- Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama by Jordan Tannahill
In 2012, Jordan Tannahill and William Ellis founded Videofag, a performance space and arts incubator in Toronto's Kensington Market in a converted barbershop that granted residencies, hosted exhibitions, and sponsored the early work of young, and in many cases now flourishing, artists. The same spirit of generosity and community likely led Tannahill to write Theatre of the Unimpressed (2015), a slim but pointed inquiry into why curious, culturally diverse, politically engaged patrons – the people marketing managers target with the cool voracity of poachers hunting ivory – don't like going to the theatre. Tannahill's diagnosis is that they've been turned off by boring plays and tedious, lifeless productions. Through a series of interviews and reflections, he discovers that audiences find boredom in the theatre more intensely stultifying, more viscerally wounding, than boredom in the other arts. Held captive, physically, by boring plays, [End Page 148] they are wearied by theatre that underestimates "an audience's capacity for complex argument, innovation, and abstraction."
Tannahill's prescription for curing boredom is more commonsensical than revelatory: to take more risks and, specifically, to court failure. Audiences enjoy feeling the "thrill and tension" that "the whole house of cards could come cascading down at any moment"; failure in "the intimate and human-sized scale" of theatre can be a "powerful antidote to a mass-mediated culture in which polish, poise, and conventional aptitude are rewarded with the spoils of capitalism." Though grounded in the scholarship of Sarah Jane Bailes and Jack Halberstam, failure is an amorphous term in Tannahill's treatise. It sometimes signals the vulnerability of performers; or it's conflated with liveness, the spontaneous give-and-take of spectators and performers in shared space and time; or it's taken as an indigenous feature of theatre, which cannot replicate reality with the same granular fidelity as film.
I don't disagree that the threat of failure can induce empathy or a spine-tingling sense of immediacy. Early in the book, Tannahill praises a production by Forced Entertainment, a UK-based company that has demonstrated the rough eloquence of failure for the past three decades. But the exploration and even fetishization of failure has now become a kind of orthodoxy within performance art and post-dramatic theatre. It's the job of Tannahill, and other gifted young artists, to forecast what's next. That would likely involve – well, an appetite for risk, contentiousness, and outrage that this amiable book doesn't muster. Tannahill's title invokes Brazilian educator and theatre director Augusto Boal's The Theatre of the Oppressed (1993), a groundbreaking guide to rehearsing revolutionary action by empowering audience members to intervene in a production-inprogress. Tannahill has the intelligence to scale Boalian heights, but he can't yet summon the audacity, the tonic unreasonableness, that would also make his book prophetic.
I suspect that "failure" is simply too narrow to encompass the pluralism of dramatic vitality: audiences also go to the theatre to be transfixed by skill, precision, and virtuosity. Likewise, Tannahill spends pages haranguing the "well-made play," a nineteenth-century form (and twentieth-century straw man) organized around the gradual revelation of buried secrets. Yet most of Tannahill's dramas are conventionally structured plays about unconventional people: his widely performed Concord Floral, created with Erin Brubacher and Cara Spooner, is about the piecemeal unveiling of a secret, albeit with foxes and couches as officiants. Perhaps there's still vitality and flexibility in this shopworn genre?
Where Tannahill succeeds most is in documenting a specific Toronto moment of risky programming choices by artist-run institutions like Video-fag. By placing Toronto performance radicals like Nina Arsenault and Jacob Zimmer and companies like Events in Real Time and Mammalian [End Page 149] Diving Reflex in conversation with She She Pop and Rimini Protokoll from Germany and The Wooster Group from the United States, Tannahill insists that a global context is necessary to understand the achievements of live art in Canada. Scholars and practitioners ought to take...