one, right back to Shakespeare. Yes, he had the production of the King’s Men, but the Globe Theatre essentially survived on ticket sales, which is very different from the continental European model under Moliere and Louis XIV, or Wagner under King Ludwig.

These were artists supported by the court, which later became the state. After the Revolution, when France became a republic, you had what used to be an extremely bourgeois system of art patronage transformed into state patronage. That produced a different legacy of arts funding than the Anglo-Saxon commercial tradition did … I would say that the most historical the book gets is tracing the trajectory of “the well-made play,” Eugene Scribe. Because that term gets bandied about so much, but to have a sense of where that term actually comes from, the fact that it was a codified formula, I think that’s helpful.

I found him to be a fascinating figure. There’s this book that I keep returning to by Elijah Wald, called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll—the title is a little misleading, there are only one or two chapters about the Beatles. It’s more like a secret history of 20th-century American popular music, and he focuses on what people were listening to at the time, rather than what music critics retrospectively canonized, since critics are and always have been, overwhelmingly, white dudes. There’s a chapter in it called “Twisting Girls Change the World.”

So when he’s talking about jazz he doesn’t just discuss the blues-inflected hot jazz bands, he talks about these profoundly unfashionable figures like the bandleader Paul Whiteman, who was … a white man. He loved the term “orchestral jazz,” he collaborated with George Gershwin on Rhapsody in Blue, and he sometimes elided the black origins of the music. But he was also admired by Duke Ellington, who disliked the word “jazz” as well and had his own compositional ambitions. The whole big-band dance hall era, Wald writes a lot about that and how it was music to bring people pleasure.

It’s funny how the most revered artists of a time are often not who history remembers. Like, Dion Boucicault, who wroteThe Octoroon, the play that Brenden Jacobs-Jenkins recently adapted into An Octoroon—I talk about that play in the book—Boucicault was a late-19th-century Irish playwright who was the most famous and probably wealthiest playwright of his time. Like, he would have multiple productions simultaneously playing on the West End and Broadway. He invented the idea of the matinee. But he’s not produced today. People don’t really give two shakes about his work. And that’s kind of … heartening [both laugh].

You’ve read Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love, right? I was thinking of that passage where he says that Sonic Youth, unlike his subject Celine Dion, is not music to have your first kiss to or getting over a broken heart, but it’s “a terrific soundtrack for making aesthetic judgments.” And I was glad that part of your project is suggesting that the idea of failure can also work in a populist Broadway context. Do you want to expand on that?

I think elements of risk or liveness, the feeling that these events are transpiring here and now and cannot be created again in the exact same way another night, the idea of failure or the unreconciled—I do think these things can exist within glossy Broadway productions. I’m trying to think of an example to illustrate it … The banter of the Emcee in Cabaret or Hedwig’s banter with the audience, there’s an element of improvisation or a malleability of the performance that’s responding to the presence of the audience. I think that electrifies the evening in a very specific way, and we feel the difference when we’re being connected with versus a closed circuit where we’re not able to penetrate the piece.

There are also ways in which there’s a failure of coherence or a failure of structure. A lot of musicals actually abide by this. I mean, Cats is basically completely formless, there’s no narrative whatsoever [laughs], and that fails to adhere to any well-made-play structure. I think we feel formulas playing upon us, and when that feeling’s absent it can either be a sprawling mess or it can have a certain charm, a certain appeal about it. Failure within performance, failure within dramatic structure, failure even within scenic elements, allowing for a certain improvisation, can really invigorate a piece. Like, it’s amazing that Ivo van Hove, in some circles considered quite an experimental director, won the best director award at the Olivier Awards for his West End production of [Arthur Miller’s] A View from the Bridge. This is a very stark production, incorporating a lot of elements of post-dramatic theatre within the staging, but it was a hit on the West End and may come to Broadway. In that one I wouldn’t say there were aspects of failure so much as bold risks that were taken.

I think with the passage of time there can almost be a built-in—you mentioned the source material of An Octoroon. When a play has become that anachronistic and outdated, there’s a risk people won’t understand it, or rather they will and be horrified by it. Like, obviously a lot of the language in Shakespeare has become remote or transformed since then.

It’s kind of remarkable, actually, when you think about Shakespeare’s work. Thinking about playwrights like Boucicault and how their plays don’t age well, or Eugene Scribe for that matter, and then Shakespeare’s plays are these open texts where there’s so many entry points into it.

I thought it was funny that you bring in Samuel Beckett’s famous line from Worstward Ho, “fail better,” because that’s become this mantra of, like, tech moguls—it’s mutated into a motivational credo of TED Talks speakers. Whereas like a lot of his work, the original meaning is more about the futility of all human communication [laughs]. Were you thinking of that at all when writing the book, or…?

Yeah, it’s become a slogan, I suppose. But also failure has become quite current, it just feels like it’s in vogue right now, within a theoretical discourse, in queer theory and beyond … What’s more interesting to me about Samuel Beckett is not that quote as such but more some of the ways in which he actually incorporated failure in his work, and understood it as a necessary space from which liveness and theatricality arise. So I think, ironically, the use of the quote on posters or employee manuals around the world, bring it back in a way to its origins in theatre.

Can you remember a moment when you failed creatively and it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to come back next time and do better!” Like, just totally crushing?

I did this piece called Takes Two Men to Make a Brother at the Harbourfront Centre, I was maybe 19 or 20 when I did it. The piece was looking at frat culture and the duality between homophobia and homoeroticism in it, deconstructing this particular hazing incident that occurred at a U of T frat. I felt in a hard position, because I was casting individuals from fraternities in the piece but also actors as well. So it was a mixture of actors and frat guys.

And you were basically the same age as them.

Yeah. So I felt like I couldn’t hang them out to dry, critique them while they were in the piece. Being caught in this ethical middle ground between allowing them to give voice to their experience, their prejudices and biases, but not letting the piece endorse those things. I don’t think it was very successful in navigating that terrain. It was a little bit of a hot mess. There were moments that were quite beautiful and powerful and other moments that were just kind of incoherent and ineffective. I think that piece had many failures in it, some of which were alive and exciting, and some that were just offensive or messy or underdeveloped. That would be a piece that I describe as failed, in some ways irredeemably.

You’re mostly a playwright rather than a director, but you do have your own theatre company, and I feel like you frequently work with non-professional actors. What are the particular challenges and rewards of doing that?

I think the challenges are—things just take much longer to set. Like, if you make certain choices in rehearsal, they don’t have that muscle to lock things in. It takes a bit longer to arrive at the shape of things. I would also say that, if something goes awry or a performer gets nervous or a line’s dropped, it can throw off the whole performance where a trained actor would be able to just keep on and recover from it. It’s easy for non-professional performers to get spooked. And there’s the basic issues of diction, articulation, volume, those kinds of things. Riding that fine line between a performance being dramatically legible but also true to that individual, not rendering them into an actor. Well, they are actors, but the second that we stop seeing the individual in the piece, then their status as a non-traditional performer kind of becomes moot, and something has been lost. The line between creating a rigorous container for their raw performance and not allowing it to be squelched.

And the advantage is that these performances do sometimes create this exciting tension between the well-made, the rigorous, and the chaotic or the failed that reads as being true to life. They become our proxy, we see their vulnerability. The stakes are high for them, because it’s an extraordinary situation for them to be in, and I think we can sympathize with that. I’m also generally intrigued by interesting personalities. I’d rather see an interesting personality or individual onstage.

I like that you call into question the dominance of Method acting, the idea of unbroken immersion, because there are some actors I love who have nothing—I love, like, Vincent Price, people with a stagy, artificial persona. How did you come to stage All Our Happy Days Are Stupid?

I knew about the play through the grapevine for a few years, and then when Sheila Heti’s book How Should a Person Be? hit the presses here in Canada I read it and was so intrigued to know if this play really existed, or what it was like. I initially met with Sheila to read the play and also potentially find a production for it in Toronto, because I didn’t consider myself a director as such. So I was just dispensing advice, we were talking about which director might work for the show or where it could be done. And I think she appreciated the drink, but she had had so much advice over the years, and yet nobody had finally committed to it. Or sometimes people had and then she pulled out. So anyways, the saga continued. A few months afterwards I was still thinking of the play, thinking that it seemed unlikely anyone would do it in Toronto, and I really felt strongly that it should be done. Well, the only way to do it is if I do it with a group of our friends.

The idea of casting actors just did not feel in keeping with the spirit of the world Sheila had created. I felt that could squelch the spirit of the play, which had this unruly quality to it. And Sheila’s work has always embraced the amateur in some ways. The idea of Trampoline Hall, for instance, is so much about that, the authority of the amateur. And the group of our friends that we brought together seemed to intuitively understand the off-beat comedic sensibility of the play. After we did that first backyard reading of the script, it felt like a go. We should make this happen. We were going to do it at the [Art Gallery of Ontario] at one point and then that fell through, the curse of the play continued, and then eventually we were like, “Fuck it, let’s just do it at Videofag.” No one’s going to do it, let’s bring our own theatre and make it happen, in the most impossible unlikely shoebox of a space.

How did you go about transferring it to Harbourfront and then the Kitchen in New York? What had to change?

I think for one thing we needed to figure out—we needed to identify what worked and find ways to retain that. So I think what really worked was how strongly the personalities of the individual actors came through, and not to lose that in rendering their performance larger or forcing them to articulate a higher volume, although we did have to do those things [both laugh]. We did have to make sure they projected better. But the actors found a way to keep their essence of themselves, their own unique weird quirks or interpretations of characters. And then we had to completely rethink the blocking and the set, there was much more depth to work with all of a sudden, so we created multiple planes of two-dimensional action rather than just the single one. We wanted to retain that two-dimensionality, our set designer Ray Powell came up with a very playful pop-up-book set that enabled us to negotiate the depth but keep that planar, flattened aesthetic.

One of my favourite parts in Theatre of the Unimpressed is the passage about your opening night in New York, which was not an exciting or triumphant or revealing or fun disaster but just a depressing death march. It reminded me of talking to you after the first initial production, about Naomi Skwarna’s character Mrs. Oddi and how she made me think of the aging surrogate heroines in Tennessee Williams’ later plays, this melted cocktail of a personality. And you were like, “that’s one of the things I suggested to her.” And for, what, the last decade or two of his life, pretty much everything Tennessee Williams wrote was a flop. It ate away at him. But I’ve seen some of those plays, I’ve seen the movie version of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore … Which John Waters called “the greatest failed art film ever made.” But this is not something Williams himself would’ve reveled in, he seemed like a bit of a perfectionist.

Camp is such an interesting space for failure to fall within. Unintentional camp, obviously we can intentionally cultivate camp, but there are so many failures that do veer into that realm. I think queerness has for so long apprehended the jouissance or the necessity of embracing failure, the inability to conform. To embrace the impossible maddening incongruities or absurdities of life and subvert those through humour, often very dark humour. But Tennessee Williams has always unintentionally courted camp, maybe rarely I would say intentionally. Melodrama tips so easily into that.

And a lot of his later dialogue is this really overheated drug-addled writing. And I love that way more than spare psychological realism. Actually, speaking of spare psychological realism, you mention Young Jean Lee a bunch of times in the book. I went to see this run-through of her latest play Straight White Men … I haven’t seen any of her other work, through it seemed much more naturalistic than something like The Shipment. But we were watching the actors go through it with a script in their hands, or they’d sometimes forget a line and Lee would shout it to one of them. It was like watching somebody get dressed, which could be sexy for both of the people involved. It was like psychological realism that foregrounded the pretense of psychological realism.

That’s what’s really interesting about that play, because I think it’s very self-consciously a well-made play. It’s consciously trading on these recognizable tropes of white middle-class theatre. It’s almost like David Lynch’s The Straight Story, co-opting and in a way perfecting the tropes of the white middle-class American play. Single location, psychological realism, naturalism, all the characters have these clearly defined arcs, there’s an emotional catharsis at the end, et cetera et cetera. She’s really using that construction in a meta-commentary on theatre-making and identity. It kind of places that play in a unique camp unto itself. But she also shows the merits of those tropes, why these plays continue to be made and exist, because they can be very effective vehicles.

What does curating a space like Videofag have in common with arranging an orgy?

[laughs] So many things. You know, the thing it has in common is that to be effective you need a mixture of people you know and of people you don’t know. A mixture of your friends, and strangers. And I think a space cannot just be—a space will get stale very quickly if you’re just fucking your friends [both laugh]. You need to bring in new people, you need to bring in people with different perspectives, different moves.

You don’t spend a ton of space on this in the book, but you do mention the whiteness of the Toronto theatre scene or Toronto theatre audiences—

Really English-language theatre audiences the world over, sadly, it seems.

I was just wondering if there’s anybody you want to spotlight as presenting an alternative to that.

It’s funny, I wrote a whole chapter on this that I eventually cut out because I think it deserves more than that, it deserves its own book, really, or multiple books, which I’m not qualified to write. But I would say that a really interesting instance of this, of challenging the model and representation on our stages—Jovanni Sy, the artistic director of the Gateway Theatre in Richmond, he looked around his community and said, you know, 50 percent of the population were Chinese Canadian, for many of them English was not their first language, so why are we continuing to program all these English-language plays in the city’s only major professional theatre?

And so he programmed a season of plays that were either in Mandarin or Cantonese with English subtitles and vice versa, like English plays with Chinese subtitles. Just questioning “who is the demographic I’m serving, and how can my programming reflect that?” I didn’t mention his work in the book, but I think Ravi Jain [of the Tarragon Theatre] has done a really great job in Toronto creating a platform for diverse artists and touring that work. There’s a great history in Toronto of theatres like Obsidian Theatre that have done amazing work for diversity and equity in our city, and whose artistic directing, Philip Akin, is spearheading a diverse theatre training program at Humber College…

I feel like this kind of work will sometimes be inherently risky, because it involves rejecting a bunch of theatrical warhorses that are incredibly racist. I remember seeing The Mikado as a kid, which is routinely performed in grotesque yellowface.

Blackface is out of fucking control in Europe. I cut this out of the book too, but there were multiple paragraphs about the obscene use of blackface in Germany, and how the portrayal of race—I’m not sure if they’re more distant from their colonial tyranny or if they just haven’t gone through the same paroxysms of race relations North America has, but what passes as appropriate … Like, programming a play like I’m Not Rappaport at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, one of their major theatres, with an actor in blackface. There have been some very misguided choices here in North America, but the pervasiveness of blackface in Germany I find so shocking … I think there’s a lot of plays that kind of masquerade as being political in North America and are actually irresponsible, because they suggest that an audience has contended with and worked through an issue related to race, when they’ve left that issue completely unexamined and the show has no bearing on their own community and how they themselves are implicated in that dynamic. It lets audiences off too easily, basically.

In Canada I don’t think we have an issue of producing stale racist plays so much as…there’s a kind of inertia or limited thinking when it comes to diverse casting. We need more non-white Hamlets. Our actors of colour should not only be cast in plays where it calls expressly for an actor of colour. A black actor should not only be getting hired for A Raisin in the Sun. Why can’t they just play a middle-class father who’s dealing with the breakup of his marriage in Toronto, or whatever it might be?

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