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This Is Real
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Book design for New Essays on Canadian Theatre Volume 2: New Canadian Realisms by Leon Aureus.

Image courtesy of Playwrights Canada Press

This collection of essays is especially welcome because it addresses, with consistent critical acumen, the multiple incarnations of realism across the spectrum of contemporary Canadian theatre and performance practices. Intended as a companion volume to a simultaneously published anthology of plays, New Canadian Realisms is comprised of twelve chapters written by a range of scholars and theatre artists; it proves itself an insightful and fascinating resource for those engaged in the study and practice of realism in performance.

The introduction contextualizes realism in relation to the well-documented European theatrical legacy of the nineteenth century and sets out the fierce critiques of realist stage practice that have, in recent decades, attended to its perceived “political failure” (3). The limitations of realism are held to derive from its reflective mimesis that often remains in obeisance to the surface appearances of the observable world. However, the editors explore in brief the history of Canadian theatre’s engagement with realism and cite examples that reach beyond the discredited “positivist European conceptions of the ‘real’” (10). A defining premise of the book, then, is that contemporary Canadian realism is identified as productively “‘unsafe’: that is, not as ‘Realism’ (fixed, conservative, and linear in outlook) but as ‘realisms’: plural, adaptable, attentive to difference, alive to paradox and uncertainty, and thus politically formidable” (2). Across the volume, the contributors demonstrate that realism is not an antiquated or monolithic genre that, through its reification of extant conditions and causalities, closes down speculative enquiry; rather, realism is conceived as a series or aggregation of performative modalities that produce Barthesian “reality effects” for specific and strategic purposes, often in critically reflexive forms.

The first three essays in the volume appraise the negotiation of European theatrical antecedents in Canadian contexts. Anna Migliarisi brings into visibility the “hidden history” (16) of Stanislavsky’s actor training in Canada: her analysis hinges, in particular, on the cancellation of the Moscow Art Theatre’s visit to Montreal and Toronto in 1923—a decision fuelled by anti-Soviet paranoia and “emerging Canadian cultural protectionism” (23)—which she views as a “prophetic symbol of [the] trend of rejection” (24) of realist innovation in twentieth-century Canadian theatre historiography. Kirsten Pullen extends this focus on realist acting by analyzing the intriguing correspondence of celebrity and national identity in the film work of the actresses Sandra Oh and Rachel McAdams. Pullen explores how discourses of national identity are constellated in cinematic realism in ways that can be both progressive and deleterious. In the final chapter of this section, Harvey Young explores Trey Anthony’s ’da Kink in my hair: voices of black womyn (2001), examining the extraordinary performance history of the play and its mobilization of an “affective realism” (57) that articulates the experiences of black Canadian women. This attentiveness to patterns of affect in realist performance is one of the strengths of the volume as a whole.

The next four essays consider revisions to European models of realism in contemporary experimental performance and, through eloquent analysis, discuss the contingencies of realist practice. Jenn Stephenson offers an incisive appraisal of Garden//Suburbia (2010), a group walking tour of Lawrence Park in Toronto. The imbrication of real and fictional worlds in autobiographical site-specific performance carries forward the materialist preoccupations of nineteenth-century naturalism but, as Stephenson demonstrates, the site-specificity of Garden//Suburbia produces dissonant, superannuated reality effects which, in tandem with the deconstructive “self-storying” (86) embedded in the narrative, evoke the real as tangible but finally irrecuperable. Catherine Cyr, meanwhile, explores Système Kangourou’s performances of “perpetual irresolution” (105) and its challenge to mimetic inscriptions of the real, while Louis Patrick Leroux anatomizes realism in Québécois theatre, specifically its challenge to the hegemony of language and “perception of the self as physical—embodied, in all of its difficulty, multiplicity, complexity” (107). The latter essay focuses on case studies that unsettle expectations of authenticity and verisimilitude, such as Théâtre Momentum’s Les Laboratoires Crête and the interdisciplinary choreography of Dave St-Pierre.

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