In Focus: The Wrecking Ball - Toronto's Political Theatre Voice

The Wrecking Ball, a political theatre movement, recently had it s fifth installment, which played, yet again, to a sold-out audience...this time as part of ArcFest Festival.

The theatrical event, produced by Lara Azzopardi, Ross Manson, Andrew Soren and Jason Sherman, as well as new co-organizer David Jansen, is a renegade theatre movement, meant to deal with the city and the world's most current issues.

The concept, more simple than it sounds, is this. Prominent playwrights from the city of Toronto are given one week to write a piece based on current news events. They are then given a second week with actors and directors to bring life to their vision. The final product is shown at the end of that weekend in a one night event at a variety of locations. This time, like the last, was at the Theatre Centre, a location that only bolsters the event with its own recent demise due to lack of funding.

What is most impressive is the energy in the room. Artists from various stages in their careers are present, as both participants and audience members. This lends to the communal atmosphere set up by the Company as audience members are also encouraged to engage in post performance, casual discussions, with the playwrights, actors etc....

The night dealt with a series of current topics. From The Austrian kidnap victim Natasha Kampusch's realization that society hasn't vastly improved since her kidnapping and release eight years ago, to a man who has started a theme park in Russia based on all the atrocities of the Communist past, to an audience involved trivia game. Of course there's always room for a Harold Pinter piece thrown in for measure.

I spoke to the newest member of the group, David Jansen, last week, to discuss the theatre movement:

Tell me about the Genesis of Wrecking Ball.

"Well the first Wrecking Ball event was in November of 2004, which was the night of the American Federal election. I was asked to do reading for the first one, but was unavailable as I was in Montreal. When the second Wrecking Ball came around at the Factory Theatre I did a piece with Joe Ziegler by Norm Foster and one by American political writer Adriano Shaplin.

I was really pleased to be invited to join the Wrecking Ball because it was a unique way theatre in this city can operate. It can deal more with the pulse of the city in a very quick way... faster than the big theatres can. You're not burdened by big budgets. You can have an immediate response to what's going on in the street, and, via Wrecking Ball, there is some foresight. It is a mechanism. A devise that allows for a Polaroid snapshot of what people's joys, fears and concerns are about, relating to what is happening in society."

In a big city like Toronto, where so many live in a complacent lifestyle, feeling safe and cushioned by commercialism, does the Wrecking Ball try to serve as a trigger or as a means to inspire change? How effective can Political theatre, in this type of society, be?

"Well to be realistic, there isn't going to be a play or a couple of galvanizing plays that are going to lead people to the barricades. I don't think that's possible anymore. If it is a trigger for anything. It needn't be activism. It is a trigger to exercise the political imagination. The artistic experience needn't merely include or be exclusively about, for example, the life of the mind or psychological... foods, but that our experience as humans is also a social experience.

It is also about reinvigorating our imagination to include our social identity, who we are as citizens. And as an antidote to the kind of solipsism you are talking about that is really acute in Toronto. It is a city that hasn't quite figured out yet what it is to have... public experience. We have our outfits, we have our jobs, we wear our Ipods and we do sort of move around in bubbles.
In a small way the Wrecking Ball is also a means of talking to our fellow artists about reexamining how we create theatre to include this social or political imagination, not simply in an issue driven way.

Another thing about Wrecking Ball is that we can do these shows very quickly. The turnaround time is very quick. You don't have to be mired in play development for three years. As the impulse to write, and the script itself drifts farther and farther apart, the playwright becomes alienated from his or her own initial impulses about it. This way it is direct. It is fresh. It also speaks to the immediate feeling in the audience of something that's happening, something that's in the air. A bit of the zeitgeist.

I happened to notice esteemed playwright Judith Thompson in the audience, and when I asked her about how she felt about the show she said this, "I love it... that our best playwrights, actors and directors all donate their time, and create really, really good and exciting work. We are a political people, art is always subversive, always political...that is its purpose, to upend the status quo, to sound and alarm, to awaken, to set a blazing fire in the creators and the audience."

"Judith Thompson wrote one of the first pieces for Wrecking Ball. That was where it started. The idea is that we are going to ask everybody and it doesn't matter if they're really well established or not. Getting David Fox, for example, is amazing, but we're not going to shy away from asking anyone to be a part of it. It is for everyone that the Wrecking Ball exists."

Sometimes people can get turned off from political activism because one can get lost in the militant attitudes soemtimes prevelent at the events held. How does Wrecking Ball avoid that so it can speak to everyone?

"There are different strategies for being political in public. Artists do it through their work and if they are to do it publicly it must be eloquent and sophisticated in the way it is either staged or with what is being said. Otherwise, it is irrelevant and very easy to write off. I know exactly what you mean. It's like when you're in a protest and you feel like all anyone is doing a slogan-izing, even though the cause, at the heart of it, is something I'm in full support of. I think, from an arts perspective, we just have to be more clever about it. And we want to keep going. It appears as though it is becoming more popular as well. Each time we go out there seems to be a legitimate and authentic support for it amongst young, vibrant, politically engaged Torontonians, many of whom don't regularly go to the theatre. We'll just keep doing it and see where we go from here."

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