In ‘Theatre of the Unimpressed’, Failure Is the Great Subversion

Jordan Tannahill's book is full of provocative insights and exciting examples of theatre that is striving to resist the mediocrity that bores audiences the world over.

Why is theatre so boring?

Because, suggests Jordan Tannahill, it fails to embrace failure.

That’s one of the overarching arguments in Tannahill’s aptly titled Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama, a broad-ranging reflection on the state of contemporary theatre. This slim, attractive essay covers a surprising amount of ground for such a small volume. Tannahill knows his audience and is experienced in operating under the constraints of time and space. An accomplished and award-winning playwright who runs the alternative art space Videofag in Toronto’s iconic Kensington Market, Tannahill has been building a reputation in the theatre and film communities both in his native Canada as well as internationally. Having earned a reputation for original and experimental works, he now casts his critical eye on the broader state of theatre in the western world.

Is theatre dying? It depends on the measures you use. Exponentially larger audiences are flocking to see Shakespearian plays now than ever did in Shakespeare’s day. Yet in a world that lavishes hundreds of millions of dollars on television and film projects, award-winning acting troupes struggle to stay in operation, while iconic theatres battle against bankruptcy. Theatre is one of the oldest forms of entertainment in western civilization, but it’s been hard-pressed to adapt its practices, traditions and operating models to the vicissitudes of today’s fragmented and fast-paced entertainment industry. And yes, many contemporary audiences would rather stay at home and watch something on Netflix than venture out to take their chances on a play. The question ‘why do people find theatre boring?’ masks another deeper question: what is the role of theatre in today’s world?

Tannahill weaves together the experiences of contemporary playwrights, critics, actors and theatre-goers with an insightful sweep of the recent history of modern theatre, to demonstrate how the types of safe, ‘Well Made Plays’ relied upon by many theatres to pay their bills are precisely those which tend to turn people off from experiencing theatre as exciting and meaningful. There’s a contradiction here: theatres are afraid to reach outside the norm for fear of alienating their audiences; yet it is precisely the mediocrity of programming that drives many people to dismiss theatre as a vital and exciting form of drama with something important and original to contribute to today’s world. Tannahill’s passionate and well-researched analysis doesn’t provide all the solutions, but several important points come through in his study.

Theatre must take risks. It sounds clichéd and counterintuitive to put it like that, but the reality is that it’s next to impossible to take risks in a society that is increasingly hard-wired against taking risks. Funding from the public purse or even from privately-funded agencies operating within the ‘cultural industries’ are all predicated on models that require evidence of success: shows performed, tickets sold, positive reviews, audience and revenue growth. Yet truly vital theatre requires failure – oftentimes repeated and sustained failure – in order to experiment, tease out ideas, and eventually hit upon enduring success (however one chooses to measure that).

Tannahill draws the useful analogy with basic research: scientists bemoan the fact that today’s funding agencies are increasingly unwilling to give funding to basic research that has no clear purpose or functionally useful end goals, despite the fact that it is precisely that “casting about in the dark’, with 99 percent likelihood of failure, that produces the truly genius in that one-percent of all the time needed. Similarly, public and private agencies alike are unwilling to fund theatre that doesn’t demonstrate any likelihood of measurable success. And in doing so, they guarantee mediocrity, which is what bores us.

Another challenge surrounds theatre’s long obsession with trying to represent the real world. When theatre strives for realism in an era of CGI and multi-million dollar special effects, it faces a losing battle. Tannahill says openly what many of us think while watching a play that strives for realism: in a world where we’re familiar with television and film – both of which are far more capable of simulating reality than a stage and a set – theatre seems contrived and fake. Audiences in previous centuries didn’t have television and film to compare it to, and so it must have seemed an impressive simulation of real life.

Not any more. Technology has surpassed what the traditional stage can offer by way of realism. That’s not to say that dialogue and acting can’t be realistic – even moreso than screen acting, given the full immersion into character that a stage actor must undergo – but that it’s harder for an audience to suspend its broader disbelief when gazing down upon awkwardly constructed and painted sets on a flat stage.

But not to fret: acknowledging that fact opens the space to consider what theatre truly can do in this day and age, which is maybe not what it used to do. In this, theatre isn’t the only form of expression struggling to redefine itself. Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid has eloquently addressed the challenge faced by novelists in today’s world. “Television is the old novel,” he has written – meaning that it does what novels used to do, namely create self-contained worlds — thereby freeing novels to do new and different things; to make the most of their intimacy, their syntactic sensuality.

Tannahill makes a similar point on the topic of theatre: “far from killing theatre, screen-based mediums have relieved theatre of the burden of verisimilitude, freeing it to explore other expressive currents.” Theatre still has its unique strengths, particularly its liveness, its non-replicability, its opportunities for audience engagement. These are strengths the form can still hold over screen acting; if channeled appropriately and creatively, they offer new directions for theatre in this rapidly shifting technological age.

One of those directions, which Tannahill usefully explores, is the Internet. He describes new initiatives – his own among them – to produce theatre using YouTube, webcams, and Twitter. Playwrights and actors are seizing the opportunities new technologies offer to reflect and refract our world back to us in high drama; it’s just that many of us don’t realize it, since we’re constrained by traumatic memories of stilted Shakespearian sonnets that shaped our impression of theatre.

Repeatedly, a theme emerges: the embrace of failure. Failure demonstrates vulnerability and innovation; the sort of fearless creativity that attracts our attention and causes us to gasp rather than applaud politely. If the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism – with its fear of innovation, fear of failure, its stultifying best practices and mediocritizing benchmarks – defines the present era, then the Theatre of Failure challenges the essence of such a spirit. This Theatre of Failure “is not only refusal of the ideal of the well-made, but nothing less than a renunciation of perfection as a tyranny imposed not only upon theatre, but upon society at large by capitalist hegemony.”

This is no cynical hipsterism, Tannahill is quick to note. “To the contrary, I believe the Theatre of Failure is a profoundly optimistic and human proposal, one that reconstitutes failure as hopeful iconoclasm,” he writes. Nor does it celebrate failure to the exclusion of all else. On the contrary, it is the tension between failure and virtuosity which brings its potency to life. This is a theatre indelibly attuned to the experience of today’s internet generation, in which expressive forms have a short shelf-life. Think how quickly media platforms like MySpace, Tumblr, Snapchat and others rise and fall, offering a brief space in which we are all amateurs experimenting with what the form allows us to express to each other.

Impermanence, experimentation, and failure are the hallmarks of today’s creative forms, embedded as they are within a taut, technical superstructure facilitated by the standardizing boredom of capitalism. In a society bred to fixate upon success, failure is the great subversion.

Tannahill equates failure, too, with the subversive potential of queer theory. Fully an actor in his own book, he draws on personal experience as a gay man to illustrate the power of failure to subvert the powerful; even if this simply means subverting norms of gender, sexuality and masculinity by enacting them queerly and thus subverting and transforming them. “My inability to conform to gender norms has subjected me to violence, which demonstrates to me the continued necessity of these subversions,” he writes. “Like theatre, impermanence is built into the very DNA of queerness. Queerness is predicated on the dismantling of hierarchies and institutions, not on the normative impulse toward permanence and legacy. I locate myself more within the unmaking than the making of things. And this is the engine of vital theatre…”

Theatre of the Unimpressed is a delight to read. Full of provocative insights and exciting examples of theatre that is striving to resist the mediocrity that bores audiences the world over, it inspires the reader with a sense of hope not only for the sustained potential of theatre, but also for the power of the creative impulse to defy the stultifying ravages of capitalist hegemony on our societies. Tannahill doesn’t offer a step-by-step guide to overcoming these challenges, but he offers a series of glimpses, ideas and experiences designed to trigger and inspire the reader’s own imagination. After all, if there’s a lesson here it’s that it’s up to us to express our own creative selves without any fear of the beautiful failures that might result.

RATING 8 / 10