Play Fighting

Jordan Tannahill is blowing up the Canadian stage

Photograph by Callan Field
Photograph by Callan FieldPhotograph by Callan Field

In 1497, or so the story goes, the Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli burned his artworks in a public bonfire at the behest of Girolamo Savonarola, a friar and Catholic zealot. It’s unclear why Botticelli fell under the clergyman’s influence, but some historians believe that the painter was atoning for “unchristian” sexual proclivities. He never married, and there were rumours of a kept man.

In the new one-act production Botticelli in the Fire , twenty-seven-year-old Toronto playwright Jordan Tannahill depicts the artist as a stud, a horn dog, and a narcissist. “Everybody wants to fuck Botticelli,” says Tannahill. In the play, the fifteenth century is drawing to a tense close: the plague is rampant, the corrupt House of Medici is on the brink of collapse, and Savonarola is whipping up populist anger against bankers, aristocrats, and sexual libertines. As a beneficiary of Medici, Botticelli knows he’s in trouble. So he cuts a deal with Savonarola, renouncing his art to save his life. “I’m fascinated,” says Tannahill, “by flaming faggots throughout history who have somehow managed to survive.”

The play debuts on April 26 at Toronto’s Canadian Stage company, alongside another Tannahill one-act, Sunday in Sodom , about the Biblical sin city. Both are set in a remote past that resembles the present: the characters may wear shawls or brocaded robes, but they also read Vanity Fair and talk on cellphones.

For Tannahill, delivering a narrative isn’t good enough. If theatre is to remain viable, he says, it must feel vital, in both senses of the word—important, and crackling with energy. In his 2015 book, Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama , Tannahill argues that English-language theatre “is suffering from a crisis of the mundane.” “Great work has existed here and there within our major theatres, but maybe not consistently,” says Tannahill. Programmers and directors rely too heavily on time-worn storytelling formulas. “It’s like a diet exclusively of carbs.”

His bête noire is the “well-made play,” a genre established by nineteenth-century hack Eugène Scribe that offers linear storylines, realistic settings, and a clear message. At its most formulaic, the well-made play takes place in a parlour or dining room, where performers act out a crisis that gets resolved tragically or happily by the time the lights go out. Some of history’s finest playwrights—August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, Eugene O’Neill—worked in this tradition, but they’re outnumbered by their middling contemporaries.

For the last sixty years, well-made plays have been a mainstay of Canadian programming at repertory festivals and regional theatres across the country. Think of standards such as Pygmalion (Shaw Festival, 2015), Hay Fever (Stratford Festival, 2014), or Driving Miss Daisy (Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company, 2014). They’re rarely bad—they tend to be “well-plotted, well-acted, well-designed, well-intentioned,” Tannahill writes—but they’re not exactly thrilling. “I’m bored by almost all of it.”

For theatre to compete in an age of CGI and prestige TV, Tannahill says, it has to capitalize on the one attribute that makes it unique: that it happens live. Actors in drab period costumes reciting staid lines don’t do that. Theatre must provide intimacy, topicality, and risk—a sense that events are working themselves out in real time, perhaps uncomfortably close to where you’re sitting. For Tannahill, a play can be many things—lurid, confusing, historically inaccurate—but it absolutely can’t be boring. “When you forget why it’s called a play,” he says, “you’re doomed.”

In Second Empire France, Tannahill would have been called an enfant terrible : a young upstart who tells the establishment that they’re doing it all wrong. He’s instantly likeable, the kind of guy who prefers hugs to handshakes. He sometimes pulls on the neck of his T-shirt or caresses his chest while talking, habits that in a less sincere person might seem affected.

It can’t hurt that he’s handsome—cut jawline, blue eyes, and a cleft chin. While workshopping Sunday and Botticelli at Canadian Stage, he confidently exchanges ideas with actors and directors decades older than he is and politely intervenes when the performances get too emotive. “There’s a bit too much gestural theatricality going on,” he says to a player who is clearly overacting.

His Ottawa middle-school theatre experiences—playing Gollum in The Hobbit and Oberon, king of the fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—were formative. “The idea of being transformed, of living multiple lives in one life, felt like a gift,” says Tannahill. His time as a film student at Toronto’s Ryerson University was less productive. The program, which he felt was too steeped in technical instruction and Hollywood convention, only reinforced his interest in live, experimental storytelling.

Inspired by Michel Brault, a Québécois filmmaker who specialized in slice-of-life realism, Tannahill began collecting ordinary people’s stories and turning them into documentary-style plays. An early Tannahill work, Takes Two Men to Make a Brother , featured real-life frat boys discussing hazing rituals. The goal was “to deconstruct masculinity,” but it turned into a drunken shitshow. Tannahill recalls cleaning puke off of the stage.

He went on to write monologue-based shows about night-shift workers, employees at the legendary Toronto discount store Honest Ed’s, and a queer woman who defected from the United States Army after enduring months of sexual harassment. Even his early fictional dramas had a documentary bent. Post Eden , a mock epic about a teen exhuming the body of a beloved dog, uses dialogue from interviews with Toronto-area suburbanites.

In 2012, Tannahill and his then-boyfriend, William Ellis, rented a drafty barbershop in Toronto’s Kensington Market and converted it into Videofag, a live-in performance space with boozy evening shows, gallery presentations, and artist residencies. “We had no money,” says Tannahill. “We offered nothing to artists except an invitation into our home, but sometimes that was enough to make magic happen.” (Videofag is closing this June, after four seasons.)

At a Videofag event in 2013, curator Jon Davies screened YouTube clips of gay men imitating their favourite pop stars. Tannahill, who was working on a piece about queer youth in the Ottawa shelter system, seized on the idea. The resulting play, rihannaboi95—one of three monologues that netted him a 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award—takes the form of a confessional Internet video about Sunny, a gay teen and YouTube celebrity who runs away from his family. The show was filmed in an empty bedroom with a webcam and streamed live online. Tannahill wanted to exploit the Internet’s potential for a mediated but powerful kind of intimacy. “I can hold you in my lap when you’re on my computer,” he says.

Today, Tannahill is doubling down on this experimental impulse. His most recent productions evoke the grandiose expressionistic work you’re more likely to find in France or Germany than in Canada. Concord Floral , a spectacle featuring suburban teens in an abandoned greenhouse, is loosely based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Renaissance story collection The Decameron . And last year, with theatre companies Necessary Angel and Bluemouth Inc., Tannahill created It Comes in Waves , a pageant about death and mourning set at multiple locations on the Toronto Islands. At points in the journey, disembodied voices emanated from the woods, an actor sang a plaintive song into a vintage ribbon microphone, and a sombre man stood half-submerged in lake water, a flare in his hand. The play felt like a funeral procession, a pagan ritual, and a ghost story. “Everybody in the company had lost a parent in the past year,” says Tannahill, “so the sense of grief was palpable.”

Tannahill has no shortage of fresh ideas. But can innovative theatre flourish in Canada, the country that set a world record by staging Anne of Green Gables: The Musical nearly 3,000 times? The twenty-first century has been rough so far, even for mainstream companies. The august Stratford Festival is running an operating deficit, the Shaw Festival continues to see declining ticket sales, and in 2012, Vancouver’s Playhouse Theatre Company shut down for good. Still, there is a growing market for novel theatrical experiences. Indie houses such as Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre, Toronto’s Storefront Theatre, and Montreal’s La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines have built up stable, albeit niche, followings.

The resurgence of Canadian Stage (formerly CanStage), the Toronto company that is debuting Tannahill’s two new plays, is perhaps the industry’s most talked-about turnaround story. Under previous artistic producer Martin Bragg, Canadian Stage was a financially beleaguered stalwart that, for a third time, programmed Shirley Valentine , a schmaltzy comedy few people below retirement age would pay to see. Its current artistic and general director, Matthew Jocelyn, arrived in 2009 and had what several industry insiders described to me as a disastrous first year, with ambitious programming that fizzled at the box office.

Jocelyn pressed on, devising strategies to make experimental theatre viable in Toronto. If he has a text by an unknown author, he’ll pair it with a beloved local actor. If he has a work with limited popular appeal, he’ll program it for five nights in a 240-person space. If it’s a surprise hit, he’ll bring it back, and if it flops, the loss isn’t terrible. Fewer performances per play means more plays per season. And when you dial down your financial risk, you can afford to be audacious in other ways. “It’s all about nimbleness,” says Jocelyn, who programs contemporary dance, performance art, multimedia works, and chamber opera—and has taken the Canadian Stage balance sheets from red to black.

Still, Jocelyn has his blind spots. In January, he came under fire after announcing the 2016–17 season, in which all of the marquee writers and directors are white. Canadian Stage practices colour-blind casting and has featured major talents such as dancer Akram Khan and actor Cara Ricketts, but Jocelyn’s critics have a point: the company defines diversity more often in aesthetic than racial terms.

It’s a Canadian problem that Jovanni Sy, artistic director of the Gateway Theatre in Richmond, British Columbia, has worked hard to fix. In 2014, he began supplementing his English programming with Chinese-language works, including physical comedies and multimedia dance productions. Ticket sales soared in the city, where half the population is of Chinese descent. “It’s important that other people see their own realities on stage,” says Sy. “Otherwise, we’re going to lose the art form.”

It’s a bit past twelve o’clock one night in October. Outside Videofag, two drunken men are banging on the windows. “Are you guys open?” one asks, assuming that Videofag is a bar. Tannahill and I are the only people in the room. (He has an erratic work schedule, so we conduct interviews at odd times.) The other man takes in the empty storefront. “This is a very efficient use of space,” he says sarcastically. Lose the tone, and he’s right. In its four years, Videofag has incubated a dozen works that have gone on to be produced elsewhere, including at New York’s Dixon Place and The Kitchen.

Tannahill is telling me about his newest draft of Botticelli . Since August, he’s opened the story up, allowing for what he calls “live variables,” which make the play more spontaneous and chancy. The new version includes improvised monologues, a live squash match, and the creation of an action painting—performers throw pigment at canvas with Jackson Pollock–esque recklessness. Writer and actor Salvatore Antonio will play Botticelli, giving the performance what Tannahill calls a “wild bacchanalian energy.”

This February, I went to see Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men at Soulpepper, a major Toronto company that too often relies on straightforward productions of aging classics. Rose’s text, about the trial of a teen accused of murder, is didactic and full of stock characters. The criminal-justice system has changed in a thousand ways since the work debuted in 1954. Even the title is dated, given the advent of mixed-gender juries. There was nothing wrong with the production—a competent rehash of an Eisenhower-era morality tale—but it’s the kind of piece that Tannahill believes has had more than its share of stage time in Canada. For him, a play is better off messy and exciting than polished and bland.

“I think it is a fallacy to suggest that audiences are going to be scared away by challenging work,” says Tannahill. “Surprise, chance, even the possibility of failure—that is what will make theatre relevant in the twenty-first century.”

This appeared in the April 2016 issue.

Simon Lewsen
Simon Lewsen has contributed to the Globe and Mail, enRoute, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and MIT Technology Review. He teaches writing at the University of Toronto.