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Theatrically Nasty Thoughts – Edition #7

Nasty Shadows are no longer on hiatus – but our return will be to a somewhat SHADOWY EXISTENCE.

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.
– from The Empty Space by Peter Brook (1968)

I thought perhaps I should offer an explanation of sorts surrounding the recent hiatus and the current shift in focus for the Company – I feel I owe this to those of you who might be reading and to my fellow Shadows.

Important Fact: I am not a producer. I want to create theatre, not produce shows – there’s a key difference here which my status as an amateur allows me to exploit (i.e. I do not rely on theatre for survival, but merely to satisfy an inner craving).

Nasty Shadows productions posters (95% designed by Alberto White)

Nasty Shadows productions posters (95% designed by Alberto White)

Unfortunately, (or fortunately?), Nasty Shadows was never organized in a manner that could support the performance model we had established and followed: You cannot run a theatre company without box office $$ to support production costs, and/or external funding to support your work. Nasty Shadows came up short on both fronts, the former by fate and the latter by choice. (We simply never generated an attendance to support the costs incurred, and I have never tried to acquire a grant or any sort of funding. I like to function within our limited means and feel strongly about self-sufficiency – if an audience could not support what we were doing, then maybe we should not have been doing it).

Also, I have been spending more and more time – far too much – simply administrating the Company.

Earlier this year, while the spring production was in its initial stages, it became apparent to me that not only would I be unable to make that production happen at that time due to many factors, some personal and others, as noted above, having built over time of producing Nasty shows, I also needed to put the brakes on the Company’s continuing fall/spring schedule. Taking a hiatus of some sort to rethink this whole Nasty business was the opportunity I needed in order for there to be future theatrics with Shadows.

Combining the issues above with the fact that I was growing weary and wary of performing the works of others, the time seemed appropriate to change what was happening and embrace the situation as it stood. A natural byproduct of all this is that I no longer wished for Nasty Shadows to be putting on a show simply because “it was time” to put on a show. That is not why the Company was started, and its goal has always been something a little different despite us having ended up at this crossroads.

Becky Forbes, Matthew Spinney, & Michael Holmes-Lauder rehearsing The Table Experiments

Becky Forbes, Matthew Spinney, & Michael Holmes-Lauder rehearsing The Table Experiments

I was brought to face an important question: Why do this thing called “theatre”? One of the Shadow actors asked me that a few years ago, and my response has generally been a need or hunger to simply do it. Period. I now feel I want to start narrowing down my answer more precisely, and to do that Nasty Shadows has to follow along with me. I think the pursuit of answering “why do theatre?” will push the Company to explore the world of play in a new and exciting way, which in turn will yield results that may or may not be shared outside our group – and this is the biggest shift which affects both us as participants in the theatrical creation as well as prospective audience members.

The work Nasty Shadows will now begin and the way we will be working means we will no longer have fall/spring productions scheduled. It could be 6 months before we share work with the public, or it could be 2 years. It depends on the work now. Also, we are not going to be staging shows in a traditional sense when/if it comes time to share our work. Our focus will be even more on the actors, the story being told, and sharing that story with an audience of some sort, accompanied by minimal tech involvement and unusual performance space usage. We may invite folks to our rehearsal space, the park, or a bowling alley. Again, it depends on the work. This also means my worries about staging shows in a more formal manner have vanished because having to focus on that was hurting the work more than helping.

So by removing a formal “production” from the equation we get closer to a more honest exchange between performer(s) and observer – or witness, if you will, which is a term that begs a more integral participation from the audience and suggests the completion of what the performer is offering. There is no question that we still need to perform for an audience, or we’re not really creating theatre but simply playing with ourselves. Working towards performing for an audience is the crux of our endeavour. However, the mode of delivering a performance has to change. I now wish to focus on developing work with an aim to sharing that work with an audience – a witness – but without the hoopla of what we have come to expect from the “production” of a play.

I still want to make theatre, and I believe there is some interest in what we are doing, so I am trying to enable a way that we all get to play together, performer and audience.

And so, after my attempts as “producer” have failed, we embrace that failure with hopes that our small but faithful audience, by whom we are humbled and indebted, will follow as we move further into the realm of intimacy with minimal frills. And just as we embraced our minimal means with fervour and innovation in the beginning, so too will we now take advantage of this further move towards a theatre focused even more on the craft of storytelling through acting, and the relation of the audience to this event.


The quotation above by Peter Brook about being able to “take any empty space and call it a bare stage” is a simple yet profound idea that has shaped my theatrical life since first reading those words over 20 years ago on the advice of my acting teacher at the time (NOTE: Every theatre practitioner should read Brook’s The Empty Space! If you read one book about theatre, make it that book). Nasty Shadows and I have used this notion as a guide over the years, but of late we have moved more towards traditional theatres and the wonders that a performance space with technical equipment offers. It is time for focusing more concertedly on the area of the theatre that brings us together and over which we have control: the act of storytelling and by extension those that do the telling: the actors. This is all we need in the empty space for sharing with simple honesty to an audience willing to experience this form of play. (If you are still reading by this point, my guess/hope is that we will see you in the future when/if we share our work.)

In The Empty Space, Brook speaks about theatre having the power to “make the invisible visible”. I like that. What he means by that is never completely explained, but that is exactly the condition of such a proposition: It stands outside of explanation and logic. That’s why I like it. I feel something resonate inside me when I utter that phrase. “Make the invisible visible.” I want to focus more on being a part of that exploration, rather than worrying about the formalities of a theatre company production and procedure.

Making the invisible visible is, I think, something that I’m attracted to in the creation of art. Those moments in a good book or a piece of music when your head is spinning with a feeling, or maybe not spinning but you are filled with what I can only describe as an understanding beyond words and logic, where your mind/soul experience a total synchronicity with, well, everything. And yet, when you try to explain or describe this later – as I am attempting to do now – you find the description falling far too short of what the actual moment provided. There is something like that which can be achieved theatrically, between performer and audience, and I’m interested in exploring that space. The theatre that has interested me, the works of Beckett, Shepard, MacIvor, have all pushed me into this space, and I hope to possibly sneak through a crack in that door with the Shadows. It will be great to explore different ways of creating plays.

Matthew Spinney, Becky Forbes, & Michael Holmes-Lauder rehearsing The Table Experiments

Matthew Spinney, Becky Forbes, & Michael Holmes-Lauder rehearsing The Table Experiments

And so, I’ve also been reading some Grotowski related material lately, about his work and interviews with him and those he worked with. Reading about his work reminds me of other groups I’d read about when I was younger where these are tightly woven groups of people – in Grotowski’s case, this goes to extremes – and this creates a certain type of space for the work to live. Working as and with other amateurs, that level of commitment is simply not feasible, but the aim is still valid and worthy of pursuit at the level we can attain. It simply means we need to take more time by the calendar in order to cover the ground we want in the hours we spend together.

I have long preferred working with familiar people as it breeds a depth of conversation that is not there with new relationships – my preference is not better, it’s just my preference, and probably says more about me than it does the method. And of course, any person is always new at some point and that is exciting as well. My interest now lies in taking a core group of people and creating a play together, however long that might take, working at a pace we can all handle. And then sharing that play in a simple manner with folks who might be interested, but this sharing would be less formal than in the past, inviting an audience to a room or some non-descript location to take part in what we’ve made. We then move onto the next piece we want to develop, and so on.

There are a number of half-started scripts and half-baked ideas I want to follow-through, but trying to maintain a regular performance schedule, administrate those productions, and find time for creative work was not happening. I managed it once with The Table Experiments, which showed me I would be better off with the time to focus. The experience also showed me that I want to work more on my own ideas rather than interpreting those of others, and that working in a performance environment with actors during the creation is something that I really loved – and, probably more importantly, it’s an aspect I need.

The past 20+ years have been leading me to this moment, I feel. I have worked with many different companies, and folks around this province, and a little elsewhere. I have been part of wonderful shows and terrible productions, delved into the works of my favourite playwrights, and staged productions that taught valuable lessons to me. I have been proud of all the work Nasty Shadows has staged and I feel that moving this group into helping me bring my own work to the stage is the next step in our/my metamorphosis.

I think bringing my half-baked ideas to the Shadows is exactly what is needed for them to become the stories they can be. For years I have been afraid of sharing my writing with anyone, and I also thought that writing was something that had to happen alone and then be brought to people in a completed form. The Table Experiments taught me that this naïve notion was hogcock (combination of hogwash and poppycock – stolen from Tina Fey’s brilliant 30 Rock television show – HA!). I’ve also certainly been taught the notion numerous times by my idols, mentors, peers, and in other situations, but:

There are no rules to creation. Do whatever it takes to make it work. Art is not formulaic and tidy. It might appear so afterwards, but that’s part of the craft.

Creating that show inside of a year from an idea I had about using a table, because it’s the only thing we ever have constant access to in rehearsal*, to the story it became after bringing the actors some scenes, and going back and forth with them from rehearsal to writing, was about the best experience I’ve ever had. (Selfish claim: To be honest, I do this for my own sake above all else, to feed my need – and this is another angle of this entire shift as I feel insecure and pompous “selling” our work since I have such self-interest in the experience. Rather, I am pleased for folks to come experience the work at all and having to sell myself was getting to be too much of a strain on my psyche/ego, but that’s another story.)

2013 was spent rethinking my theatrical ideas, and 2014 will see that thinking put into action as work begins on a new play for the Shadows, but a play I have had in process for years now. We will finally have the time to play with my play.

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[*Ironically, acquiring a table which could be used for the actual production proved to be a challenge.]

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