Canadian Association of Theatre Research Conference (CATR) “Partition/Ensemble”
May 25th-28th 2020 Montreal, Canada
The Articulations of Division and Unity: Re-evaluating Practices of Artistic Research Seminar
Concordia University and Université du Québec à Montréal
Natalia Esling and Bruce Barton Co-Curators
Hi Everyone, my name is Edwin Wong. Like many of you, I arrived at theatre off the beaten path. I’m a classicist who studied ancient theatre with Laurel Bowman at the University of Victoria (’04 BA Greek and Roman Studies) and David Konstan at Brown University (’07 MA Classics). My favourite old-time tragedy is Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes—of all the plays in the tragic canon, it’s the only one where you can work out the odds of all the actual and contrafactual outcomes. That’s fascinating because I study the impact of highly improbable events. I was born in 1974, so that makes me 45. I live in Victoria, BC where I work as a project manager for PML Professional Mechanical. We build hospitals, schools, office buildings, submarine hangers, condos, you name it.
In commercial construction, “Mechanical” refers not to cars, but to an umbrella of trades: plumbing, sheet metal, fire sprinklers, insulation, firestop, refrigeration, and controls. Mechanical—alongside electrical, glazing (windows), concrete, wall board, gypsum wall board, and many others—is one of the divisions of construction that come together to build the buildings you see around you. Project managers are a liaison between designers (architects and engineers) and the trades installing the work. As a project manager, I look after contracts, changes, construction schedules, and mitigate risk. I’m a Red Seal plumber by trade. That means I’ve completed a four year apprenticeship.
I enjoy reading books outside my field of study, especially books on financial speculation, market bubbles, and stock market collapses. Favourites include Lowenstein’s The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management (how an overleveraged hedge fund founded by two Nobel winners brought the global economic system to a stop), Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, and Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Perhaps it’s from my work and reading interests that the focus of my artistic research is to explore what happens in drama when risk becomes the fulcrum of the action.
The current focus of my artistic research began in winter 2006 when I came across trader/mathematician/philosopher Taleb’s first book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the in the Markets. It was sitting in the economics section of the big Borders bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island. His book argued that low-probability, high-consequence events shape life more than we think. Wall Street traders triggered devastating low-probability, high-consequence events by taking on inordinate risks. I thought: “Isn’t this what happens in tragedy? Macbeth triggers Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill—an exceedingly low-probability event—by taking on too much risk.” I spent the next twelve years perfecting a theory of tragedy where risk drives the action and I called the theory “risk theatre.”
When Great Recession—a product of excessive risk taking—hit in 2008, I realized how the scale of human ambition in finance, politics, warfare, technology, and science makes risk a timely topic. Theatre could capitalize on this by simulating risk on the stage. My risk theatre theory of tragedy would provide a template for playwrights who wanted to engage with risk.
When I started writing and researching the book, I was working at Bayside Mechanical. I would try my ideas of risk on my colleagues in the office. We talked about construction risks, and this influenced the book. In construction, sequencing the trades is critical. Before the steel studs go in, mechanical installs or “roughs in” the drainage pipes and potable water distribution. Studs go in, and then electrical and mechanical finish putting in their pipes, ducts, and conduits. Then drywall goes up. Because construction schedules are compressed, when a delay in one part of the process occurs (for example, if cold temperatures delay pouring a suspended concrete slab), the delays cascade down the chain, affecting all the trades, and the day delay in the pour ends up setting back the construction schedule not one day, but two weeks. This type of risk is called “tight-coupling,” and from discussions with other project managers, became a sub-chapter in the book. To illustrate it, an example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was used: the letter carrier to Verona just happens to be quarantined, delaying Friar Lawrence’s letter to Romeo. But, because Friar Lawrence’s plan is tight-coupled (the end result relies on many events happening in perfect sequence), the failure of one small part of the plan creates an unexpected and dramatic low-probability, high-consequence event: two suicides instead of one wedding.
The language of my book provides an example of how diverse perspectives change the flavour of research. In addition to talking to other project managers and engineers, I would run my ideas by the tradespeople. When they were hanging cast iron pipe, I would tell the tradespeople about literary theory. When they would review the blueprints, I would tell them about the art form of tragedy. When they were having coffee, I would chat with them about risk. If you read my book—and I hope that you will—you’ll find that, compared to other books on literary theory, the language is straightforward. In my book, you’ll find many construction analogies. For example, my theory of tragedy is likened to a set of blueprints construction workers use to build a house. Many of the ideas were run by the tradespeople at work. To get the ideas across, I would present them in a straightforward language using construction metaphors. Much of this vernacular makes it into the book. As a result, even though my book contains literary theory, it’s accessible to people from all walks of life.
The traditional paradigm of theatre research is that if you’re not part of an academic department or a theatre, you’re unable to contribute to the discussion. You’re out in the wilderness, and the wilderness will reclaim you. Sort of like historian Arnold Townbee’s “Appalachian effect” where, if an advanced society settles the Appalachia, in a few generations, despite whatever refinements it had, will revert back to nature due to its geographic isolation. There’s some truth to this. Without the support from the community, it’s hard to keep going. But I think, if you’re not part of the establishment, and you’re able to keep going, you’ll be able to bring new perspectives into an established art. New blood.
Friesen Press published my statement of artistic research, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected in 2019. It contains a model of drama based on uncertainty and chance. On the cover is an image of the dead man’s hand, a visual analogy of the impact of the highly improbable. The dead man’s hand is a poker hand, a pair of black aces on eights. The odds of this poker hand are remote but the consequences great. It was the hand folk hero Wild Bill Hickox held when he was unexpectedly shot dead in a saloon in Deadwood.
My book presents a theory of tragedy through an extended gambling metaphor. Heroes are gamblers who place delirious bets at the no-limit tables. They lay down, however, something other than money. In tragedy, cash isn’t legal tender. Human values are legal tender. Loman, in Death of a Salesman, lays down his dignity for the American Dream. Faust, in Doctor Faustus, lays down his soul for world dominion. Macbeth lays down compassion, or the milk of human kindness, for the crown. More, in A Man for All Seasons, lays down his life for his faith. The ramification, and I believe it is an important one, of looking at dramatic acts as gambling acts is this: tragedy serves as a valuing mechanism for human values. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth? It’s hard to value life from within life itself. But, in Macbeth we see that the milk of human kindness is worth a chance at one crown to rule Scotland. Tragedy is the art that values human assets. It does so through the mechanism of the hero’s wager.
Of course, we don’t come to the theatre to be educated, but to be entertained. Tragedy entertains, according to risk theatre, by dramatizing gambling acts gone awry. Heroes, by making delirious bets, trigger low-probability, high-consequence outcomes not unlike how gamblers, by going all-in, blow themselves up. Famous gamblers who have blown themselves up by wagering all-in include Hermann from Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades and the Cincinnati Kid from Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid. Heroes, according to risk theatre are similar. They concentrate their fortunes on one all-in bet. Their wagers, like Hermann’s and the Cincinnati Kid’s, are good. They play to win and should win. But then, the unexpected happens and all is lost. Sometimes the unexpected comes in the form of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Other times it’s when one discovers—as Loman does—that one’s life insurance policy makes one worth more dead than alive. And then there’re the times when the foolproof bet is derailed—as the Cincinnati Kid discovers—when the adversary “makes the wrong move at the right time.” Audiences are entertained by watching heroes blow up in the same way as spectators in casinos find entertainment in watching the action at the no-limit tables.
Many people talk of how heroes blow up in tragedy, and of how audiences find the fall thrilling. What risk theatre gives you, is the mechanism by which heroes blow up and the mechanism of why audiences find the fall entertaining. “Why do we find tragedy endearing when it recounts sad tales full of strife and sorrow?” is a perennial question. Risk theatre provides answers.
To look at how risk triggers low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, risk theatre brings together studies in risk management and the interpretation and creation of theatre. Studies in risk management take many forms. There are the breakdowns of the events leading up to Chernobyl, Deepwater Horizon, or the space shuttle Challenger. There are studies of irrational exuberance, studies of the financial manias and crashes from the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637 to the South Sea Bubble of 1720 (where Newton famously lamented: “I can calculate the movement of the stars but not the madness of men”) and from the Great Depression in 1929 to the Great Recession of 2008. Then there are the studies of the great adventurers, of how they perished ascending Everest or sailing off the edge of the world. And then there are the military disasters: the Fall of Singapore or the failure of the Maginot Line in the Second World War or the Battle of Lake Trasimene or the Battle of Cannae in antiquity.
In these studies, risk analysts, historians, engineers, scientists, and economists have identified recurring motifs which precede the fall: black swans, overconfidence, failure to adapt, dogmatism, communications breakdowns, excessive leverage, lack of redundancy, tight coupling, feedback, miscalculated second-guesses, heuristic errors, and many others. Traditionally, playwrights and interpreters have focused on how the protagonist’s hubris precedes the fall. My research looks at how all the different types of risk precede the fall. My goal is to allow tragedy to speak to today’s analysts, historians, engineers, scientists, economists, and other risk takers, by interpreting tragedy in their language. Birnam Wood, for example, becomes a black swan event. In Corneille’s Cinna, for example, the feedback between the quartet of protagonists leads to unexpected outcomes. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet becomes a study in tight coupling (when each part of a plan is dependent on all the other parts). And so on.
Tragedy also entertains, and risk theatre explains what makes tragedy thrilling. Spectators come to the theatre to feel the emotions of anticipation and apprehension. To continue the gambling analogy, just as spectators go to the casino to watch the high stakes action at the no-limit tables, so too theatregoers go to the casino, not to watch the nickel and dime bets, but to watch heroes make delirious wagers. Theatregoers feel anticipation for what the hero will wager. What will Macbeth wager for the crown—perhaps compassion, or the milk of human kindness? What will Loman wager for the American Dream—perhaps his dignity? What will Faustus wager for world dominion—perhaps his soul? In addition to anticipation, theatregoers feel apprehension for how, despite having the best-laid plans, heroes lose all.
After twelve years of researching my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, I shopped around for a publisher. Because I was no longer part of academia, the academic presses were uninterested. Because I wasn’t part of the theatre world, the presses which focus on drama were uninterested. The manuscript sat fallow until a friend suggested that I try self-publishing.
As luck would have it, one of Canada’s premier self-publishing companies, Friesen Press, is located in Victoria. In 2018, I signed up with Friesen. They would take care of typesetting, printing, and distributing the book. Marketing and publicity would be by me. Then I thought: “How can I get credibility for my self-published title to entice theatregoers, critics, academics, and playwrights to buy it?” My goal is to offer people a new and exciting way to interpret and understand drama and literature. But who would buy a self-published book?
First, I started a blog. Since I was working on tragedy, and Melpomene is tragedy’s Muse, I called the blog “Doing Melpomene’s Work” (melpomeneswork.com). I would blog about the process of writing the book, my thoughts on theatre, book reviews, and really anything that came to mind. But the blog wouldn’t be enough.
In addition to the blog, I decided to start a playwright competition: I would challenge playwrights all over the world to create risk theatre plays, and there would be cash rewards for the winners. The playwright competition would provide design concept proof. If audiences loved risk theatre plays, then tragedy could be rebranded as a theatre of risk. Tragedy is a tired art. Some find it pretentious. Others are mystified by the concepts of “flaw” and “hamartia” and “catharsis.” Tragedy needed a reboot.
Creating the playwright competition was more challenging than I thought. I had no theatre contacts and no idea where to start. I initially pitched the idea to Playwrights Guild of Canada. They said: “We like the idea, but who are you?” They would publicize the competition on the condition that I partner up with a theatre. At that point, I began to approach the local theatres.
I thought it’d be easy. I always heard the arts were looking for money and funding. I would approach the local theatres saying: “I’ve got all this money to start a competition, let’s partner up.” Not all the theatres responded to emails and voice messages. Some who responded didn’t think the competition was a good fit. Some responded with hostile comments. This wasn’t the welcome into the theatre world that I was expecting.
Sometimes, after some bad luck, you get some good luck to balance things out, and that’s exactly what happened. When I called Langham Court Theatre, General Manager Michelle Buck just happened to be in the box office, and I had a chance to speak with her. We set up a meeting. In a few months, the board of directors approved the project. She brought teacher, director, and playwright Keith Digby on board, who in turn brought on board actor, director, playwright, and educator Michael Armstrong. The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition was born. It awards over $11,000 in cash prizes to playwrights each year. In addition, we bring in the winning playwright to workshop the play. The experience culminates with a staged reading at Langham Court Theatre.
Our international jurors for the first year were Yvette Nolan (Canada), Armen Pandola (USA), and Sally Stott (UK). Here are the winners they selected, based on the criteria of risk theatre as outlined in my book.
The first place winner was Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom. It tells the story of Aaron, an ambitious, well-intentioned, but ultimately reckless documentary filmmaker in Afghanistan. While there, he not only risks his own life in pursuit of exposing a greater truth, but his actions also lead to the death of an Afghan boy named Hafiz, a tragedy Aaron later lies about in his award-winning memoir. This sets off an unexpected chain reaction of events.
The four runners-up were Michael Bucklin with Signature Photo, a story of a photojournalist who is willing to risk all to get the photograph that will launch her career. She makes the dangerous trek to Rwanda, where she finally gets the shot—a picture so brutal and controversial that it became an instant sensation. Yet the success of the picture has unintended consequences for the photojournalist, as well as those around her, and the repercussions turn devastating when the authenticity of the photographs is called into question.
Next was Scott McCrea with Mysterious Ecstasy of the Lonely Business Traveler, a play in which a wealthy corporate executive’s memories have been erased and replaced by a copy of those of another man, a doctor named Marko. Believing he’s Marko, he wagers more than he suspects he can to start a new life, free from the errors of his past. But his gamble has unexpected tragic consequences.
Then there was Phillip Christian Smith’s The Chechens. In The Chechens, rumours are going around that homosexuals are being held in camps. Can one family go all-in to protect their little brother who may or may not be gay? Or will they turn him in or honour kill him? Whichever way the family chooses, dangerous and irrevocable consequences will be set loose.
The final runner-up was J.D. Volk’s Chrysalis. In Chrysalis, an interracial married couple struggles to come to terms with the role they played in the tragic death of their young biracial son at the hands of a police officer. It examines Keri’s wager to transcend the cultural norms of being a woman of colour in America. She does this by guarding against the unlikely but ever-present threat of violence that may befall Jack, her biracial child, and trying to convince her white husband of the need to take appropriate precautions. Nevertheless, the die of fate has been cast. The unexpected triumphs over expectations.
The implications of taking risk theatre from the page to the stage are far-reaching. By encouraging and challenging playwrights each year to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action, we can test the hypotheses of risk theatre. Can each dramatic act be considered a gambling act? Is theatre the place where we can price out the value of human assets such as dignity, honour, and compassion—the milk of human kindness—through the mechanism of the hero’s wager? How do audiences react to heroes triggering low-probability, high-consequence outcomes with their delirious wagers?
I was exceedingly pleased by both the quantity (182 playwrights from 11 countries participated) and quality of the work. From creative writers to academics and from emerging playwrights to seasoned veterans, they sent in plays. In our first year, we had been expecting fifty entries, tops seventy. That our expectations had been exceeded was proof of concept: playwrights were interested in writing plays where risk and the unexpected drive the action.
In October 2019, Gabriel Jason Dean flew from Brooklyn to Victoria to workshop his play In Bloom. Michael Armstrong ran the workshop with Gabriel, and the workshop culminated in a staged reading at Langham Court Theatre. It was magic to focus on risk, chance, and the unexpected during the workshop. And it worked on stage. The best comment I had was from a friend who came. She said, “I’m glad I could make it, but I have to leave at the intermission to put the kids to bed.” At the end of the show, when I saw she stayed, she smiled and said: “I had to see how it turned out.” The success of the staged reading with the audience provided further proof of concept that risk is the key to rebooting tragedy in the 21st century.
The feedback from the playwriting community has been encouraging. They enjoy this new way to look at tragedy. Playwright and two-time Academy Award nominee Donald Connolly wrote: “The idea of ‘tragedy’ was wrapped in the mystique of motivations and nobility and flaws that put it out of reach for me as a playwright. This book strips away the mystique and makes the form available to me.” The competition is now in its second year. The goal is that in ten years, risk theatre will have reached a critical mass with playwrights (who create the plays), directors and dramaturgs (who interpret plays), and audiences (who attend plays). Once critical mass is reached, tragedy can be rebranded from its old identity (pity, fear, error, story of kings and queens) into a theatre of risk which speaks to contemporary audiences.
In addition to the blog and the playwright competition, I also conference and speak to students. Although risk theatre is a new idea, its ideas can be presented through reading classic plays. Macbeth is a great example. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth’s high-risk wager—the milk of human kindness for the crown—is thwarted by an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event—Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill.
This year, I’ve presented to a third year drama class at the University of Victoria. I gave them a risk theatre reading of Sophocles’ classic play Oedipus rex. A risk theatre reading starts with finding the hero’s wager: Oedipus bets that he can solve the riddle of the plague and stakes his reputation on being able to do so (he did after all, solve the sphinx’ riddle). His bet is good, but his expectations are dashed when a low-probability, high-consequence event happens. That event is that he unexpectedly runs into the Corinthian messenger—who had also saved him when he was a babe—and the shepherd—who was supposed to have exposed him when he was a babe and is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder. Risk theatre finds that dramatists generate excitement by derailing heroes’ expectations by low-probability, high-consequence risk events. A link to the presentation: “When Genius Failed: A Risk Theatre Reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus rex” can be found here: https://melpomeneswork.com/oedipus/
I’ve also presented this year at the Classical Association of the Middle West and South AGM at Sanford University in Birmingham, Alabama. In this presentation, I talk about my favourite tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. It’s my favourite because it’s the only play in the dramatic canon—whether ancient or modern—where you can quantify the exact odds of what did take place, and what did not take place. It’s possible to do this because of the play’s unique structure. It’s set during a civil war. Seven attacking captains are randomly posted to attack each of Thebes’ seven gates. Seven defending captains are also randomly posted to defend each of Thebes’ seven gates. The worst-case scenario takes place if the two brothers are both posted to the final gate. By using the laws of probability, I demonstrate how Aeschylus structures the play so that the fated outcome takes place despite the odds of it happening being more than two and a half million to one against. Seven Against Thebes is risk theatre’s paradigm play because the sheer improbability of the outcome can be stated in such precise and overwhelming figures as to be able to prove the risk theatre hypothesis that the function of tragedy is to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence risk events. A link to the presentation: “Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy” can be found here: https://melpomeneswork.com/aeschylus-seven-against-thebes-probability-and-a-new-theory-of-tragedy/
In conclusion, the aim of my artistic research is to consider all the ways in which tragedy is a theatre of risk. Through my book, the playwright competition, the blog, and conferencing, I invite academics, theatre professionals, creative writers, critics, and audiences to consider how risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My efforts are directed to a singular goal: to usher in a new tragic age in storytelling, drama, and literature. Our age is an age fascinated with risk, chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. Risk theatre rebrands and reimagines tragedy for these modern times. Even though I approach theatre as a stranger and outsider, I hope, that people will want to explore the possibilities when risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk theatre is the name of 21st century.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.