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  • The positive force of theatre

    Monica Prendergast

    Generosity and kindness on stage in selfish times.


    I have been thinking quite a lot recently about how making theatre and theatregoing can perhaps be a hopeful thing to do in a challenging age. We all seem to be swirling around the toilet bowl these days in terms of selfishness and lack of decency toward one another. Viral videos show acts of simple human kindness as remarkable, rather than what should be expected, in a society that is ever more fractured and distempered. Politically speaking, we are more polarized than ever, even in supposedly polite and civil-minded Canada. But it is the current situation in the United States that is foremost in my mind. There, the President openly insults his perceived enemies via Twitter or in Fox News interviews. The fallout of this bullying and belittling approach to leadership is becoming commonplace: more acts of racism and sexism; more stridency and rigidity; less democracy.

    So how can theatre, this quaint art form that cannot be instantly downloaded to your phone, do something positive in this negative climate? Well, to begin with, theatre has had a very long history of talking back to power. Aristophanes in Ancient Greece poked fun at the leaders and philosophers of his day, bringing them down to Earth for his audiences. Comedy has evolved over many centuries since, but often has the capacity to reverse social status on stage. Servants are wiser than their masters in plays by Shakespeare, Goldoni and Molière.

    Tragedy can feature this power reversal as well. Think of King Lear and Hamlet, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest plays. In Lear, the Fool tries desperately to get through to his beloved king that his foolishness—in dividing his kingdom and disinheriting his most loving daughter—will be the end of him. The two of them huddled together on the heath in a raging storm during Lear’s growing madness is one of the most memorable images in western drama. The Fool tries and fails to save his master.

    Hamlet has a similar trope in the relationship between Hamlet and his best friend Horatio. I saw a remarkable production titled Prince Hamlet in Vancouver in January as part of the PuSH Festival. This Toronto production, directed by Ravi Jain, features a female Hamlet and Horatio. And the role of Horatio is played by a deaf actress, Dawn Jani Birley. She signs in ASL throughout the play, even for scenes where she is not present, and Hamlet signs back his dialogue with her as well. It was a very moving version of the play, in that seeing the play through Horatio’s eyes we become closer witnesses to Hamlet’s downfall. And the added layer of Horatio’s inability to save her friend becomes unbearably moving in her inability to speak, to yell, to howl her fears. Her fierce signing is not enough, and Hamlet waves her concerns away. In the end, Birley signs her final speech (“Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”) over Hamlet’s body, weeping in heavy grief.



    Dawn Jani Birley


    The generosity of this performance was palpable to me. Birley’s tireless signing work on stage, exhausting to witness, allows members of the deaf community access to the play. At the performance I attended, almost half the audience cheered at curtain call in silence, their hands waving over their heads in sign language for applause.

    Another example of generosity seen onstage is improvisational performance. Anyone who has taught or practiced improv knows that doing it well requires ample amounts of generosity. The principle of say “Yes” to any offer is a foundation in British-Canadian Keith Johnstone’s approaches to improvisation. Making your improv partner look good is another key value. His books, classes and legacy have had an effect on improvisational comedy across Canada.

    Improvisational theatre artist Rebecca Northan (who was trained at Calgary’s Loose Moose Theatre by Johnstone) has created a number of very successful shows that are rooted in these principles. Her most successful show is called Blind Date. Since 2007, this show has had successful runs across Canada (but not Victoria, alas!), and in London and New York. It is set to open in Norway. The setup for Blind Date is simplicity itself; on stage at a Parisian café table sits French-accented clown Mimi, with a red nose indicating her clown status. She has been stood up by a blind date, but nothing stops Mimi’s optimism. She goes into the audience and invites a man (pre-selected before the show in the lobby) to join her as her new blind date. The rest of the show is based on the dialogue between Mimi and her date. There is also a gay version of the show, where Mimi is played by a man or by a woman who select a same-sex date.

    In the wrong hands, this formula could lead to a lot of belittling of this volunteer performer, making him or her look bad on stage. But Johnstone’s principles are in full view in Blind Date. We see Mimi coach her date in detail before they begin role-playing their date. She tells him (in this case) that if he feels uncomfortable or unsure at any time, he can signal a timeout. They will then go over to the side of the stage and talk about what is happening until the volunteer performer feels okay about carrying on. She also coaches him to not try to be funny; his job is to simply enjoy the date. It is her job to ensure both he and the audience are having a good time.

    In the Arts Club Theatre performance I saw in December, Mimi also spoke with her date’s partner in the audience. Mimi told her that she also had the right to stop the play at any point. Later on, in what was one of the funniest moments in the show, Mimi and her date were back in her apartment, sitting on the couch, and Mimi was moving in for a kiss. The date’s girlfriend called “Stop!” from the audience and then was invited on stage to take Mimi’s place at the moment of the kiss, much to the audience’s delight. At no time was anyone made fun of in a negative way. Instead, the careful rules set up by Northan and her team of Mimis who perform Blind Date ensure that their volunteer stage partner always looks good and is enjoying the experience as much as the audience. A remarkable case study of generosity in performance.

    There are many more examples I could offer here of performances I have either witnessed or been part of as an actor that gave me a lived experience of kindness and generosity in action. A generous performance by an actor is one in which we see a giving- over of attention and care to fellow actors and to the audience. Kindness between actors is when we can see actors caring for each other on stage. This is particularly clear for me when I see adult actors working with children. In a production like Hannah Moscovitch’s The Children’s Republic (at the Belfry in the fall of 2017), the two adult professional actors showed such strong care and generous focus toward the less experienced children in the cast. That element of the production has stayed with me in a much clearer way than the content of the play, as valuable as it was.

    In these ways, and many more, theatre can model kindness and caring for each other that possibly can help to heal a fractured and fractious world.

    Monica appreciates this column giving her the opportunity to rehearse her thinking as she writes a scholarly version of this article for conference presentations this spring.

    Edited by admin

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