Tag Archives: unexpected

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 their livelihoods 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 (FIGURES UPDATED APRIL 4, 2019 AFTER THE FIRST YEAR OF THE COMPETITION CLOSED):

Commission artwork for the risktheatre.com website (this went to a local artist):
$2,600

Prize Money ($8000 first prize and 4x $500 runners-up) (this goes to the playwrights):
$10,000

Travel Stipend (to the playwright):
$1,000

Workshop Winning Play (budget number, actual number will depend on the forces the winning script requires. This is for the winning playwright’s benefit, but also provides a nice gig to a dramaturg and actors):
$6,000

Administration of Competition (this includes: creating/maintaining website, communications with entrants/jurors, PR and publicity, searching for and retaining jurors)
$3,500

Jurors (based on 182 entries and a reading fee of $35 per play and $50 for the final meeting to decide winner. NB as each judging round progresses, some plays will be read more than once)
$8,190

Complimentary Copies of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy (each entrant receives a copy of my book. Allowing for shipping, each book is valued at $25)

$4,550

So we’re at $35,840. But income will also come in from the $45 entry fee. 182 playwrights from 11 countries participated, so the entry fees brought in $7,903.35 ($8,190 less $286.65 in PayPal fees). So, I’ll be giving back to the artistic community each year just under $28,000.00–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.

Plays and Fragments – Menander

Last week on the reading list was Aristophanes, writer of Greek ‘Old Comedy’ in the 5th century. Up this week is Menander, a writer of Greek ‘New Comedy’. The goal of going through Aristophanes and Menander is to see how what comedy treats the unexpected. Given that certain unexpected outcomes provoke laughter, the hypothesis is that the unexpected trumps expectation in comedy.

The Edition of Menander

Always a delight to be reading another fine Penguin edition of Menander: Plays and Fragments. Clear text (and larger too in the newer printing), expert introductions balanced between the needs of a layperson and a student, and dependable translations. Translated by Norma Miller. Here’s the back blurb:

Menander (c. 341-291 B.C.) was the foremost innovator of Greek New Comedy, a dramatic style that moved away from the fantastical to focus upon the problems of ordinary Athenians. This collection contains the full text of Old Cantankerous (Dyskolos), the only surviving complete example of New Comedy, as well as fragments from works including The Girl from Samos and The Rape of the Locks, all of which are concerned with domestic catastrophes, the hazards of love and the trials of family life. Written in a poetic style regarded by the ancients as second only to Homer, these polished works – profoundly influential upon both Roman playwrights such as Plautus and Terene, and the wider Western tradition – may be regarded as the first true comedies of manners.

Menander Cover Art

Menander Cover Art

When the blurb mentions that New Comedy moves away from fantastical elements, it is referring to to Aristophanes’ crazy themes: cities built by the birds in the clouds or sex strikes by the women to bring about an end to the Peloponnesian War. What had changed in a 100 years? Well, Aristophanes had written for an Athenocentric audience. While Menander hailed from Athens as well, he wrote for a more cosmopolitan audience. Between Aristophanes and Menander’s day, travelling theatre troupes had sprung up and comedy was being performed all over the Hellenistic world thanks to the Hellenizing efforts of Philip and Alexander of Macedon. The age of fiercely independent local city-states was gone. The age of empire had arrived. As a result, culture would also be international, and a playwright would have to be writing for an international audience. As such, the material would have to be reduced to its lowest common denominator: family issues and stock characters (the crafty slave, the young lovers, the grumpy old man, etc.,). It’s sort of like sitcom in the TV era: what were formerly local dialects gives way to a version of spoken English that is at once intelligible in the deep South to Boston burbs.

Menander and the Unexpected

The first three plays in the edition are: Old Cantankerous, The Girl from Samos, and The Arbitration. The first play is complete, the second is almost complete, and the third, to put it kindly, is a glass half full. As the edition progresses, plays become more and more fragmentary until only the fragment remains.

If a pattern can be drawn from the first three plays, it is that they revolve around familial life. In Old Cantankerous, a young man is trying to woo the grumpy old guy’s daughter. In The Girl from Samos, a young suitor gets his girlfriend pregnant. And in The Arbitration, a domestic quarrel results when the wife gives birth five months after the marriage.

Here’s how the plot makes use of the unexpected in these plays. In Old Cantankerous, the grumpy curmudgeon falls down a well. Who should save him but the young suitor? In The Girl from Samos, the father overhears that the father of his baby is actually his stepson whom he had left home alone with his stepmother. It’s sort of a Potiphar’s wife theme. But what had happened is that it wasn’t his child at all: his stepson had gotten the next door neighbour’s daughter pregnant, and when the baby was born they ‘lent’ it to his wife so that his stepson could have a proper marriage with the girl next door. In The Arbitration, the husband rejects his wife when she gives birth five months after marriage. But the recognition token carried by the baby indicates that the husband IS the father of the baby: he had raped the mother during a drunken festival before the marriage.

Beside the very different outcomes, the unexpected occupies a central position in the comic and tragic view of the world: things are unpredictable. When tragedy engages the Potiphar’s wife’s theme, the outcome is completely different. In Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus, the father (Theseus) leaves his stepson (Hippolytus) with his stepmother (Phaedra). The unexpected takes place. But, unlike The Girl from Samos, there is no happy outcome. So while comedy and tragedy both rely on the unexpected as a plot driving device, somewhere they take a different turn.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I am Doing Melpomene’s Work and having a good laugh at the same time.

Tales of the Unexpected (the Happy Side of Risk)

Do you find most often people—or yourself—try to avoid the unexpected? People say: ‘become better educated’, ‘contain the risk’, ‘watch out for the downside’, ‘better to go with the devil you know’, and so on. There is in the unknown something of a bogeyman. Well that.s true. Especially from my perspective, since I write on tragedy and, well, in that art form, whenever the hero runs across the unknown or the unexpected, the distribution of outcomes is asymmetrically skewed to the downside: i.e. death and destruction! Well, sometimes the unexpected can be very good as well!

Assiduous readers will be sitting on the edge of their seats wondering how the Call for Art is progressing. Today I biked out to Sidney to distribute the flyers at the Island Blue Print and the galleries out there. By the say, Sidney is the best place in the world. People in Sidney just love to be in Sidney. They love to chat with other relaxed and smiley folks. So dropped off the flyer at the two galleries along the main strip. Got an art lesson on some of the new watercolours and oils that they were coming in. Some of these watercolour artists work on their pieces for months! They do three or four pieces a year that they.re absolutely happy with. Interesting work being a gallery buyer as well. Lots of artists coming in: so many works, so little room! Also found an art school by the water. The instructor had a lesson going on but had a prize pupil who she thought would be a perfect fit. There were samples on display and lots of these students are very talented! The only dangerous place in Sidney is the Safeway or I guess Save-on-Foods parking lot. That place has its own laws of driving which I haven.t figured out yet. I don.t think the drivers there have figured out either. But I was wondering if I.d bump into my old colleague Erik at the Starbucks there. He gets his afternoon coffee fix there and it was just about the right time. Lo and behold, he is there! We chat and I stop by the old office to see the boys. One thing I notice: nothing ever changes. The office is exactly the same. Collected 20 bucks on a bet I won from my old boss (we had placed a bet on what the stock price of Lucara diamonds would be New Years Day; he said above $3 and I said under). Also placed a new bet: New Years Day 2016 price of a barrel of oil, which is sitting at $58 today. I say $50 and he says $70. We.ll see! I guess as a patriotic Canadian hopefully he wins! Canada.s frighteningly resource dependent. But hey, maybe it will take a prolonged slump in oil prices to kickstart nascent industries.

But that was a big digression. Are you still with me? I was telling the story of how sometimes the unexpected is skewed towards the positive side. So, biking home (Sidney to downtown Victoria), I take the Galloping Goose. Wonderful. Avoid the highway with all the noise and hubcaps and body parts from all the cyclists who have been struck down on the highway.s shoulder (well, okay, that last part was an exaggeration. But this is what my imagination tells me if i take the highway route). The Galloping Goose takes me by Matticks Farm. Usually I proceed straight through. Actually, every other time I.ve done the ride I.ve gone straight through. But today I was thirsty. And feeling not in a rush. So I stop by and pick up a chocolate milk. Mmmmmm. Finding a place to sit down, I notice there.s a gallery right there! Well, looking at their display, it.s mostly abstract works and landscapes. But i thought, ‘Why not?’. Going in, i.m greeted by Sharon. I tell her about the project and she looks at the flyer. She thinks for a moment…the artists she knows don.t usually do this type of work. But she has a great suggestion: try Moss Street market on the weekend. It.s a little society of artists that would do this sort of thing. And then another great idea. This one I was hitting myself for not having thought of it myself. On the causeway by the Inner Harbour in downtown Victoria, there.s all sorts of activity once tourist season starts going (which is right around now). The patios fill up. There.s clowns, magic shows, musicians, and food stands. And also artists. They do quick portrait sketches. So they.re skilled at meeting someone and capturing the person.s psychology with a few quick strokes. And they work fast. So it wouldn.t cost a fortune. While she was saying this, I was thinking, ‘Good point!’. Okay, so I don.t have a budget (art.s one of those things it.s hard to set a price to and I.d prefer the artist to set a price for the commission they.re happy with), but at one of the galleries I was at, the artist they were suggesting is accustomed to charging in the vicinity of 10k for commissions! I like quality and this project means a lot to me, but 10k can buy a lot of things! So let.s see what happens! I know where to go this weekend on the trail of the Call for Art!–Moss street and the causeway. It.ll be fun to be part of the hubbub too. Writers tend to be in their own company for long periods. Good to go out.

So how does this tie into the unexpected and the upside? Well, i wasn.t planning on stopping at Matticks Farm. It just so happened that I was thirsty while riding by. You know, on the bell curve, they call the left and right ends the ‘tails’ of the curve. Those are the places where very unlikely things happen. And when people talk about them, they usually talk about catastrophes: the hundred year storm, the ‘big one’ (earthquake), and so on. Well, the tail on the right end gets less attention. That.s like the day you meet your future wife or the day the lottery goes with your numbers. These things happen too. To me, what happened today was a bit of good fortune. Not on the extreme right of the bell curve, but good enough to make me happy. Her recommendation was very good. So to me, it.s a reminder to expose yourself to all the things out there. Live life to the fullest or some other wooly expression like that. Deal with the bad when it happens. Because only by exposing yourself to risk can you get the ‘good’ side of risk.

Have a few leads now on the Call for Art. Meeting some more artists, hopefully soon someone can start working on ‘The Dead Man.s Hand’!