Thursday, 9 March 2017

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Michael O’Brien

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Michael O’Brien trained in digital media creation and directing with Sarah Garton Stanley at SpiderWebShow

(February 27, 2017) Hello Theatre Ontario! Here’s to Spring! (soon, yes?) I’m writing to you as I wind up my winter mentorship with Sarah Garton Stanley and SpiderWebShow Performance. It has truly been a season spent at the cutting edge, full of discovery and exploration. This is my third and closing report.

The first half of my mentorship was about learning the “who/what/how” of SpiderWebShow. These questions are connected. They are a diverse team of artists, technicians and arts administrators based at points all across the country. The company they run together is an evolving series of online theatre and “theatre-based” projects. Their aim is to keep developing a virtual/digital meeting/performance place where Canadian theatre people can explore media, arts, social progress and cultural change, and their instrument/stage is “new media”—the internet—which is what drew me to them in the first place.

My first phase, through late 2016, was about learning to use various types of online media. I participated in an amazing experiment—helping create “CdnStudio”, a virtual live-performance event at Queen’s University in Kingston. There, we had actors perform pieces online “together” from diverse locations. Later, through the year-end, I also spent time exploring/curating SpiderWebShow’s web magazine/archives, CdnTimes. And by the New Year, I was ready to begin a unique contribution of my own—an interactive, social media column/stage called SpiderWire! There, I began to create a new (for me) type of “performance”—a multimedia, hyperlink-enhanced “sideshow” in which I “spoke” both on behalf of myself and my mentors.

SpiderWire #1 was called “WORDS/SPEECH”. Here, I expressed my increasing frustration with words as a mode of communication and my wish/aim to begin speaking with pictures, sound, video and hyperlinks.

SpiderWire #2 was called “FAITH” and I addressed the theme of the current edition of CdnTimes, “Keeping the Faith”. Writers there were speaking of their faith being tested by the nature of their profession, by personal challenges, and/or by political/social developments in Canada/USA/World. I tried to treat the theme of “keeping the faith” with empathy and whimsy; and, as I put the piece together, I think I crystallized the essence of my own personal/social faith. “Let’s be each others’ lucky stars!” is my new motto.

SpiderWire #3 was called “BEING THERE ... OR NOT”. It reflected my December experience helping CdnStudio. As I watched those student actors in different rooms play scenes together in cyberspace, I thought of the many possibilities in making “absent” performers “present”. I thought of all different kinds of “absence” and “presence”. And now, speaking in a language of images and links, I explored both “light” and “dark” implications of this new power. As I created this post, I had an epiphany about new media: this power is not negating or overruling our humanity—it’s revealing it, in a new light!

(*By now, I was really enjoying creating these columns, and I found myself devoting more time and care to each post, seeking out just the right interactive enhancement to each point I made.)

SpiderWire #4 was called “RESIST? COMPLY? ESCAPE?” because by now I began feeling politics in the USA taking a frightening turn. A race/gender-baiting autocracy seemed to be on the rise and it made me think of the predictions/decisions that German artists had to make, back in the 1930s. I thought specifically of the brilliant filmmaker couple/team Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, whose relationship ended abruptly in 1934 over exactly these issues. I researched their stories/careers and then interpreted them with images, hyperlinks and video—and words too! I hope this offered an “experience” for readers, as they discovered their story, then explored the stories within their story—all strung together, like a spider web.

SpiderWire #5 – This time, I stepped side-stage, to use my column to amplify a colleague’s message: a message that I and SpiderWebShow want to support/champion. So, I lent my “stage” to Brian Quirt, Director of the Banff Playwrights Colony. I reframed his recent column for the Banff Centre website, in which he described all he is doing to advance equity and diversity in Canadian New Play Development. 

SpiderWire #6 was called “HOW NOW IS SOON?” and again I addressed these uncertain times. I spoke now as a contemporary playwright who recently tried to speculate about the near future. I illustrated how even the best writers will always get the future wrong. I offered illustrations—of poorly timed warnings and of tragedies unforeseen by storytellers. And/but as I wrote, another epiphany, which I shared!—Don’t try predicting the future—use your Art to make your audience make the future! 

SpiderWire #7 – A guest-post again. This time, it was a 90-minute SoundCloud audiocast. This was a symposium/event recorded in Edmonton in November called “Particle Collisions: The Small Scale Theatre Experiment”, hosted by my SpiderWeb mentor Sarah Garton Stanley. Here, again, I amplified a message. I provided/expanded a “space” for small theatre creators to discuss the unique role that small theatre plays in Canada’s national culture. (I love audiocasts, and I hope to make my own someday!)

SpiderWire #8 (most recent) is all mine again, called “IF ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE, wtfxz INTERNET?” -- I asked this because I found myself wanting to sum up recent discoveries, insights and lessons. I tried to connect the current “internet revolution” to ages past, and to basic facts about human nature and expression. Is the internet age an unprecedented event in human history? I asked, and speculated wildly. Here, I think I really found the balance I want to strike as a “web presence”—a playful blend of wisdom and mischief. As I mapped out my train of thought, I planted a few “surprises” in the hyperlinks—and made evermore hyperbolic predictions—before coming round to my (I hope?) lucid conclusion. 

AND DURING ALL THIS, (Jan/Feb) other SpiderWebShow action moved forward and I was mentored in all that too. The team kept up its weekly cross-Canada company meetings: as many as eleven people at once in online face-to-face time on Google Hangouts. In early January, Michael Wheeler stepped up to become full-time company Artistic Director while Sarah Garton Stanley shifted to “Creative Consultant”; so, Michael became something of a mentor to me too. At that time, Michael and I “met” online (with Digital Production Manager Camila Diaz-Varela) and we developed/expanded/clarified a company vision of “social media presence” for SpiderWebShow. (Social media, we all know by now, is “Performance”!) We strategized a daily/weekly online presence for SpiderWebShow—not too little, not too much, but steady—a balance of both new and previous CdnTimes content, keeping SpiderWebShow visible, current, relevant, insightful and provocative (without being too aggressive/persistent, as some online entities do!) My own column SpiderWire was very much a part of this plan; and we hope this Jan/Feb strategy will stand as a model of how the company will keep growing in 2017.

AND SO! This brings us to today. My mentorship weeks are basically done; but I don’t want them to end! As I segue into my own (personal) next project, I hope to do a few more things. I want to post at least one more column—SpiderWire #9—and round off the series with a flourish! I also plan to participate/ appear in a company fundraising video campaign, and to research possibilities towards a possible political/satirical “Twitter drama” this company might launch later in the year. I’m also very interested in learning more about “Revolutions”, SpiderWebShow’s continuing series of interviews with performing arts “elders”. I also really want to know what Sarah and Michael have planned for the next phase of CdnStudio at Queen University! So, I hope to remain in their inside loop in months to come.

That’s a wrap, for now; but really (I hope) not. A good, new relationship has been built between me and SpiderWebShow. Most thrilling, I’ve found a new creative outlet/passion/voice for myself, and I crave more! I’ve a feeling in the next few weeks we might discuss my possible future contribution to the company. I do hope so. I’ve had a terrific winter; I’ve heard it was one of the most sunless winters for Toronto in years, but I didn’t notice, because my discoveries with SpiderWebShow shone so bright!

Thank you, mentor Sarah Garton Stanley. Thank you, Michael Wheeler. Thank you, SpiderWebShow Performance for sharing your knowledge, vision and time with me. And thank you so much to you, Theatre Ontario, for this PTTP opportunity, and for all that you do in helping build a vital, dynamic, great artistic community! The world needs us! Onward, all. Here’s to 2017!

Related Reading:

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 1, 2017.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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