Book Review: Theatre of the Unimpressed

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Jordan Tannahill, 160pgs, Coach House Books,, $14.95 

Jordan Tannahill starts with the precepts that many other books might have concluded with: theatre and its institutions are boring, ugly enough to repel would-be theatregoers after just one or two bad experiences, dry enough that we resent plays as something we ought to attend but would rather not. Widely proclaimed as being Canadian’s theatre’s youthful hope, Tannahill takes on the question of what it’s going to take to put some life back into the medium he loves.

Through various chapters and sections about the old guard (“Boredom”, “Museum Theatre” and “The Well-Made Play”) and work that is getting it right (“Liveness” and “Falling on Our Faces”), Tannahill writes a manifesto for a radically new stage. “To make truly relevant and urgent theatre in the twenty-first century, we must re-examine, and, in many cases, dismantle, much of what we have been beholden to over the last century (or more),” he declares. “Because if we do not, the Theatre of the Unimpressed is here to stay.”

The kind of living, transformative, “vital” theatre that Tannahill calls for uses the here-and-nowness of live performance as its foundation, celebrating and exploiting the spectre, and sometimes reality, of failure and radical contingency.

Tannahill looks often at his own work and Videofag, the storefront performance space he lives in and runs with William Ellis in Kensington Market, as platforms for thinking through these themes. But more strikingly, Tannahill’s book is overflowing with interviews with important names of contemporary theatre’s vanguard. Although the book is tightly written, with helpful and clear metaphors and examples, these many quotes, while interesting, become distracting and scattered at some points. It’s as though he felt obligated to include at least one thought from everyone, just to be fair.

Perhaps for the same reason, though, the book feels extremely prescient. Many of the plays or projects he cites feel like they happened yesterday, and as a non-theatre-enthusiast, a lot of my experiences feel affirmed and answered. As part of Coach House’s Exploded Views Series, Tannahill succeeds in taking familiar themes and flipping them around, reorienting the dual elitism and obscurity of theatre by celebrating the audience and performance space as fraught, exciting, and expert ingredients. (Jonathan Valelly)