Tuesday, December 6, 2016


When people ask each other where they trained, what they're asking is, what did you study. Not just "clown" or "bouffon" or "physical theater"—they know you studied that. But did you study "Eye Control"? Did you study "Delightful Gestures"? Did you take classes in "Fucking Awesomeness", or were you born that way?

In the past I've made the mistake of answering that question by naming this theater teacher or that. But the truth is, other people have trained a lot more with those people or in actual grad schools, and I haven't. I'll tell you where I really trained. I trained in pleated pants and wingtips teaching The Scarlet Letter to tenth graders in a New York City prep school. I trained by being a high school English teacher.

Here's the thing about New York prep school students: either their parents have MOHNAY or those kids are AWESOME and on MAD SCHOLARSHIP. Either way, you're not dealing with what commonly comes to mind when people think of high school students in America. You're dealing with kids who mostly want to be there, at the very least, they want the bells and whistles associated with wanting to be there. Grades and recommendations and internships and law school and eventual second homes. So as a teacher you've got a real advantage there.

But that doesn't mean your students want to be in class. They show up, they did the homework, but let's be serious, how many kids would rather discuss The Scarlet Letter than do anything else on earth? One or two a year, tops. Little English teachers-in-training.

Most of the kids I had in class were initially distrustful of my ability—of any teacher's ability—to really hold their interest and inspire them. I had to prove myself. It wasn't crucifixion/StandAndDeliver-hard to prove myself, but it was still a learned skill. And it was satisfying, to see them fall in love with old musty books, even a little bit, to see them believe me when I said The Scarlet Letter was the sexiest book ever written about Puritans. I must have convinced them, or they would never have enthusiastically pointed out the double meaning of that rose bush, or that flogger, or that pumpkin patch.

With your average show audience, a performer is facing a similar vibe to that prep school classroom—at least if the performer is not famous (audiences for famous people are different, slavering things). The audience members have made the time for you, they got the tickets, they put on pants, but they still need convincing.

I put in lots of hours exploring how to keep the energy up in a room full of sleepy teenagers for an hour.
That's where I trained.

And if I could tell all performers where to train and they'd listen to me, I'd say, teach teach teach. Teach something worth learning. And more importantly, teach people who would rather be elsewhere doing something else.

I think that's probably what I need to start doing more of, again.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Over time, I have made some rules for myself as a creator of things. This isn't because I'm some psychic genius who has always known which way to turn—OH NO—instead, these rules are the results of failures and disappointments and shitty performances and massive financial losses. So you'd think I would trust these rules at this point. Except recently, in the creation of my newest show, a site specific immersive comedy spaghetti western called WESTWARD HO'S, I've broken a shit ton of them. Here are just some examples of the rules I've triumphantly broken.

1) DON'T PERFORM OUTDOORS. This is one I learned in 2010 when I took Butt Kapinski outside and built a street show in Brooklyn, in which audiences met me on a corner and proceeded to basically walk around the block, meeting scenes and having experiences along the way. In theory it was actually cool, and actually, I think the audiences enjoyed it. But I didn't, so much. I was used to a certain energy and focused attention in the room. Take the ceiling away, there's too much competition with the cosmos, or whatever it is. Performing outside wasn't as fun for me. Lesson learned.

Except not at all. Now I've mounted an ENORMOUS show in an outdoor ampitheater. Why did you do it, fortheloveofchrissmas. See, I've known for years that I wanted to make a spaghetti western show. I visited the Lookout Arts Quarry last summer, saw The Saloon—a gorgeous little mini-Old West town built in the round, surrounded by trees—and knew immediately that it was the place for my new show. Another theater-maker-friend-of-mine came to visit and saw it too and said, "You can't NOT make a show here." IT'S THAT AWESOME.

But it's outside fortheloveofH-E-doublehockeystick. Yes it is. But there are indoory parts of it. Sort of. But you're right. I know.

2) DON'T MOUNT A FULL-LENGTH SHOW FIRST. This came from what I experience as success with the Butt show. I started with 5-7 minute bits, and worked it up to 15-20, then 45, then a 60-70 minutes. It developed over years, with lots of audience response along the way. So the character felt "experienced" even when I debuted the full-length show. And I had the confidence of having done the character a lot. It was all very organic and gradual and good-for-you-Deanna-pat-pat-pat

except who has time for that shit anymore? I mean, I still think that people just starting out doing shows should work that way, ABSOLUTELY. I still think I should work that way. Except I'm mounting this huge new show as a full-length extravaganza. Right out of the gate.

The semi-good news is that we've performed a 30-minute chunk once, and a 5-minute chunk twice. And those went very well and definitely helped the overall process and the performers' comfort-level. So I guess it's a tiny bit better than full-on-rule-break-suckshit. But, really, if I were doing this 100% by my rulebook I'd have done "workshops" of it where we tried out sections and served hot cider and called it a day.

Not doing that. Biggest show I've ever done. Catered dinner. Drinks. A Band. 10 performers. Myself. Humongous. Could go horribly wrong. Or...

3) DON'T BE IN A SHOW YOU'RE DIRECTING. I know there are theater schools out there that promote director-less models of creation, and I get it—directors usually charge for what they do, and if you're a theater company with no money, dot dot dot. And of course I'm a director so I'm biased but seriously friends when a show doesn't have a director you can TELL. Fascism is good in theater. It's good to have someone outside the work, seeing what the audience will see, and having opinions about it. And I love being a fascist! I love being the big bad authority so the performers can just relax and wear only one hat: their adorable vulnerable performer hat made entirely of skin and instinct.

Except this time I'm in the show that I'm directing. I'm playing a narrator, which is of course how I justify this gross indecency to myself and my cast. And I am really enjoying my role, and people are laughing. But still.

4) DON'T GET IN BED WITH CO-COLLABORATORS ALL-AT-ONCE. This is similar to my rule of not mounting a full-length show before doing small bits. Start collaborating with others to make a 10-minute bit so you can learn how each other works, then if it goes well you can develop more. And if it doesn't go well you can shake hands and part not having invested your left kidney in—if I may mix a metaphor here—a sinking ship.

Yeah, so I didn't follow this one either. First of all, there are 10 other people in the show. A lot of them are working together for the first time. Some of them I've had in workshops over the last few years, some of them I just met a few months ago. The truth is, though, none of them were strangers to me. They were all friends, former workshop participants, or friends-of-friends. Still, I guess it was risky.

But it's really gone surprisingly well. We seem to be as in sync as a cast this size could be. I mean, it is a really beautiful group of humans and I'm basically crushing on all of them, not just because they do what I say, but because they're intuitive and creative and fun to work with. Maybe I got lucky. Whatever, I still think Rule #4 is a great rule. Follow it, not me.

So there you have it. I'm not necessarily proud of all the rules I'm breaking to make my new show. On the other hand, I'm fiercely proud of all the rules I'm breaking to make my new show. It's great to have rules. It's great to break them. Much learning will ensue.

There's a showman in San Francisco that I admire, name of Chicken John. Chicken John has an elaborate graph he's created to show a concept rather dear to my heart: it is only the art that could be a complete shitshow which has any chance of being divine.

I'm doing it. I could fail miserably. So could all my co-collaborators who have trusted me so much.

But I kinda don't think we will. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016


A few jugglers, aerialists, shadow puppeteers, a musician. Very slow wifi. Communal kale. I came to an Artist Residency.

Here in the studio, the musician is working with a singer and a looping pedal. They're making a simple song with a simple, clean chorus
how you gonna get your crazies out—
and then they loop that chorus and the singer sings are you gonna dance 'em out but it gets looped in this cool way that I don't understand yet (I'm still a newbie to the looper) so it ends up sounding like
how you gonna get your crazies—
are u gonna dance 'em out

The contact improv has paused for the moment, and the improvisers are now lying on the floor, talking, cozily, about group dynamics.

I've been touring hard for a few years, and when I wasn't touring, on the computer, setting up touring. I've been teaching and directing and doing one show—a show that varies a lot, sure, but still, same character, same energies, ebb'n'flow, here you go, how you gonna get your crazies—
are u gonna dance 'em out

Now they've stopped and the singer is yawning. Je suis fatiguee, she sings into the mic. Then, she murmurs, Good practice. They relax.

The studio is glowing dimly, just one light in the corner. The trapezes cast their shadows on the vast walls.

I didn't know what the hell I'd do here. I had a few ideas. I had no idea how I'd work on them by myself, as I don't do great creating on my own. Or at least, that's the narrative I've built for myself over the past few years. But how much creating have I been doing? I live a creative life, but man, these creative trees we call creative lives have so many branches, and you can neglect some, and they'll wither, but the rest of the tree keeps on and gets tall and maybe doesn't even notice the few dying branches. The birds notice, though.

It's a delicate, flowing thing, an artist residency. Living among artists. Artists come and go, they are present, they are absent. I have put myself as another fish in this river, gliding along in the strange water. The echoes of dishes being put away upstairs. It's late.

I bowed out of Edinburgh Fringe, and I came here. It has been so much business. So much career. I think of something a producer friend of mine said when I told him I was not going to Edinburgh this summer, that I need to take care of myself. He said, "All I see around me are artists not taking care of themselves."

And so here I am. For the first time in a long time, I played in front of the mirror, pretty much by myself. I danced butoh, and then I put on a devil mask and played with that, and I made a juggler laugh.

What am I going to make here? I don't know. I'm going to be an artist here. It's easy to get swept up in the business, and then that is all it is. We think, before we make money as artists, that all we want is to be in the business. We think that will solve everything, that that will be all we need.

I need to bring myself to the mirror and not know what's there.

The music is done for the night. Some cuddling has commenced. I'm going to watch "Dirty Dancing" in bed. It's the only movie I have.

how you gonna get your crazies—

    are u gonna dance 'em out

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

ARTISTS AT WORK, PART 2: The Toughest Festival Yet

What follows is not a conversation, it is 2 one-way streets.

Two different characters. DEANNA. BUTT KAPINSKI.

DEANNA: a human being. A working artist and teacher. A generally kind soul with occasional flashes of intelligence, but also very concerned with the usual mortal things that eat away at human souls and make us into nervous machines who will become extinct quickly.

BUTT KAPINSKI: It ith a mithion. It ith a thacwed cawwing:
Make a fiwm noiw.
Be weth awone.
Caww it a night.

Butt and Deanna are at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival together for the first time.
It is a festival where famous comedians do comedy, and also Butt Kapinski.

I've done 2 weeks of shows. So far, the audience size, in terms of sheer numbers, are the smallest of Butt's performance career. Once in Dallas s/he did a show with 8. Here in Melbourne so far, the average is 10-15. Mostly comps.

Those on Deanna's production team assure Deanna that it is early in the festival yet, that "people are talking"—whatever soothing sounds they can make, anything to cheer her up. Deanna is eating sliced apples. She is taking baths and lighting candles and doing pilates in the living room. She is working on making it through. She heard a young comedian in the green room the other day talking about his show—
"... And we're in this huge venue, and there are like 10 audience members watching us. It is AMAZING. It is HILARIOUS."
—And she takes him in with wonder, astonished and inspired by his devil-may-care stance. Deanna is not that person. She forgives herself for her small feelings; after all, work and colleagues and money are all important things, but she wishes she were more like the 22-year-old who still feels like it's all a big joke.

Butt is like that, sort of. Butt doesn't really care how big the house is.
The mithion ith awwayth the thame:
Make a fiwm noiw. Caww it a night.

I don't think this happened automatically. It started when I did that show for 8 in Dallas. Boy I felt it then, right before those shows. I was pretty scared. Butt was scared. We didn't know if we could do it. Two shows of 8, it ended up being. Half the audience was comp. Maybe more.

But here's what's (not) crazy: those audiences threw down. Those shows were really fun. The audience members stuck with me. Maybe we stuck with each other. I really remember the energy at those shows. It was live-action role-playing sex-nerd energy, electric.

But still, even though I've had beautiful, transcendental experiences as a performer with a small house, the ego in me really gets bummed out. It's a funny tug-of-war, a to-and-fro, between Deanna the human to whom everything has way too much meaning, and Butt the force who doesn't give a shit.

Here's what happened a few nights ago. 17 people tops, half comps at least, probably more. Mayyyyybe 4 paying ticket-holders. For some reason, everyone in the room was totally into it. They did crazy things, surprised me. They came up with a new ending involving a courtroom scene and an old lady sending her cat to sniff the defendant and assess his guilt. And after the show groups of people all stood around in wonder and said, "what the fuck happened." So.... THAT. I mean, what I'm saying here, how can that not make the world better? SOMEHOW?

The other night, I had to cancel my show. Did I have to cancel? I don't know. There were 2 comps. That was it. I spent the 20 minutes before showtime crying. And then I cancelled.

They were lovely, those 2 middle-aged women who stood there in the lobby and forgave me for not giving them a show. "Have a drink, put your feet up," they said to me. One of them said she went dancing the other night. I had a sense, in their presence, of human beings who were fun, who had fun in life, who would've been fun to do something with, even if it was just me taking them into an alley and acting out murder scenes against a brick wall.

But the other night I couldn't do it. I was too miserable, too full of Deanna for Butt to come out.

I'm not going to do that anymore in this festival. If anyone shows up, we have a show. We have something. Because you are not going to beat me down, Melbourne International Comedy Festival. You are not going to convince me that I'm nothing just because not that many people are coming to my show. You are not the mirror that I need to assess myself by. It's uphill, it's exhausting, it's unbelievably nerve-wracking and I'm not eating enough and fuck you. But you're not going to take what matters from me.

And in the black, in the shadows, Butt is always there, already ready, bursting out of me and making me forget everything else. Nothing matters but Butt. That's who I'm following into the darkness. That's who makes the most sense.

BUTT: That'th what I awwayth thay, dowwfathe.
It'th a thacwed cawwing.

Make a fiwm noiw.
Be weth awone.

Caww it a night. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016


(Editor's note: this entry was penned by the artist while she was at the Adelaide Fringe, pleasantly breaking even and playing to 50-ish folks on average a night. Now that the artist is at Melbourne Comedy Festival losing her metaphorical shirt [NOT REALLY MOM, I'M FINE, I HAVE PLENTY TO EAT], she is feeling much more sympathy, empathy, and plain ol' pathy around her subject matter. Still she fights nobly against the tide of dark and grabby feelings. These entries are part of that fight.)

I started theatre classes when I was around 6. I was painfully shy and nervous, and my parents thought it would help me. It did. In a world full of big dogs, loud boys and polynomial subtractions, theatre classes were my one great relief.

I feel very lucky that my first theatre classes were actually really good. They weren't Acting Classes for KIDS like some girls I know took, where they learned to belt like an Annie understudy and deliver monologues from Peter Pan. My classes had no songs or scripts, and my teachers were actors and clowns, so we did loads of improvisation, imagery work, physical exploration, the good shit. And occasionally my teacher would bring in a really cool performer friend to guest-teach, and that was exciting too. I remember finding out one guest teacher had been one of "The Top Free 7", which even as a little kid I understood to mean that she wanted to have her boobs out in public but the government wouldn't let her. And even then I thought that seemed odd. Odd to want to have your boobs out, sure, but odder not to be allowed.

And occasionally the guest teacher would be asked to "talk about the business of being an actor," and we would all sit obediently to listen. And suddenly a change would come over this guest teacher, who had been so open and playful in class. Suddenly now something hard came into his face and his voice, and he started to talk about head shots and agents and auditions, and suddenly it seemed like he was trying to prove something to us, like we had all gone from being good friends to being colleagues at some horrible office party. He didn't seem to so cool anymore.

So when I was little, I learned something big: the art of performing is beautiful and transcendental, and the business of performing turns people into insecure assholes.

I have avoided the world of tv/film and I still don't have head shots, and all of this can be traced back to those moments when those teachers that I admired suddenly got small right in front of my face. Something about the business of trying to make it as an actor transformed creative souls into name-dropping, piece-of-the-pie-snatching insects of need, and I wanted no part of that, then or ever.

But here I am now, in show business, sort of. The weird live-performing side of show business, at least, which is probably a dying thing, but in my spheres it's still trucking along packing 'em in where it can. And I have many performer friends, of course. And one thing I keep noticing is that our knee-jerk conversation topic is How Big Our Houses Are, or Which Big P (presenter/producer/promoter/person) We Want To Come To See Us.

The stuff that makes our eyes and faces go hard. The stuff that makes us stop looking into the faces of our friends, but instead, stare straight ahead of ourselves, like we're on a bad bicycle and have to focus every bit of concentration on just not falling down. The business turns us tiny and grabby: babies only not cute.

I get it! We all want to make money. We don't want to lose money. We attach a lot of meaning to whether we make or lose money.

Just the same, I've seen audiences of 250 go relatively unmoved, and I've seen audiences of 12 be totally transformed and united. And so have you. I've had great shows for 8 people, and I've learned things and tried things out and grown as a performer at those shows, so that while I didn't make money at them, I might've improved skill sets that could make me money later. You have to stay open to the possibility that even something that feels like shit could be of value. Doesn't all energy get used? If we think in terms of quantum physics, as we should at all times, does it make any difference in the universal scheme of things how fucking big our audience is?

It can be fought against, this mind-plague, this disease of numbers. I think more of us can do more to not just get together in groups and move our hard eyes around and talk depressing math. Let the Big P's talk about those things, or talk about those things when you're with Big P's, but then politely excuse yourself and go frolic around some trees.

If you're at a festival surrounded by artists, and you're worrying about numbers, talking about numbers, talking about Big P's, worrying about Big P's, consider frolicking around trees. You want to live an artist's life? One thing an artist does is everything she can not to get caught up in the stuff that hardens our hearts and builds fortresses of fear around our souls.

Jester, you're in this world to jingle your bells.
Being an artist is being a revolutionary. All the time. In small ways. However you can.

Keep your eyes open. Keep your soul soft. When you die, at the end of your Road, if you're lucky and if you do it right, somebody's holding your hand. That's it. Merry Xmas. Play for that.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


The truth is out there. And we artists know it. Programmers, producers, presenters... people. The Big P's come to the Edinburgh and Adelaide Fringe fests looking for artists to book. There is a taste of blood in the air, and that blood is money, money for doing what you love. Delicious, tantalizing, elusive. It could be you, or it could not be you. You feel hungry and desperate, or maybe it makes the glint in your eye go KaZAOW and you get right into it. Some artists thrive on the game, some hate it. 

And some successful artists are great at networking and connecting and promoting, and some successful artists are shit at it. There is no formula here, fuckers. 

Both of these big fringes set up official networking events, which are attended by producers, presenters, programmers, people, and artists. You'll generally recognize the artists by their look of vague sadness, confusion, and determination despite the odds. You'll recognize the Big P's by their ease and obvious satiation, and the fact that they each have several humans huddled around them straining to catch their every syllable. 

It is very lovely for the Fringes to set up these events. I go to them when I'm feeling generally okay about myself. I do not have advice about how to do well at such events. I do have ideas about how to survive them.

WHY GO. Right, I don't really know why you should go. Most producer types I talk to say these events don't do much for anyone, least of all them. Why would they go to your show just because you harassed them at a networking event? Producer types will only come see your show if they've heard about it some other way, or a few other ways. That's just the truth. But still, maybe you should still go.

You should go because something listed as a "networking event" means you get to work on your cocktail party skills. And artists ought to have something resembling cocktail party skills. Right? Or maybe not! Like I said, some artists don't fucking need cocktail skills. No fucking formula. 

But you should go because you will get a goooooood long whiff of the smell of desperation, and you may think it's emanating off of everyone else, but it's probably coming from you, too, and here is a rare opportunity for you to really smell it. It's like the smell of Los Angeles, all the time. It smells like exhaust, artificial sweetener, an old lime soaked in gin, and your cell phone, if you've ever leaned over and really smelled your cell phone. It's a good smell to be able to recognize in yourself and others. Go for that. 

GO TO GATHER INFORMATION, NOT DISSEMINATE IT. I'm specific in my word choice here. I see some artists at these events spurting their flyers and their show pitches like semen all across the land. They do not care if you want to hear, they're not stopping to check if you want to hear. They're just in the Zone, but their zone totally sucks for everyone else. Everyone's getting wet and nobody even asked for it. 

Do these artists succeed in getting Big P's to their shows? Who the fuck knows. But you don't want to be like that, just another ego-spurting gush-mountain of attention-grabbing.  You want to be a secret agent. 

I just had a great experience of secret-agenting at this event earlier today. A group of artists had 15 minutes to talk to this one festival director. We all hovered around him, like bees around the queen. 

"I'm looking for everything: music, dance, theatre!" he said magnanimously. Everyone started fumbling for their flyers. 
I said, "Okay, but what do you like?"
"I like everything," he said.
"But what do you look for?"
It took a minute or two of playful prodding before he came out with the fact that he's looking for only one show and then he'll be fully programmed. And the one show he was looking for was "non-verbal, physical theater." 
Ohhhh, everyone at the table said, and several flyers went away. 
There you have it.

So you've ended up at an Industry networking event, and you've got a Big P within earshot. Find out what the Big P's want, and what they have, and see how specific you can get them to be. Don't even pitch your show to them! Or do, but just give 'em a flyer and go away quickly. Then get their contact info, and send them an email like this:

Hey! You said you wanted dez thingz, and guess what bitch? I got these thingz! Come check my shit out! 

And they may! 

On the other hand, I have no idea if this really works. 


Go because there will be other artists there, and some of them are cool and you'll probably want to know them. And you'll be able to sniff out the ones that are fun and playful and taking it all in stride, and you and they will feel like you belong to a secret club of reasonably cool people, at least compared to some. And that will be nice. 

At the event today, my friends Dan and Clare were there. Dan and Clare are considered successful touring artists, and they are, and they deserve it because they're incredibly special and cool. They had a little table set up, but the vibe at their table was totally different from the other tables, because Dan and Clare are not buying any shows, they were just there to offer advice.

So the talk around the table was a lot more genuine, and super vulnerable, and way more interesting. 
And the basic question that every artist who came up to them asked was HOW DO I MAKE IT.

I've had some success at this festival or that festival, how do I take it to the next level?
I've had no success at all, how do I get some?
I think I should be way more successful than I am, why is the world so stupid?
Does it ever get easier?

All the same question. And Dan and Clare stood there and absorbed it all, and said, Yeah, right, we often have that question too. And the artists all surrounding Dan and Clare hovered in this delicate moment, a moment we've all experienced, the moment in which you realize that you've gone to someone as an authority figure, and they say they may not have the answer, but you had thought, well, if anyone had the answer, these people do, BUT THEY DON'T, and maybe the answer DOES NOT EXIST, and maybe you're not as far off as you thought you were, and maybe, just maybe, you can forge your own path, and it'll all be okay. 

I found it all enormously comforting. 

There's a big poster at my gym. You know those stupid gym inspirational posters that take up a whole wall. 


I like that, these days. Because each level you get to, there's probably another level you want. So if you feel kinda okay, you'll probably always feel kinda okay. And if you feel hungry and desperate, you will always feel hungry and desperate, unless you address that in yourself. And any way you slice it, you probably smell like your cell phone. 

That's not how you make it. I have no idea how you make it. But that's how you make it through. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Recently I was having a small hissy fit about critics who give away show secrets in their reviews. I was feeling so self-righteous I almost thought I would blog on it. But thankfully I thought better of it. Instead, I decided to interview two great critics I know. Kate Copstick is based in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, and reviews comedy for The Scotsman. Colin Thomas is based in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and reviews theatre for The Georgia Straight. Both wear fetchingly bold glasses, and both were totally generous about giving me their time.

1) What do you love/hate about your work as a critic?

COLIN THOMAS: I get to think and feel for a living. Who could complain about that?
         And, of course, I love going to shows. I think that theatre is the most compassionate art form; it’s about imagining ourselves into the lives of other people, after all. That kind of imagining allows us to let go of the illusion of coherent—and isolated—identity.  I’m all for that. I firmly believe that our interior selves are all far more beautiful, complex, and chaotic than we usually let on.        
       One of the great joys of my job is discovering a new talent—a talent that is either new to me or new to the world. I remember seeing my first Caryl Churchill play, Ice Cream, for instance, and realizing about halfway through that the playwright was fucking with my narrative expectations—with the lie of justice that underlies so many narratives in our culture, for instance, the lie of order. That was so exciting! And I just saw a young woman named Camille Legg play Romeo in a Studio 58 production of Romeo + Juliet (that’s how they rendered the title). It’s thrilling when you see somebody like that and you go, “Oh my god. There’s one. She’s got it. She’s really got it.”        
       I don’t think that I hate anything about my job. Sometimes online comments bug me, but, even in that weird—and annoyingly anonymous—forum, my experience is generally pretty positive.

KATE COPSTICK: I love the fact that my job is to make insightful, interesting, useful comments on a performance/ performer. That is to say that it is a mix of the emotional and the intellectual. I get to consider and opine. Two of my favourite things! Whereas other opinionated people just go to a bar after a show and point out everything that they liked/ hated/ were irritated by in a show, I get to tell the world (well, a bit of it). I love to analyse. I like to know why things work. Why one line will make you cry and another simply seem bathetic. I love that one word in another line can make the difference between hilarity and nothing. And getting to write about it.
        What I hate is the way that the comics (and really only the comics) have turned me into a sort of points system. That is all a review is to them. And I don't like that being a critic makes me wary of becoming close friends with some spectacular people. I cannot review someone I am really close to. I would forgive them things I might not forgive someone else and that would not be fair.

2) How do your other creative pursuits inform how you approach the craft of reviewing? What kind of difference(s) do you notice between critics who are artists, and those who aren't?

COLIN THOMAS: I’ve worked as a playwright and I currently earn about half of my income by story editing novels and screenplays. As a result, I am all over narrative structure and thematic development.
       Because I’ve been a critic for 30 years, I’m in love with rewarding surprises. Let’s hear it for innovation!
       And, way back when, I used to be an actor. When I first became a critic, the dynamics of acting were more alive in my flesh. That responsiveness has faded, but I like to think it’s still there to some degree; I fancy that I can tell, for instance, when a selfish actor is creating a black hole on-stage—not giving anything back to their fellow performers.
       Because I’m familiar with the processes of writing, performing, and rehearsing, I might be able to differentiate the relationships between those processes a little bit more clearly. When is an actor trapped by a script, for instance, and when are they not realizing its potential?
       All of that said, I’ve read terrific critics who don’t have a lot of experience practising the arts forms that they’re writing about. I’m thinking about Frank Rich, for instance, John Lahr, Pauline Kael…

KATE COPSTICK: I think it helps that I have been a performer —all kinds of performer from straight actor through cabaret to stand up. It does make me quite unforgiving of performers who witter on about how hard their job is. It also makes me intolerant of dishonesty in performance. I failed as a stand up because I had no idea who I was then and just wanted to impress people with how clever I was. There was no person there. And so I know a bad comic when I see one. I know a game playing actor when I see one. I know an onstage bully. And I have been a writer and director so I know tricks. I think when you know a game from the inside you know when people are cheating. And a cheap cheat irritates me.

3) How do you feel about the star system?

KATE COPSTICK: I hate it. It is a relatively new thing. And the comics love it because they and their PRs just star count. They do not care where the stars come from as long as there are plenty of them. One female comic demanded of her PR "quantity not quality" in her stars. Also— again in the comedy section predominantly— it makes for laziness. Audiences will look at the star numbers and simply ignore the actual review. I have a huge desire to write a blisteringly scathing review of a show, describing an hour and a performer without merit and then put five stars at the top. See who goes along just for the stars. The stars are good for no one except tour bookers and PR.

COLIN THOMAS: From a consumer point of view, I can understand the desire for a shortcut, but, basically, I find the star system lazy and reductive. It shrinks artistic endeavours into quantifiable and commodifiable products. Thank Christ the paper that I write for doesn’t use star ratings.

4) One thing I appreciate about your reviews is that you give readers a FLAVOR of what they will experience if they see the show, but you don't give anything away. How do you do that? Are you sensitive to the concept of not writing spoilers, or are you just focused on something else entirely?

KATE COPSTICK: Oh I am TOTALLY aware that - with the good shows and performers - the audience HAS to come to it fresh. The surprises and the twists and the turns have to be theirs to discover. If you already know the twist at the end then that will colour the whole show for you. You are negating the writer and performer's work and at the same time spoiling the audience's experience. It is ALWAYS possible to describe the flavour of a piece without resorting to quotes or simply rehearsing the narrative line. The surprises are not yours to give away, the words not yours to fill up your prose. A critic has to have respect for both the production and the audience. And it is MUCH more interesting for me to do it that way. Other wise it becomes a Junior School essay on "what I saw last night at the theatre."

COLIN THOMAS: In my enthusiasm for an idea or a show, I have given things away a couple of times and, when I realized what I'd done, I felt shitty. So, you know, behaviour modification is at work.
       Mostly, though, I consciously try to give readers enough specific information to support my analysis and, hopefully, to intrigue them. But that’s a tricky dance, especially with comedy: to give readers the flavour of a comedy and make them want to see it, you’ve kind of got to give a way a couple of the best lines. I limit the amount I quote and I count on the fact that the jokes I do give away are always going to be funnier in the context of a live performance than they are in black and white on the page.

5) How would you describe your effect on/relationship to performers: do they notice you in the audience, how do they experience your reviews, what kinds of conversations do you and the artists you review engage in? What advice do you have for those getting reviewed?

KATE COPSTICK: I am always noticed and very frequently pointed out in an audience. I am used to the "Oh god, Kate Copstick's in the audience, now I'm fucked." There are so many new comics that most of them know me by reputation only. And for some reason my reputation is fierce. I am always honest. And if a show has been diabolical then I try to slip away and NOT talk to the performer. When I do the Grouchy Club (monthly in London and daily at The Fringe) we get loads of comics turning up and if they ask me questions I will answer honestly— they ask at their own risk. As I say, I find it hard to get too close to a performer because then it is not fair for me to review them and I do know that my reviews in Edinburgh are wanted. The brave people do come up and challenge me on my star count. I really do not mind that. I am always happy to explain why I wrote what I did. That is only fair.

COLIN THOMAS: Because I want to build better—more informed, more respectful—relationships with artists, every year I go and talk to the whole school at Studio 58. (The Studio is part of Langara University here in Vancouver and one of the best theatre training centres I know of.)
       I figure that mostly my job on those days is to show up and be human. I’ve been a theatre critic for over 30 years and, in the eyes of many, that makes me an institution, which means that I should be resented on principle. I talk to the emerging artists at Studio 58 to humanize my relationship with them. I talk about my biases and my experience. I let them know that I’m sincerely interested in my opinions being part of a discussion— with them.
       I almost always cry at some point during these talks; I love theatre and I love students, so it's a potent combination. I figure it’s a good thing when the scary judge that they’ve come to expect turns out to be a bald, bawling, 63-year-old homosexual.
       I encourage folks who are getting reviewed to look for the things in the review that are useful. Is there a handy pull-quote? Better yet, is there a workable insight? If so, go with those things and ignore the rest. (This is easier said than done, I realize; as an actor and playwright, I have been on the receiving end of both positive and negative reviews.)
       To get back to the earlier part of this question: I hope that I’m invisible to artists when I’m in the theatre, but I realize that often I’m not. All I can do about that is refuse to sit in the front-row seats that publicists sometimes reserve for me.
       I love respectful and engaged conversations with artists and audience members. Disappointingly, artists sometimes respond to reviews with ad hominem attacks: “You’re too old to appreciate my brilliance.” But, at other times, discussions with artists and audience members can be a gift. I reviewed a show called “Broken Sex Doll”, for instance, and, after my review was posted online, the online comments convinced me to change the review before it went to print.

6) How do you think you affect readers' decisions about what they see? How do you think your readers would describe your tastes?

KATE COPSTICK: I know people go to see things that I review well— but I am not sure whether they read the whole review or just look at the stars ... which I agonise over quantifying. My tastes now have been described to me as "out there." And "The weirder the better." I am now known as a big fan of the Free Fringes and the tiny shows. The "the weirder the better" thing is not true. I simply love honesty and bravery in a show and in its performer. And if honest turns out to be weird then I will defend it. If it is performed well. And well written. The Malcolm Hardee Awards (which I judge) are all about the "fringe" acts that don't fit into any niche ... what alternative used to mean. Before it turned into a term for irritating, middle class faux irony and "so bad it is good" nonsense.

COLIN THOMAS: For big touring shows— like when Cats comes to town for the thousandth time— I’m sure my reviews carry virtually zero weight.
       For local shows, I think I’m pretty widely read and I believe that readership is discerning. Still, everybody knows that the most important factor in selling shows is word of mouth, and that’s as it should be: it’s good to make your decisions based on the advice of a trusted source.
       I suspect that the Fringe is the event at which reviews carry the most weight; there are so many shows to choose from, and, especially in Vancouver, where the coverage by the dailies is appalling, there are few sources of information. Fortunately, I frickin’ love the Fringe; it’s my favourite time of the year.
       How would my readers describe my tastes? Geez, I don’t know. When I’m writing review, I assume that I’m talking to a smart person who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of insider knowledge. I’m hope readers think I’m smart— and entertaining. And, if they read the reviews, I hope that the artists involved will find my comments fair. Mostly, though, I just want to articulate my response as clearly as I can.

And there you have it. Cool, right? And how about those fun British/Canadian spellings?!

On days when we're feeling bitchy and low about some shitty review by a shitty writer who doesn't understand us, let us remember and feel grateful for the critics who care, who are deeply thoughtful, who are fighting the good fight to be in meaningful dialogue with the art they love. Fuck yeah great critics! Critique ON!!

Sunday, January 17, 2016


I am moving out of Hollywood.
I went to my last Burning Man in 2005. 
I have just decided to go back to Edinburgh Fringe this summer. 

Sometimes people ask me if they should take a show to Edinburgh. I don't know. Below is something I wrote right after I got back last fall.

I just made a T-Chart of pro's/con's in order to actually decide that my Edinburgh Fringe experience was a good one. We all say "roller coaster" to each other during the month. Oh yeah, well, it's a roller coaster isn't it? which is to say that we understand that even if we had a really good show today, it's bound to be a shit show tomorrow, or something in between, or whatever man, the point is, there is no such thing as having a "good time" or a "bad time" at edinburgh fringe. It's just a fucking thing. It's no thing. It's every thing.

"You're addicted now," said Barry Church-Woods, who is one of the main administrators of the festival, and also—weirdly, considering it's the biggest festival in the universe—a super-approachable guy. Also clearly a maniac.

But maybe it is a kind of addiction. The Edinburgh Fringe is an incredible cocktail of Hollywood and Burning Man in a gorgeous old Gothic city. Maybe, sure, maybe I'm addicted now. Or maybe I'm just going again.

WHY IT'S LIKE HOLLYWOOD: Industry. Whatever That Means.

Edinburgh Fringe has Industry. People who make money off of performing artists! Mythical beasts! They come to Edinburgh to see shows and meet people! It could be YOU they meet, at one of the needy-grabby Fringe bars you need a secret card to get into. It could be YOUR show they wander into. And then BAMMO! LIFELONG TOUR!

That happens to some people, probably, maybe. Or it happens to differing degrees, but not the way you imagine. Or maybe it totally happens a lot.

The smartest advice I got was to be specific in goal-setting. Do some research, find some names, introduce yourself as much in advance as possible, follow up. Just try to move a teeny bit further along in your plans for world domination, in a specific, down-to-earth, case-by-case way. Keep your head down, except to notice the moody Scottish sky, hanging delicately above all that massive stone and chimney.

Being specific worked wonders, because on the "pro" side of my T-chart were actual people I invited to see my show, people who came. So they came! That's a goal met! Mazel tov! You don't know what/where/how may lead to gigs/gigs/gigs. The more specific you are in terms of whom you want to meet, the more clear your results or lack of results will be to you. And that is useful information for one's emotional brain, which during this festival is all over the goddamn map.

WHY IT'S LIKE HOLLYWOOD: Annoying Personalities Everywhere (Including Your Own).

Because this festival is aware of its own Star-Making-Potential Myth, stakes feel high for everyone, and everyone becomes potentially the worst version of him/herself imaginable. Or maybe it was just me. I was moody as hell, all month long. Some of those moods were great moods. I cried at BEAUTY, all month long. I was deeply moved by positivity, by hope, by art. I moved in a ethereal way, floating above a month-long Achilles tendon issue. How did I survive all those cobblestones with all that heel pain? Euphoria, my friends. There are euphoric moments.

But the bad moods were horrible. Feeling un-cool, worst of all. My wise flatmates talked me off many a metaphorical fire escape. (Seriously, living with friends was goddamn genius. I did make friends, but it's just not the kind of festival to go at alone.) It was a month in which I was somewhat embarrassed to be me, in terms of the levels of self-involvement that feels like it's in the water. And I drink a lot of water.

A month-dose of that kind of behavior is not horrible, though, when you consider that so many artists in Hollywood have to deal with that bullcrap every day of their life. You can take a month of Hollywood, right? Provided you can spend good portions of the rest of the year feeling more like a positively contributing member of society and not like a needy desperate devil-spawn of pipsqueak shitsackdom. Which Edinburgh did make me feel. Real highs and lows, is what I'm saying. Big ones.

It may be an addiction, Barry Church-Woods, but it's an addiction that can be managed.


Say what you will about Burning Man, it is full of creativity. There is creativity everywhere, not all good creativity, a lot of it inebriated creativity, but some of it genius creativity, plus plenty of damn fine creativity, and all of it inspirational. It does do something to you to be surrounded by that much creativity. And the hustle-bustle of Edinburgh when it's full of performers getting their shindig on certainly feels like something. You do feel part of something larger, that drop-in-the-bucket feeling, yes, but you know you love the bucket.

At Burning Man, there is no way you can see/experience everything. You will hear about some amazing fur-lined trailer where virgins drool cucumber water into your belly button to a chorus of singing bowls, and you can't find the cross streets or someone says it moved or left or whatever it's finished you lose.

So you learn, at Burning Man, that whatever journey you're on, it's the right one to have. And you have your adventures and paths, and you realize that there is an infinite amount of paths that were probably equally awesome, and the one you were on was uniquely yours.

There are far more shows at Edinburgh than you can possibly see. You want to see a lot of shows, and your capacity to see them is compromised. So you become okay with your unique journey.

One dear flatmate of mine experienced at least two dead raw chicken bodies in two different shows she saw, and she realized that dead raw chicken bodies were a theme in her Edinburgh experience.

Themes in my Edinburgh experience: catchy music snippets, spotlights, tiny shorts, drag, tea, crying, weight-shifting, cobblestones, cobblestones, cobblestones.


There are people who get up early at Burning Man, and sleep at night. When I did my time in Black Rock City, I did not meet these people. But we all heard about them. Apparently, they all made pancakes for breakfast.

Just like that, there are a lot of different ways to do Edinburgh Fringe. I know I mentioned the omnipresence of Industry, but I met plenty of performers who gave a lot less of a fuck about it. Why they were so sang-frois? Because they come to Edinburgh Fringe every year, the way some kids go to summer camp. They bring a new show, new material, every year. In this way, they get good at the Beast, they have perspective about the Beast, and they are far more fun to hang out with than, say, me. Guess what else: they're all fricking British. Or a lot of them are. There are some toughass not-Brits who go every year, and they are epically heroic and inexplicable. But of course it's mostly Brits who go every year, because it's a fricking train ride away. Why shouldn't they go?

And just like that, they get to be better artists. A month'll do that to you. It's a really good system, that way. Brits are lucky to have a Hollywood Burning Man so close at hand.


A lot of people, myself included, wound up caring a whole lot about how many stars were printed next to reviews of our shows. Did I get loads of 5-star reviews? No I didn't. And I officially think stars should go fuck themselves.

I don't think I'd feel differently if I had 5-star reviews plastered all over my face like so much foundation. Stars are an insult to reviewers, artists and audiences. Who wants this rating system based on no generalized criteria and no objectivity? Doesn't everyone want readers to actually read the reviews? GET RID OF THOSE LITTLE BULLSHITS.

Alright I'm off the podium.
I don't think my show is the son of Christ, but I think it's good enough.
Edinburgh reminded me I have a lot of faith in it, and love it.
That's a nice thing to know.

Edinburgh is toughening; toughening is healthy. Yeah, okay, do Edinburgh. At some point.

When you love the shit out of your show and don't give a fuck who likes it, because you love the fuck out it. When you love your show so goddamn much you want to give it a big crazy present. When you want to marry your goddamn show, you are that much soul mates. It is you; you are it. It is a once-in-a-lifetime show for you. Maybe twice.

Pack those bags for August. It's almost the honeymoon. Forget the crappy moments, and go love your show into the sunset. I LOVE THE FUCK OUTTA YOU, SHOW, you'll whisper, I'MA GIVE YOU SOMETHING YOU NEVER FORGET.

Edinburgh Fringe: pretty good, overall. It might be worth checking out. Three stars.