Thursday, 19 April 2018

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Darwin Lyons

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

Darwin Lyons trained in directing with Ravi Jain at Why Not Theatre in Toronto

(March 23, 2018)  This is a blog post about my thoughts after assistant directing Animal Farm, the play, written by Anthony MacMahon and directed by Ravi Jain. Animal Farm tells the tale of human adults, dressed in farm animal costumes, arguing about equality and equity in the political landscape of neoliberalism. The main response from people leaving the theatre is, “I have never seen anything like that in my life.” Some of those people said that with joy, some said it with a fire lit inside of them to start a revolution, some said it with confusion, and some said it with discomfort.

Anthony’s adaptation takes the rhetoric and tone of the novel and applies it to our time. Animal Farm is the closest thing I have seen to Epic Theatre in Toronto. Epic Theatre is Brecht’s idea of theatre as a tool to distance, and alienate the audience. I’ve always understood this to mean making an audience think as well as feel, to disorient them by not giving them catharsis. (Brecht scholars can contact me to point out the inaccuracies of my interpretation at ArguringAboutExactlyWhatDeadPeopleMeantIsOfNoInterestToMe@yahoo.com). Animal Farm brings us in and makes us feel, then pulls us away and makes us think. The modulated voices and rhetoric distance us and make us think about current political partisanship; but the sweet characters and hilarious jokes pull us in and make us feel. This push and pull can be unsettling. We are rarely unsettled in the theatre. We are familiar with being entertained, saddened, catharted, or disappointed but not unsettled. So what do audiences do with this feeling? Audiences are reacting differently with the feeling of being unsettled, and we can learn a lot about ourselves from how we deal with that feeling.

Animal Farm asks us to look at privilege. It asks us to look at how tempting it is to take glutinous care of ourselves while ignoring others’ starving. It asks us to see how easy it is to tell ourselves that we have power because we worked for it, not because it was handed to us through genetics and chance. It shows us how a lack of stability mixed with a lack of political and emotional education creates angry and dangerous masses. Animal Farm asks us to confront what makes our world, right now, unlivable for some and exorbitant for others.

Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy,
Michaela Washburn, Leah Cherniak.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
In order to be sustainable, theatre needs to exist in capitalism. It is supposed to sell and make people want to come back and buy more tickets. Artists need people to buy their art, otherwise they won’t be able to survive and they won’t be able to make more art. Comedies sell well because they make us feel good, and we know what to expect. Tragedies sell well because they give us catharsis, and again we know what to expect. But if art has to be entertainment, and entertainment has to have a bottom line, can art ever explore areas of humanity beyond the binaries? I think it’s really cool that Animal Farm is so unsettling and is presented on such a large platform. I think it’s cool because I find our current world unsettling. I think art can be many different things, I think it can entertain, it can teach me and it can stir me to change. It can also placate me and allow me to tune out the world around me. How do we reconcile art that unsettles, with art that needs to inspire audiences to spend more money?

Besides Animal Farm I have rarely seen an audience listening so intently but without unified reactions. What I mean is that usually when an audience is on the edge of their seat they all laugh together, gasp together, or cry together. In the case of Animal Farm the audience is listening, but one person will laugh uproariously while another gasps in fear. What this is teaching me is that the push and pull of Epic Theatre is different for each person. One person might laugh at the satire of the one percent, and another might feel attacked. I think this push and pull is what is valuable. This push and pull makes me question my reactions, it makes me question what makes me unsettled. That feeling of being unsettled can make me put my head in the sand, or can make me ask myself: why do I want to feel placated? Do I want to live in a world that is full of selfishness and hate? Do I want to be full of selfishness and hate? I think that from that push and pull, from witnessing what my fellow audience members laugh and gasp at, we can push forward our conversations about our world.

Animal Farm looks at two revolutions, one against a tyrannical farmer and one against an oppressed pig turned oppressor. The second revolution, which we (spoiler alert) don’t see the aftermath of, is the most interesting to me because it teases at the revolutions needed of our time. As an artist, I struggle with ending a play on a question mark. Sometimes I think a question mark is the most useful because it asks the audience to come to their own conclusions. Sometimes I think as artists we need to offer alternative options. Animal Farm’s ending is really unsettling to me, I think because it is the revolution being asked of us now and I don’t know what would come next. We didn’t know what would come after Monarchy, but we fought for something better. What we have now is still oppressive and unequal, so what can we do to change it?

The ensemble of Animal Farm at Soulpepper Theatre
Photo by Cylla von Tiedmann
It is interesting to watch audiences take in Animal Farm, and then process it in conversations about Trump and Doug Ford at intermission. This play is so close to our life (maybe minus some pig costumes). What audiences are teaching me about this play is that we are in a new political moment. Epic Theatre was created in moments of need for political upheaval. Epic Theatre tried to make its audience wake up, to see their current circumstances with new eyes and then take action. As I read the news these days, I try to play a simple game with myself. The game is: how will this period in time be taught in history classes of the future? What will 15-year-old students think when they hear that the United States voted in an admitted sexual assaulter and white supremacist? Will they be baffled when they hear that we knew about global warming but didn’t stop filling landfills? What will young law students say when they study the cases of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine? Will they be appalled by how we allowed these injustices to happen? I hope so. I hope the generations of the future will think us horrendous. But more than that I hope that that we are at a turning point as a society. I hope we are beginning to wake up and that we will use this “awakeness” to make an equitable world, to have our own Animal Revolution.

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The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 1, 2018.


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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