As part of the 2020 AGM, the Canadian Association of Theatre Research brings together theatre researchers and practitioners from all over the world to share their ideas in the Articulating Artistic Research Seminar. The group is lead by Bruce Barton (University of Calgary) and Natalia Esling (University of British Columbia). This year’s participants bring a wealth of experience from five continents and include: Lisa Aikman, Megan Andrews, Bakare Babatunde, Gilberto Conti, Andrew Houston, Caitlin Main, Tony Nardi, Laine Newman, Gouri Nilakantan, Milena Radzikowska, Jennifer Roberts-Smith, Stan Ruecker, Shira Schwartz, and Edwin Wong.
We each prepared a statement of artistic research and uploaded it to the CATR site. Mine can be found here. Then we were assigned into subgroups. I was paired with Gilberto Conti, a theatre researcher from Czechia who specializes in the intersection of African, European, and Indigenous cultures in Brazilian theatre and Tony Nardi, a Canadian actor, writer, and director who specializes in Canadian multicultural theatre. This is a fantastic opportunity to see all the cool things people from all over the world are doing with theatre in a time of crisis. In our subgroup Gilberto was assigned to respond to my statement of artistic research and, in turn, I was assigned to respond to Tony. Here’s my response to Tony’s piece on multicultural theatre.
CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF THEATRE RESEARCH (CATR)
ARTICULATING ARTISTIC RESEARCH SEMINAR
“ARTICULATIONS OF DIVISION AND UNITY: RE-EVALUATING PRACTICES OF ARTISTIC RESEARCH”
Date: July 5, 2020
EDWIN WONG RESPONDS TO TONY NARDI
In his articulation of artistic research, Tony Nardi brings a wealth of experience to the table. It’s a humbling experience to hear the insights from an award-winning actor (two-time Genie Award winner plus many others), writer (James Buller Award winner and many others), director, and producer with forty-two years of experience in theatre, film, and television. The best part of Nardi’s articulation is that, after forty-two years, he continues to push the boundaries of research. In addition to his impressive resume, since 2016 he has been sharing his experiences with the next generation of artists at the University of Toronto and York University.
One way to respond to Nardi is to begin by recapping his articulation of artistic research to see the sorts of observations and questions that arise. Nardi beings by drawing attention to different dichotomies in performance media (defined as theatre, film, and television). The three dichotomies he identifies are practice (doing in the theatre) versus research (learning in the classroom), research by-way-of practice (which privileges knowledge) versus practice by-way-of-research (which privileges the show), and acting versus writing. These dichotomies remind me of the ancient Greek dichotomy between logos—a narrative or account—and ergon—deeds and actions.
Most of the time, logos and ergon are at odds. Logos is a discussion and narrative while ergon is action. Sometimes, however, logos and ergon come together. One example is Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic. By discussing justice (logos), Socrates performs the work (ergon) of guiding Glaucon out of the cave. With his experience on both sides of the table—as an actor and a writer—Nardi is become a synthesizer of dichotomies. “In the process of doing,” he writes, “practice and research are practically indivisible.” Similarly, he synthesizes the acts of writing and acting by drawing together common denominators: “the actor writes when they act and the writer acts when they write.” Are these words the beginnings of a book on acting theory by a Canadian that Nardi laments has not been written yet? I hope that they are. Such a book would go a long way to incorporating Canadian multiculturalism into Canadian performance. More on that below.
Nardi’s comments on the playwright combining writing and doing brings to mind Bob Dylan’s observations of Shakespeare’s creative process:
I was out on the road when I received this surprising news [i.e. that he had won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature], and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”
Perhaps it is our age, so fascinated with specialization, that wants an artist to be an artist, and nothing else, that wants an actor to be an actor, and nothing else. But perhaps, as Nardi and Dylan write, not only is the artist a writer, but in writing is also an actor, director, stage manager, general manager, producer, and box office manager. Perhaps the writer-actor dichotomy is something that exists more in the public’s mind than in reality? I’d like to hear more from Nardi about how his students have benefited from his approach which breaks down the conventional writer-actor dichotomy in favour of a writer-actor synthesis. I am grateful to Nardi for expanding my sensibilities here. Up to this point I had thought of a writer as a writer and an actor as an actor. I enjoyed Nardi’s point that the best actors are also writers and vice-versa.
In the past, there have been influential researchers who have approached theatre from diverse perspectives. Aristotle—who has influenced seemingly everyone—approached theatre from a philosophy background. And Nietzsche—who counts among his disciples Strindberg and O’Neill—approached theatre from the perspective of a Greek and Latin classicist. Such diverse approaches bring to mind biologist E. O. Wilson’s notion of consilience (from con– and siliens ‘jumping’), that jumps in knowledge result when unrelated disciplines come together. In his articulation piece, Nardi talks about a consilience within the theatre disciplines—for example, his writer, in writing, also acts. I find this approach illuminating, and would like to hear his thoughts on how diverse perspectives outside of theatre can interact with and contribute to theatre research. Is there an opportunity here? In a way, could it be that the greatest actors or the greatest writers were also the most complete and multi-faceted human beings, able to draw into their art every facet of the human experience?
After talking about how he synthesizes the acting-writing and research by-way-of practice-practice-by-way-of research dichotomies in his teaching, Nardi addresses a third dichotomy: the stage-film dialectic. To Nardi—who is experienced performing on the stage and in front of a camera—the dichotomy between stage and film is false and unsupported by the actor’s point of view. In a memorable image, he argues that a stage actor can visualize the actual stage as a camera lens and a film actor can visualize the camera lens as a type of stage. For a film actor, for example, performing in front of an extreme wide-shot lens is akin to acting before a large theatre while performing in front of a close-up lens is akin to acting in a one-on-one setting. To reinforce his point, Nardi draws attention to how there the film actor also performs in front of an audience: the 10-50 “spectators” of the film crew. Like a theatre audience, they are always watching. Some people do not consider the film crew to constitute an audience. Nardi disagrees.
Here I would like to offer a differing opinion. My specialty is risk. From the perspective of risk, each time the actor goes in front of the audience, the actor takes risk. Risk is what makes an event special. In a way, when a pianist goes in front of an audience, the audience is unconvinced the pianist can pull off the cascade of trills or the quick succession of arpeggios. There may even be some in the audience who desire the piano lid to come crashing down on the pianist’s fingers. The pianist senses this tension and attempts to overcome it. If the pianist takes risks and prevails, the audience’s reaction to being proved wrong is to erupt into applause. This tension, I believe, is real. The great Canadian performing artist Glenn Gould retired from the stage at the age of 31 because his nerves couldn’t handle the darker aspects of the performer-audience dynamic. He believed the audience wanted him to fail. And each time he performed in front of a live audience, he needed to overcome the audience, an act which he paid a price for in his health: ulcers, sleeplessness, stomach problems.
It may be similar in other performing arts. Comedians who have perform in sit-coms in front of a camera and stage crew sometimes express a yearning to return to the live stage. On a live stage, there’s tension in the air. The audience is at the ready to heckle the comedian if the joke is flat or the delivery off. Popular sit-com comedians such as Seinfeld have expressed a desire to return to touring on the road, to being on stage at the comedy clubs. They describe the road experience in front of a live audience as being “honest.”
Perhaps live performances differ from a recorded performances in terms of the risks and rewards. Because there’s no take 2, the performer must go all-in on one moment and defy the audience’s dark wish. I’d love to hear Nardi’s thoughts on the risks or the psychology of performing in front of a camera (where multiple takes are possible) and in front of an audience, where there is only the moment, either to capture or to lose. To me, risk separates, to an extent, the live versus the recorded event. Perhaps one way to test out this idea is to compare recordings of live events with recordings made in the studio?
In the largest and concluding section of his articulation of artistic research, Nardi talks about “the ways and degree to which Canada’s multi cultures have impacted professional performances in Performance Media since the promulgation of the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy, the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the 1988 Multiculturalism Act.” As a first-generation Canadian whose parents were from China, this was fascinating. I had always taken it for granted that English and French dominated Canadian film and theatre. In his dissertation, however, Nardi exposes this practice as unconstitutional multiculturalism. When I read his paper saying that, someday, we could get some Canadian content in Cantonese (and other languages), I thought: “Cool.”
Unconstitutional multiculturalism happens when institutions misinterpret Canada’s policy of official bilingualism. When Canadian media institutions prioritize English and French over other languages such as Farsi, Korean, or Mandarin, Performance Media becomes almost a tool of propaganda which erases, rather than celebrates, cultures and ways of life. Nardi is changing the institutional misinterpretation of official bilingualism through his innovative research. The benefit will be new films and play that embraces performers’ cultural backgrounds, languages, and ways of life. This is a bold, welcome, and most timely initiative. I wish Nardi all the success in this crucial project. The world is changing, and the performance arts ought to change with it. Current events certainly seem to be playing into his call for a multiculturalist performing arts.
Nardi’s thoughts on the performing arts and multiculturalism are extremely thought-provoking. Many questions come to mind. Are we due for a 21st century theory of acting written from a multicultural Canadian perspective? And the plays that dominate regional theatres from British and American canons—while classics, do they also propagate dissonance between the theatre and audiences which are increasingly diverse? That is to say, are classic plays in some way agents of assimilation and integration? I remember in the days of the Roman Empire, theatre was a tool to bring peace to the conquered: in each vanquished city, the Romans would build a forum, baths, and also a theatre. Is part of the solution new plays, written by new 21st century theories of drama, performed according to 21st century theories of acting by performers who reflect the theatre community’s demography? If so, perfect: I’ve written a 21st century theory of drama in my book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. I’d love to find a way to collaborate with Nardi to inaugurate a new and multicultural theatre in Canada.
– – –
Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.