Experimentation was my education

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

When I was in theatre the idea of experimentation seemed to be a goal. I was lucky and got to work with a lot of non-fourth wall directors (theatre without audiences sitting toward a stage). I worked in all sorts of environments. One of my favourite experiences was a tiny little busking job I and three other wonderful performers created for people lining up to go into fringe shows in Toronto. Early nineties? Perhaps. I can’t remember what the performance was about; I think I played a catatonic princess or something. We would perform for about twenty minutes, people laughed and smiled and gave us money. We would then take our little stipend, go to the beer tent and drink until the next performance. By the time the last line ups were forming, we slurred and groped our way through our little show, using our inebriation as fodder for humour much to the delight of the waiting audience. It was a kind of hit but eventually we liked being in the beer tent more than performing. And so the performances came to an end with people asking us at our little beer soaked table full of quarters and costumes if we would do it again in the tent. We declined all offers since one of us was always not available as they had to go and get desperately needed smokes.

I use this example to illustrate how the performers I worked with were amazingly talented (we made good busking money doing this because we were all known to theatre audiences by then and the play was pretty good) but we weren’t above being irreverent. In fact irreverence was a key to our success.

Lou Vegas, a much loved character I created. He would be thrown to the wolves today by our politically correct overlords.
Lou Vegas, a much loved character I created in the early 90s. Lou’s ideas & talents were questionable. He would be thrown to the wolves today by our politically correct overlords.

I was trained in this teeter tottering world of experimentation, spontaneity, improv and that netherworld between professional skill and recklessness with audiences. I was informed by punk and worshipped at the altar of alternative. I tried with all my might to create a performance style that lived somewhere between stand up/sketch and crazy avant garde outrageousness. This was not an unusual drive as most of my colleagues felt the same way. We weren’t interested in Broadway or even Stratford but something more DIY which didn’t have to have a subscription series, cater to huge audiences and bus tours. What I am describing is now ever present and in fact the mainstream of most theatre/performance seen today. When I was young however it wasn’t defined, nor was it easy to apply since gatekeepers at the time had no framework for what we were doing. Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Gray was our masterwork (and you could also include the Wooster Group, Pina Bauch, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman) but Spald was my hero. It was the defining style and standard and at that time no one at the councils or most mainstream theatres had any clue about these ‘revolutionaries’.

Happily I meet many young artists today who seek this kind of netherworld. While we are told millennials just care about money and success, I have had a very different experience with this age group. It’s harder today; YouTube is where much of this experimentation is taking place as theatre is really expensive – we were lucky, it was affordable to find a hole in the wall to do your thing. Video equipment was what was costly and complicated. Still, I see a search in our young to find a way to experiment and express that will help them define their own voice.

Being old however I do not know if these young people have the older, more seasoned and outrageous characters I had to help me. As I mentioned I think I hit a very lovely sweet spot in my generation as the people who were leading our community were baby boomer age without that generation’s focus. These were people who veered away from popular forces in the 60s and 70s – they were gay, deconstructionist intellectuals, academic feminists and nobody was particularly politically correct. They taught me an alternative way of looking at things through art making, one that didn’t equate success with popularity. I think my dad might have called these people freaks. My mother however was happy as she was always scared I would grow up, have two kids, a white picket fence, a husband who made a boring but good living and spend the rest of my life slowly dying from entropy.

I admit that now I am ill equipped to “exploit opportunities”, “work toward success” and “have a keen understanding of the marketplace”. I was always a populist but inspired by the avant garde; I think that folding these things together is a good idea. Shakespeare is a great example of what I mean. Because of this unusual training I am able to use my artistic voice as a rudder having built confidence through decades of experimentation. I know what works.

I hope that experimentation remains available to young artists. My idea of hell is a world where everything is created for a purpose that also fits into conventional thinking neatly, with caution and only the familiar as inspiration.

photo by Stephen Scott circa 1991

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4 thoughts on “Experimentation was my education”

  1. Back when anything related to the arts was not considered a qualified career choice and a certain road to self destruction. Art was for children and signified mental instability as practiced by an adult. Your parents, teachers, aunts and uncles all advised strongly against it. You did it anyway simply to spite them.

    1. So true Bill. But I was unusual as my mother was an avowed Marxist who didn’t believe in conventionality so…. I could have done anything and she would have approved. My father… not so much however he never stood in my way. I still feel though that becoming an artist seemed to be and act of rebellion.

  2. As the number of youth granted entry into the “establishment” dwindles, and social inequalities grow, the need, and, therefore, the impetus, for alternatives continues to increase. I work with young people (15 – 18) and have a young son in the arts. I see a vibrant, intelligent, savvy, wily generation actively seeking and finding “work arounds” to life as envisioned by the corporate capitalist oligarchy. They are a generation who are busy re-evaluating life in non-material terms. I have great optimism for the future of the arts as a result — be of good hope — they’re working on it! Bit of a drag for us oldsters or even those in mid-youth though, as these sorts of social shifts take decades, at least, to work themselves out.

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