Tag Archives: theatre

Review of Franky D. Gonzalez’s THAT MUST BE THE ENTRANCE TO HEAVEN

Edwin Wong here, founder of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. I’m delighted to announce that Dallas playwright Franky D. Gonzalez’s boxing play: That Must be the Entrance to Heaven or, The Dawn Behind the Black Hole is the winner of the 2022 competition. The prize includes $10,200 in cash and a workshop culminating in a staged reading over Zoom. The competition is going strong, now in its fifth year (risktheatre.com). Its goal is to invite playwrights to dramatize risk, otherwise known as unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events. In 2018, I founded the competition because I’m fascinated with risk. Risk shapes our lives. Risk shapes our lives because it is not what we think will happen, but what we least expect that has the greatest impact. It’s not the calculated risks that matter, but rather the uncalculated risks. Lots of people don’t get that. They think they can do away with risk with insurance, diversification and hedging strategies, clever planning, and so on. To remind people of the true power of risk, there is a dramatic art form in theatre known as “tragedy.” In two books—The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy (2019) and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre (2022, cowritten with past winners)—I overturned the traditional reading of tragedy that has a hero make a mistake and lose all. In the risk theatre reading, the hero actually has quite a good, foolproof plan. But then something unexpected happens: an unforeseen chance event like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill or meeting a man not of woman born. Because the hero has taken on too much risk, the hero is exposed to the highly improbable. It’s the opposite of the old folk saying to “keep some powder dry.” Because the hero has “burnt up every last match,” when the shit hits the fan, well, the hero is done like dinner. Now, it is easy to write two books about how risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. But does the risk theatre theory of tragedy work on the actual stage? That question remained unanswered. And so the competition. The cool thing about the risk theatre theory is that the competition will be the proof of the pudding. If the competition, in the next thirty years, can produce a number of plays that enter the canon—that is to say, plays that will stand shoulder to shoulder with Aeschylus, Shakespeare, O’Neill, and the other tragedians of repute, then it can be said that risk theatre works. Literary theories, just like scientific theories, must go through the chicane of the scientific method.

Every year I sit in anticipation, praying that one of the risk theatre winners or finalists can take their play to the next level: audiences queueing in long lines, sold out shows, people talking in the streets. But to take it to the next level is hard. First, the play must be great. It must be unique. From the inception of the competition to this day, there have been great winners and great plays, beginning with Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom, to Nicholas Dunn’s The Value and Madison Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor. And now Gonzalez’s That Must be the Entrance to Heaven. But, for a play to make it, it has to be more than great. At this point, luck is involved. The right person has to hear about it. They have to have time to explore it. Then the right theatre has to hear about it. Someone has to take a chance on the play. Should we produce a Shakespeare or an Ibsen or a Miller that is guaranteed to sell out so many seats or take a chance on a new play? There are many obstacles. To put it in terms of probability theory—another pastime of mine—there are many paths to failure, and few paths to success. One way, however, to increase a play’s chances is to write about it. And that is what I’m going to do here. I’m going to write about Gonzalez’s That Must be the Entrance to Heaven as though it were already a classic, as though it had already entered the playwriting canon. And yes, if I were writing an essay on Shakespeare or Sophocles, it would go without saying that there are going to be spoilers. So, too, there will be spoilers in this essay.

Although by no means equal repute attends those who write about the great playwrights and the great playwrights themselves, those who write about the great playwrights also play an important role because one of the things that makes a play great is the volume of discussion and scholarship behind it. That this is a boxing play itself is a topic that can lead to discussion. When I think of theatre, boxing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Theatre is perceived as a high art. Boxing is perceived to be a low art. The people that partake of theatre likely do not cross over with the boxing community. The same is true vice-versa: the theatre isn’t the place where you would expect to bump into Arturo Gatti, Mickey Ward, Floyd Mayweather, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, or the other fighters that Gonzalez references in his play. Gonzalez, by putting together boxing and theatre, is bringing together different worlds with different outlooks not only about life, but about each other.

There is a quartet of main characters in Entrance to Heaven: Edgar, Juan, Manuel, and Armando. They’ve all sacrificed big time for a shot at the title. Edgar is an undocumented fighter who’s fighting to stay in the country. He’s also fighting for the memory of his mother, who died getting him into the country. Juan is fighting to keep his family afloat, to make good all his broken promises he made to his wife and his child. Manuel is fighting to emerge from his brother’s shadow, a former five-division and  pound-for-pound champ. Armando defected from Cuba and left his family to become world champion. They all have ghosts. Family members who no longer talk to them or have passed away. Entrance to Heaven, in this light, is about the price you pay. The weight of your dreams like a gravity crushing you down. What happens in the play is beautiful and unexpected: it is when they fail and fall short of their dreams that they feel the lightness of an inner peace.

The first and most crucial question that must be asked is: how do you play the quartet of boxers? Option #1: you play them as characters that the audience feels sorry for. There would be many ways to defend this reading: the characters lack resources. The characters have had poor upbringings. They face inequality. Their education has been less than stellar: one of the Latino characters cannot speak Spanish for which he is mercilessly attacked by a boxer who is good enough to teach him how to count in Spanish. If only someone would help them. Option #2: you play them as fiercely proud individuals for whom no quarter is asked, and none given. They box because that is who they are. No apologies. The boxers are Latino “overmen” who overcome obstacles on their way to their title shots. Option #1 is the more humane reading, but takes away their dignity. Option #2 is full of the spirit of Ares, but glosses over inequality. The character Juan seems to encourage option #1 (he is truly tired of getting punched on his granite chin). The character Manuel, with his no-holds-barred relentless forwards-moving trash-talking style encourages option #2. The true way to play the play, probably lies somewhere in between options one and two. But the wonderful thing about Entrance to Heaven is that it encourages the discussion. The path to the canon lies through controversy.

As it happens, I enjoy both theatre and boxing. Four years ago, I started kickboxing. Last August, I started going to the boxing gym. I used to think the MMA (mixed martial arts) and the boxing gyms were dangerous places, full of savage people. They were places where you had to watch yourself. Now I think different. There are, indeed, savage folks in these places. You can tell just looking at their muscles what they can do. The people with the ripped muscles that are really defined where they connect to the bones are always deadly. There is something about how the muscles connect to the bones that defines how hard someone can hit. The people who are big, but move quickly are perhaps the deadliest. There are brawlers. And then there are assassins, the ones who set traps for you. Fighting some of these people is like playing chess. I used to be nervous going to class. I still am. But after getting to know the people, I came to realize this is their home. This is where they belong. Some of them are amateurs. Some are pros, or at least semi-pro. They make money fighting, coaching, and promoting. It is their life. What I also realized is that the MMA and boxing world is quite diverse. Women champions can make as much as men: think Rhonda Rousey. In UFC, the current heavyweight champ, Francis Ngannou, left Cameroon to pursue his dream. When he started training in France, he was homeless. Now he’s world champ. Look at the referees, fighters, and announcers: they’re from all different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. Fighters of all religions, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or others, train side by side. Though they don’t talk about inclusivity, they are inclusive. But they are not known for that. That is too bad. Take a look at your local theatre. I am sure they talk of welcoming and friendship. But how diverse are they? If yes, then great. If not, perhaps they could take a page from the MMA and boxing community. I’m not saying that the fighting community is perfect, but what I am saying is that there is much for communities to learn from one another. When Entrance to Heaven enters the canon, another way I foresee it encouraging different communities to come together is that scholars studying it, scholars who are used to academic references, will have to take a deep dive into boxing to properly analyze it. They will have to watch footage from some of these fights Gonzalez talks about in his “references” section: the action in the play is modelled after specific real-life fights. Who knows, perhaps no one will remember Eubank or Klitschko or Corrales if Gonzalez had not brought them into his play. Don’t laugh. I remember a story of Cus D’Amato training a young Mike Tyson, telling him that one day no one would remember the great boxer and (at that time) world celebrity Jack Dempsey unless they talked of him. Tyson laughed. He couldn’t believe it. But that came true. The only reason I know about Dempsey and started reading about him is because I heard about him through Tyson always bringing him up. Fame works in strange ways.

I should talk about Entrance to Heaven and risk. The point of the competition is to encourage dramatists to dramatize risk. There is plenty of this in Entrance to Heaven: each of the characters is “all-in.” And then, because they have taken on inordinate risk, the unexpected happens. In the case of this play, the unexpected is the realization of the price our dreams exact upon us. Be careful what you wish for. Dreams are funny; they sometimes leave you with nothing. They are full of fire on the way, but after the fires have burnt out, all that remains is smoke and burned out remnants. The thing about risk that Entrance to Heaven taught me most, however, was how much personal risk the playwright undertakes to write an honest play. Just like in Albert Camus’ The Plague where the leading quartet of characters—Rambert, Rioux, Tarrou, and Grand—are aspects of Camus himself, I can’t but imagine that the prizefighters Edgar, Juan, Manuel, and Armando are reflections of Gonzalez. Their struggle is his struggle. Entrance to Heaven is a play full of the most convinced courageousness. It took courage to write it. It makes the play beautiful because it is human. I can’t be sure that I’m right, of course. But, from having followed Franky’s star the last four years and having chatted with him a handful of times, the likelihood is high (here’s a link to an interview we did in 2022 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VChvLT8FGrs&t=14s). He has that same drive and ambition his fighters have. I know that because he is one of the few playwrights to have entered the Risk Theatre Competition each year. Sometimes he was be close. When he didn’t take the grand prize, he kept going. Like they say in boxing, you have to keep going because you never know how close you were.

I have read and also seen a reading of another of Gonzalez’s plays, Paletas de Coco. It was a finalist in one of the previous years. It’s about a playwright searching for an absent father. It too was a courageous play that opened my eyes to how risk doesn’t have to be internal to the action. Risk is also beautiful when you can tell the writer has taken risks or wears his heart on his sleeves. The risk in Gonzalez’s plays that is really different than what other people are doing is that there isn’t a separation between his art and his life. They are a unity. Bravo. Usually when playwrights write close to home, they lock their work in a vault, only to be produced so many years from now. Think of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night: O’Neill said no performances or publication until twenty-five years after his death. Gonzalez, unlike O’Neill, is putting himself out there, right here, right now. For that reason, it feels like I am witnessing something truly unique and wonderful. I read a lot of plays and Gonzalez is the only living writer I know who breaks down the divide between art and life so relentlessly. I feel he encourages this self-identification in his plays as well. For example, he names one of his fighters Juan David Gonzalez. The dramatic effect of this identification is that when the fighters talk about their dreams and their sacrifices, the audience (or reader) also wonders how much Gonzalez has sacrificed to get to where he is. This double identification deepens the stage and makes risk more palpable. One gets the feeling that Gonzalez talks about risk because he has walked the walk. During our interview, I remember him telling a story of how he went out on a limb, going all-in and using his own money to self-produce a play. I thought: “Here is someone who will go far because he believes in himself and has something to say.”

Another feature of That Must be the Entrance to Heaven that stands out is its language. Stylized. Often, tragedies are written in a rhythmic language that sets it apart from speech. Greek tragedy favours speech in iambic trimeters; Shakespeare likes blank verse. Gonzalez, as well, has adopted a unique playwright’s cant to express his ideas. Each line averages five words. A few are shorter, some are a few words longer. Here’s an example:

Armando. I have come to learn a deep truth.
Every human being,
Whether the mightiest emperor
Or the lowest of nobodies
Is born with a tremendous weight
Pressing down on their souls.
We call that weight our Dreams.
And this life
The whole of our existence
Is spent trying to force that weight
That chimera, that Dream, from our souls.

Each line contains an image or an idea. By setting the lines in quick succession, he builds up great crescendos in thought. For example, Armando’s first six lines builds up to “We call that weight our Dreams.” Then, following that pronouncement, he builds up again to another pronouncement on the effect of our dreams. His technique fascinates me. It really allows devices like repetition to shine. For example:

Juan. I kept losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
Until my promises
Turned into lies.

The repetition and brevity of each line really allows the concluding pronouncement of “Turned to lies” to hit home. There, too, is risk in the language, of repeating a statement seven times before the taking it home. If, on the stage, the actor pulls it off, it will hit home. In language as in life, no risk, no reward.

Dramatically, That Must be the Entrance to Heaven brings to life a tour de force in risk and unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events: nothing goes according to plan. I suspect that is why the jurors nominated the play as the 2022 winner. From what I can see on social media, there is great interest in this play: it is the first winning play from the competition that will have a full production (in 2023, next year). Wow. The action promises to be breathtaking. It would be fascinating to have actors with a boxing background play the parts. They could reenact the sequences in a theatre of the great fights Gonzalez draws from: Gatti vs. Ward, Klitschko vs. Joshua, and others. This is the play can make boxing fans out of theatre fans. There is so much in boxing that is theatrical. In one of the Gatti vs. Ward fights, Mickey Ward hit Gatti with one of his trademark liver shots. The shot that makes other fighters black out and crumple to the canvas. I remember that moment to this day. Gatti doesn’t go down. He looks at Ward with such eyes, eyes that say: “Bro, why did you have to hit me so hard??!?” Ward, in turn, doesn’t go in for the kill. He looks at Gatti looking at him. Time in the ring is frozen. They say boxing is a low art. But this moment reminded me of the most beautiful moment in all of literature, when time stands still in the Trojan War back in the old days. Achilles finally meets Hector. The war around them, all the chariots and spears and dust and yelling pauses. On the battlefield it is only them. They chat like friends as they kill one another. Somewhere, far away, Andromache is pouring a hot bath for Hector. He will not require it. The whole scene is unbelievable. All the cosmos stands still for them. But, even though it is unbelievable, it is the most believable thing ever, because it is the most beautiful moment in literature. In That Must be the Entrance to Heaven, during the fights, I experienced this same relaxation of time. It is beautiful. It is seldom that I have seen it in drama. It will take most talented actors to bring this effect about, which, like all the most beautiful moments in art, is the most fragile of things. If it can be pulled off, this will be a play to be remembered, for all time.

For me, what opened my eyes the most was what the play taught me about risk. Not risk as I had been thinking about it. But risk in terms of how much great writers take in drawing from their own lives to produce the most honest and beautiful literatures and dramas. Read and see Gonzalez’s plays. We are witnessing a writer that comes along once a generation. From the black hole, a star is born. But, don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy [2019] and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre [2022]) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.


Harvard UP, 2016, 300 pages

Do Not Name Your Well After a Cursed Town Destroyed by Capitalism

When you’re planning to drill 5.5 kilometres down from sea level into the payzone where explosive, scalding gases charged at 14,000 psi are waiting to blow up your rig, you would think you’d name the well something auspicious. You know, something like “Lucky 7.” But no, BP decided to name their well “Macondo.” Macondo is a cursed town which was destroyed by capitalism. With a name like that, you’re just asking to be struck down.

Do Not Celebrate Mission Accomplished Too Soon

On the day of the blowout, BP and Transocean VIPs came aboard the rig to celebrate the Deepwater Horizon’s stellar safety record: zero lost time in seven years. Less than an hour before the blowout, they were finishing up a meeting. The last topic was a question tabled by the BP vice-president: “Why do you think this rig performs as well as it does?”

The scene from Deepwater Horizon’s last day reminds me of the plays the ancient Greek wrote. When Agamemnon, the Greek king comes home after winning the Trojan War, he feels confident enough to tread the purple as he alights from his victorious chariot. This act–not unlike the VP asking: “Why is this rig so great?”–seals Agamemnon’s doom. Have we not learned that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident?

I think we all could benefit from going to the theatre once in awhile. Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, two plays where the hero is most confident before the fall, are recommended watching for MBA candidates, engineers, and systems analysts. These plays dramatize real-world risks that the equations and formulas don’t tell you: do not celebrate mission accomplished too soon. In fact, even after the mission is accomplished, keep your celebrations lean. Some of the things they don’t teach at business school they teach at a theatre near you.

The Edge

During drilling, a dangerous event known as a “kick” happens when pressurized hydrocarbons enter the well. They shoot up the riser and blowout the rig. To isolate the hydrocarbons from the rig, drillers keep a column of mud between the rig and the hydrocarbons. The weight of the mud in the well, which can vary from 8.5 to 22 pounds per gallon, counteracts the pressurized hydrocarbons at the bottom of the well.

Mud used to be just that: mud. Today mud is a base fluid mixed with a heavy mineral such as barite. Too little mud, and the hydrocarbons can come up the riser. Too much mud, however, results in another dangerous situation called “lost returns.” The diameter of the well varies from three feet at the top down to just less than a foot at the bottom. The sides of the well are fragile. If the weight of the mud is too heavy, it breaks apart the sides of the well, and the mud is irrevocably lost beneath the sea bed. When the mud is lost beneath the sea bed, the hydrocarbons can enter the riser, blowing out the rig.

Boebert and Blossom refer to the art of keeping a well safe as staying on the right side of “the edge.” When a well control situation such as a kick or lost returns happen, the risk of going over the edge rears its ugly head. They quote Hunter S. Thompson on what it means to go over the edge:

Hunter S. Thompson likened the transition of a situation or system into disaster to what can occur when a motorcyclist seeking high-speed thrill rides along a twisting, dangerous highway:

“The Edge … There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”

Complexity or n(n-1)/2

After a well is drilled, the rig caps the well. At a later date, another specialized rig comes to set up the well for production. To cap a well is a complex procedure with many moving parts. To illustrate how adding tasks to the procedure quickly increases the complexity, Boebert and Blossom site a fascinating formula:

Planning for the abandonment of Macondo was extremely complex. The fundamental source of that complexity was a phenomenon well known to systems engineers: the number of potential pairwise interactions among a set of N elements grows as N times N-1, divided by 2. That means that if there are two elements in the set, there is one potential interaction; if there are five elements, there are ten possible interactions; ten elements, and there are forty-five; and so forth. If the interactions are more complex, such as when more than two things combine, the number is larger. Every potential interaction does not usually become an actual one, but adding elements to a set means that complexity grows much more rapidly than ordinary intuition would expect.

I find complexity fascinating because it leads to “emergent events.” Emergent events, write Boebert and Blossom, arise “from a combination of decisions, actions, and attributes of a system’s components, rather than from a single act.” Emergent events are part of a scholarly mindset which adopts a systems perspective of looking at events. Boebert and Blossom’s book adopts such a model, which is opposed to the judicial model of looking at the Macondo disaster. The judicial approach is favoured when trying to assign blame: the series of events leading to the disaster are likened to a row of dominoes which can be traced back to a blameworthy act.

Unlike Boebert and Blossom, I study literary theory, not engineering. But, like Boebert and Blossom, I find emergent events of the utmost interest. I’ve written a theory of drama called “risk theatre” that makes risk the pivot of the action. In drama, playwrights entertain theatregoers by dramatizing unexpected outcomes or unintended consequences. These unexpected outcomes can be the product of fate, the gods, or miscalculations on the part of the characters. But another way to draw out unexpectation from the story is to add complexity. That is to say, if there are two events in the play, there is one potential interaction; if there are five events, there are ten possible interactions; ten events, and there are forty-five. The trick for playwrights is this: how many events can you juggle and keep the narrative intact?

Luxuriant Retrospective Position

“Luxuriant retrospective position” is Boebert and Blossom’s term for “armchair quarterback.” They acknowledge that the project managers, drillers, and engineers were not operating from a luxuriant retrospective position. Many of them were doing the best that they could with an incomplete understanding. Often, when I read books breaking down disasters, the writers point fingers from their armchair perspective. This, to me, smacks of the same hubris they assign to their targets. It is like saying you would have a military historian rather than Napoleon fighting all your battles because the military historian can see things that Napoleon could not. It is quite decent of Boebert and Blossom to acknowledge how they are looking at things from hindsight.

I’m writing this in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic. In a year down the road, the books will start hitting the shelves telling us what we did wrong, telling us how we could have saved lives, and telling us how, if we had looked at things rationally, we could have done so easily. Many people will read these books, and parrot them. Will you be one of these people? Who would you rather fight your wars, the general Napoleon, or the historian Edward Gibbon? Who would you rather manage your money, John Meriwether (architect of a doomed hedge fund) or journalist Roger Lowenstein (who wrote a book exposing the errors of the doomed hedge fund)? Would you rather have BP’s team run the oil rig, or Boebert and Blossom? If you had said Gibbon, Lowenstein, and Boebert and Blossom, think again. Can those who understand backwards also act forwards? There is actually a story, a true story of how Napoleon appointed the mathematician Laplace to be the minister of the interior. Laplace, like Gibbon, Lowenstein, and Boebert and Blossom, would have taken a scientific approach to administration. Good, you say? No. Napoleon fired him for “carrying the spirit of infinitesimal into administration.” There is a tragedy in how those who understand backwards cannot act forwards.

Book Blurb

On April 20, 2010, the crew of the floating drill rig Deepwater Horizon lost control of the Macondo oil well forty miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Escaping gas and oil ignited, destroying the rig, killing eleven crew members, and injuring dozens more. The emergency spiraled into the worst human-made economic and ecological disaster in Gulf Coast history.

Senior systems engineers Earl Boebert and James Blossom offer the most comprehensive account to date of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Sifting through a mountain of evidence generated by the largest civil trial in U.S. history, the authors challenge the commonly accepted explanation that the crew, operating under pressure to cut costs, made mistakes that were compounded by the failure of a key safety device. This explanation arose from legal, political, and public relations maneuvering over the billions of dollars in damages that were ultimately paid to compensate individuals and local businesses and repair the environment. But as this book makes clear, the blowout emerged from corporate and engineering decisions which, while individually innocuous, combined to create the disaster.

Rather than focusing on blame, Boebert and Blossom use the complex interactions of technology, people, and procedures involved in the high-consequence enterprise of offshore drilling to illustrate a systems approach which contributes to a better understanding of how similar disaster emerge and how they can be prevented.

Author(s) Blurb

Earl Boebert is a retired Senior Scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories.

James M. Blossom gained his engineering experience at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the General Electric Corporation.

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

Here: A Captive Odyssey (William Head Prison Theatre)

A play performed in an actual prison by inmates? Who could pass up a chance like this? Not me and FG, who drove the 40 minute drive down the windy road to William Head Institution, a minimum security jail overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Performing since 1981, this year, and for the last three years, they’ve been writing their own plays. Here: A Captive Odyssey is the product of an intensive 6 month writing/production effort by the William Head on Stage Theatre Society (WHoS). As they said after the show in the Q&A: ‘every day a new script’. Warning: spoilers dead ahead!

Here: A Captive Odyssey Synopsis

HERE: A Captive Odyssey is a tale that is spun from archival research and oral stories of William Head, with inspiration from the book Quarantined by Peter Johnson.  Two inmate friends are finishing their final years of their sentences at William Head and find themselves on a time-travel odyssey back into the history of William Head, complete with shipwrecks and sea monsters. Through drama, movement, shadow puppetry and live music, audiences will experience a haunting time-travel vortex that whirls through centuries of both First Nations and settler occupation.  Before it was a prison, William Head was home to First Nations fishing grounds, a Scottish pioneer’s sheep farm, small pox quarantine centre, hospitals, dormitories, fumigation rooms and schoolrooms.  This land has many intriguing and surprising tales.


You can’t bring anything in with you. Wallets, cell phones, gum packages, and purses all have to be left in the car. Each couple is allowed one set of keys (to get back in the car). All that you can bring in is your ID. The jail itself is right along the water. Picturesque. At the parking lot is a tower overlooking the water, a double set of chain link fences, and a guard station. They check your ID and you sign in with the name and time. The security guard give male visitors an invisible stamp that shows up under a special light. It’s an all male facility.

From there, two six man vans shuttle visitors to the gym, which is a minute or two down the road. The drivers are excited to host the event and are happy to tell stories about the prison. The last escape they had was a couple of years ago when a prisoner floated away in a coffin. Too bad the drive wasn’t long enough to learn more. A coffin? What, you would paddle with a stake? Very industrious. But I guess jail brings out industriousness in people, especially after many years.


Full house, all age ranges. Estimated capacity of the gym for the audience is 160. Lots of young folks in the 20s. Different than the regular grey haired crowd at the Belfry and McPherson. Tickets are a bargain $20. Large cast and crew. Roughly 22 acting roles and 3 support roles (lighting and music).


Assiduous readers will recall that the economics of live theatre has been one of my preoccupations. Here runs 12 times. Let’s say they fill up each time (if they had more shows I’m sure they’d sell out as well, quite a bit of good buzz in the air). So that’s 12 * 160 * $20 = $38,400 in revenue. Now, divide this up by the 22 acting roles, the 3 support roles, and the other writers, directors, and so on. Let’s say the number is 30. $38,400 / 30 = $1280 each person. That’s $1280 for 6 months of part time work. Let’s say they put in an average of 20 hours per week for 6 months. That’s a total of 520 hours (26 * 20). In the end, it works out to a renumeration of $2.46 per hour. I think this is part of the reason why so many theatre shows outside the jail are one man shows. $2.46 an hour is not enough to get out of bed for most folks.

But here’s the question of the day: are the prisoner-actors compensated or do they receive monetary consideration for their efforts? Presumably, they will get out one day and when that day comes, they’ll need some cash to keep them afloat while they look for a job, get a place, and integrate back into society. You’d probably need, say, $3000 to get a place, put down deposit, pay for a couple months rent, get some clothes, food, etc., Can they save up for this in jail employed at various tasks? To me, it’s a fascinating question.

Here The Play

It wasn’t till the end that the play came together for me. With plays I’m either really sharp or really obtuse. Genres that I know well, I’m pretty sharp. Take horror. If a guy goes down to check out something in the cellar, you already know before he goes down what’s going to happen. He ends up in trash compactor (or something like that). But if I’m not familiar with the genre, I’m thick as mud. With this play, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Actually, that’s not true. From the blurb, I had expected a documentary style play, more a history lesson than a drama. I was wrong. It was both.

There’s two main characters. They’re both in jail. One of them has his act together and a plan: do good works and get out of jail sooner. The other one is a slacker. They are fishing buddies.

Well, it turns out that the slacker hooks a magical sea monster that sends him time travelling from 1700s William Head to the present. The other fellow spends the play looking for his friend.

As the slacker travels through time, he witnesses the horrors of slave labour, court room injustices, and sees the effects of smallpox. When he gets back to the present, he understands that life is short: a life without a plan is an unlived life. He resolves to work hard to get out of jail. His friend, meanwhile, has also made positive strides: he reconnects with his estranged sister.


Fantastic play. The audience loved it. Lots of talent. Raw talent, as most of the inmates did not have theatrical experience. But it wasn’t the talent that made the play. I think what made the play was that everyone took a big chance putting it together. The audience recognized this and showered the players and the producers with applause. The risks they took in putting this on stage were real. And so was there enthusiasm. The difference is like the difference watching NBA basketball and college basketball. Of course the talent in NBA basketball is better. But boy do they play out their hearts in college. The prison production is like watching college basketball.

Perhaps my favourite part of the play was the Q&A session at the end. The audience got to ask questions to the players. Questions like: ‘How does being in the play help with rehabilitation?’ or ‘Do you plan on pursuing theatre on the outside?’. A lot of honest responses on how hard it was for them to open up to the process of theatre and work together. Some funny responses as well: one guy said that he volunteered because he thought ‘it would be cool to play a prison guard’.

What struck me the most is how likeable many of the actors were. They didn’t seem like they belonged in jail. They just seemed like regular dudes. Which they probably are. So this was eye opening. And the best thing was how genuinely happy they seemed to be to be able to put on Here: A Captive Odyssey for the packed house. Kudos. A real play by real people. Something real at stake: some kind of redemption, perhaps? I’m sure there were some tears in the eyes of both the spectators and the players by the end of the night.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Economics of Live Theatre

In the last month, I.ve been to two performances. The first was a production of Macbeth put on by the Blue Bridge Theatre Repertory at the Roxy that was discussed in this blog. The second was eatingthegame put on by Hong Kong Exile at Metro Studio discussed here. Have you ever wondered about the economics of theatre? Here.s my take on the economics of live theatre based on the rate cards from the Roxy and Metro Studio.

Here.s the rate card from Metro Studio:

Metro Studio Rate Card

Metro Studio Rate Card

Let.s work it out in the most advantageous terms from the point of view of art. Or in other words, how to make the show as profitable as possible. Here.s the base price scenario for the Metro Studio:

$575 (not for profit rental rate) + technician ($98, based on minimum 4hr call) + front of house manager ($70, based on minimum 4hr call) + production manager ($120, based on minimum 4hr call) + projector rental ($40) = GRAND TOTAL $903.

Here.s the rate card from the Roxy:

Rate Card Roxy

Rate Card Roxy

Let.s make it out in the most advantageous terms from the view of art. Or in other words, how to make the show as profitable as possible. Here.s the base price scenario for the Roxy:

$650 (not for profit rental day rate) + concession manager ($72, based on minimum 4hr call) + technician ($88, based on minimum 4hr call) + $2,000,000 public liability insurance ($150, estimate from top of head) = $960.

So, best case scenario for a theatre troupe to stage a one day production at the Metro Studio is $903. By best case, these are only the fees incurred to the venue. The writer, director, actors, assistants, costume/set designers, makeup artists, etc., are all working for free. You say: ‘Maybe the rental rate shouldn.t be included in that figure if the Metro Studio is inviting a troupe to perform in their space’. Well, the Metro Studio wouldn.t be in business for long if they didn.t get rental revenue so that figure should stay in.

For the Roxy (which has 20% or so additional capacity), the best case scenario for a theatre troupe to stage a one day production is $960. By best case, these are only the fees incurred to the venue. The director, actors, assistants, constume/set designers, makeup artists, etc., are all working for free. You say: ‘Maybe the rental rate shouldn.t be included in that figure if the Roxy is putting on a performance in its own space’. Well, the Roxy would.t be in business for long if they didn’t. pay their property taxes, upkeep their building, pay the hydro bill, etc., In other words, the rental rate should stay in the figure.

At eatingthegame at the Metro Studio, the crowd was estimated at 50. At $20 a ticket, that.s a revenue of $1000. So, if the troupe didn.t have to travel from Vancouver and got paid absolutely nothing for the performance and the rehearsals, the show would make $97.

At Macbeth at the Roxy, the crowd was estimated at 70. At an average of $35 a ticket (including student / senior discounts & flex passes), that.s a revenue of $2450. So, if the troupe got paid absolutely nothing for the performance and rehearsals, the show would make $1490.

eatingthegame was a one show deal at the Metro. The economics are ouch. Good thing it is a one man show.

Macbeth went on for 14 performances. $1490 * 14 is $20,860. The bad thing is you have to split that number between 10+ actors, choreographers, director, set designers, and so on. Let.s say to make a Macbeth happen, four weeks of labour for 20 people are necessary. That.s a very optimistic estimate. That.s 3200 man hours. Let.s say of that $20,860 profit, $5000 goes to materials: props, setting, costumes, and so on. That leaves $15,860. $15,860 divided by 3200 man hours equals a wage of $4.96 per hour. Ouch. No wonder in the economics of theatre there are sponsors but not investors.

I.m Edwin Wong and my heart goes out to all the brothers and sisters out there Doing Melpomene’s Work because from the economics, it looks like it.s a tough go.

Macbeth Review (Shakespeare by the Sea July 17, 2014)

Do you prefer Springsteen.s Nevada to Born in the USA? How about dining?-mom and pop or Michelin all-star restaurants? Do you prefer baroque and rococo furniture or the Eames aesthetic? If you had said ‘Nevada’ or ‘hole in the wall restaurant’, or ‘Eames’, then the Victoria.s Shakespeare by the Sea production of Macbeth is just your ticket.

Both Nevada and Born in the USA are great albums. But, of the two, Nevada is the more honest album.  Honest in the sense that it.s a guy with his guitar recording on a four track in the garage. Just vocals and guitar. No E Street Band or million dollar studio to hide behind. The same with the mom and pop restaurant. It.s honest because the focus isn.t on the linen, the service, the water feature, or the Picasso hanging beside you. The focus is on the food. It.s the same with Eames furniture. The focus is on functionality. If it.s stylish, it.s not because of the acanthus leaf carved into the armrest or the barley twist leg. It.s stylish because there.s beauty in honest design.

The Shakespeare by the Sea Macbeth is about honesty. Honest in the sense that Nevada is honest or Skinnytato Restaurant on Johnson Street is honest. When I called to reserve a ticket a few hours before the performance (turns out it was a good idea) the director took the call. No Ticketmaster. I would later see that, in addition to being director and manning the phones, Robert Light was also impresario, usher, and stagehand. Lighting consists of daylight. Heating is provided but the sun and ventilation by the wind. Shelter is provided by a 25’x40′ tent which covers the stage and the audience. A green painted plywood box raises the stage half a foot off the ground. There are five exits and entrances. One at each corner of the tent. The main door where one enters the tent (directly looking onto the stage) is the fifth entrance. Being set up on Clover Point Bluff, the tent is oriented towards the south. That is, the backdrop of the stage is the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Except for the exits and entrances, the tent is enclosed all around. Behind the stage is a window through which the strait is visible. But not an infinite or ‘floor to ceiling’ opening: the wooden stage extends about three feet up on the rear before the window starts. This is good, as it provides the stage with a boundary. Actually, the window can function asa sixth exit, but only the transgressional Porter character seems to be able to make use of it. The spartan simplicity forces the attention to the action. Like Duncan says, here the air is good.

Equivocation Review (Belfry Theatre May 24, 2014)

Sir Robert Cecil, a sometime spymaster for King James I commissions a recalcitrant Shagspeare (Shakespeare) to write a play on the Gunpowder Plot. So it begins. Shagspeare is caught between a rock and a hard place: either reveal his sympathies to the conspirators and lose his head or write a patriotic propaganda piece and sell out his Muse. Like so many things in life, he confronts an either/or situation when he would rather see a both/and proposition. To get around the either/or catch-22, the players equivocate. Hence the title. In the main, Equivocation really isn.t a play but is rather a play about a playwright struggling to write a play. Metatheatrical. A reflection of a reflection of reality. A perfect play for clever audiences. That it had a successful run in Victoria is something Victorians can be proud of.

Now, the play within a play structure of Equivocation allows dramatist Bill Cain to do a few things which would be more difficult in a more conventional straight shooting drama. Since dramatists are frequently busy with life as they compose (and not, as the Romantics would have it, withdrawn in some cave or out in the wilderness communing with nature), Cain adorns the primary story with secondary plots from Shag.s life. If the main theme is the ‘write me the play’ and ‘I can.t write the damn play’ banter between Cecil and Shags, there are also all the other things going on in Shags life that are brought into the fold: his estranged relationship with daughter Judith, workplace drama within his acting company, and his interviews with the gunpowder conspirators.

The effect of layering plot on subplot overtop demiplot diffuses the flow of the action. Because Cain borrows scenes from Shakespeare, it.s easy to spot changes in the dramatic tempo (especially since he borrows mainly from Macbeth, the most taut of Shakespeare.s plays). There is more dramatic punch when the players play out on the blasted heath the encounter between Macbeth and the witches. More dramatic urgency. The actors move quicker. They speak quicker. They make louder sounds stomping around the stage. Same goes with the storm on the heath scenes borrowed from King Lear. Side by side one can see the dramatic power Shakespeare wields next to Cain. But what Cain gives up in raw power he gains in contemplation and reflection. Reflection on the nature of equivocation (in the conspirator interviews). Reflection on artistic and worldly responsibilities (in the dialogue with members of the acting company). Reflection on the place of the playwright in society (in the dialogue with Cecil). Reflection on the power of drama to sway popular opinion (Cecil.s thoughts on Othello and Merchant of Venice). But note so much of the power of the play comes from the dialogue; the ‘dramatic’ action scenes are largely borrowed from Shakespeare. In a way Equivocation reminds me of Tarantino.s works. Tarantino also layers his works so that the action proceeds herky-jerky. And in between the herky-jerky outbursts is this strange and wonderful dialogue. Like when, right before the concluding scene of Kill Bill, Bill goes on a philosophical rant comparing the place of Superman with Spiderman in the world with Uma Thurman looking on in disbelief. But coming back to Equivocation, this brings us to the character of Judith, who, like Bill in Kill Bill, functions like a mouthpiece of the writer more than a character within the closed confines of a play or a movie.

There is something about Judith. She doesn.t quite fit. She talks about things outside the play which have little bearing on the action at hand (e.g. her distaste for soliloquies). Her manner of speech isn.t affected like that of the other characters–it.s a very natural discourse as though she were talking in her own voice and not an actress upon the Belfry stage. She is aware of the audience and has the capacity to address the audience directly. And she does so with the playwright.s own voice (e.g. at Shagspeare.s wake as the closing of the play). This got me thinking: I wonder if she functions as a chorus?

Before there was drama, there was the chorus. This is going back to sixth or seventh century BC-perhaps even earlier. The chorus would hymn praises to the gods. At some point, one member of the chorus stepped outside of the chorus to address it. That was how the first actor came to be. As things developed, two and three actors would emerge from the chorus to engage it in an antiphonal game of alternating call and response: that moment marks the birth of ancient Greek theatre. In time, the actors took more of a central role and the chorus’ importance diminished to the point where it was reduced into an atavistic tailbone tacked onto the tailpiece of drama. Finally, the chorus altogether disappears. But what the chorus was good at was speaking in the voice of the playwright (to convey, say, some moral the playwright thought appropriate). It could also act as a living wall between the on stage illusion and the off stage reality (the chorus is is aware of both realities and can address the actors from within the play or the theatre-goers outside the play). What I wonder is whether Cain had intended Judith to function as a sort of one woman chorus. That would explain how her character seemed to me to be part of the action yet also curiously aloof and distant to the action. As chorus, she wouldn.t really be a full-fledged individual but could somehow represent the playwright or even the community. If Cain had intended Judith to be a chorus type figure, kudos to him. It.s been awhile since dramatists have put choruses or chorus type figures on the stage (they still do it in operas, so perhaps operas are the true heirs of the ancient stage). The last that comes to mind is TS Eliot when he tried it in Murder in the Cathedral. Because the chorus represents community, there is much to be said about putting the chorus back into drama. Chorus is the all-too-human voice of drama. But it is true, no modern playwright has managed to integrate the chorus into the play successfully. I have a large reward waiting for the one who is able to manage this feat and to make drama whole once again…

Did Equivocation remind you of another historical play by a twentieth century playwright? Some hints. Here.s what I.m thinking of. A play set in England (two generations before the Gunpower Plot). Catholics and Protestants are going head to head. Either allegiance to the king at the cost of selling God out or allegiance to God at the cost of the true king. Plenty of equivocation. Yes, you guessed it: Robert Bolt.s 1960 A Man For All Seasons. Instead of a conscience ridden Shagspeare there is Lord Chancellor Thomas More. Instead of Cecil as the agent of King James, there is Thomas Cromwell as the agent of Henry VIII. Catholic More attempts to maintain his allegiance to Henry VIII who divorces his wife against the wishes of the Pope. This is not unlike Shagspeare.s catch-22 of either writing a propaganda piece or putting his neck on the line. Like Equivocation, there is much psychological storm and stress in A Man For All Seasons but little action. The bulk of the play consists of speeches where More justifies his position by equivocating while Cromwell attempts to get More to turn the wrong phrase in a chess match of words. The one difference between the two-and it is a large difference-is that while the action is diffuse in EquivocationA Man For All Seasons starts off with one question and puts that question through every variation until the play.s end. It.s power is highly focussed.. The question is, ‘What would you sacrifice for what you believe is right?’. Every character, from More to Rich and from Norfolk to Alice, exists for one purpose: to examine the singular question from different perspectives. I leave you with this question. Which do you prefer? The diffusive Equivocation which manages to combine comedy, satire, history, and tragedy or the laser like intensity of A Man For All Seasons? Are the differences between them a reflection of how audience tastes have changed from 1960 to 2010? Or?

My own feeling is that it is a bit of both. Art reflects contemporary mores. Today we multitask and so too our dramatists multitask the action into many parallel segments. And because we multitask, we don.t like things that are overly complex (since it would be too difficult to do many complex things all at once). So too perhaps the distaste of the soliloquy is something thoroughly modern. I wonder if the soliloquy occupies the same position as the rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo in the 1980s. They are both blazing set pieces, full of fire and weeping. Complex creations. It used to be in the 1980s that a song would have two or three solos (think back to Van Halen glory). Now I can.t think of a single song that has come out in the last five years that has any soliloquy-or I mean guitar solo. Funny how the technology and art moves in unison. Times change. And playwrights change with the changing times.