2012 AGM Keynote Speech

Annual Meeting
May 26, 2012

It’s a hell of a responsibility to be yourself. It’s much easier to be someone else or no one at all.—Sylvia Plath

When Carol asked me to give the keynote speech here today, I have to admit I was exhilarated and terrified at the same time.  What an honour it is to be asked to speak in front of my peers on the subject I love best—the theatre.

On the other hand I started musing about what the theatre has become for me.  Questioning myself on our art form and our community, and where I belong in it.

Autumn_SmithI recalled a recent incident I had during a workshop that I was directing.  It was post-show greeting time, with lots of mingling, people I needed to chat with and schmooze.  It was the time when (as we all know) our egos get fed by the praise of the people watching the work, a time when we can enjoy the fruits of our vision, fill ourselves up.  That time when our eyes dart around to spot the person (who we think) is the most important person in the room, hoping he or she will waltz over to us and say “Wow, you are the best thing to happen to this art form", which—face it—rarely happens.

I found myself there once again, once again seeking this inauthentic exchange, scrounging for one tiny morsel of false praise from someone with a bigger reputation.  During this same evening, a young man came up to me to talk about the work.  I had adjudicated for him in a play for the Sears Ontario Drama Festival years before.  He talked excitedly, as my eyes were darting around the room, seeking the evasive person who had the clout and power to give me my big break and a sure, steady income for the next year.  I found myself in a half-conversation with the one authentic voice in the room.  My partner watched this moment with this young man carefully. When he left, I immediately knew what she would say to me: Autumn—Where are you?  The person who thrives on talking to youth about theatre?  The you that states theatre must be honest, meaningful, authentic and real?

Boom—I was knocked over.  A palpable guilt flooded through me.  I was so ashamed.  I spent the rest of the evening trying to a) reconnect with this young man on a personal level—taking an interest in him rather than myself and b) trying to focus on having tangible real conversations with everyone else I came into contact with.  No small feat, as everyone else I came in contact with had the same agenda: to be seen and validated.

When did the art of making art become more important than the art itself?  When did we lose sight of what makes really great theatre: connection; dialogue—real words spoken to real people; engagement in action.  I worry that we have become complacent and ambivalent about this.

I think about Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. I think about how he wrote a character who was struggling with all of these questions.  How can we continue to make art without money, without critical acclaim?  Can we call ourselves artists if no one buys what we are selling?  How can we continue to keep a very old art form fresh?

Here is my current thinking about this: Go back to the beginning.  Take away the need for elaborate sets and clever concepts.  Take away the video projectors and the cool, hip sound designs.  Strip bare the imposed, and what is there?  Story.  What we say to one another, how we say it.

So much of our time is now full of stimuli that it seems like we forget how to be real with one another.  We look at our iPhones, blackberries, iPads, emails, video games, YouTube—visual bling-bling that allows us to disengage.  In this technologically crippled 21st century, we are now afraid to make eye contact, because we can now hide behind a machine.  At its best, theatre can help us reconnect with ourselves and each other.

But often, it seems that theatre has done the same thing; we have become so immersed in this idea of creating something new that we have lost sight of the form itself.  That same visual bling-bling blocks our words.

So, how do we move forward?  How do we begin the beginning?

Talk to each other—really talk.  Allow people to see our authentic selves.  By letting people in, we allow the possibility of a bigger fall if they do not like what they see; but that fall is way less terrifying than losing yourself.  As actors we are always striving for the character's true intent, their so-called "real voice."  Yet how can that happen when we are disconnecting from ourselves and others all the time in our own lives?  I'd like to encourage you all today to talk with someone in this room you do not know: try to have a real engagement.  Take a moment to have an authentic exchange with a stranger.  To connect, even in a small way.

Have more family meals.  Talk to your kids, husband, wife, partner…and more importantly, listen to their responses.  So many phenomenal playwrights have written dinner scenes.

Create community—places where people come together for a common purpose.  The same thing that draws me to my local pub draws me into theatres: shared experience.  I can sit down next to a stranger in a pub and have real conversations; hear their life in story form, unadulterated.  You can't put a ticket price on that.  Go to community theatre, where people come together for the love of art, not for the money or the acclaim.

I began a life in theatre because I craved the shared experience; that feeling that I was never alone on stage.  Even if I physically was, I had a whole audience there to play with; the audience—that other critical character, the people who are there to share the experience with us.  How divine!  What other profession can boast that they get to have someone listen to them rant on for an hour or two without interjecting?  The audience is the active listener: they have come to hear us tell a story.

I am stunned that so many people forget the simplicity of this fact.  They are overly concerned with humoring the public, or spoon-feeding them ideas and concepts. Yes, people like the escape of spectacle, but they also appreciate, and want—maybe even need—a well-tailored yarn that makes them think about what it means to be human.

So what is my conclusion in all of this?  I keep going back to Sondheim—an artist who, when he first began, found that audiences did not understand his craftsmanship.  His motto is content dictates form, and less is more.  That is what I always come back to; peeling away the layers of imposed material, that inauthentic facade covering the gem beneath.

One anecdote that always leaves me breathless comes courtesy of the British director Richard Eyre.  He speaks of Michelangelo's apparently most treasured work.  Immediately, we think about the Sistine Chapel and his frescos—the careful hand of God reaching out to Adam, the detail of every cherub, the cascading of the cloth surrounding the king of heaven.  Or perhaps we think of his marbled David, the most valuable sculpture of the Renaissance period.

But no.

It was a snow sculpture created in 1494 for the de Medici family.  The piece was said to be of utter beauty.  Something natural, real, that morphed as it melted into oblivion.  No one can actually document what the original form was.  But the ephemeral nature of it has lasted for centuries in the Italian cultural mind-set.  Much like theatre: the beauty cannot be harnessed or set in stone.  It is ephemeral.  So we owe it to our audiences, and ourselves, to make the moment as real as possible.

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