In my last post, I responded to a paper by Matt Jones that was presented at the recent CATR/SQET conference in Ottawa. Continuing that trend, here are some thoughts/questions inspired by Anne Wessels’ paper “Concord Floral: The suburb, a scripted play and intentional amateur aesthetics.” Embedded in the rehearsals of the recent Toronto production, written and directed by Jordan Tannahill with Erin Brubacher and Cara Spooner, Wessels conducted ethnographic research focused on the ten youth actors who comprised the cast. Her primary focus was directed to the intersection of values between the production of a ‘quality’ aesthetic (read “professional”) product and the social aspect, located in an “ethics of care” for the amateur participants. Ultimately she concludes that “the ethical and the aesthetic may come together.” Positive care of performers fosters aesthetic quality and vice versa, participation in the creation of a high quality performance also contributes to the positive value of the performers’ experience. Wessels also considers the position of amateur performance and aesthetic quality from the perspective of the audience. She advocates for “spectator pedagogy” to develop a vocabulary for audiences. With the tools to view different types of productions differently, audiences are less inclined to dismiss a play like Concord Floral as “amateur” or “pedagogical.”
The paper raises for me a couple of questions as it stimulates my thinking about the staging of amateur actors as a tool of the ‘real.’ Wessels talks about the ‘aesthetic of the unpolished’ and sets up this performance style in contrast to notions of mastery and virtuosity. From one perspective, there is a clear hierarchical system in place that values the professional performance with the training and expertise that it entails. This is certainly a mainstay of much mainstream mimetic theatre. And this is a concern for Wessels as this places limits on who can participate in performance. On the other hand, there is also a significant trend toward valuing the work of the non-actor as a marker of the real. (The use of non-actors, especially children, in movies has been an artistic hallmark for some time.) The untutored or raw quality of non-actors also has value. (Interesting to note that the cast of Concord Floral was nominated for a Dora award for Best Ensemble–Independent Theatre division). This, for me, is where amateur performance intersects with the qualities of postdramatic theatre, where the goal is to eschew the creation of a fictional cosmos altogether and instead to draw attention to the real material conditions that underpin performance — in this case the bodies and voices of ‘ordinary’ people. A Brimful of Asha performed by Ravi Jain and Asha Jain strikes me as another performance in the same style. (See also previous posts on acting and non-acting — here and here.) The main difference between Concord Floral and A Brimful of Asha is that Asha is an autobiographical performance where Asha Jain is ‘performing’ herself and the teens in Concord Floral are playing the roles of other teens. The ‘real’ aspect for them is their ‘teen-ness.’ Although in both cases, the primary challenge is to keep the performances ‘fresh’ and not allow the actors to learn on the job.
Certainly there are ethical issues here in the constant desire for the new and untutored as the current crop of actors becomes inured to performance. In the case of Asha Jain, it was clear to me that over the course of hundreds of performances she has become trained and the sense of her ‘realness’ has signficantly evaporated. That doesn’t make the show less charming — but it does change our experience of her presence. For the youth of Concord Floral, Wessels documents a process whereby they were constantly ‘in rehearsal’; elements of the performance were in constant flux deliberately so to maintain the freshness. I also witnessed an autobiographical student play here at Queen’s called “Be[Come]” where the actors were intentionally underrehearsed to present a similar impression of the ‘real.’
Wessels cites the work of Richard Maxwell as another example of performance where value is placed on the aesthetic of the unpolished. She quotes Sarah Gorman who notes that these performances “focus on deliberate roughness or lack of finesse” (Gorman 181). It is important to note however that Maxwell’s New York City Players are professional actors (not amateurs) participating in creating a certain ‘real’ style.
Ultimately this is all of significant interest to me as I am thinking about disability theatre, specifically the recent production of Rare created by Judith Thompson in association with an ensemble of actors with Down Syndrome. Like Concord Floral, Rare eschew the “community performance” category but still fits uncomfortably into our expectations of professional theatre. Concord Floral premiered at the Theatre Centre in Toronto and travels to the NAC in Ottawa next year. Likewise Rare was presented at the Young Centre for Performing Arts. Both plays were marketed to the public and tickets were priced accordingly.
All this leads to no particular conclusion at this point. (Not there yet.) But a number of questions open up for me: Why do we value the non-actor? What is the experiential difference in ‘reality value’ for the audience between the true amateur actor and the appearance of ‘reality’ from trained performers? From a political standpoint, there is the question raised by Wessels as to the accessibility (literally) to the means of production for differently experienced performers — including the youth of Concord Floral and the differently-abled actors of Rare. How do these productions compare to more traditional community theatre projects? How are they positioned in professional networks. How do they compare to, say for example, the work of Rimini Protokoll or Olivier Choiniere (Polyglotte) and the staging of ‘strangers’ (people who are strangers to the audience but also strangers to the stage)?
Thank you to Anne Wessels for allowing me to read a copy of her presentation. I hope I have accurately presented her argument.
Also just FYI: The script of Concord Floral along with a series of photos by Erin Brubacher titled “Look. This is my room.” will be published in the Summer 2015 issue of Canadian Theatre Review.
Gorman, Sarah. “Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players — The End of Reality” Making Contemporary Theatre: International rehearsal processes. ed. Jen Harvie and Andy. Lavender. (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2010) 180-201.
Wessels, Anne. “Concord Floral: The suburb, a scripted play and intentional amateur aesthetics” Presentation. 2 June 2015.