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Farewell to Brimstone & Treacle (last time I’ll badger you about this damn play, I promise)

May 17, 2015

First of all, a BIG thank you to everyone who came all the way out to the East End, parked their keisters in the SideMart Theatrical Grocery​, and saw Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle presented by Precisely Peter Productions​. It was a difficult show in many ways, but also an extremely artistically rewarding one for me as an independent theatre practitioner. We had a whole bunch of outstanding reviews, I heard many positive comments about our use of music in the piece, and I especially want to shout-out John Shooter, a fearless, wonderful director (and also an extremely gregarious, intelligent, sweet guy) who took so many risks and made lots of great choices in order to help get this unique and thrilling piece of art onto a stage in Toronto. Rare talent and dedication went into it, and everyone on the cast and crew rightfully should be (and I think, is) dead proud of their achievements in contributing to it. If you missed this run, too bad, because I doubt you will ever see the like of it again.

I want to make a couple of observations about this show, the reception it received, and speak a bit more generally about indie theatre in this town. Now that I’ve spent some time outside of the non-stop treadmill of indie theatre production, with a few weeks under my belt of steady work in one place (for a change), I can look back at the hit-and-run nature of my career — as a sound designer first and foremost, and also as a multi-department freelance stage technician — with a bit of objectivity. First of all, theatre as a cultural force in Toronto is absolutely thriving. I’m sure there are more venues and artists presenting amazing, top-shelf work here than almost everywhere else in North America and certainly there are more than anywhere else in Canada. A dizzying quantity of young people like myself are quite eager to enter the scene so they can make really exciting, fresh new art that deserves a hearing.

But we are struggling mighty hard in order to do it. Almost all of us have to take other jobs (plural) in order to subsidize the art we want to make, if we can even find the time. Producing your own theatrical work (that is, putting up the capital investment to hire people, build things, book the space to do it all in, organize and plan around a fiendishly difficult production schedule where NO ONE has open availability, manage public relations and promotion, track expenses and budget) is, to put it bluntly, a total bitch. Then it feels like your livelihood depends on begging anyone and everyone you know to carve time out of their schedule just to check out what you did, which is tough even with tickets priced insultingly cheap compared to the priceless nature of the experience, to say nothing of the actual costs associated with it. If you’re like me, the friends you are closest with are also in a million shows of their own, and getting them to come out is a bit like a chef asking all the other chefs they know to come to the opening of their new restaurant. It’s incredibly intimidating, and you feel sheepish even asking them to show up, because who could really blame them for saying no?

Brimstone was no exception. I believed strongly in the people behind this show (though I’d never worked with any of them before, except for the unbelievably talented costume and set designer Rachel Forbes), and during our time together I went to work on my social networks evangelizing for them and this dark, disturbing play about a family in trouble who are tempted by the Devil incarnate. I relentlessly bugged my hundreds of connected followers and friends on Twitter and Facebook (heaven knows how any of you had the strength remaining to click on this link and read this far), up to and throughout the run of the show, talking it up at every opportunity, and in the end less than ten of these people were sufficiently moved by my noisy hawking to actually come out and see for themselves. Since we had a fairly brief two-week run of performances, that means approximately 0.5 of my engaged, savvy, theatre-going friends came per show. This is not atypical for a small indie production, and I already knew that going in, so it was not a shock — but still something of a disappointment. After all, I worked really hard during the rehearsal process and in my own time to build the sound design to exacting standards, and not even enough people came to pay me for that time or cover the cost of my own equipment (donated to the production, although it wasn’t donated to me). We didn’t cut any corners to get this show on its feet; everyone brought their best to the table and it showed. It was artistically fulfilling, but a financial write-off for our entire production team.

Could it be that people were scared away by the show’s reputation? Perhaps. It was originally banned by BBC-TV for its unflinching portrayal of Pattie, a character with a disability who is sexually assaulted. There are very few issues of our day that cut to the heart of our anxieties more than rape culture, and beyond just being taboo it’s quite naturally not a matter that most people are keen to delve into for entertainment. But I had a few really interesting conversations with John about his goals for this production, and it was not to shock people, but rather to provoke their thoughts and discussions about private, unspokenly shared cultural assumptions when it comes to family matters and people in our midst who fall on hard times. To whom can we turn, when faith and family prove false and untrustworthy? Whose responsibility is it to take care of the unlucky and vulnerable ones? What does it say about our human nature when we desperately try and keep certain things in our past a secret, yet blurt them out at the slightest provocation? If you did happen to catch one of the shows, I’d be happy to hear your comments about our work. If you stayed away (not because you were busy with your own show, but because you were trepidatious about the content) I want to hear about that too. In order for a theatrical project to be a complete success, it should do its best to start a dialogue. And I’d like to see our little effort succeed in that goal, too.

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