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Act I Scene I

Ann Marie MacDonald Interview

Sequencing and Narrative Wholeness through Theatre

Spring 2013, Kathleen's Garden


Kathleen: How would you characterize your work in the theatre?


Ann Marie: My work in theatre has always shared, or has come to share,  space with my work in fiction. My work in theatre is about writing and acting and creating, those three things, and they often overlap. And the theatre work all centers around acting and actors, right? As a playwright, I’m inspired by the worlds actors can create. And I want to be in the centre of those worlds, instigating the world for the actor to inhabit, so there’s a very strong connection between the two. And I get a lot of energy and inspiration as a writer; they really are a circuit for me. The playwriting and the acting is an electrical current. It helps make me go. I can’t imagine doing one without the other. You know, I’m working on a creation inspired by Hamlet. This is very early days. And it’s exciting and already exceedingly hard because I’ve had to go away and spend time with myself doing what I do as a writer, which is taking something out of the air; taking nothing and making something out of nothing. That’s how it feels to me. And returning with it to a rehearsal hall where the actors are ready to catch this scrap of something that I’ve made out of nothing.


Kathleen: I want to ask you about the idea of the collective with theatre that’s different from other arts and most certainly different from your fictional writing. So, you’re describing the relationship between you as a writer and the actors who breathe life into something you’ve created but the audience has a piece in that too.


Ann Marie: Well the audience is the...final creative partner, as is the reader, to become whole and to exist. Otherwise it’s an artifact or a memory; it’s history. I remember when audience feedback forms were introduced. It became very important to include the audience’s opinion. And I remember thinking at the time, “why would you do that to them?” And then I thought, “Oh, okay, there’s an ethos at work which is inclusion and respect. Okay...great, great.” Personally, I just know that the idea that I’m going to get something out of it that’s going to be definitive or really helpful, is really, really unlikely! And I feel like that is actually undervaluing what the audience brings, which is themselves, in the room, breathing and responding in a way that I pick up on. And the fact of them witnessing is extremely powerful and someday some psycho-neuro biologist is going to measure the quantifiable effects and the  witnessing, that there is actually measurable energy and measurable change occurring in the universe because of witnessing. And that’s what an audience does. They make it one whole thing and a great deal of information goes back and forth. And, you know, it can be very easy if you’re gauging laughter. That’s a very important and clear sign. But it’s only one obvious thing. But honestly, I can feel if they’re getting it. And I can feel if they’re bored. And I can feel if they’re engaged and why, because they are witnessing. I am able to harness that witnessing like a current.

I do respect that everybody has the capacity to witness. Whether they’re going to like it or not is a whole other thing. But they’re going to witness and I’m going to get a huge amount from that. The same thing with fiction. And I recently experienced this. I have a manuscript which is a rewrite and just shy of being finished and I gave that big raw manuscript to two friends who, by virtue of the kinds of things they do in film, television, and theatre, and their knowledge of me, I thought were going to give me some really good feedback, which they did! They gave me fantastic and helpful notes, and I am grateful. But more important was the fact that their eyeballs were on the story, so suddenly I could see the story because someone else was reading it.


Kathleen: How much do you think artists in the performing arts, or even in fiction as you’ve described it here, how much do you think the act of witnessing has been historically understood as part of that alchemy?


Ann Marie: I think there was a reaction against it. Broadly speaking, you know, the developed Western post-war world where it became a kind of anti-elitist elitism. The idea that if you’re an artist, you’re probably going to be, very broadly-speaking, a middle-class boomer and you’re an artist of some kind. And somewhere, someone has put as, an ethical arrow in a quiver, this idea that “don't pander to an audience, don't sell out. Don’t do anything entertaining. Fuck the audience. That’s not who we're doing this for! You’ve got to do this for yourself".  It’s individualism run amok, which is, “do it for you!”

That has never made sense to me. Also, I think I have too much of a performative drive and I need the partner, I need the audience.  The audience matters! That's basically what we're doing over and over again. “I was here! We were here! We were here! Here’s what it was like, for me, for us!” I think a kind of snobby anti-elitist elitism infected theatre as it did many other things and there was a faux kind of pose of truculence and hatred for the audience. I always think, “Oh my God! These people are here. They’ve carved out the evening. They’ve, they’ve probably paid a babysitter, they’re putting their bum on the seat.” And I just have compassion for them. I have compassion for their hope, for their yearning, for their openness. They have arrived; they have come. That is a beautiful, quivering, hopeful human act of optimism.


Kathleen: I have so many questions, but one of them is that this kind of thinking really flies in the face of current pressures; theatre artists are constantly being asked to account for the impact of what it is that they do.


Ann Marie: You mean account for it economically? Justify it? Yeah I think it’s just the wrong question over and over again. It is a ridiculous question. I think it’s irrelevant. I think we should just say—here's a factoid—101—: “The arts contribute to the economy enormously and in ways that aren’t even measurable. A lot of jobs, a lot of economic impact.” And how we add extraordinary amounts of value to a city and how that translates into concrete economic value. Can we just say that?


Kathleen: Yes. We can. You’re making me think that we should talk a little bit about narrative and about story because that’s the thread about many of these ideas you have about making art and being in the world, I think. I want to ask a specific question about how stories have functioned or did function historically in the theatre. How are they operating differently now, or are new stories happening, or do we need new stories?


Ann Marie: Everything always has a historical antecedent; we didn't really invent any of this stuff whole-cloth. But that non-linear, imagistic, multidisciplinary stuff that exploded in the ‘80s is very interesting because it is mainstreamed now. People ingest shattered narrative all the time. And it started to go really mainstream with rock videos back in the ‘90s. And now, the way we watch the news, the way we download something, the way we watch television, the way we communicate, the way we go online, the way we Facebook each other that is all shattered narrative, all non-linear narrative. It’s all imagistic, multidisciplinary, and ordinary. It’s mainstream. And it’s all doing the same thing, which is making sense of our world, trying to make our world whole. And with the digital age comes the acceleration of trying to make my world whole. I’m trying so hard to have so many pieces and to fit them so fast and to make my world whole over and over again. It’s an acceleration of the process and it seems like the bits get more numerous and smaller and making the world whole seems to be something people have to do over and over and over again and it seems exhausting. At worst, it becomes superficial and exhausting. So maybe what’s going to be happening in terms of theatre and certainly I think it is happening in theatre, it’s happening when you look at miniseries—HBO case in point. The stuff that people are eating up and wanting are narratives, long arcs, intelligible arcs, and character arcs. A mode of like, “This happens. I get to know this person, and then that happens, and there is a surprising reversal, a revelation, an ambiguous ending, a resumption, a cliff hanger.” So what was formerly so sophisticated and challenging, that required radical practitioners and forward-thinking academics to actually explain what was going on is now everybody’s, on their iPhone and everybody is just living that way. The thing that doesn’t change is sequencing. As you very rightly pointed out, invoked by your question, sequencing, timeline, pattern, wholeness, identity- that’s what consciousness is made of.


Kathleen: Are the forces of globalization—and that's a vague term—are they working with us? Against us? Both with and against us?


Ann Marie: More and more people are feeling more and more connected to one another and we’re extrapolating across all kinds of, what used to be, un-crossable boundaries to make connections.


Kathleen: Are people feeling connected or feeling that connection is possible?


Ann Marie: I don’t know if it’s a question of degree or kind. Is there a shift in kind or is it just a shift in degree or is it the shift in degree created a shift in kind? I suppose it kind of works like that. But it does seem as though we’re entering a new mass age.


Kathleen: And you see that on a communicative plane?


Ann Marie: Yes, on a communicative plane, on a plane of connection “Here's what happening to me!" and someone else going, “That's happening to me too” in a completely different context. “Let's change this!” You know, there are fewer secrets now. We depend more and more on willful blindness and denial because everything is known. And you know people can make theatre anywhere anytime. Mass communication is amazing and it gives rise to all kinds of good things and all kinds of terrible things. Like some kid from London, Ontario who ends up in Afghanistan and Al Qaida. And I go, “What are you....come on, you’re going to so wish you hadn’t done that” But that is also the Internet. That’s part of what we're talking about in terms of the great possibilities and also some sinister ones. Apparently I can find out how to commit any kind of atrocity on the Internet. I’ve never actually gone looking for that. Part of it is—it’s not just that I’m squeamish because I’m actually not. I suppose it’s some moral thing but I also think that’s the kind of thing I’m supposed to encounter in reality. That’s also the kind of thing I’m supposed to access from my imagination not to desensitize myself with a bunch of images, regardless of how my consciousness can say, “Oh, how appalling!” and “How outrageous!” and “How interesting!” I’m desensitized to violence, to sex, to pornography.....you know, I don't want to desensitize my imagination to all kinds of things and I don't care if it “really happened” and it was recorded and posted. It starts creating moral callouses. But here’s the thing: children can take a really long time before they can watch movies with even a basic level of jeopardy, whereas with books they can read stuff with lots of jeopardy, lots of risk.


Kathleen: Why is that?


Ann Marie: It’s because they're in control of their own inner world and imagination when they’re reading. They’re not being assaulted from without. What’s the place of an image? Why are they powerful? When are they appropriate? When do they in fact co-opt your own inner space and replace what you would understand in your own soul with what someone else wants to call it and with what someone else wants to imprint on you, in you, and have power over you because they’ve imprinted an image in you, before you articulated one and formulated one yourself! It’s an assault!


Kathleen: So information is power and now it’s also dead. Information is dead!


Ann Marie: Yeah! Because if you put it all in the same place and let it go, past your eyes extremely rapidly with no patterning and no sequencing, it’s junk! It's events, unconnected, non-narrative. And it makes no sense.


Kathleen: Belle Moral...


Ann Marie: There we go!


Kathleen: You were just quoting your play. 


Ann Marie: Oh...wow....see....we only ever do one thing! And that’s why the Internet can be a-moral. “Oh...a child being raped in his....,” cute dog video....," "bomb going off...," "Oh my God...a dog riding a bicycle!"...haha...."Brazilian rainforest?" (No one ever even thinks about that anymore.) "Hey...how are we not worried about the rainforests anymore? What happened to that?" "Next!" "Beached whale." Oh my God...you'd never believe there's this video of this guy eating spaghetti in the dark!


Kathleen: And the theatre must—


Ann Marie: We are story-makers. As human beings, we are story-makers. And we will desensitize and scramble ourselves and deconstruct ourselves back to preconsciousness, to postconsciousness. We will destroy our consciousness, and that’s called insanity, with an unfiltered barrage of unconnected images and so-called information. And that’s what artists do: we organize it. That’s what our brain does. That’s what culture does and artists do. Sequencing is very important, right? One of the features of trauma is the inability to sequence an event and that’s why Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is going back to a state disconnected from narrative and the present moment. It’s mental illness, an affliction. And the inability to sequence and remember is an affliction and it is a feature of trauma and so is endless looping, repetition, which is what I just did, which is what artists do as well! We continue to investigate themes over and over and over again. We’ve got to return. What was there? I know....It’s Colombo – “There's something there. I got to go back. There's something there!”


Kathleen: Okay so one of the questions of this book is that we’re saying “Why theatre now?” And the 'why' part matters as well as the 'now' part. What we found in talking to a lot of artists like yourself, there was a reluctance to bracket off ‘the now’ from history. And yet there are lots of signs, even in Canadian theatre that, to me, would make this seem to be a time worth naming in some way. But I also have a tension about that because I’m caught up in your trans-historical accounts of what the arts do and what artists do and that’s why we ended up with a section in this book that we weren’t anticipating which is “ Why Theatre Always.” It’s a tension, 'now' and 'always' being interchangeable in this way.


Ann Marie: I don’t really see that there's a contradiction between the two, because the ‘now’ quite rightly implies that we’re in a new age. Something is different now. It’s like before the car and after the car. Some things are different; we’re talking about the digital age. We’re talking about mass communication, we’re talking about the Internet. And that is different. That is “I did not grow up with this. And this is what people are growing up with now.” Just as I said, people are very relaxed with the shattered narrative; all the things that were really cool and hip and confusing and ‘wow’ are just really ordinary now. And now we’re going, “Okay, what are the arcs. Let’s make sense of this. Let’s make deeper, slower, sense of this!” And that’s why there is such an appetite for narrative and it crosses over into theatre as well. I can’t speak authoritatively because I don't see everything and I don’t see enough, but my sense is that narrative is experiencing a resurgence in theatre.


Kathleen: Can you point to anything that makes you believe that?


Ann Marie: I can’t point to specific things. It’s just my own sense. It’s the kind of writing that I do which seems to appeal to people across a great range. That tells me something. It tells me something when kids and old people and middle-aged people and people from diverse backgrounds are feeling implied in the story that I’ve told. See, that’s where I don't have a big wide perspective of that literary criticism or dramatic criticism. I just have intuitive things and anecdotal observations and the view from where I am. But I do think that because people now, especially younger people, who are much more adept can make their own films, can publish their own books, can express themselves, can sequence their lives, can manipulate reality in all kinds of ways and share that. They’re very sophisticated and very relaxed with all of it.

And then there is the barrage of information and there is also the indebted life is also indebted in terms of time. There’s money debt we all live with as normal and there’s time debt because kids have to be in 12 different places and we have to be in 15 different places and our lives have become more fragmented and pressured. People are getting sick of fractured narrative. These things are novelties. There’s an aspect of novelty and of eye candy. And there’s an exhaustion. There’s a sugar overload and you go, “That's just not getting me through the journey!” And with every new technological innovation there is something really valuable, something really exciting. And then there’s a whole lot of people who really feel it confers upon them a kind of, you know, hip sense of “Now I really belong,” or “I’m the first one to get this!” And at a certain point every, if everybody has it and everybody can do it, it’s like, “Is that all there is?” It’s Peggy Lee. It’s time to sing, “Is that all there is” to a smartphone. “Is that all there is” to Facebook? Like “these aren't really my friends, it’s not the center anymore. What was it? What was it that I needed?” And sequencing and patterning are very, very deep within us and fractured images and accelerated image-making can’t feed that, can’t answer that hunger and that need.


Kathleen: So we need that more because of the ‘now’ moment that we’re in?


Ann Marie: Exactly. You know, when movies came, people asked, “Oh, is theatre dead?” And every 12 years, someone asks, “Is the book dead?” Is the novel dead? No! You know what? God’s not dead! The novel is not dead! Theatre is not dead! It’s not dead. None of it is dead. Movies didn’t kill theatre. Movies changed theatre and there was a cross-contagion. Movies made it possible for theatre to be more naturalistic, in many ways, and also, at the other end of the spectrum, more imagistic, less narrative. What can we do in theatre that they’re not doing in movies? Why does this have to be a piece of theatre? Why could this not be a movie became a very important question I remember back in the 80’s.

I think they are different because I think we don’t have to justify it so much. I think we got a little bit allergic to narrative in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s because isn't that what movies do. And shouldn’t I be making a movie? And am I just a poor cousin of the filmmakers? Now I sort of think we’re past that. Now just tell me a story! My children, for example, will watch a piece of theatre, a very adult piece of theatre, and they’ll get the story, and they’ll be there. If it was a movie they wouldn’t watch it. They’d be bored because they know it’s not for them. But if they’re in the room witnessing and experiencing, they’re getting full nutrients. Whereas a movie they’ll say, “Ohhhhh, I don't want to watch that. Let’s watch Harry Potter!" Great! It’s the difference between eating an orange and taking a Vitamin C pill. The movie is the Vitamin C pill and the theatre is the orange.

You’re not going to forget it. You have had a DNA exchange, literally. Something is different in the world because you were there. And that doesn’t excuse the boring theatre. Boring theatre should be against the law except then we’d live in a dictatorship and I already said I was very pro-democracy. My world includes boring theatre. Okay, my democracy includes boring theatre.


Kathleen: My son Liam said to me this morning—I don’t know what precipitated the comment but he said, “Oh! Remember mummy, that’s just like the play we saw about freedom!” And I said, “What play about freedom?”


Ann Marie: The medium is the message. He got the message because it was theatre. He could probably watch umpteen movies but he got it! He got the direct nutrition. But also, why theatre now? Because we can. It is the most egalitarian, unmediated, direct form of telling stories and of making connections and patterns. Yes, do a piece of theatre and then YouTube it. And share it that way. Great! Do it, do it! Make sure everybody knows that it happened. And maybe they’ll come again, you know, when it happens next time. But it is radical in that way. It’s just about the least elitist thing in the world.


Kathleen: That’s interesting! So what is Canadian theatre now and does it matter? Does Canadian-ness matter, if we think locally for a minute?


Ann Marie: I think it is very hard to take any single play and say, “why is this Canadian?” but when you look at a body of work, and we now have a body of work, I think it is possible to observe some major motifs and themes and I think that we would probably also observe something about the point of view of these pieces of theatre. And I think we would observe something about a readiness to self-question, a readiness to question, a readiness to accommodate multiple perspectives, a readiness to tackle moral questions while inviting in all the annoying gnats and buzzing flies of other voices, other perspectives. And a struggle between taking moral responsibility, articulating a moral stand out of a pluralistic place so that you don’t drown in relativism and opt out morally. How do you take a moral stand in a pluralistic society? How do you not slide into relativism or right wing oversimplifications, fundamentalist oversimplifications? I think there’s something very Canadian about that, about making it as hard as possible to see clearly morally but being determined to do so and take a stand. And with Canadian work as a whole, we might see the same kind of morality coming through very, very, very different-looking packages. And saying, “I belong too! I’m going to claim a heritage. I’m going to say that this tradition is mine! This tradition that has excluded me. I’m going to put myself at the head of it. I’m going to haul it forward. I’m going to haul that cart forward. I’m going to say that it’s me doing that and I’m part of it. I don’t look like I’m part of it. Maybe you didn’t want me at this feast. I’m queer, I’m Black, I’m this, I’m that. This actually is my tradition. I might begin by trashing it, but I’m going to thrive by pushing my way into the centre of it and aren’t you glad I came?”


Kathleen: Are you seeing it this way because there is now a body of work you can now look back on? Or is this something that you think has been, in some way, driving Canadian theatre always?


Ann Marie: It’s hard to say because that certainly is my story.  But I also connect my story to a larger one, and I do think I’m representative of it, that I’m part of something like that. I’m not the only one. I think I’m really part of the movement, of something that happened and is happening. And I think that it’s also very easy to say, “Well, what does it matter anymore?” And you know, “there are no borders.” Well, go to Yemen and then tell me there’s no Canada!

            I think it’s a temporary thing. The whole obsession with digital communication. I think these things are fantastic, big, but they don’t change the underlying truth. The story doesn’t change. Sequencing, the need to sequence, does not change. The need to create pattern does not change. We become more sophisticated in our ability to perceive pattern and certainly the digital age is part of that, movies are part of that, imagistic multidisciplinary theatre is like that. But it’s just saying we can do it this way too.

And, I also like those highly seductive, site-specific shows. I always find that just really exciting and seductive. Some people, it really bugs them, where they think it’s facile or something. I just go, “Yeah man, you just waved a magic wand over my brain! I’m running with you into the back kitchen of the summer house! What's going to happen? Wow!” Yeah, I love that stuff. Because I’m right in it. And we want to be in something. We want to forget ourselves so that we can make deeper contact with ourselves. I think it’s what happens when people are really engaged. And it can happen just as pure escapist entertainment and it can also happen as a profound encounter with something very deeply true that you understand about yourself and about the condition of being alive and conscious.  And there’s different ways of getting to that; some of it looks like art and some of it doesn’t.


Kathleen: Yup! Do you have any thoughts or questions that we haven't touched on?


Ann Marie: The only other thing I’d say, and I've said this to you before, is that when I’m writing, I do ultimately very consciously address the reader. And I’m probably at that point right now with my novel where that’s the last layer for me to read and rework with that in mind such that the reader feels that it’s addressed to them intimately, personally, it’s for them. And I don’t know if I’ve got that going on yet in a way that I want it to be in this book, yet! But that’s the point. “This is for you! I’m telling you this!" I don’t see a particular person or a particular kind of person. I just see someone who is wanting to privately encounter something that might speak to them of a kind of universal truth.

That they will feel implicated, that they will be in the current of it just like I am when the audience comes. I’m in the current that runs around between the audience and the actors. I’m in that current. I get so much nourishment out of that. And so I want them to have that with the book in a very private experience. But they’re tapping into something communal but quiet, private. We all know it’s there except we’re not all at the theatre together. But there’s a communication that happens. And that’s the final alchemy. It’s not the book I wrote, it’s the book they read. Everybody is going to read it in a different way. And the same thing with theatre, they’re all seeing it a different way. Not everyone is looking at the same person, the same part of that person. Everybody is seeing a different show. And the beauty of it is that with this, we are this huge compound eye and somehow we all... You know, Liam saw that play about freedom; we’re going to get it, you know, all in our different ways.


Kathleen: When I went to see a piece of theatre a year or so ago with the co-editor of this book, my colleague and friend, Barry, he said something at the end. We both didn’t like what we saw and at the end he said it didn’t matter that we were there. They never took in who we were. And he didn’t mean us individually or that this was somehow a sophisticated audience and we’d been pandered to, that’s not what he was saying. He was saying whoever the imagined other was, it wasn’t us! And because we were out there and were not at liberty to change that, we had to be uncomfortable for an hour and a half.


Ann Marie: And to be somewhere where you weren’t included and weren’t welcome.


Kathleen: Right! And it wasn’t us! I think it wasn’t even someone else. I guess we were the foil. I think that can happen in theatre. The audience has an expectation, even though this is a performance, whether you believe it or not, which is that you are looking for that kind of connection, even if you’re looking only to laugh.


Ann Marie: It’s got to matter that you’re there.


Kathleen: Yeah. And it didn’t matter. I feel like this is somehow seriously connected to the ‘now’ not just because of the digital age but also because of the breakdown of certain kinds of relationships we’ve taken as unshakeable.


Ann Marie: You know, we don’t get together in ways that we used to. We don’t stay together in ways that we used to. The theatre is a constant in that way. It becomes more important. It has a bigger job to do now.


Kathleen: That’s a good note to end on.


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