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book review

Jordan Tannahill is presented the Governor General's Literary Award for drama by Governor General David Johnston during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Wednesday, November 26, 2014.Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

Theatre-maker and writer Jordan Tannahill is one of those magnetic humans who seem to be friends with everybody. His new book of critical thought on the state of English-language theatre, Theatre of the Unimpressed, acknowledges and describes the work of dozens of his friends and past collaborators, of whom – full disclosure – I'm one. (He directed a Toronto production of my play The Innocents in 2012, and the following year I staged a play at Videofag, the performance venue he runs with actor William Christopher Ellis in Toronto's Kensington Market.)

The youngest-ever winner of the Governor-General's Award for Drama and an arts community leader with contacts nationally and abroad, Tannahill is well positioned to offer a survey of contemporary theatre trends, which he researched in part through a year of conversations with theatre artists both local and distant, obscure and famous, his friends and not-yet-friends.

His book is marked by a love for contemporary theatre that's synonymous with a desire to see it overcome what he perceives to be its defects. "There's a prevailing, predictable theatre that's risk averse and wary of failure," he argues, "and there's a dark-horse theatre that's predicated on risk and failure as preconditions of a transformative live event."

To illustrate this thesis, Tannahill points to what he sees as the stagnant conservatism of most North American regional theatres' programming: "well-made plays" with traditional structures, "popular chestnuts" imported from the United States or Britain, old-fashioned stagings of classics "sapped of their incendiary potential."

He contrasts this cultural decay with the vitality of the theatrical avant-garde. Much of Theatre of the Unimpressed is a descriptive and lightly evaluative tour of contemporary theatre practices, including Tannahill's own work. We're presented with a radical reimagining of American classic Death of A Salesman, staged by New York ensemble 600 Highwaymen in an abandoned corner of a mall. A six-hour performance piece "with no set dramatic text," by Britain-based ensemble Forced Entertainment. Tannahill's rehabilitation of Sheila Heti's long-abandoned play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, performed by a mixed company of the author's and director's friends, professional and not.

Tannahill's prose is lively and he's got a great nose for the telling anecdote. He's a writer who can turn a description of a failed orgy into a revealing, even poignant extended simile about dull theatre. His criticisms of the theatrical establishment, within which he's also embedded (two new plays of his will premiere as part of Canadian Stage's 2015-16 season), are well aimed. For example, he's right to suggest that, in an age of mass protests over racial politics in the United States, a heartwarming, conventional production of Driving Miss Daisy may be, to say the least, a bit misjudged.

That said, his critique of such theatrical conservatism in fact reflects the status quo among the theatrical avant-garde. And the theatrical avant-garde, considered globally (as Tannahill considers it), is a subculture with its own power politics, whose leading figures often wind up with some form of institutional power.

A theatre that valourizes ideals of risk and failure over virtuosity and success, Tannahill argues, "is nothing less than a renunciation of perfection as a tyranny imposed not only upon theatre, but upon society at large by capitalist hegemony." But did capitalism create the striving for perfection? That striving seems to be quite legible in the writings of Plato, Maimonides and other thinkers who lived before the birth of the modern liberal idea. And is there any theatre, or any art, that doesn't involve the risk of failure? Or that doesn't strive for some version of success, however unconventional?

It's worth noticing that Tannahill has the platform to advance an ethos of "risk and failure" precisely because he's had perhaps the single most extraordinary success of any Canadian theatre artist of his generation. True, his work often subverts the realist style that's ubiquitous at North American institutional theatres: his plays and performance pieces, full of emotional insight, have taken forms that include a live-streamed webcast and a magic-realist production with a cast of non-professional youth artists, both discussed in Theatre of the Unimpressed.

But he's also a rare human type described by Marshall McLuhan: a zeitgeist savant who can read his era, internalize his moment's changes in technology and ideological mood, and adapt in real time. An interdisciplinary performance about queer identity, a play in part about bullying and performed by amateurs – these might rebel against the conventions of institutional theatres, but they also respond to what the alternative theatre scene exhibits the highest demand for right now. They're fashionable. They're unlikely to divide or confront the audience at which they're aimed. What they're most likely to do? Succeed.

Tannahill's most persuasive suggestions for how to revitalize English-language theatre have little connection with his book's thesis about risk and failure. More important is his call for a theatre that acknowledges "its audience's capacity to think abstractly, profoundly, with nuance." He goes on to make another crucial point, which he later unpacks in detail: "Complexity, specificity and relevance – which together can be described as a play's 'rigour of thinking' – are the fundamental hallmarks of resonant theatre, far more so than a play's production values."

It's the complexity, specificity, and relevance of Tannahill's case-by-case analyses that make Theatre of the Unimpressed essential reading for anybody interested in the state of contemporary theatre and performance, even if the book's central argument has a bit of a modish rattle.

Daniel Karasik's latest play, Little Death, is published by BookThug.

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