TAKE A SHOT ON US – Mac Brock
If I may be so bold: shit is pretty fucked right now. (I would offer that we both take a shot every time something like that is mentioned throughout this, but we might both be dead by then. You do you, though!)
Companies across our community – and across the world – are being confronted with their status quo, every move and project and choice, and asked to start over. We’re watching our favourite performers through screens, we’re sending emoji instead of hollering from the seats… we’re still sipping a generous pour of red as we watch, but this time we have to buy the whole box ourselves.
We’re testing muscle groups that artists hold dear. How many times can we smile the words “the show must go on” through gritted teeth? We’re watching theatre producers become professional broadcasters in an overnight industrial revolution, and our emerging artists are watching and wondering: What will be left for us on the other side?
Earlier this month, my partner and I take in a night of NextFest and one thing (maybe the pitcher of shitty homemade sangria) leads to another and a debate over the title of “emerging artist.” I’ve never thought much of the term other than a foot in the door for a few grants, but he describes the title as a “high-risk investment” label, not yet ready for the real deal.
Who decides the value of emergence? Who decides how tall you need to stand on tip toes and eggshells to hop on this Established ride?
Who dials the volume of our community’s voices?
When he says it, I’m taken back to the first theatre class I ever took at a University. At the time, I’m a 19-year-old Saskatchewanian with his first Regina Fringe under his belt and a love for creation and improvisation. I explain this to the professor, and he responds with a pretty slimy smirk (it’s a lot meaner in my memory), and draws a T-chart on the whiteboard.
“So on this side, you have theatre.”
He explains that theatre is professional: it happens in a “real” theatre, with an established text, and certain requirements of “professionalism.”
“On the other, drama.”
Drama is about experimentation, play, training. Devised work, improv, “alternative” styles, they fall under here.
“These things promote mediocrity, but they’re good for confidence.”
He points me out. “That’s where the things you’re talking about fall.”
The word “mediocrity” still leaves a bitter taste just writing it out. It felt like a cheap SNL sketch of an elite theatre instructor. I know that in terms of rough run-ins with a professor I’m among the lucky ones – but this was a day that I learned theatre could be broken with a change to the rules.
I got a nice break working on an arts event right out of high school. I looked up to the producer and was so excited just to have a seat at the table.
That excitement might be why I still remember that producer’s face when they thanked me for being a “polite” young artist. “Not like those other young touchy-feely fags that are always complaining now” and a few other descriptors that my hands don’t want to type out.
I smiled and said “happy to be here,” in fear that if I’d said anything else they might close the door on another LGBTQ2+ emerging artist somewhere down the line.
I know that in terms of rough run-ins with a producer I’m among the lucky ones – but this was a day that I learned theatre could be broken with a step too far of my own queerness.
This was a day I learned theatre could be broken with… a livestream?
Dear artistic leaders, dear Esteemed & Established, dear job-creators and team builders and wearers of all hats, this is a letter to you:
Thank you for your work. Thank you for managing through impossible storms. Our creative world is changing quickly. We’re learning skills we never knew we’d need and re-assessing facets of our work from the ground up. You need emerging artists.
I got into a few arguments in the early days of The Great Pause about whether distanced and digital work counts as theatre – and whether they’d effectively kill theatre as we know it. Another artist told me that working on anything now is just practice for the “real thing” later, with the same sneer I’d felt in school a few years earlier.
This was a day I learned theatre could be broken with… a livestream? A new playing ground?
Frankly, if our art, our industry, is fragile enough to collapse under the threat of a livestream, we should have smashed it to pieces a lot sooner.
You’re in the unimaginable position of having the best laid plans ripped out from under you. No one envies your shoes. But many of us are watching some of our leaders resist the change and rely on the same programming and platitudes, still looking for a way to finish the game when the board’s long been flipped off the table.
The status quo is effectively FUBAR, and you’re looking to a top-to-bottom refresh. My proposal:
You need emerging artists now.
We, the internet-savvy, the streaming experts, the social justice warriors, the burnt-out University students, the howlers into the night, are ready to respond to the moment. And we know how to get you there, too.
Our young artists are told time and time again, it’s about who we know. But I fear it’s been too long since we’ve asked who you know. We see your leadership teams that haven’t budged. We see your teams with no BIPOC voices, no under-30 voices. We see your queer perspectives led solely by cis men who push trans voices further and further to the edges. We see no voices that represent the audiences you claim you’re working to get into seats.
We’re here, doing the work for ourselves, and waiting for our institutions to catch up. Now it’s your turn to flip the game board and get to know us.
…now that you’re back to square one, our value is not in spite of our experience; it is found in the fact that we’re untested like the waters we’ve all been plunged in face-first.
We have the skills you need. Bring us on your staff to change the things that are done because it’s how they’ve always been. Open your rehearsal and creation space to those who’ve never been able to join a room like that before. Look for who’s next, stop waiting for them to stumble across your door. Don’t wait for someone to be ready: none of us are ready for where our industry is or where it’s going.
The word “emerging” has felt like a high-risk investment because we don’t know how to play the game yet. But now that you’re back to square one, our value is not in spite of our experience; it is found in the fact that we’re untested like the waters we’ve all been plunged in face-first.
We all have work to do. I’m speaking from the immense privilege of a white, cis, able-bodied man whose queerness has been used to check off diversity boxes without rocking the boat. But right now you have the opportunity to bet on young people that can open your doors to what comes next.
I’ve tried being polite to keep the door held open, but it’s looking like high time to take it off the hinges. So please forgive me if this comes off impatient:
I’m starting to think you need emerging artists more than we need you.
Now, more than ever. (Never mind, I think I need that shot.)