Making Waves -
PACT Conference 2007 Keynote Speech
by Brian Quirt
June 1st, 2007, Halifax
Id like to begin with something positive.
This is a paraphrase from an article by a Quebecois dramaturg named
Guy Cools, passed on to me by my friend and colleague, choreographer
Guy Cools writes that he believes that the 19th century was the
century of the actor, and that the 20th century was the century
of the director, the guru director. And that the 21st
century will be "the era of collective process guided (as opposed
to directed) by the dramaturg". He believes that the dramaturg
has become the avant-garde, "with the field of contemporary
dance as its hunting ground for research and new developments."
Which reminds me of a comment by Paul Walsh, my friend and a dramaturg
in the US. He noted that we have experts in 15th and 16th century
drama; we have people who specialize in 17th and 18th century theatre;
there are many who are experts in 19th, 20th century drama
people who specialize in them and do great work. But, he asks, who
among us will create the theatre of the 21st century?
And I read in a magazine recently that 70% of the profit generated
5 years from now will come from something that hasnt yet been
Now that is good news. Invention Creation - is our daily
As a dramaturg, Im more than a little biased
in favour of Guys vision of the dramaturg as the future of
the theatre, and, of course, happily accept it as the way forward.
Lets look at that word for a moment: "Vision" --
a powerful word, suggesting prophetic insights, beautiful images,
the imagination at work.
Now consider the phrase:
"Artistic Vision Statement" -- how feeble. The vital word
vision corrupted into a statement of intent. How boring is that?
Well talk a lot about words over the next few days: some of
them include mandate, mission, strategic (as in strategic planning).
Its fascinating how many of the words we use to describe our
work or are asked, even compelled, to use to describe our
work our artistic work are derived from the military.
Interesting. And I mean that in the sense of "Oh hi, your show
was very interesting."
Id like to suggest some other words, ones that I use in my
work as a dramaturg and others that have helped me create Nightswimming
and the projects weve made over the past 10 years.
Two sets of words:
Ideas. Communication. Process. Words at the core of dramaturgy,
the exploration of stories and how they are told in the theatre.
Actually, Id prefer the word, performance. I believe that
much of our future is in the world of dance and performance art
and the combination of forms
so, dramaturgy for me is the
exploration of stories and how they are told in performance.
The other set:
Premise. Design. Structure. Words from the world of architecture,
the art of making things.
Id like to suggest that these are more fitting, more effective,
more inspiring words for us to dig into
Ideas. Communication. Process.
Premise. Design. Structure.
That is where I live.
These are my words. I want us to find and use words that are unique
to the way each of us and our companies work. Our theatre, our organizations,
even our productions, are becoming increasingly similar to one another
and we must fight this. Finding our own words to define our approach
A little tangent.
Im currently programming a dramaturgy conference that opens
in Toronto three weeks from last night. Now, the only thing more
hilarious and frightening than preparing for ones own conference
which Im doing for LMDA
its June 21-24 in
there are flyers out in the lobby is being asked
to give the keynote speech at another conference exactly three weeks
prior to your own.
Actually, there is one thing that is more hilarious than giving
this keynote three weeks before my own conference. The other day,
just before flying to Halifax, I opened my mail to find a summons
for jury duty. Now guess which week Ive been called for? Yes,
the very week of my conference. So if youre
coming to the LMDA conference, please take notes for me and Ill
see you after I get off the jury.
The other reason I found it interesting (and I mean interesting
in the good sense) to be asked to speak in this slot is that my
own conference, in fact, wont have a keynote. I didnt
want one. Ive designed the LMDA conference to begin with a
much different event and this touches upon a couple of the words
that I want to explore this morning. One is the word Premise. The
other is the word Design.
Its pretty easy to have a theatre conference without any playwrights
around. In fact, its pretty easy to run a theatre company
without any playwrights around.
So, at our conference, three weeks from today, instead of a keynote,
Ive designed an opening event in which eight of Torontos
most culturally diverse theatre and dance companies (dance is another
word Ill return to) will perform 10 short plays from playwright
Suzan-Lori Parks 365 Days/365 Plays project. In doing
so, the evening will address, in action, many of the themes I want
LMDA to explore during our own conference: international exchange
and collaboration; formal exploration of storytelling; work by women;
cultural diversity; dance; and most importantly, assumptions about
what dramaturgs do and how they do it.
The premise of the conference is not to just talk about it, but
to do it.
During the next few days, I want us all to talk about
doing: what we have done and what we are doing next; I dont
want to talk about not having enough time;
I want to talk about how people are doing it anyway. Whatever it
I want to talk about timidity and bravery.
About dance and theatre.
About race and culture.
About confidence and apologies. More of the former; less of the
I was in Germany last fall with a group of Canadian dramaturgs and
I noticed that we all and I include myself in this
we kept apologizing about parts of our theatre culture
enough resources, not enough this or that. It was very hard to stop,
but we must. No more apologies.
So, more confidence and fewer apologies.
I want to talk about faith versus hope.
I hate talking about what we cant do. I hate talking about
things we already know how to do. I dont want to talk about
how we could change things; I want to talk about how we are changing
things. About who is making waves and how theyre doing it.
Not why theyre doing it, but how theyre doing it.
I also believe conferences are an opportunity to speak out loud
some of the things we dont say ever, or at least often enough
or at least in daylight.
- I think some theatres should die; in fact, I think we should let
- Our theatres are afraid, even terrified, of bold direction
- I think the Quebec system is not better than ours
- I believe its not their labour agreements that beget strong
work but their faith in that work
- Weve abandoned our theatres as creative spaces; weve
made them too expensive to actually work in
- We often use economic hardship and Equity as excuses for maintaining
the status quo
- I keep hearing that our audiences are declining; Im no expert
in audience development so that may be true, but I also hear that
the theatre is dead or dying. Bullshit
- Our theatre is really really really white
- Core competence is a really irritating phrase; lets
ban most of the so-called business words from our vocabulary, starting
with strategic planning, mission and mandate and vision statement,
and replace them with words that speak to what we do and how we
- Our theatres are embarrassingly empty of current events
- Weve disastrously eliminated almost the entire world of
international contemporary theatre from our stages in our noble
and virtually too effective pursuit of new Canadian work. There
are many encouraging examples of contemporary plays including in
Toronto recent productions of Crave from the UK, Arabian
Nights from Germany, 36 Views from the US. These are
encouraging examples, but its only a beginning
- Its not always about the CTA. Its about our own priorities
and the premises under which we work. The CTA is often a smokescreen,
an excuse for not doing things differently, and a reason for not
changing how WE work
- We do too much; quantity over quality is a disease we all suffer
- I dare you all to program a season entirely of work by women writers
- We ignore the aboriginal voice at our peril: our challenge is
to get over our indifference and/or our guilt and just do it. Its
not that Native Earth needs our help (though Yvette might disagree
with me) but that if were committed, as many of us are, to
cultural diversity South Asian artists, Chinese and Japanese
artists, black and Latin American artists so many groups
we try to collaborate with, to cultivate or promote or explore and
work with while we ignore one of the richest groups of artists and
stories on the continent. Im speaking of myself here as well;
weve done nothing with Native artists, perhaps we cause sub-consciously,
Native Earths office is down the hall from us and so we just
dont have to. Not good enough.
I want to kill the culture of "we cant do that"
or "thats too expensive" or "it will take too
long" or (and I really hate this one) "thats a luxury".
A three week workshop isnt a luxury; rehearsing in the theatre
space isnt a luxury; when we do those things, we design the
process to match the needs of the show and are willing to pay what
is necessary to make it happen the way it should happen.
This week, lets say what we mean, dump our assumptions and,
to pick up on the theme of this conference, make waves.
Actually, our goal is not to make waves; our goal
is to move boldly forward with the plans we want to execute. Waves
are a byproduct of a bold dive into the water; we have to dive first.
Diving requires faith.
A very good friend and colleague, Vanessa Porteous, once mentioned
that there are "faith companies" and "hope companies".
This made complete sense to me. A hope company says: I hope the
writer has a good idea; I hope the director is available; I hope
the new play text is ok; I hope we can get the actors we need; I
hope the previews dont suck; I hope the audiences show up;
I hope the reviews doesnt crush us; I hope we dont lose
money at the end of the season. What a way to live.
A faith company says I believe that the commission will generate
a play we want to produce; I have faith in the writer, administrator,
director, actor; I believe this play is important; I believe that
the audience will be stirred by this work; I love the writer; I
love the actor; I love the general manager; I love the audience;
I have faith in our theatre.
I like to think that my own company, Nightswimming, is a faith company.
Hope wouldnt have got us this far.
We Naomi Campbell and I created Nightswimming 12 years
ago, like so many, because there was a show we wanted to premiere.
A show we believed in. Don Druicks Through the Eyes. So we
created a company to workshop the script and then to produce it
at the Theatre Centre. And we did. And it was a success: a modest
success. The play was born; it was well received; it went on to
a revival, tour and GG nomination; the company was launched; we
paid all the bills.
But I never wanted to do that again. I hated the treadmill of the
small production company, having to raise enough money every year
or two to do one production. I had too many ideas to only do one
show every 2 years, which is the reality of every small company
when they start out.
It didnt make sense to me in fact, I thought it was
insane to have a company that did things I dont like
doing. So we decided to not be a producing company. Problem solved.
But if we didnt produce, then what would we do?
So I turned the issue on its head. What if Nightswimming ceased
to be a producing company and only did the things that I most wanted
to do. And more specifically, what if Nightswimming only did things
that I couldnt do anywhere else?
Now, that is interesting. That is a creative equation.
What would those be? As a dramaturg, I join scripts at all phases
of their development, from the first draft to the production draft.
What I was rarely able to do was be there from before the script
or dance, to work with the writer or choreographer or musician from
conception of the piece.
What does that mean? It meant that we decided Nightswimming would
work only from commission. That we would be a commissioning company
that didnt produce the works we developed.
And, because I deplore the barrier that exists in English Canada
between theatre and dance, and because I believe that we have so
much to learn from the dance world, we decided that Nightswimming
would be a theatre company that also commissioned dance and dance
So what does a company like that look like? As we commissioned our
first projects, we spent a lot of time designing the structure of
Nightswimming to match the way we wished to work: minimal overhead
and administration; a project based company that worked year round;
no annual events that have to be filled with product; and a flexible
structure that enabled us to adapt to circumstances and projects
as they evolved.
As well, it was a critical premise that we would have no festivals,
no writers unit, no anything that had to be sustained from year
to year, and that there would be no set model for how we worked.
All processes would be custom designed for each project.
But all commissions are designed with the goal of bringing the story
to an audience. To ensure that our works would be produced, we set
up partnerships with existing companies to develop each work; they
premiere the piece, we work on it through to and after the premiere.
theres a dangerous word. Its
an act that is so often based on hope, where the hope theatre says:
"God, I hope the writer brings us something we dont hate."
Our premise for commissioning was to only commission artists with
whom we have developed a relationship; that all commissions would
be by invitation; that we would not read unsolicited scripts (hooray);
and that we would only commission dream projects: projects that
an artist couldnt do anywhere else due to cast size, controversial
content, unusual form or the just plain fact that they had a bold
idea but didnt know how to create it. That unknown is the
most exciting thing. After all, if you know how to do it, why do
From these premises, Nightswimming has evolved into a fun and fascinating
adventure. Weve commissioned 20 new works; plays, abstract
dance pieces, solo plays, play cycles with up to 20 actors, adaptations
of novels and poetry, dance theatre pieces, musicals. And underlying
each one, somewhere, was a question or set of questions that neither
I nor the artists knew how to answer.
Questions: Asking questions, digging for the how, not being obsessed
by the why, thats what a dramaturg does. Searches for ideas;
explores how they are communicated theatrically, and designs the
process by which those ideas and that communication are made.
Ideas. Communication. Process.
thats another good word: some of you
will note that were producing a national tour next year of
Rough House, which we accidentally finished during a production
workshop a couple years ago. So were a non-producing company
currently touring a show across the country. I love that.
Ten years ago, we commissioned a writer named Ned Dickens to write
a prequel called JOCASATA to his version of OEDIPUS,
famously produced by Die in Debt under the Gardiner Expressway,
directed by Sarah Stanley. Over the past decade (were now
celebrating our 10th anniversary on this project with Ned) weve
commissioned 5 more plays in what has become Neds seven-play
cycle, CITY OF WINE.
The CITY OF WINE is absurd and far too big for Nightswimming: seven
plays, 90 plus actors. So we partnered with the University of Alberta
and Humber College and then with a major classical festival. We
found the resources, over time, a long time, to commission Ned,
hold workshops, set up student productions, do public readings.
We believe in Ned, that he needs to write these large scale, large
cast plays. And that he will do so.
Patience is a huge part of Faith.
But the work, not surprisingly, was slow. Until about two years
ago. When we realized that in order to make this huge project happen,
we had to make itbigger. So we have assembled a partnership with
10 theatre training programs across the country, from Memorial University
in Newfoundland to Studio 58 and Simon Fraser University in BC.
Over the course of three years, those schools will participate in
the development and workshopping of the seven plays. In the third
year, seven of the schools will each produce one of the seven plays
in their school seasons. One will produce a French translation;
and one will create an eighth play as a prologue to begin the cycle.
Ned, Naomi and I will travel to the schools to lead workshops and
bring the 100 plus student actors, designers and other artists into
this epic world.
But even that wasnt big enough. We realized that it would
great for us to see all the school productions in fact, the
goal of all this is to design a machine, a structure, to finish
the plays and test them on stage
for isnt the point of
any and all play development processes to give birth to the show?
but that it would be a shame to not then bring all the productions
together so that everyone students, faculty and the public
could see the cycle in its entirety.
So weve partnered with the National Arts Centre to work toward
a City of Wine Festival in May 2009 featuring three runs of the
complete cycle nine student productions and a symposium
on the ideas that underlie the cycle: leadership and civic responsibility.
I describe this project because it, in so many ways, exemplifies
what weve tried to do over the past decade:
- do things we couldnt do anywhere else
- make partnerships with other companies a central part of our work
- commission projects because of our faith in the writers
- look for rich ideas, search for the best ways to communicate those
ideas and design a process by which to explore, create and refine
- and to never say no, we cant do that.
Which brings me back to Suzan-Lori Parks and her 365 Days/365
Plays project. Theres an act of faith. She wrote a play
every day short plays for one year starting November
13, 2002. At the end of her year, her dramaturg Bonnie Metzgar then
said: so, what now? And they decided not only to get all 365 plays
produced, but to have them produced on the day that each was written;
and to not just do it with one company, but to do it with 52 companies,
one for each week; and to not just do it in one city, but to do
it in 15 major US cities; and to not just do it in those cities,
but to set up a network to facilitate universities, galleries, dance
companies, performance artists and so many others across the US
and abroad to join in the production of these short plays.
Now, in the seven months since the performances started on November
13, dozens and dozens of organizations from the large and
established to the small and just born are presenting her
plays each day across the United States and beyond.
This has not happened very much in Canada and I really wonder why?
Heres a brilliant, acclaimed writer, a fascinating, challenging
project that is engaging communities, bringing together artists
and spectators and proving that big ideas can galvanize and inspire.
Is it timidity? Is it because shes American? Is it too big?
It is because shes a woman. Is it because shes black.
Is it the challenging form or difficult content? Or, even more depressing,
is it true what someone said to me the other day: that no one here
knows who Suzan-Lori Parks is?
To do my small part to combat this, here is todays play, written
June 1st 2004.
THE RED BLANKET by Suzan-Lori Parks
Read from the audience by:
Over the next three days, I cant wait to hear the things you
never say, to learn the words that articulate how and what you want
I urge you all to make waves. Not because you should. Not for its
But because you have the faith to dive into the unknown.
THE RED BLANKET (June 1st) by Suzan-Lori
2 Chairs, one has a tiny folded red
blanket on it.
2 people come to sit.
One takes the blanket off the chair.
OTHER: That was my blanket.
OTHER: It was on my chair.
ONE: First come first
Other grabs One by the throat.
And raises his free hand in the air, making a fist.
Ones hands go to his neck in the universal sign of choking.
Then, the Peace Dove passes overhead,
And onstage falls another red blanket
Gently and completely from Gods graceas if the red blanket
Was one of the Doves feathers,
Which the Dove gracefully discarded as it passed by.
One and the Other watch the blanket descend toward them,
Then slowly move from their war tableau
Into a double-blanketed tableau, a tenuous peace
Looking like 2 bears listening to
The sounds of winter from a cave.
OTHER: You too.
Copyright Suzan-Lori Parks
Reprinted by permission from 365 Days/365 Plays by Suzan-Lori
(Theatre Communications Group, 2006)
Back to top ^
Links of Interest
Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA)
Association for Theatre Research (CATR)
Development Centres of Canada
Guild of Canada
of Canadian Theatres
Atlantic Resource Centre
Back to top ^