A General Election Conspiracy Party – October 19, 2015

Posted in Production updates on July 27, 2016 by cegatchalian

Vancouver’s Theatre Conspiracy was kind enough to invite me to perform a piece as part of their federal election night event last October 19th. Here’s what I performed.

 

***Susan_Sontag_square_in_Sarajevo

Hi everybody.

I’m here tonight as, I suppose, a member of the “cultural intelligentsia” so despised by some people in this country, maybe even some people in this room.

I must say, this had to be the ugliest, most disillusioning, most disappointing election campaign I’ve ever had the misfortune of living through.

Opportunism, negativity, half-truths and outright lies, inept communications and poor strategizing were the modi operandi of the three major parties, sometimes all at once.

Now, all my life I’ve been a close follower of politics. There was actually a time where I knew the name of every single MP in the House of Commons. Since I reached voting age, I have voted in virtually every single election – federal, provincial, municipal.

So, as anti-establishment as I tend to be, I’ve never been so anti-establishment as to not participate in our electoral system, as fucked up as I know that system is.

But I gotta tell ya, this particular election has been so bruising that it’s got me thinking, Is it really worth it?

Maybe the best way to participate is to not participate.

Maybe the best way to engage is to disengage.

Maybe we idealistic members of the cultural intelligentsia should just hide completely behind our work, retreat into the artistic realm, and be content with being “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as the poet Shelley called us.

But then I keep going back to the example of Goethe, the great German artist and visionary, who somehow was able to function inside his society’s system and find a way to effect meaningful change as a citizen.

So, right now, internally, I’m caught in this dialectic between these two approaches, between pragmatism and idealism.

Anyways, this morning, when I was sipping espresso romano at Cafe Artigiano, I thought about all the issues that fell by the wayside during this campaign.

Like the $15-per-hour minimum wage.

Raising the minimum wage would certainly be one small but significant step in realizing Marx’s dream of removing the worker’s alienation from the products of their labour.

During the campaign there was a rally here in Vancouver advocating for the $15-per-hour minimum wage, which I definitely would have gone to had I not been in New York that same night, attending a symposium about how contemporary poetry is created on the precipice of silence.

Issues pertinent to Indigenous communities were also largely ignored.

Now in my humble opinion, there is nothing more important for the moral fabric of our nation than reconciliation.

In fact, during this campaign I was asked to be a volunteer facilitator at a bridge-building workshop for Indigenous communities and new immigrants. I would have totally agreed to it … except that I had plans that night to dine at Cafe Carthage with a friend and fellow cineaste. Over Pinot Grigio we meditated on Kurosawa and Antonioni.

The great Frankfurt school philosopher Theodor Adorno talks about how in our society concepts cannot find their referents because capitalism invariably distorts reality.

So case in point – this election. The corporatist media pushed certain narratives and certain poll numbers in order to increase the likelihood of election results that would better serve their interests.

During this campaign I was asked to talk to young and first-time voters about these corporatist manoeuvres. I would have absolutely done so … but the proposed date conflicted with the Vancouver Opera’s production of Rigoletto, for which I had complimentary tickets.

So, it’s agonizing. Do I, as a thoughtful artist, engage or not engage? Is it still worth it?

For me at least, it helps to seek inspiration from one of my idols, the late, great, Susan Sontag.

I assume most of you know who Susan Sontag was?

Now Sontag was this committed aesthete who was also burdened with a raging social conscience.

So much so that in the early 90s, at the height of the Bosnian crisis, she flew to Sarajevo to live and work with the people there.

One of the great things she did in Sarajevo was direct a production with local actors of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

And I gotta tell you – it’s just absolutely harrowing to read about how every evening, when the cameras weren’t following her, while scores of people were being killed outside, Susan Sontag  would actually sit in her Executive Suite at the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, planning for the following day’s rehearsals while steady supplies of cigarettes and chianti were delivered to her room.

So. The artist as citizen.

I still cling to the belief that we, as artists, can play a valuable role within the system.

But why does the system have to make it so hard for us?

 

On Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice

Posted in Books on December 15, 2015 by cegatchalian

20_jan-_death_in_venice_logo

 

As part of their Query Project, I was asked by Plenitude Magazine to talk about a queer work of literature that has impacted me. Here, with minor changes, was my response, published June 27, 2015:

I’d like to talk about Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912).

For those unfamiliar with it, here’s a brief synopsis. The main character, Aschenbach, is an aging, accomplished man of letters sojourning in Venice, as many uptight Brits and Germans looking to (re)activate their sensoria have been known to do. While supping he spots Tadzio, a fourteen-year-old blond Polish boy whose Greek-like beauty astounds Aschenbach to his core. He spends the rest of the trip following the boy, who remains, ostensibly, completely unaware of his presence. All the while a cholera epidemic sweeps the city, and the novella ends with Aschenbach, age-reversing make-up running down his cheeks, dying on the beach whilst gazing at his beloved.

I adore Death in Venice not because it is about repressed sexuality, or unrequited love, or Greek-style man-boy love, although superficially it is certainly about all these things. I adore it because it is, first and foremost, about art – specifically, the life lived in service to art, and, even more specifically, the closeness to which such a life is tied to gay male identity. “Even on a personal level,” Mann writes, “art is a form of heightened living. It gives greater pleasures, it consumes faster. It stamps the features of its servants with the signs of imaginary and spiritual adventures, and it produces, even in the most cloister-like atmosphere, a certain fastidiousness, an over-refinement, an exhaustion and curiosity of the nerves.”

Nowhere is the dilemma of the besotted aesthete – who is very often gay – more cogently articulated than in this book: his monk-like commitment to (mostly) invisible ideals; the overwhelming awe, bordering on horror, he feels the moment these ideals are actualized; and the fragility of high art in the face of diseased, Dionysian nature. Somehow, over fifty years before gay liberation and over seventy years before AIDS, the closeted, bisexual Mann was able to prophesy how the profound contradictions in gay male culture would one day come to a head. We may be living in a post-gay, post-AIDS world; but the gay male aesthete lives on, still a minority, still inhabiting rarefied realms, simultaneously contemptuous of, and aroused by, the exquisite mundaneness beneath him.

For Sarah Kane

Posted in Production updates on March 21, 2015 by cegatchalian

On March 4th I had the pleasure of participating in Pi Theatre‘s Sarah Kane Salon, an outreach event held in advance of Pi’s upcoming production of Kane’s seminal play Blasted.

The work of Kane – perhaps the most celebrated exponent of the UK’s In-Yer-Face Theatre movement in the 90s, who took her own life in 1999 at the age of 28 – changed my life, and I continue to uphold it as a reminder to stick to my vision, no matter the commercial or critical fallout.

Below is the poem I wrote – and read – for the March 4th event.

sarah-kane

 

For Sarah Kane

 

milkwarm break of not-quite

morning you, finally, sleep-crust

fringed nonpartisan vision

daylight/excrement/life as is.

 

the pen. the lace.

the line. the love.

your arctic summer.

curtain.

Melancholy and the queer artist

Posted in Production updates on October 12, 2014 by cegatchalian

melancholia by durer

Melancholy. As the French philosopher Didier Eribon posits, this is where it all starts, and, in fact, ends—the lifelong process of mourning that each homosexual goes through, and through which we construct our individual identities. It is mourning for the loss of heterosexual privilege: of easy and automatic familial and social approval; of universally sanctioned unions and family units; of the validation of seeing one’s reflections in the dominant myths of romantic culture. It is to combat this melancholy that we build, sculpt, etch, paint, compose, write—at a level, as I’ve heard even homophobes concede, higher, on average, than our heterosexual fellow-travellers. While straights may indeed face their own romantic and family quandaries, these cannot equate to the systemic barriers homosexuals everywhere face. These are barriers against the expression of our most powerful, intimate feelings, which begets melancholy and has, in turn, begotten some of the world’s greatest art. Every etch, every splash of colour, every appoggiatura, every rigorously wrought iamb, is a stay we erect against the hostile splash of the main current.

Playing with Our Selves: Writing, Solitude & Audience

Posted in General with tags , , , , , on January 28, 2013 by cegatchalian

My apologies for the seven-month interregnum between my last post and this one–as I warned you earlier, I’m a lazy blogger!

I’ve just returned from Saskatoon where I was a featured writer at Writing North, a writers festival presented by the Saskatchewan Writers Guild and hosted by the University of Saskatchewan. This year’s festival was titled “Playing with Our Selves: Writing, Solitude and Audience,” and I was asked to deliver a talk on playwriting.

Below is the talk I delivered, with some alterations.

***

The Voice and the Crowd

When I found out that the theme of this year’s festival was “Playing with Our Selves: Writing, Solitude and Audience,” I thought it a wonderful stroke of synchronicity, as these just happen to be the very issues I’ve been wrestling with of late. (Not so much the “Playing with Our Selves” part–more the “Writing, Solitude and Audience” part.)

It’s not that my estimation of the value of solitude in a writer’s life has changed much: I know that, for me at least, writing is simply impossible unless I am either physically alone in a room at home, or alone amongst strangers in a restaurant or café. This was true of me in Grade One and will likely be true of me the day I die, or stop writing (I’ve got my fingers crossed that both will happen on the same day).

Rather, what I’ve been wrestling with is solitude in the more figurative sense, and how this solitude stacks up against the genre I’ve been asked to speak about today: playwriting.

I write prose, I write poetry, I write drama. It didn’t occur to me until relatively recently that there were any discernible differences between the three genres vis-á-vis my writing process. And, in most ways, there are none—whenever and whatever I’m writing, I require a borrowed place and chunks of borrowed time to be alone, completely alone, with my own thoughts and ideas.

But as writers get older, we become more self-conscious (often not a good thing—in fact I would advise all writers against ever becoming too conscious of what they’re doing). In any event, I made a discovery about what it is that makes drama truly distinct from poetry and prose, and how that distinguishing factor enters—or should enter—into my playwriting process.

That distinguishing factor is the presence of a live audience—whether it’s an audience of one or one thousand (and in Canada these days, unfortunately, the number is usually closer to the first number than the second), a play is written almost invariably with the assumption that it will be performed live to an audience, one that absorbs the play via receptors (whether they be sensory, emotional or intellectual) shaped by the conventions, values and expectations (whether they be sensory, emotional or intellectual) of society-at-large.

A play is written almost invariably with the assumption that, unlike prose or poetry, where the reader can read, reread and revisit the piece at their whim, their pace, their leisure, the audience of a play sees it just once, and have just one opportunity to grasp, experience, receive it.

A play is written almost invariably with the assumption that unlike prose or poetry, or film for that matter, where the audience has control over when to start, stop, pause or rewind, the audience for a play gives up control regarding these matters, surrendering almost completely to the tyranny of the playwright. Historically, the best tyrants have been benevolent ones, so the tyrant-playwright must give the audience something truly worthwhile in exchange for their surrendering two or so continuous, uninterrupted hours of their day.

In short, playwriting, perhaps more than any other literary activity, requires dealing with formidable constraints, constraints provided by that without whose sighs, laughter, tears, eye-rolls, disgust, discomfort, anger, adoration—without whose mere presence—no play can exist: the audience.

An apt place to begin when discussing the individual playwright and their relationship with the audience is the actual origins of Western drama. In a nutshell, it began in ancient Greece with what were called dithyrambs, hymns sung in unison by a group of people called a chorus in honour of the wine and fertility god Dionysus. Sometime during the 6th century BC, someone named Thespis stepped out of the dithyrambic chorus and wrote his own lines, put on masks to represent characters and recited lines not with the chorus, but as an individual.

Here, in the tension between the individual actor and the chorus, lies what I feel is at the core of the act of playwriting: the unique, singular, individual voice, setting themselves up against prevailing and received opinion, against the mainline of society, the crowd.

So how does this manifest itself in the playwriting process?

Since I can only speak for myself and not for any other playwright, let me attempt to describe my playwriting process and how it has evolved over the years. When I first started writing plays, my approach was similar to my approach to writing prose and poetry—it was based on elitism, exceptionalism, arrogance. I fashioned myself a High Modernist in the T. S. Eliot mode, so my attitude vis-a-vis the audience was one of sneering contempt: rise to my level or take a hike. I will throw all manner of formal innovation to the audience, and if they can’t access it, or take the trouble to try to access it, it was their failure, their ineptitude, their lack of patience.

So, with regards to solitude, I not only extolled physical solitude, but intellectual and aesthetic solitude as well. My work sat perched on a mountaintop, and the onus was on the audience to ascend to it.

Those of you who value modesty and humility will be happy to know that my view on this matter has evolved. I have not done a complete 180, mind you, and I will return to this later. But it took sixteen years of writing professionally to fully acknowledge, accept and see a truth that was sitting right under my turned-up, High Modernist nose: that a play, perhaps more than any other genre, cannot exist without an audience.

I believe my evolution began when I was commissioned by Vancouver’s Green Thumb Theatre to write a play for young audiences. The play was called People Like Vince and focused on a twelve-year-old girl’s close relationship with her bipolar uncle. It took writing a play for young audiences for me to realize the critical role of the audience, by virtue of this one incontrovertible, indisputable fact: that children are the most honest audiences one will ever encounter. That is, if your play sucks, children have neither the ability nor the interest to make you think otherwise.

As mentioned, People Like Vince deals with what is for many a difficult and thorny issue: mental health. The play’s social objective is to promote empathy and compassion for people dealing with mental health issues. The way to achieve this is not by writing a dramatized pamphlet about bipolarism, but rather by engaging the audience via two old-fashioned means that too many of us playwrights and theatre-makers, in our never-ending experimentation with form, too often forget about these days: character and story.

So, People Like Vince is not about bipolarism, but about an intelligent, offbeat girl’s close relationship with her loving, eccentric uncle, and how, to gain the approval of her schoolmates, she ultimately betrays her uncle in the cruelest of ways.

Friendship, approval, betrayal: these are themes that audiences of all ages can relate to. By drawing the audience into the play with these hooks, I can in turn enlighten them about bipolarism, and about the larger issue of accepting people who are different.

Character and story: these, I have come to fully accept, are the fundamental building blocks of a play. I like to liken them to the role shapes, patterns and external reality play in the visual arts and in particular painting. No matter how formally experimental and innovative were Cezanne, Picasso, Kandinsky and Matisse, their work was still anchored in clear patterns and references to external reality. Even the uber-abstract grids of Mondrian have as their basis actual objects from the real world. Similarly, character and story are the anchors without which a play will drift in a sea of anemic technocracy and pretence–or, to use a metaphor more in keeping with the theme of this year’s conference, self-serving quasi-artistic ejaculate.

So, when I speak of constraints, this is what I mean: the constraints imposed upon us by the audience, who demand that their attention be sustained, their intellects awakened, their emotions stirred. In my sophomoric snob days I maintained that these constraints were without exception to be annihilated; but now I see them as beautiful, necessary and as an integral part of the dramatic form; and the negotiation of these constraints as the playwright’s bread and butter.

Which brings me back to the statement I made earlier, which is that I have not made a complete 180 on the position I previously held. Meaning: abiding by these constraints does not equate to currying the audience’s favour. I believe that once you acquiesce and give in to the audience’s demand for character and story, you are free from that point on to fuck them over however you wish. Twist chronology; versify the dialogue; stunt their expectations for some grandly satisfactory denouement. Again, the playwright is a tyrant, but the best ones are ultimately benevolent: they will give audiences not necessarily what they want, but what is good for them. Often it’s good for audiences to reevaluate their notions of narrative structure and plot; and very often it’s good for audiences to question underlying assumptions about the world they live in. Challenging constraints, challenging the audience: these are often the trademarks of the greatest plays. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot did exactly that and caused an apoplectic public reaction; but in the end no play of its century caused a more seismic shift in the playwright’s art, and no play of its century captured or made a greater impact on the Western public’s imagination.

Which brings us back to that fateful day in Greece sometime in the 6th century BC that changed Western drama forever: the day a man named Thespis separated himself from the chorus. By doing so he created a space for all playwrights and theatre artists after him—a free space for the solitary individual from which he could present a counterpoint to the Crowd, a counterpoint to prevailing opinion, a counterpoint to what is deemed “normal.” As playwrights, we must first abide by some of the Crowd’s constraints, if only to ultimately pull the rug out from under them. The constant negotiation of these constraints, this perpetual push-and-pull with the Crowd, is, I believe, not only our bread and butter as playwrights, but our soul work, our primary reason for being.

Why Read a Play?

Posted in Books on June 4, 2012 by cegatchalian

Why read a play? Isn’t play-reading the rarefied and esoteric domain of theatre practitioners and academics, or, at its least rarefied, a mere curricula item in high school and college English courses? Why read a play as opposed to fiction and poetry? What can a play offer to the silent, solitary reader?

Let’s compare drama to its more popular literary cousins, poetry and fiction. Drama, like fiction, is based on characters and narrative, but its expressive mode is more similar to that of lyric poetry: concrete, specific, instinctual, in the moment. Drama, in this sense, is a composite of poetry and fiction, and a highly compact one at that; worth mentioning, in this age of truncated attention spans, is that plays, unlike (most) novels or (most) books of poetry, can easily be read in one sitting (Shakespeare, period drama and dense modern playwrights like Eugene O’Neill being notable exceptions). In short, and somewhat cynically, (good) drama gives you complex characters and narrative sweep in a package reasonably conducive to our habitually time-pressed age.

So why, then, do more people not read drama? Perhaps because of that well-nigh sacred maxim, “plays are meant to be seen.” To which we can reply, yes, but reading them animates the most perfect, makeshift, manipulable theatre of them all: that of the mind. The mind’s theatre is ours, and we its director.

Play-reading necessitates acts of embodying and vivifying, much like what a composer does when reading a score; it requires practice, but, unlike score-reading, no special training. Simply put, it is an exercise in what one might call creative reading, the reading of what Roland Barthes would call “writerly texts,” in which the reader becomes the site of the production of meaning. With such texts, the author becomes as much a creator as the author. As a play is almost always completely external (that is, composed mostly of dialogue and action) and subtext is almost always completely implicit, the making of meaning rests heavily with the reader. A play, therefore, is the most writerly text there is.

So that’s what dramatic literature can offer you, arguably more than any other genre (or at least as much as esoteric modern poetry): creative reading. And, more often than not, all in the space of one night.

Recommended Reading

For those new to reading plays, always a good place to begin is the infinitely readable Tennessee Williams. I would recommend that one start with one of his lesser-known works so that one’s mind isn’t diluted with memories of a previous production or film adaptation–try Summer and Smoke or Camino Real. But if one really wants to delve into the realm of creative reading, I’d suggest the shorter, uber-stylized plays of Samuel Beckett (as he himself said of his own work, “I produce an object. What people make of it is not my concern.”) or the spare, unadorned, metatheatrical plays of Daniel MacIvor (i.e. This Is A Play, In On It).

Hello Again, Narcissism!

Posted in General on May 4, 2012 by cegatchalian

I’ve returned to blogging after a five-month absence. I initially started this blog as a way to bring additional attention to the world premiere of my play Falling In Time, and openly expressed my reservations about the form as well as my doubts as to whether I would, or should, continue with it beyond the production.

My answer, after mulling it over, is yea, for the following reasons:

1. Narcissism. Let’s just put it out there. Blogging is narcissistic, and there’s no point denying it. But narcissism–or at least amour propre, the gentler and more positive incarnation of it–is in all of us and in moderate doses not unhealthy. We all desire the sight of our own reflections to confirm our existence, and in a world where the virtual has almost completely superseded the actual, a blog is as consoling a confirmation as any.

2. Practice. A writer must practice his craft, and I’ve begun to see blogging as an opportunity to do just that–to test ideas out and refine them, and test and refine my expression of them. Too often my ideas on a whole variety of things remain stuck in my head, and seeing them as black-and-white objects outside myself will, I hope, allow me to self-criticize more ably. (Perhaps some of my ideas will look so ludicrous when published that I’ll decide to discard them altogether.) Writing is difficult, grinding work and always, ultimately, only an approximation of the truth; but as writers it’s our task to get as close to it as possible, and only practice–whether it’s reading difficult books, or sculpting sentences in one’s diary or blog–can take us there.

3. Sharing. I am by nature a solitary person, and writing is a solitary act–that’s an awful lot of solitude, which one needs to balance with healthy doses of its opposite. Since I’m a relatively slow and not particularly prolific writer (perhaps a few poems published per year; a book or play once every few years–Falling In Time took seven years to develop, and is in fact still developing), a blog will allow me to share my ideas with people with a tad more frequency, and also to assure people who enjoy my work that I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth, or quit writing.

A caveat, though–my blogging will be quite sporadic compared to many other writers. My slow pace is something I won’t apologize for or change. Furthermore, there’s much too much writing out there already–with the ubiquity of blogging, everyone fashions oneself a writer these days–and I don’t see the need for me to further overload people with inane jottings about what I had for breakfast, what vitamins and minerals I’m taking or the virtues of wearing boxers as opposed to briefs. (That said,  if occasionally I find a good enough reason to blog about such minutiae, I will.) Also, despite my recent foray into confessional writing (see this brief piece I wrote about my “podplay” Authentic, which Vancouver’s Neworld Theatre commissioned me to write last year) and the current essay collection I’m working on which is, to a not-insignificant degree, an autobiography, I still consider myself fairly faithful to the Eliotian ideal of impersonality, so you won’t read much here that betrays too much of what I consider sacrosanct.  (Read: fodder for reality television. Yet again, if I find a solid enough reason to blog about my personal life, I will.)

So thank you, Gentle Reader, for taking an interest in my blog. As a nineteenth-century-style man of letters and unabashed devotee of Literature and Art (and I say this with nary an ounce of irony), I will do my best to ensure that the posts you read here are not a complete waste of your time.

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