This is a question I contemplate often. At this particular moment, I contemplate it in an airplane, several thousand miles into the clouds en route from Vancouver back home to New York.
They say that is not the right question. The thing to do is to do the work and offer it up. The thing to do is to speak your truth, to be generous with your team and your audience. To be fully yourself in the presence of your art. They say you are not supposed to think of art in terms of good and bad. To do so diminishes both the work and the artist.
I remember, a hundred years ago, my high school drama teacher warning us to choose our words of congratulations very carefully after watching a friend’s performance. That to praise a performer for being “good” or even “great” was a judgment of sorts, and imposed a limitation on the very art we wanted to support and set free.
“So what should we say after a show?” I remember asking, ever so obedient and yet ever so politely socially-minded. “Thank you for your work,” she offered. “You can add what specifically resonated with you in a way that will help them develop as an artist.”
At the time, given that I had spent my first sixteen or so years obsessed with the singular goal of Being Good and Getting Better, this was a revolutionary concept. If we weren’t all trying to be good, what were we trying to be? Truthful? Skillful? Present?
To be honest, I still haven’t figured it out. (If you have, please enlighten me in the comments.)
And yet we know a good play when we see it, don’t we? Even if we can’t or don’t articulate it at the time. We know a good play like we know a good movie or a good song.
While I sat watching the final performance of Watching Glory Die at its world premiere in Vancouver, I found myself concluding, deeply and simply, “This is a good play.”
And I searched my brain and heart to figure out why, in part because I could not imagine walking up to two of the greatest legends in Canadian theatre and telling them, “This is a good play.”
This play is very clear, I concluded. This was an adjective that satisfied, and this was the response I shared afterwards with director Ken Gass and playwright/performer Judith Thompson.
“In what way?” Judith pressed, genuinely curious. “What specifically was clear for you?”
I sipped my orange juice. She sipped her limonata. (What party girls we were that night!)
As the words slipped out of my mouth all by themselves, I knew I would be thinking about them long afterward. “I was on everyone’s side.”
Could it be that that is what makes a good play?
Watching Glory Die is inspired by the tragedy of Ashley Smith, a young offender who hung herself in a New Brunswick prison while under close observation by her guards.
From the play (not exact quotes):
Glory’s mother: If she had been born in a different time and place, she might have been a warrioress.
Gail the Correctional Officer: It was four hundred dollars. That’s two weeks worth of groceries.
Glory: I need my privacy! It’s a tampon. I’m not going to hang myself with it. I’m on my period!
I understood who everyone was and why they made the choices they did at each moment. That does not seem, at first glance, like a revolutionary achievement. But when you dig a little deeper, isn't that, on a fundamental level, all theatre is for?
This is, on one level, of course a story about Ashley Smith; this is also a story about the choices that both liberate and enslave us.
This is a play about the opportunities and the tragedies in each moment that can change everything.
This is a play about the fragility of life.
This is a play about the strength in being a woman.
This is a play about abduction of the spirit.
This is a play about who we might be if we were given different opportunities.
This is a play about doing the best you can with what you are given.
This is a play about wanting to be heard.
This is play about feeling too small in the world.
This is a play about everybody watching.
This is a play about being who you are.
Canadian Rep Theatre brings Watching Glory Die home to Toronto and opens next week at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (May 15-June 1. You can buy tickets here.) It is directed by Ken Gass and performed by playwright Judith Thompson, marking her first return to the stage after 35 years or so.
If you are in Toronto this month, I would highly recommend it.
It is a very good play.