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Sunday, March 4, 2012

First-Person: Rick Miller on Critics

“We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a spark plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.” 
(Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene)
“This one’s done, Rick. Stick a fork in it and let it go.” 
(Richard Ouzounian, from a Toronto Star review of HARDSELL 2.0)
by Rick Miller

My last article dealt primarily with ‘control’, specifically control of the creative process and one’s career in the arts.  This one deals with ‘survival’.  
Survival in the entertainment industry conjures up images of a plasticized Wayne Newton or a Botox-ed Liza Minelli but I want to explore something closer to home: why I keep pushing my shows to survive in a competitive market instead of just “letting them go”, to paraphrase our esteemed Toronto Star critic. Granted, I wish we hadn’t invited critics to that show (which was still trying to find its form) but the sheer gall of a theatre critic dispensing The Last Judgment on something I have been working on for 5 years astounds me. The fact is that HARDSELL 2.0 is not only surviving but thriving: I am premiering the French version at Festival le Carrefour in June, we’ll be shooting a short film that will hopefully lead to a TV series adaptation, and I’ve already premiered the in-school info literacy workshop. My point is that the fate of a show shouldn’t lie in the hands of a critic. If I had listened to the ‘critic within’ in 1994, I would have killed the cast-party joke that was to become MacHomer, which is still on tour and is premiering in New York and at Stratford this spring. More on MacHomer and critics later…


Survival.
Biology tells us that in order for something to survive, it needs to replicate, to make identical copies of itself.  This applies to cells, but it also applies to ‘sells’ (memes, ideas, jingles, slogans, etc.)  Whereas cells replicate within organisms, ‘sells’ replicate between organisms.  Ex: if my clever idea passes from my brain/computer to your brain/computer and then you tell two friends, and so on, and so on… the idea replicates and survives.  If it doesn’t, it dies.  This applies to ideas, it applies to this article, and it also applies to the shows we create as theatre artists.  If a play doesn’t ‘replicate’ – whether in people’s imaginations, on their screens or in season brochures – it dies.  
Of course, not everything that survives and replicates is inherently beneficial to humanity. From a ‘cell’ point of view, just think of viruses or cancer cells. From a ‘sell’ point of view, think of religious fundamentalism, invasive advertising, child pornography, unsustainable development, the Kardashians… all very good at replicating but not very beneficial to the species as a whole.  I’m sure you can think of plays that have survived despite being god-awful and critically loathed (Grease, anyone? And yes, I’ve been in 3 productions of Grease.) 
If some plays don’t deserve to survive, others surely don’t deserve to die. In English Canadian theatre, the system generally doesn’t support the kind of long gestation process that devised theatre requires. Due to union regulations, most theatre companies tend to fall into the 3-week-rehearsal-3-week-run pattern because it’s all they can afford. That kind of product-driven system doesn’t usually lead to long-lasting success. On the other hand, if you are a process-driven theatre company, what is presented onstage to a certain audience is merely part of the larger evolution of that piece.  You find the flaws – there are always flaws – and try to correct them at the next stage of the process.  This doesn’t mean you need to flog a dead horse but it allows a certain measure of time in which a play can hopefully find a sustainable form. If there is no such form and your play truly isn’t connecting with anyone, then you can let go knowing you gave it your best shot. 
What role should critics play in this bizarre alchemy of show creation?  I’m not an expert in the theory of criticism and I suspect that, ever since there have been plays, there have also been critics. I’m also not an expert in biology but I suspect that there is a biological equivalent to a ‘critic’; some organism in the body that dictates which cells get to survive and which ones do not.  I suppose we need some kind of filter to separate the wheat from the chaff, the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’, or the ‘mediocre’ from the ‘god-awful’. Critics have a role to play in the culture industry and there are certain critics whose opinions I value immensely. Others wield too much power with too much arrogance. 
Does it sound like I’ve spent my career being critically lambasted? On the contrary, I’ve been blessed with glowing reviews for most of my professional life.  Sure, HARDSELL 2.0 had some nasty pans amongst the raves but Bigger Than Jesus has been uniformly lauded and MacHomer has had only two bad reviews in its 16 years of touring.  It’s worth mentioning that both were in the Globe & Mail, my paper of choice.  Here are the headlines for those two reviews:
 “Mmm…murder” (in 2000)
“Is this a tired remount I see before me?” (in 2011)
In the more recent Globe review, the critic quoted from my last CharPo article (the one about control): “I don’t want to spend three months every year begging for corporate sponsorship or sucking up to government granting agencies for a few thousand bucks when I could make the same money doing MacHomer for a weekend in Albuquerque.” Although his review made many other valid points, he unfortunately was left with the impression that I “revive MacHomer at this point simply to fund (my) other projects.” Not true.  Yes, MacHomer has helped fund other less-commercial projects but that isn’t why I have pushed for its survival.  I honestly love performing it, in the way you love having a few drinks with an old high-school buddy: part nostalgia, part stupid fun. I’ve also received countless testimonials from high schools that MacHomer somehow opened a door for students and they now love Shakespeare (or at least hate him a little bit less). The fact that people still flock to see it sometimes amazes me but it’s a testament to two things: the staying power of the source material (Bart + Bard) and an insistence on constantly improving the show to keep it alive. After 16 years, 160 cities and half a million people, MacHomer is still happily D’OH-ing around the world.
I’ll wrap this up on a broader note about survival.  In order for our industry to survive and thrive, I think we need to keep embracing new ways of telling stories, of disseminating information and of connecting with young people.  To that end, all of the plays I have managed to keep alive are branching out into transmedia territory. We’ve developed a MacHomer DVD and online educational modules for schools, Bigger Than Jesus is being turned into a film with inter-faith outreach materials, and HARDSELL 2.0 is pushing in the new directions I detailed earlier. Having been somewhat isolated with all my previous projects, I am now happily embracing large-scale partnerships and collaborations with artists of various disciplines as well as sponsors from the corporate and not-for-profit world.  We may not all agree on everything but we all want to contribute to the world’s culture in a lasting way.  
May your work live long and prosper.
RM, March 2012
MacHomer plays NYU March 30-31 and Stratford May 2-26. Bigger Than Jesus (co-created with Daniel Brooks) plays NYU April 4-7 and Montreal (in French) April 12-28.  HARDSELL 2.0 (in French) plays Quebec City June 7-10.  For more info, www.rickmiller.ca

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