Theatre, of course, doesn’t officially know borders; it’s an international activity, and indeed one thing it can do is break down national (or even notional) boundaries between people. The exchanges of talent, naturally, is subject to the granting of work permits — American Actors’ Equity has been famously wary of allowing too many British actors the chance to work on Broadway, and a strange exchange scheme was put in place in the 80s, still operating today, between the two countries in which the rights of actors to work in the other country are ‘swapped’ for the equivalent amount of work weeks, unless someone is deemed to be a talent of international standing and no such restrictions apply.
But no such exchanges apply to plays and playwrights. Subject to the payment of royalties, a play can be performed anywhere, anytime. But all too often theatres and theatremakers close ranks and are inward facing: there’s enough new material to produce on our doorsteps, goes the thinking and often the practice, where the writer is actually nearby and to hand, than to have to import it from abroad.
So the work that comes from abroad tends to be the tried-and-already-tested, like the National’s current rare offering of a new American play, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit that was already seen at Chicago’s Steppenwolf. We don’t, of course, recognise much of a border when it comes to Irish plays and playwrights, often treating them as extension of home writers. Tom Murphy, who has just been celebrated in a three play season called DruidMurphy at Hampstead Theatre, had to come to England to see the first production of his 1961 play Whistle In the Dark, after Dublin’s Abbey Theatre had rejected it and it was done at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East instead.
Another Dublin writer Sebastian Barry has also been regularly produced over here first, though his 1995 play The Only True History of Lizzie Finn was premiered first at the Abbey. Michael Billington, reviewing the play’s current UK premiere nearly 20 years later in yesterday’s Guardian, quotes Barry once describing this play as “my only out-and-out disaster in theatre”. To which Billington then adds upon seeing the production now playing at Southwark Playhouse, “it’s hard to understand why it failed so badly: it’s an eloquent, quietly touching play that has much to say about class, custom and the slow decay of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.” So plays like Murphy’s Whistle in the Dark, now an acknowledged modern classic, first saw the light of day in London, while Barry’s play is now being seen in a new light.
Different countries can offer new perspectives and opportunities for plays than their home territories did. But if Ireland is close enough to us to make it feel part of the same theatrical landscape, what to make of the apparent lack of interest, or even curiosity, between North America and Canada? Last week Howard Sherman, an occasional contributor to The Stage, posted an interesting blog provocatively entitled “What’s Wrong with Canadian Plays?” As he asks, “Quick, name five modern Canadian playwrights (Canadian natives, put your hands down). Can’t do it? OK, name five Canadian plays that aren’t The Drawer Boy or The Drowsy Chaperone. Having trouble? I bet you are.”
Interestingly enough, the former play is even now receiving its UK premiere: as Sally Stott pointed out in her review for The Stage last week,”A modern classic-in-the-making that deserves to be seen more widely, Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy won multiple awards when it opened in Canada in 1999, but is only now receiving its London premiere, thanks to the Finborough’s consistently excellent work championing underexposed gems.”
In fact we see precious little Canadian theatre over here — and what we do see can be precious. Reviewing the UK premiere of another Canadian entry The Leisure Society earlier this year at the Trafalgar Studios, I wrote in The Stage, “We don’t, as a rule, see too many contemporary French-Canadian plays in London, and Francois Archambault’s derivative, brutish but at least mercifully short The Leisure Society doesn’t make me worry that we’re missing too much.”
I realise now, of course, that I was making far too sweeping a statement; you can’t judge an entire theatrical nation on the basis of an exposure to one play from it. But it’s a striking fact, as Howard Sherman points out, how little opportunity Americans get to be exposed to Canadian work. As he writes, “Surely U.S. Customs is not stopping Canadian plays at the border, which seems sufficiently porous to allow U.S. works to make the northbound trek unencumbered. It’s not as if there isn’t a theatrical tradition in Canada (remember that Sir Tyrone Guthrie started the Stratford Festival ten years before founding his eponymously named Minneapolis venture) and thriving theater communities in the major cities of each province. And even if our northern neighbor has mixed English and French heritage, let’s remember that authors as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Marc Camelotti and Yasmina Reza have written their plays in French, all of which have gone on to international success—so language can’t be the barrier.”
Nor, he suggests, is there an absence of new work being produced: “I am taking it on faith that there are a lot of terrific new plays being done in Canada because Canadian theaters’ seasons, based on a cursory survey, aren’t made up solely of imported works. New work is being done and (presumably) people are going to see it.”
Perhaps the answer(s) lie elsewhere. “So I first have to ask what’s happening in Canadian literary agencies? Are they aggressively courting the literary offices and artistic directors of American companies—and if they are, is the response welcoming? As for the theater companies themselves, I am used to seeing a barrage of advertising from the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, often in glossy inserts to newspapers and magazines backed by tourism councils. But where are the companies that specialize in new works? Are they the victim, like so many companies that focus on what’s new, of taking a backseat to that which is bigger, higher-volume and already better known? In point of fact, Canada’s greatest cultural export is a commercial enterprise, Cirque du Soleil, the circus behemoth that encircles the globe with its particular style of circus arts. Maybe the clowns are blocking everyone’s view.”
Funnily enough, I am already booked for my second consecutive visit to the Stratford Festival next month, after Edinburgh — but it’s of course primarily a classics driven season. And Sherman suggests that it and the Shaw Festivals are probably not helping the cause of visibility for Canadian plays and playwrights. “They are major tourism attractions with huge audience capacity, and because they are at their height during the summer, they offer the vacation and junket-ready U.S. media the perfect opportunity to take a northerly jaunt to see many plays in a concentrated period of time, fulfilling some unspoken quota of Canadian theater coverage while visiting bucolic towns. But what’s on display there are fine classics by Shakespeare and Shaw and, with increasing frequency, U.S. musicals. The work is Canadian theater, but rarely Canadian literature.” (At Stratford this year, the big musical is 42nd Street, while the Shaw has the currently ubiquitous Ragtime, which curiously received its world premiere in Toronto back in the Garth Drabinsky days, but is American written, and is also currently to be found at London’s Regent’s Park).
Of course, critics (as I routinely say) can’t be everywhere. Nor can audiences. The first job of a theatre community is to address its own people; if the plays travel beyond, that’s great, but it shouldn’t be their primary aim. Yes, there’s a world beyond our own borders; and theatre allows us to see a bigger picture. Some of that, of course, comes to us via exposure in festivals from LIFT and the Barbican to next month’s Edinburgh jamboree. But it’s not a failure of theatre not to travel. Sometimes success at home is sufficient.