Tag Archives: risk theatre

Book Update – More Milestone Dates!

One of my favourite Nietzsche quotes is “I like to travel from peak to peak.” Well, that’s not exactly the quote, but that’s how I remember it. The quote actually runs: “In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak; but for that, one must have long legs.” In the last couple of weeks, it’s felt like the project has been going from peak to peak. Sure, there’s still lots of time for unexpected events to put a wrench in things (after all, this is the premise of risk theatre), but while the going’s good, I’ll take it! So, assiduous readers, here are the most recent milestones.

Final proofread complete! A good friend, Mark Grill, took on this duty. He’s edited articles that have appeared in top journals such as Science and Nature so it was a bit of a coup for me that he took this on. He’s got a comparative literature degree from the University of Chicago so much of the material would have been familiar to him. He got the manuscript on July 30 and turned it around by August 11–blazing quick. I was very happy with his work. He really has a gift for editing and proofreading. For example, there were a few foreign words in the text. One was Trauerspiel, which I had translated in quotes beside it as “mourning plays.” Of course, Trauerspiel in German is singular. Trauerspiele would be the plural. He noted and caught all sorts of little things like this. I was grateful to the point where I wrote him up a glowing recommendation, which runs like this:

Mark proofread my 70,000 word book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, a complex and dense work on chance, uncertainty, and the tragic theatre in under two weeks. I accepted nearly all of his suggestions. He has the rare x-ray eyes to uncover the most direct way of expressing thoughts with words. His proofreading was absolutely thorough and invaluable. He will be able to do the same for you at a highly competitive price point. Highly recommended.

I was particularly happy with the use of ‘x-ray’. The playing of one of my favourite pianists has been called ‘an x-ray interpretation of Bach’. I always liked that line. The pianist, is, of course, the inimitable Glenn Gould.

The author blurb and book blurb are complete! A big thank you to Keith Digby and Sarah Milne for some really great suggestions that added kick to the presentation. Here’s how the book blurb reads:

WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT, BIRNAM WOOD COMES TO DUNSINANE HILL

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy presents a profoundly original theory of drama that speaks to modern audiences living in an increasingly complex world driven by artificial intelligence, gene editing, globalization, and mutual assured destruction ideologies. Tragedy, according to risk theatre, puts us face to face with the far-reaching implications of our actions by simulating the profound impact of highly improbable events.

In this book, classicist Edwin Wong shows how tragedy imitates reality: heroes, by taking inordinate risks, trigger devastating low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Not only does Wong reinterpret classic dramas from Aeschylus to O’Neill through the risk theatre lens, he also challenges dramatists to create tomorrow’s theatre. Because today is an age of unprecedented risks, we need compelling, high-stakes tragedies to capture the growing unease with today’s risk-takers who are hurling us into an abyss of unintended consequences.

And here’s how the author blurb reads:

Edwin Wong founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition with Langham Court Theatre to align tragedy with the modern fascination with uncertainty and chance. It is the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy. He is an award-winning classicist with a master’s degree from Brown University, where he concentrated on ancient theatre. His other research interests include epic poetry, where he has published a solution to the contradiction between Homeric fate and free will by drawing attention to the peculiar mechanics of chess endgames. He has lectured in Canada and the USA on risk theatre and welcomes opportunities to speak. He currently lives in Victoria, BC and blogs at melpomeneswork.com. The competition website can be found at risktheatre.com.

Wow, I could really get used to addressing myself in the third person! Caesar also referred to himself in the third person in his histories: The Gallic Wars and The Civil War. They’re quite fun to read, as every time you read: “And then Caesar put on his red cape to bolster the flagging morale of the troops on the right flank…” you know that, well, Caesar is giving the air of impartiality but he’s really just talking about how great he is! And the kicker is I think he really enjoys it!

The title has changed again! Now the book is called: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The old title was: Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The new title better expresses the idea that this is a theory of tragedy.

Font has been chosen! Going with Berling, the same font that Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets was set to. Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was the book that set me off on this journey. It was at the Providence, RI Borders Bookstore (in the Providence Place Mall) that I first saw this book in the winter of 2006. I was working on my thesis and hey, what better thing to do to procrastinate than to go to the bookstore and look at other books! Well, this book was sitting in the economics section and it stood out as sort of a ‘renegade’ title: Taleb was part of Wall Street, but he also railed against the tools Wall Street was using to measure risk. Remember, these were the days right before the Great Recession. His title would prove to be quite prescient in light of the train wreck right around the corner. Well, it was after encountering this book that it first occurred to me that tragedy dramatizes well-thought out plans that go awry in quite unexpected ways. In other words, tragedy could be conceived of as a theatre of risk. It dramatizes and simulates risk on the stage. It was too late, of course, to rewrite my thesis. But it was then that I knew I had to start from scratch. Again (I’ve been trying to come up with a theory of tragedy since 2000; this is attempt 3). So, it is a little tribute to Taleb that my book will also be set in the typeface of his first book. Fitting.

The proofread text has been sent to Friesen Press where the Microsoft Word document will be transferred into Adobe InDesign, LaTeX, or some other typesetting system (not sure which software Friesen uses). From there, I have one revision round, or one chance to catch any final errors that are still in the text or arise when the Word document is typeset. Once I approve that, they’ll start generating the index. Friesen’s is saying first printing January 2019 (six month process). But really, this date should be able to be pushed back to November or December. I mean, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much left. Let’s say the typesetting and revision round takes us to end of September (that’s a month and a half). The index takes a month. This takes us to the end of October. The cover design can be done concurrently with indexing. So, the package will be ready to go to the printers by the end of October. From there, the lead time for a small run would be what…one month? That sets us in December. Of course, December is a peculiar month, full of holidays and time off. We shall see.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Risk Theatre Major Milestone – Signed up with Friesen Press

After years of wandering through the lowlands, it seems that the Risk Theatre project these days is travelling from peak to peak! As of July 6, 2018, Friesen Press has been retained to bring the title Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected to the light of day. This, along with inaugurating the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition with Langham Court Theatre earlier this year, is a milestone event in the Risk Theatre project. Good students of the Classics will be familiar with the divide between logos (thought) and ergon (action) or theoria (theory) and praxis (doing). Sometimes–actually most of the time–you have one without the other, and this just doesn’t quite cut it. Now risk theatre fulfils both sides of the dichotomy. The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition takes care of the praxis or ergon aspect of the project. And the book: Tragedy is Risk Theatre encapsulates the logos or theoria side of the dichotomy. This is a major milestone and a happy moment.

Friesen Press

I had originally thought that Friesen Press was an independent boutique publishing house. It turns out that they’re owned by Friesens Corporation, a major book printer headquartered in Manitoba, Canada. Friesen Press seems to be the self-publishing arm of Friesens Corporation: the corporation takes care of printing major titles such as the Harry Potter series or the Oxford Dictionary, and the press serves the need of emerging authors.

Friesen Press caters to emerging authors looking to self-publish. The press serves authors looking to self-publish who are looking for support. It’s like a one stop shop that takes care of editing, indexing, book layout, graphics design, distribution, marketing, and you name it. If you wanted, you could subcontract out all these specialities and probably save a few dollars at the cost of some more headaches and legwork. And if you’re interested in getting hands on producing the book, that’s what you’d go for. For example, that’s what Jacob Lund Fisker, the author of a book that I’ve learned a lot from–Early Retirement Extreme–did. He taught himself how to typeset with the LaTeX program, did the illustrations, took care of the promotion, etc., But then again, he’s a sort of Renaissance man who rails against specialization. He likes to do his own renovations, make his own soap, and get hands on. And actually, if I had the time, I’d probably like to go more hands on. But with the part-time plumbing gig, doing the PR for the tragedy competition, and editing the book, it makes sense right now to sign on with a one stop shop.

I did, however, practise some due diligence before signing on. Island Blue Print also caters to self-publishing authors. For a run of 100 books, they quoted $9.76 per unit to print (softcover, 5.5″x8.5″, 270 pages). Friesen’s quote came in a little lower, at $9.25, but this is based on 200 pages of text. It’s hard to tell how many softcover pages the 67,000 words translates into, but both the quotes are in the same ballpark. It was similar with the indexing quotes. Independent indexers were quoting anywhere from $800 – $2000. Friesen’s came in at the mid-range, just over $1400.

In the beginning, I was actually leaning towards Island Blue. That would mean hiring one person to typeset, one person to design the front and back cover, another person to index, getting my on ISBNs, taking charge of publicity and distribution myself, etc., But one thing that I learned quickly was that a lot of these separate trades would have to be on the same page. And there is a sequence to do everything in, a sequence with which I wasn’t very familiar. For example, the book designer that Island Blue recommended likes indexers to embed the index within the Word document. But I quickly found out indexers like to use their specialized indexing software and don’t like embedding indexes in Word. And then there’s the issue of compatibility: what if the book designer has technical issues with converting the embedded Word index into InDesign, the program of her choice? So the more I thought of it, the more it made sense to go to a one stop shop. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about these issues and would be able to focus on reading the proofs, which, the more I think about it, will be an eye busting task.

Friesen’s offers four different publishing paths for authors: Launch, Classic, Signature, and Masterpiece. They’re priced from $1999 – $14,999. I went for the basic Launch package. The more deluxe packages offer more support, multiple rounds of editing, more revision rounds, and better publicity and distribution. Here’s what the $1999 Launch path offers:

    • Hardcover, Softcover, and eBook Editions of Your Book
    • Editor’s Manuscript Evaluation (up to 60,000 words)
    • 2 Member Support Team (including dedicated Account Manager)
    • Up to 70% Royalty
    • 100% Copyright Ownership
    • Non-Exclusive Contracts
    • 3 ISBNs & Barcode
    • Up to 6 Promotional Copies (5 Softcover, 1 Hardcover)
    • Custom Book Cover
    • Custom Interior Layout
    • Black & White or Full Color interior
    • 1 Revision Round
    • Electronic Book Proof
    • 1 Hour Promotional Strategy Consultation
    • Marketing 101 Toolkit
    • 1/8 pg Placement & Summary in the FriesenPress Book Catalogue
    • Print Distribution: available for purchase through over 39,000 booksellers & the FriesenPress Online Bookstore
    • Lifetime eBook Distribution: FriesenPress Online Bookstore, Amazon.com (with ‘Look Inside!’ Submission), Google Play Books (with ‘See Inside’ Submission), and Apple iBooks
    • Digital Rights Management (optional)

The indexing would be an adder number on top of the $1999. So all in all, considering that Friesen’s will also take care of the distribution, it’s a pretty good deal. And, the appealing thing is that you, the author, can maintain control over the availability of the book. If you’re doing an academic title with a traditional press, chances are that they’ll print off a run of 400 copies. Most of them will end up in academic libraries. The title will be in print for five years. And then it’s out of print. If you go the self-publishing route, your title can stay in print for as long as you want it to be in print: you own the rights and have the option of buying the electronic files. This is a very big plus.

The Book Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

Well, it clocks in at just over 67,000 words. A decent sized book considering that a monograph is about 40,000 words and a really big monograph or a smallish book weighs in at 50,000 words. Tragedy is Risk Theatre is made up of an introduction and nine chapters.

The process at Friesen should take between 6-8 months. Things always seem to take a little longer than estimated, so it should hit the shelves at the beginning of 2019. Mark that date on your calendar!

Did I try going the conventional publishing route? You betcha! I sent out letters of inquiry to six publishers and one agent. What I learned is that this process is lots of work. Everyone wants the letter in a different format. Some want short letters. Some want small essays. Here’s a copy of a letter I sent to a literary agent:

About Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

When Arthur Miller looked back on writing Death of a Salesman, he lamented that: “there was no model I could adapt for this play, no past history for the kind of work I felt it could become.” Today’s dramatists have little desire to write tragedy based on yesterday’s outdated models. Today’s literary critics share the playwrights’ concerns. Terry Eagleton begins his 2002 book, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, by saying, point-blank: “Tragedy is an unfashionable subject.” While Aristotle’s Poetics laid out a brilliant model of tragedy’s structure and purpose, it had been around for over two thousand years. Today’s critics tire of rehashing the same hackneyed arguments on catharsis, pity and fear, and the tragic flaw over and over. Tragedy needs a new model in touch with twenty-first century values to captivate the public imagination as it once did in the days of Sophocles and Shakespeare. Tragedy is Risk Theatre fills the need by presenting an exciting and unique brand of tragedy. As the title suggests, this new model of tragedy is called risk theatre and it takes its inspiration from a surging public interest in chance, uncertainty, and the failure of models to predict unexpected outcomes.

In 2001, the hedge fund manager, Nassim Taleb, shocked the world by writing Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. In his scathing Wall Street critique, he argues that economists imperil the financial system because the fail to recognize that it is ultimately chance, and not their economic models, that moves the markets. In 2007, Taleb followed up with The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and exploration of the incredible impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. The timing was perfect: the Great Recession was just around the corner. Since then, his books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into 36 languages. He has ignited surging interest in the philosophy of uncertainty, a new field of inquiry, which asks: “What happens when more things happen than what you expect will happen?” Risk theatre capitalizes on this growing interest in the unexpected by merging Taleb’s work with the established art form of tragedy. They are a natural match, since tragedy specializes in dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence events.

Risk theatre posits that the tragic stage is a casino where gamblers come to play at the no limit tables. This is the “risk” element of risk theatre: before the dice is thrown or the cards revealed, the protagonist’s desired outcome can only be understood imperfectly as odds for or against. One difference, and a critical one, between actual gambling halls and the stage or risk theatre is that on the tragic stage, money is a counterfeit currency. Only the human currency of values, emotions, and beliefs are legal tender on the tragic stage. For this reason, for a chance to wear the Scottish crown, characters such as Macbeth ante up the milk of human kindness, not a thousand or even a million dollars. Macbeth, like the Wall Street analysts who Taleb remonstrates, is smarter and better equipped than his adversaries. The odds are in his favour. But, like the Wall Street analysts, Macbeth overestimates his ability to predict the future and underestimates the impact of low-probability events. After all, what are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? But when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Macbeth, like the overleveraged speculators during the Great Recession, comes face to face with the high-consequence event and loses all. Risk theatre promises excitement: its thrill is the same sort of pleasure the spectators huddled around the table experience when they watch the final match poker match between the “Cincinnati Kid” and Lancey “The Man” Howard. The Kid goes all-in knowing that he has played his hand by the book and that the odds are with him. But when Lancey makes the wrong move at the right time, the Kid loses everything.

Depending on their starting point, theories of tragedy highlight different aspects of tragedy. Hegel’s theory of tragedy, for example, by focusing on the moral collisions in tragedy (exemplified by the clash between Antigone and Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone), highlights the ethical element of tragedy. Or, in another example, Aristotle’s Poetics, by focusing on the fall of the protagonist (exemplified by Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex), highlights how tragedy elicits the feelings of fear and pity in the audience. Risk theatre, by focusing on gambling acts in tragedy (exemplified by Macbeth wagering the milk of human kindness for the crown), highlights the price heroes are willing to pay. Instead of drawing attention to the ethical elements of tragedy (such as Hegel’s theory), risk theatre directs our attention towards the opportunity cost of choice: either the milk of human kindness orthe crown, but not both. And instead Aristotle’s pity and fear, the tragic emotions of risk theatre are anticipation and apprehension: anticipation of the low-probability event and apprehension over the high-consequences. Risk theatre speaks to today’s audiences by aligning tragedy with public interest in low-probability, high-consequence events. Like Hegel and Aristotle’s theories, risk theatre can be applied to a wide variety of tragedies from ancient to modern times to produce exciting and fresh interpretations of classic plays for today’s audiences.

Tragedy is Risk Theatre contains a theoretical framework of tragedy, and analyzes the price characters are willing to pay in tragedies from Aeschylus to Miller to learn what our humanity is worth. In addition, Tragedy is Risk Theatreprovides today’s dramatists with Miller’s missing model, the model Miller lamented not having when he began working on Death of a Salesman. To guide the reader through the structure, idea, and practical application of the risk theatre brand of tragedy, the book’s nine chapters are divided into three parts. Part one examines risk theatre’s structure. Part two examines the philosophy of tragedy. Part three examines the poetics of risk theatre.

Risk theatre is based on a tripartite structure which reflects the insight that each dramatic act of tragedy is also a gambling act. It begins with the hero’s temptation. The hero is enticed to want something or to do something. In Death of a Salesman, for example, Loman is tempted by the success of Charley and his brother to pursue the American dream. After the hero’s temptation comes the wager. For a chance to live out the American dream, Loman antes up his dignity. After the wager comes the moment where the die is cast. After Loman signs the mortgage, he’s locked in and there’s no turning back. The low-probability, high-consequence event is his realization that, thanks to his life insurance policy, he’s worth more dead than alive. Temptation, wager, and cast constitute the basic structural unit of risk theatre. Depending on the dramatists’ goals, the basic structural unit can be configured differently. The different configurations are also discussed in part one of the book.

Readers interested in the philosophy of tragedy can turn to the second part of the book. Risk theatre is grounded on the principle of opportunity cost: the cost of what’s chosen is the next best alternative. Opportunity costs surround us in life. When we choose to buy a gallon of milk, we lose the opportunity to spend the money on a jug of juice. For Macbeth, the opportunity cost for a shot at the crown is his compassion; for Loman, the opportunity cost to pursue the American dream is his dignity. As they roll the die, they place human values at risk. By considering opportunity cost, risk theatre differentiates itself from other philosophies of tragedy. Other theories consider the ethical, political, and social aspects of tragedy. Risk theatre considers tragedy’s economic aspects. By looking at the price the protagonist is willing to pay, risk theatre answers the question of human worth. If a gallon of milk is worth $4.99, how much is the milk of human kindness worth? Well, according to Macbeth, it’s worth the Scottish crown. By dramatizing the tragic cost of desire, risk theatre reveals the limitations of measures such as “net worth” or tools such as the “cost benefit analyses” to capture human worth. By expressing worth in terms of human value rather than dollars and cents, risk theatre revolts against the commoditization of life and its values.

Dramatists wishing to create new risk theatre plays can turn to part three, which contains examples from tragedies of all periods help dramatists work through two problems: 1) how to motivate protagonists to take great risks, yet remain lifelike and 2) how to introduce the low-probability, high-consequence event into the play convincingly. To motivate protagonists to go all-in, dramatists through the years have resorted to seven commonplaces strategies: 1) proud heroes who are idealists, 2) secondary characters who love to give advice, 3) starring roles filled by characters who have access to surplus political, military, social, or economic capital, 4) supernatural appurtenances, 5) heroes who claim to suffer woes “greater than mortal man has ever borne,” and 7) unstable and volatile dramatic settings (e.g. war, revolution, and plague). Likewise, to incorporate the low-probability, high consequence event into the play, dramatists have access to a wide variety of replicable techniques. Unintended consequences may arise as a result of being overpowered by fate or the gods. They could also arise from the fallibility of human knowledge and errors in judgment. Tight coupling (leaving small margins for error) and the feedback between the characters can also lead to unexpected results.

The author, Edwin Wong, graduated from the University of Victoria with a bachelor’s degree and from Brown University with a master’s degree in the Classics. During both degrees, he concentrated on ancient theatre. The peer-reviewed journal Antichthon published “The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad,” his study on Homer, a poet whom Plato considers to be the first tragedian. He has presented on risk theatre at the University of Calgary in April 2017 and has forthcoming lectures scheduled in January and February 2018 at the Society for Classical Studies annual meeting in Boston and the University of Victoria. In addition, he is in continuing high-level talks with the Langham Court Theatre, University of Victoria Fine Arts Department, and the Playwright’s Guild of Canada to inaugurate an annual risk theatre playwright competition. It would be set up similar to the successful University of California, Santa Barbara STAGE International Script Competition. The STAGE competition challenges playwrights to write new science and technology plays, awards the top entrants with cash prizes, and produces the winning play. From the theory to the production, Edwin Wong is committed to the success of risk theatre.

Looking at tragedy as an existential wager between the protagonist and the world is a new approach that solves age-old questions. One question asks: “Why do audiences delight in tragedy, despite its unhappy themes?” Risk theatre answers by saying: “The thrill of tragedy is the same as the thrill of gambling. Just as audiences delight in watching gamblers go all-in, they delight in watching heroes up the ante.” Another question asks: “Why are the leading roles skewed towards kings and queens, as in King Oedipus, the Duchessof Malfi, Prince Hamlet, and so on?” Risk theatre answers by saying: “Characters are drawn from the higher classes because they have to have sufficient social, political, or economic capital to ante up.” Beginning from a simple observation—tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events—Tragedy is Risk Theatrepromises to revolutionize the interpretation and production of tragedy to return the art to the days when it was the greatest show on earth.

Market and Competition

The marketing for the book can be pursued on three different levels. First, as a theory of tragedy, the book appeals to literary theorists and students of literature and drama. The academic crowd will be interested in seeing a fresh approach to tragedy, one that goes beyond the usual discussions on the tragic fall, pity and fear, and the tragic error. Second, as a working model of tragedy, the book appeals to playwrights, actors, and theatregoers. The annual risk theatre competition will create a steady and ongoing interest in the topic. Third, as a new art movement tying together the fields of economics and risk management with gambling and theatre, the book capitalizes on the current public interest in uncertainty, unintended consequences, and low-probability, high-consequence events. This third crowd is the most diverse, and consists of risk managers, scientists, economists, and others who are interested in uncertainty. The goal of staging the winner of the risk theatre competition is to create sufficient buzz to kick-start interest.

Many well-written studies examine the political, social, anthropological, philosophical, and literary facets of tragedy. Political and social interpretations can be found in Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic(Blackwell 2003) or Raymond Williams’ Modern Tragedy (Stanford UP 1966). They look at how tragedy, by questioning norms, can incite political and social change. Anthropological approaches can be found in Richmond Hathorn’s Tragedy, Myth, and Mystery (Indiana UP 1962) and Herbert Weisinger’s Tragedy and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall (Michigan State College Press 1953). These approaches call attention to the ritual elements embedded in tragedy. Philosophical approaches are exemplified by Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy(Doubleday 1968) and Peter Szondi’s An Essay on the Tragic (Insel 1961). They draw on an illustrious pedigree of thought, from Plato to Aristotle and from Hegel through to Nietzsche. Finally, literary approaches such as A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (Macmillan 1904) consider the merits of tragedy as a self-contained work of art. Tragedy is Risk Theatre differentiates itself from the crowd by examining tragedy from an economics perspective. It is a novel approach.

The only other title that approaches tragedy from an economics perspective is George Thomson’s Aeschylus and Athens (Lawrence & Wishart 1941). In this valuable study, Thomson blames the death of tragedy on the rise of coinage, which spread from Asia Minor to Greece in the century prior to Aeschylus. Tragedy, argues, Thomson, promoted egalitarian values in fifth century Athens by mediating the conflict between tribal custom and aristocratic privilege. The proliferation of coinage in Athens, however, gradually created a new class of profiteers more interested in exploiting slaves and subjugating neighbours than promoting egalitarian ideals. Tragedy, no longer able to mediate the class struggle between the profiteers and the oppressed, lost its impetus and died. While Tragedy is Risk Theatre also approaches tragedy from an economics perspective, it looks at the price an individual hero is willing to pay rather than the role of money in class struggle.

Chapter Outline

PREFACE

The art of tragedy has fallen into neglect. Dramatists lack a modern model of tragedy. Critics tire of rehashing the same old Aristotelian precepts over and over. Risk theatre offers playwrights and critics a compelling new model by calling attention to the casino-like elements of the tragic stage, a place replete with high stakes wagers, unexpected outcomes, and unintended consequences, a place where the low-probability, high-consequence outcome happens. Every time.

1          TEMPTATION, WAGER, AND CAST

On tragedy’s structure. Risk theatre, taking its cue from games of chance, begins with the hero’s temptation, proceeds to hero’s wager, and finishes with a roll of the die. The hero pursues a hazardous enterprise, stakes his values, beliefs, or relationships on its success, and goes past the point of no return. Risk theatre has a tripartite structure. Example of its tripartite structure in well-known tragedies from ancient to modern times.

2          TEMPO AND TRAGEDY

On tragedy’s structure. By positioning the fundamental components of temptation, wager, and cast at different intervals in relation to one another, the playwright can alter the tempo at which the drama unfolds. “Frontloaded” dramas set the temptation, wager, and cast at the beginning of the play: the play ends in reflection. “Backloaded” dramas set the temptation and wager at the beginning, and the cast towards the ending: suspense results. “Gradual” tragedies set the components at equidistant intervals: the focus is on the interplay between characters.

3          FORMS OF TRAGEDY

On tragedy’s structure. Different forms of tragedy arise should the dramatist dramatize the fundamental unit of temptation, wager, and cast once, in recurring cycles, or concurrently. “Standalone” tragedies, such as Macbethdramatize the cycle once. “Perpetual motion” tragedies, such as the Oresteia, dramatize the fundamental unit in recurring cycles. “Parallel motion” tragedies, such as Cinna, dramatize multiple characters going through the cycle of temptation, wager, and cast at the same time.

4          THE MYTH OF THE PRICE YOU PAY

On the philosophy of tragedy. Risk theatre argues that tragedy is based on the idea of opportunity cost: the cost of choosing one alternative is the loss of the next best alternative. Macbeth can have the milk of human kindness or the crown, but not both. One may receive something for something, and nothing for nothing (as Lear likes to say), but never something for nothing. By looking at the opportunity cost of choice, tragedy creates an alternative marketplace to value life in the human currency of blood, sweat, and tears. What is the price the protagonist is willing to pay?

5          FOUR PRINCIPLES OF COUNTERMONETIZATION

On the poetics of tragedy. Tragedy revolts against the monetization of life, a phenomenon that began with the invention of coinage in the sixth century BC. As the proliferation of coinage made it possible to value life in monetary terms (e.g. murder could be exonerated by paying “blood money”), tragedy arose in revolt to argue that human values must be understood in terms of the price we are willing to pay for them in blood, sweat, and tears. As a result, the stage of tragedy is an alternative marketplace where heroes price out existence. Four principles of how dramatists can reclaim human values through the art form of tragedy.

6          THE ART OF THE ALL-IN WAGER

On the poetics of tragedy. For risk theatre to thrill audience, heroes must take on inordinate risks. Audiences don’t come to see heroes make nickel and dime bets. They come to see them wager all-in. Examples of the seven “commonplaces of tragedy” from a variety of plays showing how dramatists motivate heroes to take on extraordinary risks in a convincing manner. The seven commonplaces are: 1) proud and egocentric protagonists, 2) trusted advisors goading protagonists on, 3) starring roles filled by kings, queens, and others having an abundance of military, economic, or social capital, 4) supernatural appurtenances, 5) passions running white hot, 6) heroes claiming to suffer woes “greater than mortal man has ever borne,” and 7) curtain rises to scenes of adultery, murder, plague, war, and famine.

7          “THE BEST-LAID PLANS OF MICE AND MEN”

On the poetics of tragedy. Heroes who are smarter, stronger, and better equipped than their adversaries play to win. They don’t expect to lose. It’s the dramatist’s task to waylay them with the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event. From the ancient deus ex machinato the modern use of feedback and tight coupling, strategies dramatists employ to waylay heroes reflect the changing conception of chance, probability, and randomness through the ages. A brief survey of changing conceptions of chance.

8          US AND THEM

Tragedy may be defined by contrasting its worldview with philosophic, historic, or comic worldviews. Tragedy and comedy, as opposed to philosophy and history, are ex-ante arts. Philosophy and history are ex-post arts. Ex-ante arts feature characters who do not know the outcome. Ex-post art features outcomes that are already known: the aim is to explain how the outcome turned out the way it did. Tragedy differentiates itself from comedy in that the former operates in a closed system, while the latter operates within an open system. Closed systems are closed in the sense that resources are scarce; they are bound by the second law of thermodynamics. Open systems are open in the sense that resources are boundless.

9          WHY RISK THEATRE TODAY?

A discussion of the lexical instability of the term tragedyfrom ancient Greece to today. The fruitful ambiguity of the term allows room for many competing interpretations of tragedy from “a story of wicked kings” to “a poem of praise.” This same ambiguity allows tragedy to be reinterpreted as risk theatre today. A discussion of why, from stock market crashes to artificial intelligence, risk is a hot topic today. Just as ages preoccupied with psychology produced psychological theories of tragedy, today’s age of risk produces the risk theory of tragedy.

What I learned from this exercise of sending out query letters is that, when you’re talking with the presses, you have to have something to negotiate with. If you’re writing the next blockbuster, you can ask them to take a chance on you. But tragic literary criticism is not likely going to be a blockbuster text. I’d imagine even a blockbuster text from an internationally known author on tragic literary theory (Eagleton, for example), would be lucky to sell a couple of thousand copies. If you’re writing a scholarly or academic title (which is sort of what Risk Theatre purports to be), the presses expect you to have the right credentials: tenured or tenure track professor at a major university. The university presses are backed by the universities, so money isn’t a problem. Their mandate is to further knowledge. But you need the right credentials to get in. And these are credentials I lack. So, what I learned is that well, I have nothing really to negotiate with. And when you’re negotiating from a position of weakness, chances are you’re not going to be successful.

But I guess, the important thing in adversity is to press on. After all, when Nietzsche got booted out of academia, he started writing books on “culture” and “modernity” that classicists weren’t supposed to write (he started off not as a philosopher, but as a Classicist). No one would publish these strange titles. He was ridiculed by the leading Classicist of the day, Wilamowitz. What did Nietzsche do? He went the self-publishing route and financed his first few books from a meagre university pension. He didn’t end up doing to badly, eh? Who even remembers Wilamops today?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Why the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition?

Renowned local art critic Janis Lacouvee interviewed me last week. She noted that it was highly unusual for a private donor to approach a theatre company to inaugurate a playwright competition. She isn’t the only one who’s pointed this out. In the last two-and-a-half weeks (since the competition started), there’s been a whole tragic chorus of friends, family, and coworkers asking: “Why’d you do it?”

There’s three reasons. One: the idea of tragedy as a theatre of risk is so awesome that it had to be done. Two: in our increasingly complex world, we have a moral imperative to educate ourselves on the impact of low-probability, high-consequence risk events. The best way to open people’s eyes to the impact of risk is to dramatize risk, e.g. put it on the stage. Three: this project is my way of giving back to the community. Let’s talk about all three points. But before we jump in, I’d like to thank everyone for their efforts and encouragement along the way: Michelle Buck, Keith Digby, Michael Armstrong, Michael Routliffe, Silvia Boriani, the Langham Theatre Board of Directors, Dave Desjardins, and all the members of the local theatre community who kindly provided feedback. And, to all the intrepid playwrights who have submitted entries: thank you for making this project happen! Let’s turn now to the origin story of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition.

Reason one: the idea of tragedy as a theatre of risk is so awesome that it had to be done

Lots has been said about tragedy. Aristotle said that tragedy had to do with a catharsis of pity and fear. Hegel said it dramatized the collision of equal and opposite moral forces. Nietzsche said that tragedy arises in the conflict between the conscious and the unconscious, the rational and the irrational. Those are all pretty good, if somewhat complex models. What no one has said, however, is that tragedy is the dramatization of a gambling act where the protagonist goes all-in. By going all-in, the protagonist takes on too much risk and triggers an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event. Here’s three examples of risk theatre interpretations of famous plays–one from the ancient world, one from the English Renaissance, and one from modern times.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, Oedipus bets that he can outwit the gods. He places his reputation as the one who had solved the Sphinx’ riddle on the line. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when the Corinthian messenger unexpectedly arrives out of nowhere. Game over.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth wagers the milk of human kindness for the crown. The low-probability, high-consequence event takes place when, contrary to every expectation, Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Game over.

In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Loman, for a shot at the American dream, lays his dignity on the line. Against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens when he finds out that his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. Game over.

In each case, notice that the dramatic moment begins with a wager. For every aspiration, a price must be paid. And so the protagonist antes up by laying down an all-too-human asset. By wagering the protagonist takes on risk. Too much risk. And what risk does is it amplifies the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. And that’s exactly what we see: in each case an unforeseen low-probability, high-consequence event upsets the protagonist’s best-laid and most foolproof plans. In a word, that’s the core of risk theatre. It’s dead simple. It’s not hamartia or a tragic flaw. It’s chance. The thrill isn’t seeing some catharsis of pity and fear through pity and fear but rather, the thrill is like the thrill of watching a gamblers duke it out at the no limit tables: anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension over the impact of the low-probability, high-consequence event. And it’s not about the collision of ethical forces. It’s supramoral. It’s about risk and what happens when what you didn’t think would happen happens. Simple.

So there’s reason one: risk theatre needs to be done because it’s a simple, yet powerful idea of tragedy.

Reason two: in our increasingly complex world, we have a moral imperative to educate ourselves on the impact of low-probability, high-consequence risk events

Have you heard of Long-Term Capital Management? LTMC was a Greenwich based hedge fund which almost took down the global financial system in 1998. Sheer stupidity? No. They were run by no less than two Nobel prize winners. The best. But they did take on too much risk. Have you heard of the gene drive? It’s a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. In Riverside, California, scientists go through six sealed doors, including one with an airlock, to get to work: if any one of their gene driven mosquitoes gets into the wild, every mosquito in the world is at risk of losing the ability to fly. We are surrounded by technological risk. We are surrounded by manufactured risk. Before, local actions had local consequences. Today, local actions have global consequences. Because we live in an age of risk, we have a moral imperative to educate ourselves on the impact of the highly improbable. We need to ask the pertinent questions. Today, these questions are: what is risk? How do we contain it? What happens when our best-laid plans go the way of mice and men?

The impact of the highly improbable is what tragedy, in the risk theatre interpretation, explores.  What are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? And what are the odds of Macbeth encountering a man not of woman born? If you said a billion to one against, you’d be about right. And, in Oedipus rex, what are the odds of the Corinthian messenger being the same man who had brought the infant Oedipus to Corinth many years ago? And what are the odds that the shepherd who had entrusted the infant Oedipus to the messenger (instead of exposing him as had been ordered) is the same man who is the sole surviving witness of Oedipus killing his father at the crossroads? This too has to be a billion to one against. And what are the odds that at the end of Oedipus rex they’re all reunited one last time? I don’t even want to think about those odds!  And, in Salesman, what are the odds that Loman, at the worst possible moment, would come to the realization that he’s worth more dead than alive?  This is what I mean when I say tragedy explores the impact of the highly improbable.

In this age of risk, we need art to show us the way. And of the arts, tragedy is best suited to this task because it dramatizes how even the best-laid plans go awry–who, for example, would have known in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra that Lavinia would actually become her mom? She rails against her mom every step of the way!

The problem today is that tragedy is not very popular. Lay audiences find it too depressing. Modern audiences find it too elitist. Critics don’t even like it. Eagleton begins his 2002 study of tragedy point-blank by saying “Tragedy is an unfashionable subject these days.” Besides Macbeth, theatres aren’t really playing tragedies. Comedies and dramas are popular. And musicals are becoming more popular. For every hundred comedies, dramas, and musicals, theatres are playing one or two tragedies. And the same with playwriting programs. They’ll teach you how to write comedies and dramas, but not so much tragedy. But, more than ever, we need tragedy today. And that’s why we’re doing risk theatre.

Risk theatre is modern. It aligns the ancient art of tragedy with modern conceptions of chance and uncertainty. By dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence events, audiences are reminded not to bite off more than they can chew. And to keep some powder dry. You need dry powder always when you least expect. Today, these are timely, necessary, and powerful lessons. Humanity is operating on a scale it never has before. And this scale increases exponentially, not logarithmically.

So there’s reason two: risk theatre needs to be done because it speaks to a contemporary need.

Reason three: this project is my way of giving back to the community

I’ve had a pretty good life. Unlike my grandparents, who lived through two world wars and had everything expropriated by the communists, I was born in Canada. That itself is like winning the lottery. And during my university years, I was fortunate enough to receive a number of scholarships. They were instrumental in getting me to where I am today. So I’ve always wanted to give back to the community. First I tried donating to various charities. That was good but I felt like I needed to take a more active role. Targeted giving. And I wanted to benefit the arts. The arts are beautiful, the best thing in the world: “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified,” wrote a wise man too long ago.

It just so happened that I had been working on the risk theatre theory of tragedy. Now most of us academics stick to the academic theoretic side of things. But here was a chance to combine the two. And so the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition came to be. It’s my attempt to do philanthropy and to effect positive social change at the same time.

How much am I giving back to the community? It’s the first year of the competition, so some of these numbers will be projections. But here’s the budget for year one so far. It excludes all the substantial volunteer work (thank you everyone!) that has been done to get the competition going:

Commission artwork for the risktheatre.com website:
$2,600

Prize Money ($8000 first prize and 4x $500 runners-up)
$10,000

Travel Stipend
$1,000

Workshop Winning Play
$6,000

Administration of Competition (this includes: creating/maintaining website, communications with entrants/jurors, PR and publicity, searching for and retaining jurors)
$3,000

Jurors (based on receiving 50 entries and a reading fee of $35 per play and $50 for the final meeting to decide winner)
$1,900

So we’re at $24,500. But some income will also come in from the $45 entry fee. Based on receiving 50 entries (this is an estimate from looking at competitions such as the STAGE International Script Competition, the Theatre BC Canadian Playwriting Competition, and others and adjusting for the fact that this is the first year and that a specific type of play is required) that’s $2,250. Take off PayPal’s 3.5% cut, and that leaves us with $2171.25 income. So, I’ll be giving back to the artistic community each year just over $22,000–that’s the net benefit in monetary terms that this contest offers. But my hope is that the contest will not be seen merely in a monetary light but for the greater good it offers society. Friends, be not averse to risk, but remember to keep some powder dry, for Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane Hill, and always when you least expect!

I’m Edwin Wong, and, until next time, you’ll find me doing Melpomene’s work.

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition Launched

Breaking News!

On June 1, 2018, Langham Court Theatre launched the 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition! It’s a major new playwriting competition and the world’s richest competition specifically for the writing of tragedy. At stake is $10,000 in prize money, a workshop, and a travel stipend. In addition, Langham Court Theatre may fully produce the winning play as a special event. What more could you want in a playwright competition?

Many thanks to Michelle Buck (Langham Court GM), Keith Digbie (Langham Court board), and Michael Armstrong (competition manager) for their efforts, insights, and belief. I had pitched the idea to Michelle seven months ago. She took it to the board of directors. The board liked the idea and that’s when she introduced me to Keith. We soon realized we needed an experienced competition manager. Keith had worked with Michael before at Theatre BC and brought him on board. And that’s how the team came together.

The official competition site can be found here. There’s a link on the Langham Court Theatre front page that also takes you there. The reaction in this first week and a half has been fantastic. The site’s averaging 150 hits a day. Email responses are coming back calling this competition ‘extraordinary’ and ‘something special’. The competition also has a Facebook presence. Funny thing, as people are cancelling their Facebook accounts over the privacy scandal, I–who’ve never really been active on FB–find myself doing the opposite. Last Monday, I sat down with renowned local critic Janis La Couvée to talk about the project. The interview went on for over an hour at Cafe Fantastico and we talked about how wonderful this project is for both the local and international theatre community. She asked me about how this project started and how it could develop in the coming years. Stay tuned for the full interview.

Here’s the text of the formal press release. At the bottom there’s a PDF copy. Please send it to your theatre contacts!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: LANGHAM COURT THEATRE PRESENTS THE 2019 RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION\

Langham Court Theatre announces that it is inaugurating a major new playwriting competition, the world’s richest competition specifically for the writing of tragedy: the all-new 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. At stake is $10,000 in prize money. The winning play will be workshopped in Victoria, BC. A travel stipend will be offered to the winning playwright. In addition, the winning play may be fully produced by Langham Court Theatre as a special event.

Risk theatre is a model of tragedy developed by critic Edwin Wong. In risk theatre, gambling acts lead to unexpected low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Chance and uncertainty reign supreme. Risk theatre aligns tragedy with modern conceptions of chance by dramatizing the impact of the highly improbable.

This annual competition challenges intrepid playwrights to write 90 – 120 minute plays and closes on March 29, 2019. Entries cost $45. Full competition details can be found at risktheatre.com. Please distribute this release to your members to help spread the word about this exciting opportunity.

For 89 years, Langham Court Theatre has presented nearly 3000 performances with 4000 actors in over 500 shows to 250,000 guests. Established in 1929, Langham Court Theatre is one of Canada’s most successful and longest running community theatres. The theatre seats 177 and is located a ten minute walk from downtown Victoria in the historic Rockland neighbourhood.

Wong believes that the time is right to reboot tragedy. After reading Taleb’s Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan, he developed risk theatre to align tragedy with modern concepts of chance and uncertainty. The result is a tragic stage where every dramatic act is a gambling act and risk runs riot. He is currently working on a book Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. His thoughts on theatre can be found at melpomeneswork.com. Wong received a MA in Classics from Brown University where he concentrated on ancient theatre.

Contacts:

Michael Armstrong, Competition Manager

Edwin Wong, Sponsor

Keith Digby, Langham Court Theatre

via: tragedycompetition [at] gmail [dot] com

Risk Theatre Press Release

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and now I’m in the midst of doing Melpomene’s work!

The Myth of Risk Theatre (A Myth of Tragedy)

Many thanks to PL for inviting me to take the Risk Theatre tour to the University of Massachusetts, Boston! And thank you to all the students who came out on a sweltering summer day at the end of term to see the presentation! The feedback was great and I could see at the end of the presentation that some gears were turning. And why is it that I can only go to Boston during weather extremes? Last time I was here was during the “bomb cyclone” in January. And it must have hit 30 C today, and it’s only the beginning of May! Well, assiduous readers, here’s the presentation for your reading pleasure:

Presentation Delivered to Peter Lech’s Greek and Roman Tragedy Class

Classics 375, McCormack Room 417

University of Massachusetts, Boston

May 2, 2018

 

The Myth of Risk Theatre

 

How do myths function? One of their functions is to translate nature and culture into human terms. By telling a story, they instill human significance onto natural and cultural phenomena. How did the custom of young women dedicating a lock of hair prior to marriage arise? Why is there a temple of Aphrodite at Troezen? The Hippolytus myth answers these questions by incorporating nature and culture into a story filled with human significance. According to the myth, Phaedra built the temple after Aphrodite caused her to fall in love with Hippolytus. As for the custom, it was initiated by Artemis as a consolation to the dying Hippolytus: he would die, but his dedication to her would be remembered forever. Here’s another one: why does that star seem to blink every six days? Science would tell you it’s a variable star called Algol. But what myth would tell you is that that star is part of Medusa’s head in the constellation Perseus—you have to imagine that he’s holding up her severed head—and, what is more, that star denotes her eye: it blinks because by blinking, it signifies her power to turn to stone. So, one function of myth is to inscribe meaning onto patterns found in nature and culture, patterns which otherwise lack meaning. Myth helps us to understand the world in human terms.

What I’m going to give you today is a myth of tragedy called ‘risk theatre’. Just as the myth of Medusa or the myth of Hippolytus humanize the world around us, my ‘myth’ of risk theatre provides a framework of tragedy. I call it a myth because it’s not right or wrong, but a story of how tragedy works. In particular, risk theatre addresses a peculiar question: how can tragedy create suspense if it dramatizes popular, well-known myths? The stories of the Labdacid House (that’s Oedipus’ family) or the House of Atreus (that’s Orestes’ family) are so well-known that everyone knows how the story ends. Since the outcomes are foreknown, it’s hard for the stories to generate suspense. Take a look at Homer’s handling of the Oedipus myth. In Book 11 of the Odyssey, commonly referred to as the nekuia(after the ancient rite used to summon ghosts),Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the underworld where he sees the shade of Jocaste, Oedipus’ wife. He speaks a matter-of-factly about Oedipus’ crimes and how Jocaste committed suicide. There’s no suspense in Homer’s rendition of the myth. It’s bare bones. And it can be bare bones because everyone knows the tale. For Sophocles to keep audiences sitting on the edge of their seats, he has to get around the spoiler alert. How does he do this?

Here’s the solution risk theatre prosposes: the dramatic kernel of tragedy is a gambling act in which the protagonist wagers all-in. Because each dramatic act is a gambling act, unexpected things can happen. Bets can go wrong. And the bigger the bet, the more it can go sideways. The dramatist’s role is to suppress the odds of the foreknown outcome to make it seem like what must happen is not going to happen. Then, when it happens, it’s exciting.

In other words, the hero makes a big bet. Things seem to go the hero’s way. Because of the hero’s intelligence, skill, or strength, the hero appears to avert the outcome everyone knows is coming. But then an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event happens which brings about the foreknown outcome. Tragedy dramatizes a bet which has gone horribly sideways. That’s why I call tragedy risk theatre.

That tragedy is a gambling act and that dramatists trigger the foreknown outcome by a low-probability, high-consequence event are the two postulates of risk theatre. Let’s look at both these postulates, beginning with how tragedians deliberately suppress the likelihood of what must happen to the point where, when it happens, it seemsto have happened against all odds.

By a low-probability event, I mean an event that is unlikely, an event that is 1000:1 against, an event such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely for the trees to take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost. The play generates suspense by making it seem like the foreknown event (Birnam Wood’s going to come) is unlikely. Let’s take a look at some of the tragedies you’ve studied to see how ancient tragedians entertain audiences by suppressing the likelihood of the outcome everyone knows is coming.

Euripides’ play, the Bacchae, pits man against god. Although you know from the myth that Pentheus dies, Euripides’ goal as a dramatist is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s exciting. How does he do this? Look at how he portrays the rivalry between Dionysus and Pentheus. Dionysus is portrayed as a ninety-eight pound weakling who waltzes into Thebes with a retinue of eastern women. He’s cast as a drunk foreign dandy with long hair and scented locks who spends his days and nights cavorting around town. Pentheus, on the other hand, is cast as a capable warrior-king. He’s at the prime of manhood, fights before the home crowd, and has at his beck and call slaves, guards, archers, and soldiers. Pentheus has every expectation of prevailing. With all his resources, he’s going to throw this hobo out of town. But when, against all odds, the effeminate stranger turns out to be god, the fated outcome takes place and Pentheus is torn limb by limb. The closing lines—the same ones Euripides uses in many other plays—make it absolutely clear that he too conceived of tragedy as a theatre where unexpected low-probability events happen. Closing line are critical and ought to be read with care. That Euripides writes these lines confirms the risk theatre model of tragedy. Here are the lines as spoken by the chorus leader:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. (1388-1392)

Now, let’s look at the next play: Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This trilogy culminates in a showdown between Orestes and the Furies. The foreknown outcome is that the spirits of vengeance, the Furies, are transformed into the ‘Kindly Ones’ or the Eumenides, benevolent spirits who watch over Athens. Aeschylus’ goal as a tragedian is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s unexpected. How does he do this? He does so by emphasizing the extraordinary length of time the Furies have been engaged as spirits of vengeance. The Furies are the daughters of Night (Eum. 321). And Night is the offspring of Chaos, the eldest of all deities. That means the Furies have been persecuting blood crimes from the beginning of time, in fact, from way back when Kronos first castrated his father Ouranos. When the Furies come to the court of the Areopagus, they have every intention of winning. Who would have guessed that Orestes’ act of violence, from all the acts of violence from the beginning of time would result in the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides? The way Aeschylus frames it, it’s unlikely, and because it’s unlikely, when it takes place, it’s shocking.

Think of these events as ‘black swan’ events. This is the term popularized by Taleb, a mathematician and Wall Street trader in his books Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan. The term ‘black swan’ goes back to the Roman poet Juvenal, who used it as a byword for something that doesn’t exist. But then in 1697, to the shock of the world, they sighted a black swan in Australia. Taleb uses the black swan as a visual analogy of low-probability, high-consequence events. What I’m arguing today is that tragedy is full of black swan events: the bum who happens to be god, the forest that up and attacks the ramparts, or the day the Furies became the Eumenides.

Now, let’s look at a third play, Sophocles’Oedipus rex. We touched earlier on Homer’s bare bones narration of the Oedipus myth. Not very exciting. How does Sophocles add fire to the dramatization?—easy, he transforms the outcome into a black swan event. Everyone watching knows that Oedipus’ patricide and the incestuous relationship is going to be revealed. Sophocles, however, structures the play so that it looks like that no one will ever figure it out. How does Sophocles achieve this? Let’s take a look. The one eyewitness’ account of Laius’ murder is so garbled that they don’t bother to fetch him. At least not right away. So, we’re not going to hear from him. Tiresias, who knows since he’s the prophet, obstructs the investigation. So, we’re not going to hear from him either. Jocaste, who has been warned by the oracle she would give birth to a patricide, tells Oedipus point blank that the oracle must be wrong, since she exposed the child. She doesn’t know that the child survived. So, we’re not going to hear from her. In fact, the evidence against the truth coming out is so overwhelming that the chorus stops dancing in the second stasimon and asks: “Why should I dance?” (896). The gravity of their jarring pronouncement should not be underestimated. Their question would have shocked audiences who knew that the chorus’ role in tragedy isto dance. Tragedy is part of the ancient liturgy and the chorus dances to honour the gods. But if the gods are a fraud—and it’s beginning to look that way because the oracle is just looking plain wrong—why should they honour the gods?

Look: the eyewitness isn’t going to tell them because they didn’t summon him. Not yet. Tiresias isn’t going to tell him. And Jocaste tells him that the oracle dead wrong. If the Delphic oracle is mistaken and the gods can’t be trusted, what’s the point of dancing? Even after the chorus stops dancing, things appear to get even worse: the Corinthian messenger comes out of nowhere to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne because his dad Polybus died. This really throws Oedipus into shock: years ago, when the oracle prophesied that he would be a patricide, he had run away from home. And now, he finds out that dad died of natural causes. Things are looking worse and worse for the oracle. It looks like the truth will never come out. But when Oedipus tells the messenger why he left Corinth, the truth finally tumbles out. “Don’t worry about your dad” says the messenger, “he’s not really your dad.” “How do you know this?” “Well I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. You’re actually from Thebes.” “Who are my real parents?” “Well you have to ask the shepherd. He gave me to you.” “Oh, you mean the shepherd that I just summoned?—the one who is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder at the crossroads.” “Yes, that’s the one.” See where this is going? What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? And what are the odds that the shepherd who had saved Oedipus when he was a babe just happens to be the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder? I’ll tell you: the odds are as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill or the madman actually being a god or the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides: it’s a billion to one against. And when it’s a billion to one against, when it happens, it’s dramatic.

Okay, by definition, low-probability events don’t happen very often. But, as we’ve seen, in tragedy, they happen every time. How does the dramatist set up the low-probability event so that it always happens? Do any of you gamble? Then you know, the more you wager, the more things can go wrong, up to the point when you bet everything, anything can go wrong. Lay down the bankroll, leverage yourself up 100:1, go in with all your friends’ and family’s money: if the odds are anything less than perfect, the consequences are huge. Even if the odds are 99.99 percent in your favour, when you go all-in, that 0.01 percent can ruin you. Risk theatre is where that 0.01 percent happens.

The secret of how the dramatist tees up the low-probability, high-consequence risk event is that in tragedy, each dramatic act is also a gambling act. And not any gambling act, but an all-in leveraged up to the gills gambling act. For a chance to be king, Macbeth lays down the milk of human kindness. Like the game of gambling, in tragedy you have to ante up for a chance to play. But unlike the game of gambling, where you lay down cash instruments, in tragedy, you lay down human instruments. For world domination, Faust lays down his soul. For revenge, revengers lay down their humanity. For the American dream, Loman (in Death of a Salesman) lays down his dignity. Pentheus bets everything that the stranger is some bum and not god personified. He lays on the line his authority as king: no bum is going to start seditious rites while he sits on the throne. Oedipus bets that he can outwit the oracle: “You prophecy I’ll kill dad?—I’ll show you! I’m Oedipus, the master riddler. I can solve anything, and I’ll solve you!” And the Furies stake their prerogative as the punishers of blood guilt on the precedence of tradition.

When you lay so much on the line, you expose yourself to low-probability, high-consequence events because you’ve taken up too much risk. For Macbeth, Birnam Wood came. For Loman, he finds out that he’s worth more dead than alive. For Pentheus, the bum happens to be god. And for the Furies, this time was different. Who would have thought?

At the beginning I promised you a myth of tragedy. What I’ve given you is risk theatre, and its framework helps you find your way around tragedy in the same way as constellations light up a road map of the night sky. And just like constellations, risk theatre works brilliantly most of the time. The constellation Orion works great: there’s the shoulders, the belt. But then there’s a constellation like Gemini where you have to squint pretty hard to see Castor and Pollux. And just as you wouldn’t throw out the whole system of constellations because one or two don’t work, you wouldn’t throw out risk theatre for the one or two tragedies that defy it. Ultimately, risk theatre adds to our understanding because it answers the question of how tragedy can be exciting even though spoilers have marred the ending.

Think of tragedy as a theatre of risk where heroes go big or go home. Because heroes make risk run riot with their wagers, think of each dramatic act as a gambling act. When characters stake their souls, allegiances, and reputations, and leverage all their military, social, and political capital to achieve their aims, things get interesting real fast because we see by how they set up their wagers how much they value life. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth?—to Macbeth, it’s worth a Scottish crown, because that’s what he antes up: the milk of human kindness for the crown. Tragedy is an arbiter of life’s value. Think of the tragic emotions not as pity and fear, but rather anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for the black swan event that’s going to dash the hero, the hero’s friends and family, and the community at large.

Think of the downfall of the hero as something brought about by pure chance rather than a tragic flaw or error. The aged Oedipus, in Sophocles’ final play Oedipus at Colonus, says this exactly: “Okay, when it happened, I thought I had done something wrong, but now, looking back, how else shouldI have acted? Where exactly was my error?—I was dealt a certain hand and I played the game flawlessly.” To blame an Oedipus or a Macbeth or a Pentheus for a tragic flaw is as inane as to blame, say, the Cincinnati Kid for going all-in on the final poker hand against Lancey in Richard Jessup’s novel. He has to play that hand, and it’s only when Lancey makes the most unexpected move that he loses. He could not have known that Lancey would “make the wrong move at the right time.” In the same way, what was Pentheus supposed to do when the seditious foreign stranger waltzes into town: kneel down and worship him? Folks, it’s chance. Not error. Stop looking for error and look instead at the role chance plays. The point of risk theatre is that it enlightens us that chance plays a much larger role in our lives than what we’re comfortable admitting. In tragedy, even fate must work through the mechanisms of chance.

This idea of risk theatre I’ve been developing for over ten years, and I’m very happy to let you know it’s more than theory. Langham Court Theatre, one of the most storied and successful community theatres in Canada, has just now signed on to inaugurate a 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. We’re challenging dramatists worldwide to write bold and exciting risk theatre tragedies. We’re giving away over $10,000 in prize money. And we’re going to produce the winning play. Not only this year. Every year. We’re going to reinvent tragedy. The site is at risktheatre.com. Theatre spelled with a –re ending. The site’s not quite live. But I can give you the password: 1974. Take a look. See if you can figure out that poker hand on the illustration.

Here’s a parting thought I’d like to leave you with. I’ve known Peter for a long time. We went to Brown together in the 2000s. He was studying speech patterns in Roman comedy and I was grappling with how tragedy functions. Thank you, Peter for the opportunity to speak today. After Brown, I came back to Canada to take up my old job. You know, by trade, I’m not an academic and not a thespian. I’m a plumber. But I never lost sight of my goal. And despite the long odds, it looks like the goal’s getting closer. And you know the odds are long when the border guard looks at you real funny when you say that you’re speaking on theatre and your occupation is plumbing. So I encourage you all, no matter what your goals are, to chase them down. If I can do it, you can too. Because, you know, if you stay hungry and keep going, despite the long odds, sometimes the low-probability, high-consequence event will work out in your favour. Thank you.

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