Image: Nightswimming image by Elliott Smith

Making Waves

By Brian Quirt

Keynote Address to the Annual Conference of the 
Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT)

June 1st, 2007, Halifax

I’d like to begin with something positive.

This is a paraphrase from an article by a Quebecois dramaturg named Guy Cools, passed on to me by my friend and colleague, choreographer Michael Trent.

Guy Cools writes that he believes that the 19th century was the century of the actor, and that the 20th century was the century of the director, the ‘guru’ director. And that the 21st century will be “the era of collective process guided (as opposed to directed) by the dramaturg”. He believes that the dramaturg has become the avant-garde, “with the field of contemporary dance as its hunting ground for research and new developments.”

Which reminds me of a comment by Paul Walsh, my friend and a dramaturg in the US. He noted that we have experts in 15th and 16th century drama; we have people who specialize in 17th and 18th century theatre; there are many who are experts in 19th, 20th century drama – people who specialize in them and do great work. But, he asks, who among us will create the theatre of the 21st century?

And I read in a magazine recently that 70% of the profit generated 5 years from now will come from something that hasn’t yet been invented.

Now that is good news. Invention – Creation – is our daily work.

As a dramaturg, I’m more than a little biased in favour of Guy’s vision of the dramaturg as the future of the theatre, and, of course, happily accept it as the way forward.

Let’s look at that word for a moment: “Vision” — a powerful word, suggesting prophetic insights, beautiful images, the imagination at work.

Now consider the phrase:
“Artistic Vision Statement” — how feeble. The vital word vision corrupted into a statement of intent. How boring is that?

We’ll talk a lot about words over the next few days: some of them include mandate, mission, strategic (as in strategic planning). It’s fascinating how many of the words we use to describe our work – or are asked, even compelled, to use to describe our work – our artistic work – are derived from the military. Interesting. And I mean that in the sense of “Oh hi, your show was very ‘interesting’.”

I’d like to suggest some other words, ones that I use in my work as a dramaturg and others that have helped me create Nightswimming and the projects we’ve made over the past 10 years.

Two sets of words:

Ideas. Communication. Process. – Words at the core of dramaturgy, the exploration of stories and how they are told in the theatre. Actually, I’d prefer the word, performance. I believe that much of our future is in the world of dance and performance art and the combination of forms… so, dramaturgy for me is the exploration of stories and how they are told in performance.

The other set:

Premise. Design. Structure. – Words from the world of architecture, the art of making things.

I’d like to suggest that these are more fitting, more effective, more inspiring words for us to dig into…

Ideas. Communication. Process.

Premise. Design. Structure.
That is where I live.

These are my words. I want us to find and use words that are unique to the way each of us and our companies work. Our theatre, our organizations, even our productions, are becoming increasingly similar to one another and we must fight this. Finding our own words to define our approach is critical.

A little tangent.

I’m currently programming a dramaturgy conference that opens in Toronto three weeks from last night. Now, the only thing more hilarious and frightening than preparing for one’s own conference (which I’m doing for LMDA — it’s June 21-24 in Toronto, there are flyers out in the lobby) is being asked to give the keynote speech at another conference exactly three weeks prior to your own.

Actually, there is one thing that is more hilarious than giving this keynote three weeks before my own conference. The other day, just before flying to Halifax, I opened my mail to find a summons for jury duty. Now guess which week I’ve been called for? Yes, that’s right… the very week of my conference. So if you’re coming to the LMDA conference, please take notes for me and I’ll see you after I get off the jury.

The other reason I found it interesting (and I mean interesting in the good sense) to be asked to speak in this slot is that my own conference, in fact, won’t have a keynote. I didn’t want one. I’ve designed the LMDA conference to begin with a much different event and this touches upon a couple of the words that I want to explore this morning. One is the word Premise. The other is the word Design.

It’s pretty easy to have a theatre conference without any playwrights around. In fact, it’s pretty easy to run a theatre company without any playwrights around.

So, at our conference, three weeks from today, instead of a keynote, I’ve designed an opening event in which eight of Toronto’s most culturally diverse theatre and dance companies (dance is another word I’ll return to) will perform 10 short plays from playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays project. In doing so, the evening will address, in action, many of the themes I want LMDA to explore during our own conference: international exchange and collaboration; formal exploration of storytelling; work by women; cultural diversity; dance; and most importantly, assumptions about what dramaturgs do and how they do it.

The premise of the conference is not to just talk about it, but to do it.

During the next few days, I want us all to talk about doing: what we have done and what we are doing next; I don’t want to talk about not having enough time; I want to talk about how people are doing it anyway. Whatever it is.

I want to talk about timidity and bravery.

About dance and theatre.

About race and culture.

About confidence and apologies. More of the former; less of the later.

I was in Germany last fall with a group of Canadian dramaturgs and I noticed that we all – and I include myself in this – we kept apologizing about parts of our theatre culture…not enough resources, not enough this or that. It was very hard to stop, but we must. No more apologies.

So, more confidence and fewer apologies.

I want to talk about faith versus hope.

I hate talking about what we can’t do. I hate talking about things we already know how to do. I don’t want to talk about how we could change things; I want to talk about how we are changing things. About who is making waves and how they’re doing it. Not why they’re doing it, but how they’re doing it.

I also believe conferences are an opportunity to speak out loud some of the things we don’t say ever, or at least often enough – or at least in daylight.

I’ll start…

– I think some theatres should die; in fact, I think we should let them.
– Our theatres are afraid, even terrified, of bold direction.
– I think the Quebec system is not better than ours.
– I believe it’s not their labour agreements that beget strong work but their faith in that work.
– We’ve abandoned our theatres as creative spaces; we’ve made them too expensive to actually work in.
– We often use economic hardship and Equity as excuses for maintaining the status quo.
– I keep hearing that our audiences are declining; I’m no expert in audience development so that may be true, but I also hear that the theatre is dead or dying. Bullshit.
– Our theatre is really really really white… still.
– ‘Core competence’ is a really irritating phrase; let’s ban most of the so-called business words from our vocabulary, starting with strategic planning, mission and mandate and vision statement, and replace them with words that speak to what we do and how we do it.
– Our theatres are embarrassingly empty of current events.
– We’ve disastrously eliminated almost the entire world of international contemporary theatre from our stages in our noble and virtually too effective pursuit of new Canadian work. There are many encouraging examples of contemporary plays including in Toronto recent productions of Crave from the UK, Arabian Nights from Germany, 36 Views from the US. These are encouraging examples, but it’s only a beginning.
– It’s not always about the CTA. It’s about our own priorities and the premises under which we work. The CTA is often a smokescreen, an excuse for not doing things differently, and a reason for not changing how WE work.
– We do too much; quantity over quality is a disease we all suffer from.
– I dare you all to program a season entirely of work by women writers.
– We ignore the Indigenous voice at our peril: our challenge is to get over our indifference and/or our guilt and just do it. It’s not that Native Earth needs our help (though Yvette might disagree with me) but that if we’re committed, as many of us are, to cultural diversity – South Asian artists, Chinese and Japanese artists, Black and Latin American artists – so many groups we try to collaborate with, to cultivate or promote or explore and work with while we ignore one of the richest groups of artists and stories on the continent. I’m speaking of myself here as well; we’ve done nothing with Native artists, perhaps because sub-consciously, Native Earth’s office is down the hall from us and so we just don’t have to. Not good enough.

I want to kill the culture of “we can’t do that” or “that’s too expensive” or “it will take too long” or (and I really hate this one) “that’s a luxury”. A three week workshop isn’t a luxury; rehearsing in the theatre space isn’t a luxury; when we do those things, we design the process to match the needs of the show and are willing to pay what is necessary to make it happen the way it should happen. This week, let’s say what we mean, dump our assumptions and, to pick up on the theme of this conference, make waves.

Actually, our goal is not to make waves; our goal is to move boldly forward with the plans we want to execute. Waves are a byproduct of a bold dive into the water; we have to dive first. Diving requires faith.

A very good friend and colleague, Vanessa Porteous, once mentioned that there are “faith companies” and “hope companies”. This made complete sense to me. A hope company says: I hope the writer has a good idea; I hope the director is available; I hope the new play text is ok; I hope we can get the actors we need; I hope the previews don’t suck; I hope the audiences show up; I hope the reviews doesn’t crush us; I hope we don’t lose money at the end of the season. What a way to live.

A faith company says I believe that the commission will generate a play we want to produce; I have faith in the writer, administrator, director, actor; I believe this play is important; I believe that the audience will be stirred by this work; I love the writer; I love the actor; I love the general manager; I love the audience; I have faith in our theatre.

I like to think that my own company, Nightswimming, is a faith company. Hope wouldn’t have got us this far.

We – Naomi Campbell and I – created Nightswimming 12 years ago, like so many, because there was a show we wanted to premiere. A show we believed in. Don Druick’s Through the Eyes. So we created a company to workshop the script and then to produce it at the Theatre Centre. And we did. And it was a success: a modest success. The play was born; it was well received; it went on to a revival, tour and GG nomination; the company was launched; we paid all the bills.

But I never wanted to do that again. I hated the treadmill of the small production company, having to raise enough money every year or two to do one production. I had too many ideas to only do one show every 2 years, which is the reality of every small company when they start out.

It didn’t make sense to me – in fact, I thought it was insane – to have a company that did things I don’t like doing. So we decided to not be a producing company. Problem solved.

But if we didn’t produce, then what would we do?

So I turned the issue on its head. What if Nightswimming ceased to be a producing company and only did the things that I most wanted to do. And more specifically, what if Nightswimming only did things that I couldn’t do anywhere else?

Now, that is interesting. That is a creative equation.

What would those be? As a dramaturg, I join scripts at all phases of their development, from the first draft to the production draft. What I was rarely able to do was be there from before the script or dance, to work with the writer or choreographer or musician from conception of the piece.

What does that mean? It meant that we decided Nightswimming would work only from commission. That we would be a commissioning company that didn’t produce the works we developed.

And, because I deplore the barrier that exists in English Canada between theatre and dance, and because I believe that we have so much to learn from the dance world, we decided that Nightswimming would be a theatre company that also commissioned dance and dance theatre.

So what does a company like that look like? As we commissioned our first projects, we spent a lot of time designing the structure of Nightswimming to match the way we wished to work: minimal overhead and administration; a project based company that worked year round; no annual events that have to be filled with product; and a flexible structure that enabled us to adapt to circumstances and projects as they evolved.

As well, it was a critical premise that we would have no festivals, no writers unit, no anything that had to be sustained from year to year, and that there would be no set model for how we worked. All processes would be custom designed for each project.

But all commissions are designed with the goal of bringing the story to an audience. To ensure that our works would be produced, we set up partnerships with existing companies to develop each work; they premiere the piece, we work on it through to and after the premiere. Teamwork. Partnership.

And commissioning… there’s a dangerous word. It’s an act that is so often based on hope, where the hope theatre says: “God, I hope the writer brings us something we don’t hate.”

Our premise for commissioning was to only commission artists with whom we have developed a relationship; that all commissions would be by invitation; that we would not read unsolicited scripts (hooray); and that we would only commission dream projects: projects that an artist couldn’t do anywhere else due to cast size, controversial content, unusual form or the just plain fact that they had a bold idea but didn’t know how to create it. That unknown is the most exciting thing. After all, if you know how to do it, why do it again.

From these premises, Nightswimming has evolved into a fun and fascinating adventure. We’ve commissioned 20 new works; plays, abstract dance pieces, solo plays, play cycles with up to 20 actors, adaptations of novels and poetry, dance theatre pieces, musicals. And underlying each one, somewhere, was a question or set of questions that neither I nor the artists knew how to answer.

Questions: Asking questions, digging for the how, not being obsessed by the why, that’s what a dramaturg does. Searches for ideas; explores how they are communicated theatrically, and designs the process by which those ideas and that communication are made.

Ideas. Communication. Process.

Contradictions… that’s another good word: some of you will note that we’re producing a national tour next year of Rough House, which we accidentally finished during a production workshop a couple years ago. So we’re a non-producing company currently touring a show across the country. I love that.


Ten years ago, we commissioned a writer named Ned Dickens to write a ‘prequel’ called Jocasta to his version of Oedipus, famously produced by Die in Debt under the Gardiner Expressway, directed by Sarah Stanley. Over the past decade (we’re now celebrating our 10th anniversary on this project with Ned) we’ve commissioned 5 more plays in what has become Ned’s seven-play cycle, City of Wine.

The City of Wine is absurd and far too big for Nightswimming: seven plays, 90 plus actors. So we partnered with the University of Alberta and Humber College and then with a major classical festival. We found the resources, over time, a long time, to commission Ned, hold workshops, set up student productions, do public readings. We believe in Ned, that he needs to write these large scale, large cast plays. And that he will do so.

Patience is a huge part of faith.

But the work, not surprisingly, was slow. Until about two years ago. When we realized that in order to make this huge project happen, we had to make v. So we have assembled a partnership with 10 theatre training programs across the country, from Memorial University in Newfoundland to Studio 58 and Simon Fraser University in BC.

Over the course of three years, those schools will participate in the development and workshopping of the seven plays. In the third year, seven of the schools will each produce one of the seven plays in their school seasons. One will produce a French translation; and one will create an eighth play as a prologue to begin the cycle. Ned, Naomi and I will travel to the schools to lead workshops and bring the 100 plus student actors, designers and other artists into this epic world.

But even that wasn’t big enough. We realized that it would be great for us to see all the school productions – in fact, the goal of all this is to design a machine, a structure, to finish the plays and test them on stage… for isn’t the point of any and all play development processes to give birth to the show? – but that it would be a shame to not then bring all the productions together so that everyone – students, faculty and the public – could see the cycle in its entirety.

So we’ve partnered with the National Arts Centre to work toward a City of Wine Festival in May 2009 featuring three runs of the complete cycle – nine student productions – and a symposium on the ideas that underlie the cycle: leadership and civic responsibility.

I describe this project because it, in so many ways, exemplifies what we’ve tried to do over the past decade:
– do things we couldn’t do anywhere else
– make partnerships with other companies a central part of our work
– commission projects because of our faith in the writer’s dream
– look for rich ideas, search for the best ways to communicate those ideas and design a process by which to explore, create and refine each work
– and to never say no, we can’t do that

Which brings me back to Suzan-Lori Parks and her 365 Days/365 Plays project. There’s an act of faith. She wrote a play every day – short plays – for one year starting November 13, 2002. At the end of her year, her dramaturg Bonnie Metzgar then said: so, what now? And they decided not only to get all 365 plays produced, but to have them produced on the day that each was written; and to not just do it with one company, but to do it with 52 companies, one for each week; and to not just do it in one city, but to do it in 15 major US cities; and to not just do it in those cities, but to set up a network to facilitate universities, galleries, dance companies, performance artists and so many others across the US and abroad to join in the production of these short plays.

Now, in the seven months since the performances started on November 13, dozens and dozens of organizations – from the large and established to the small and just born – are presenting her plays each day across the United States and beyond.

This has not happened very much in Canada and I really wonder why? Here’s a brilliant, acclaimed writer, a fascinating, challenging project that is engaging communities, bringing together artists and spectators and proving that big ideas can galvanize and inspire.

Is it timidity? Is it because she’s American? Is it too big? It is because she’s a woman. Is it because she’s Black? Is it the challenging form or difficult content? Or, even more depressing, is it true what someone said to me the other day: that no one here knows who Suzan-Lori Parks is?

To do my small part to combat this, here is today’s play, written June 1st 2004.

THE RED BLANKET by Suzan-Lori Parks (see below)

Read from the audience by:
Pam Halstead
Mieko Ouchi
Maja Ardal
Yvette Nolan
Suzanne Haines

Over the next three days, I can’t wait to hear the things you never say, to learn the words that articulate how and what you want to do.

I urge you all to make waves. Not because you should. Not for its own sake.
But because you have the faith to dive into the unknown.

Thank you.

THE RED BLANKET (June 1st) – by Suzan-Lori Parks

2 Chairs, one has a tiny folded red blanket on it.
2 people come to sit.
One takes the blanket off the chair.

OTHER: That was my blanket.
ONE: No––
OTHER: It was on my chair.
ONE: First come first––

Other grabs One by the throat.
And raises his free hand in the air, making a fist.
One’s hands go to his neck in the universal sign of choking.


Then, the Peace Dove passes overhead,
And onstage falls another red blanket–
Gently and completely from God’s grace–as if the red blanket
Was one of the Dove’s feathers,
Which the Dove gracefully discarded as it passed by.

One and the Other watch the blanket descend toward them,
Then slowly move from their war tableau
Into a double-blanketed tableau, a tenuous peace–
Looking like 2 bears listening to
The sounds of winter from a cave.

ONE: Goodnight.
OTHER: You too.

Copyright Suzan-Lori Parks
Reprinted by permission from 365 Days/365 Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks
(Theatre Communications Group, 2006)