I found the simple, unadorned storytelling of a soft-spoken teenage girl in a hajib, recounting a hot summer afternoon when all the kids in her apartment block took turns jumping through a sprinkler, more moving than any skull-holding soliloquy by Christopher Plummer.
I’ve grown so tired of actors sitting in a set, talking to each, never acknowledging the artifice of the theatre, or the audience in front of them, or neglecting the diverse tools the theatre provides them…
We go to the theatre to be surprised, but so often The Well-Made Play shoves the recognizable and familiar down our throats.
These are a representative sampling of the multitude of vitriolic statements Jordan Tannahill unleashes in his short book Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama. It is part manifesto and part documentary, and it is as the latter that it is successful. The style is highly readable and mostly free of academic verbiage. The content is composed of personal opinions, anecdotes, and interviews.
Mr. Tannahill is a gay 27-year old award-winning Canadian playwright, filmmaker, and theatre director of enough renown to have had this polemic published by an established literary publishing house. He also co-created and runs Videofag, a Toronto art gallery and performance space.
His primary belief is that most traditional theater is boring and seeing such works is a traumatic experience for many people that forever turns them off of theater. “The real challenge for Canadian theatre—for all theatre –is to liberate itself from a binary culture where the Well-Made Play is considered the ‘true’ or ‘real’ play and anything else is a bizarre unappealing outlier.”
Driving Miss Daisy is eviscerated, as is Death of a Salesman until he sees – and here extolls – a minimalist site-specific production of it at a shuttered clothing store, “It was alive.” A diverse cast of 17 performs the play, six of whom play Willy Loman at different times. This is his predominant preoccupation, to lambaste that which is popular while trumpeting the avant-garde. This isn’t really an original or rational thesis.
“The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows…” was Henry James’ famous discourse on the possibilities of The Novel. Ardent devotees of The Theater could say the same for that art form. That it is possible to appreciate diverse forms of theatrical presentation without scorn. Tannahill only sees the virtues of the unconventional and the odiousness of the traditional.
To explore his beliefs he set out in the course of a year to interview 100 people about their feelings on the topic of theater. Subjects included a man who responded to his CraigsList ad to attend an orgy that he organized; friends; acquaintances; strangers; his mother; and several theater artists.
Of the most notable he spoke to was John Cameron Mitchell while they were in his dressing room at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre in 2015, when he was appearing in the title role in the rock musical he created, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. These portions of the book are the most interesting, hearing from and learning about artists and their works that haven’t gotten major exposure.
Major culprits of Tannahill’s screed are subscription-based theaters who appease the boorish tastes of their subscribers and institutional dramaturges that often remold works into the dreaded “Well-Made Play prototype.”
Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, and Edward Albee are lionized as outsider iconoclasts without fully acknowledging that they are part of the modern pantheon of dramatic writers. Significantly absent was mention of Beckett and Albee’s documented strong protectiveness of their texts against “creative” reinterpretation of the specificity their stage directions that led to legal injunctions against such productions.
Ultimately Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama is a collection of articulately idealistic but puerile declarations by the proverbial angry young man.
Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama by Jordan Tannahill
Coach House Books
Paperback, 9781552453131, 160 pp.