Feeling for the Edge: The Artist’s Odyssey to the Frontier

When I was in theatre school there was a project that all students were required to do once a year: vocal masque. It asked students to compile and curate fragments of texts to create a theatrical piece around a theme, and it was to be performed for the rest of the school. In my final year, when vocal masque season came around, the graduating class would joke about playing vocal masque bingo because you could always count on seeing the same things in the first year masques: someone would simulate sex, someone would have an orgasm, and someone would take off their clothes. We would laugh because we all did it and we all did it for the same reason. We wanted to prove we weren’t afraid, that we were edgy, that we could push boundaries. Maybe we were pushing our own boundaries, and that has legitimate value, but we all realized after a year or two that sitting on a bare stage screaming out an orgasm really didn’t mean anything. We weren’t pushing any actual boundaries, not really. Certainly, the cheers and applause we’d give each other for taking off our clothes showed that we were supportive of each other’s courage but also showed that there’s nothing really edgy there at all. Because if it was really edgy, we’d be quiet. If it was edgy it would keep us up at night.

Being edgy implies being at the edge. It’s the farthest place you can go before you don’t know where you are anymore. I don’t want to write about edginess in a mundane way, I want to talk about the true edge. The capital E Edge. The Edge that is almost unattainable but glitters at us from afar, beckoning artists to try to go there. When you approach the Edge you become reverent. You quiet down and you think, and in some way you are transformed. Then you talk about it and, hopefully, you will want to act. But the Edge is a very elusive thing. It is like the horizon. You can’t just reach out and grab it, and nor should you be able to. It should be a challenge. It should require courage. It should be dangerous. And it should be an odyssey to get there. If it was any other way it would have no meaning, and if it has no meaning then it isn’t the Edge, it’s just a cheap facsimile. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not pooh-poohing the work of young theatre students exploring their own boundaries. That’s how artists grow. That’s a different kind of courage, within a personal journey, and it has value. But later in that growing process we have to look outside ourselves and see that horizon, which stretches out in front of all artists. Feeling for the Edge is a valuable pursuit. More than that, it is a noble pursuit. It’s a journey teeming with obstacles and very good fakes.

If it was edgy it would keep us up at night.

If someone tells me that a play is “edgy” I usually have to fight the urge to roll my eyes. That word is as ubiquitous in the arts as the word “brilliant.” It’s often used to describe a play that has nudity, violence, heavy swearing, drug use, sex, or alternative sexuality (whatever that means) all of which share in the pervasiveness of the word. I roll my eyes because the honest truth is I don’t care, and I’m not alone in that feeling. I grew up on Eyes Wide Shut and Requiem for a Dream. I watched Sex in the City in my teens and learned to love TV from watching The Sopranos. Sex, violence, and nudity aren’t enough to keep me up at night. I need more. I need to strip away the ubiquity because ubiquity is antithetic to edge and it’s killing it.

It’s not nudity’s fault. Let’s not blame nudity. The mainstream is an evolving, hungry beast and the Edge gets devoured as soon as it reveals itself. Content that was once considered edgy eventually becomes absorbed by the mainstream over time, leaving a vacancy on the fringes that needs to be filled with the new alternative zeitgeist. The mainstream owns nudity now, and it owns violence, and sex, and drugs, and rock and roll.

Requiem for a Dream
Requiem for a Dream

Mass media is one of the biggest obstacles on the journey to the Edge because it can have the effect of numbing and commodifying content. Alan Filewod, a professor at the University of Guelph and respected theatre academic, describes the cycle of the mainstream absorbing the edge as a “rolling horizon,” that strips away anything of value from what it devours and leaves us with something that means little to nothing. He says, “ I think mass media has had the effect of marketing sensationalism as edginess, and by doing that it erases complexity.” And he has a strong argument. The image of a woman’s naked body could reflect to us a myriad of things as vast as the complexity of humanity, but it seldom does. The mainstream has washed it and air-brushed it, set it up under flattering lights, and surrounded you by it at every turn. The media made it ubiquitous and turned it into a commodity or, possibly worse, something inconsequential entirely. It’s a really good fake. So, when I encounter the image of a naked woman I, sadly, don’t care.

I want to care! I want someone to grab hold of me and make me care.

But, I want to care! I want someone to grab hold of me and make me care. That’s where the artist comes in. But, all too often we succumb to the media market and try to play off sensational as edgy because, really, we’re playing with leftovers. We take the dulled scraps of what was once complex content and we try to use it to create edge. We have an actor show her breasts for no real reason. We have a character use a whip on their sexual partner for no reason. Someone shoots heroin, a husband beats his wife, and we call it edgy and serve it with popcorn. And then I go home and have a great night’s sleep.

The media has another more insidious effect on the edge, and I think it is an entirely unintentional byproduct of communications advancement. When it comes to important social or political discussion, the media sucks the well of public discourse dry.  We have become hyper-consumers of mass media. That high-level intake means information is being sent to us, repackaged, sent to us again, repackaged, and sent to us again at an astounding speed. Relevancy is elemental to the Edge and with relevancy comes timeliness. Theatre is a slow-moving medium and it cannot compete with mass media. It can be difficult for a theatre artist to latch onto and develop a new idea before it has been consumed by the rolling horizon, becomes mainstream, and is old news. Mass media can have the unfortunate effect of exhausting the conversation before a theatre artist has the chance to get their hands on it and offer their studied insight. And that is what artists are for. Sadly, the audience is already tired of the conversation by the time the theatre is prepared to enter the debate. They’ve read the articles on Facebook and the tweets from celebrities, politicians, intellectuals, and everyone else. They’ve seen the memes.

Benjamin Blais and Claire Burns, the artistic director and managing director, respectively, of the Storefront Theatre, have seen a marked shift in the way their theatre artists create. They can see them trying to speed up. Claire says, “Theatre artists have to be quicker,” without compromising the quality of conversation. Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, is seeing the same problem: “It is very difficult to keep up with Twitter. The question becomes: Is it theatre’s role to keep up? Where is the role of art and reflection? In the rush to join the comment section is there genuine thought going on? There are dangers inherent with speed.”

So then, how do you address the exhausted conversation? How do we talk about something that is important but that people are tired of talking about? Sugith Varughese, the Toronto-based writer, actor, and director, in film, TV, and theatre, offers some keen insight into this. He believes distance is the key. In fact, he suggests we go against the urge to try to catch up to stay on top of the important issues. If we move too fast he thinks that the audience won’t be open, and they won’t be able to “see” the play. After the onslaught of mass media, the audience has already formed their opinions, changed their minds, formed new ones, and set those opinions in concrete. This makes for a very closed-off audience. Distance can remedy this problem and it can come in the form of time, or place, or metaphor. For example, he says we may not be ready for a play about Jian Ghomeshi right now because the wound is still too fresh, but another country could have a successful production tackling the issue, or we could have a great production in a few years. And we can always look to The Crucible as an excellent example of using metaphor to create enough distance to talk about an important issue.

On the journey to the Edge we have to fight against complacency and indifference.

Now this isn’t an article about how mass media is Satan’s instrument. I don’t believe it’s some terrible thing. It’s just a thing. And the extensions we create of ourselves carry their own messages, but you’d be better off reading about that from McLuhan, not me. I’m just saying the media is deeply affecting the way we negotiate edginess as artists and to not be aware of that would be to our disadvantage. It has changed our relationship to that horizon and has contributed to a cloudiness that skews our vision and debilitates our artistic potency.

If we can refocus our sights on that horizon we can make our way through the muck. And, of course, there is more muck than just the effect of mass media. Theatre is not often the most lucrative art form so it’s vulnerable to social, political, and financial pressures. For theatre, Filewod says the Edge is “the point that demands real courage to move past. And it’s not often found. I’m thinking of a recent history of theatres subjecting themselves to self-censorship out of political cowardice.” Blais adds that the truth is sensationalism sells and the Edge doesn’t always. That cheap facsimile is a lot easier to take than the real thing, because at least we can sleep, and we’ve all had a long day at work.

Killer Joe / Photo by Matt Campagna
Killer Joe / Photo by Matt Campagna

But it’s on us to not become too satisfied with the easiest route. On the journey to the Edge we have to fight against complacency and indifference, both as theatre creators and audience members. The theatre creator has to demand it of themselves to not be complacent about what they put on stage and the audience must demand it of themselves to not allow indifference to dull their critical thought. Peter Pasyk, who recently directed Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Killer Joe, says, “Indifference is the scariest thing of all.” His greatest fear as a director is not that an audience will walk out en masse, but that they will be indifferent. And he hits on something here that could use reminding. Theatre is not like other mass media. Pasyk points out that “something behind a screen is at arm’s length,” but theatre is experienced collectively with others so “we are in a way more accountable for our reactions in a theatre.” The theatre interacts with the edge in a way few other media can because people are physically present and everyone is a witness. Blais says the audience is “complicit.” Judith Thompson, the prolific Canadian playwright known for her pursuit of the Edge, uses the word “implicated.” Whichever way you slice it, you end up at the same place. Thompson points out that an audience watching her play Watching Glory Die could, if they wanted, rush out of the theatre and protest the failings of the Canadian prison system. A person can stand up in the middle of Killer Joe and scream at Killer Joe to stop his sexual abuse, and the entire audience will bear witness to it and be put in the situation of choosing whether to ignore or support that person. We rarely see that happen because we are all very polite and decorous, but the significant thing is it could happen, and, indeed, it has happened in the past. That means that the Edge is something we can grapple with in real time at the theatre because an audience is a microcosm of society.

But, as pop culture reminds us, with this great power comes great responsibility, and responsibility is the key word here. In the pursuit of the elusive edge, audiences and artists inevitably find themselves at a threshold where they must decide not how far they can go, but how far they should go, and in what direction. This has always been a difficult line to navigate. Filewod offers that the line we draw in the sand “moves according to social context, but most people would agree that it stops at criminality, especially sexual criminality. When you go there, ‘edgy’ doesn’t seem so attractive.” Criminality is a more easily defined line for us. We can count on a Canadian audience, who live under Canadian laws, to agree that pedophilia is wrong, so we expect artists to handle that kind of material with painstaking delicacy. Artists are interested, investigative, and curious creatures, and they sometimes want to explore difficult and controversial material that can be important but dangerous. How can they do that? How can they examine rape, for example, without crossing a line?

Are you really examining, or are you subtly (if accidentally) approving?

Thompson offers an inspired compass: It has to do with the angle of the camera. And that functions on a literal and metaphorical level. Literally, if a film is shooting a rape scene the angle of the camera has a remarkable effect. One angle will make the rape look sexy and even the slightest adjustment can illuminate its ugliness. In a theatrical context, Thompson offers the idea that there is a difference between having an actor playing a pedophile monologuing about himself and his life, and having him monologue the details of his assault. The line Thompson draws has to do with endorsement, and this is a very, very subtle line. An artistic case can be made for a lot of unsavory content but the line gets drawn based on the angle. Are you really examining, or are you subtly (if accidentally) approving?

Watching Glory Die
Watching Glory Die

In the end, when the artist is staring down the horizon and checking their compass for guidance, they must ask themselves who are they serving, and more importantly, what are they offering. As artists, we give this last question some consideration, but often not enough. It behooves us to take time with it. When we are trying to be edgy we have a few options, and bear with me as I be a bit simplistic and a bit crude. If you think of an offering like food (and anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised I’m using a food metaphor), you can offer something valuable, with meaningful content, but that can be difficult to take, like a radicchio and dandelion salad. It’s going to be bitter but you’ll get fibre and a ton of nutrients and, ultimately, it’s good for you. Eventually, you’ll even develop a taste for it. You can also offer something not valuable and without content, but something that feels so damn good, like a McDonald’s hamburger. It will be really tasty, and it will be cheap, and it will be easy, but in the end if all you are ever offered are McDonald’s hamburgers, you will gain weight, your blood pressure will rise, and you will die. The worst offer of all is an offer that is not valuable and offers content that is destructive and delicious. Then you are not even offering a McDonald’s hamburger. You’re serving a Kool-Aid and cyanide cocktail. It tastes good going down but then you froth at the mouth and die, and it will be ugly, very ugly. If you make rape look delicious for no reason other than to give people boners, because boners increase viewership, then what you’re going to get is a world full of rapists and you’re going to get raped. Yes, I’m being simplistic, but I’m trying to emphasize what’s really at stake here. Artists have a great responsibility because we are cultural contributors and culture creators. What you eat affects the health of your body and the work you feed your audience affects the health of society. Art for the sake of art is an interesting idea but, unfortunately, art will affect its audience whether you intend it to or not, and whether you deny it or not. We can shirk off our responsibility if we don’t want to be bothered, but humans are vulnerable to suggestion and our consumerist society has proven that fact over and over again. We have to think about the angle of the camera.

Art will affect its audience whether you you deny it or not. We have to think about the angle of the camera.

To be clear, I’m not talking about censorship, nor am I talking about the line of good taste. I’m talking about the line of responsibility, and even then it may be less of a line than it is an adjustment of your compass. I’m talking about making choices as an artist and being responsible about the choices we make. All artists will tune their own compass to something that feels right to them. For Pasyk, it’s tuned to hope: “I fundamentally believe that the act of creating a show—or any art for that matter—is an act of hope. Creation is a rebellion against destruction and hopelessness […] And with my private conviction that my impetus to create is an act of hope rather than malice I feel have taken responsibility for my actions.” But, theatre is an exchange and the audience, too, has their responsibility. We may not be able to control what artists create but it is our duty to respond and respond in a responsible way. When Pasyk is at work trying to navigate these lines he reminds himself that “audiences are willing participants in any theatrical endeavour. I suppose if they all left the show it would be a clear sign that something went wrong.”

The trek to the horizon is no easy trip and the majority of us won’t ever get there. We could get close, though, and close is very, very good. Close to the Edge has value. One artist climbing halfway up the mountain will only help another artist get a few feet further. Only a select few will really get there, and only with help from other artists and an inspiration of genius. And when they teeter on the Edge and drop off, it truly changes everything. Whether on a macro or micro scale, that’s huge. An actor could turn a person’s life around. A playwright could incite a protest that could lead to a law being changed, which would affect the whole country. And the Edge is not the domain of the artist alone. I think the artist is just one of many people who have an insatiable curiosity and obsessive nature that makes them an adventurer. The Edge is for everyone and it does not discriminate. The Edge is the frontier. The Edge is walking on the moon. The Edge is penicillin. The Edge is holding a “Votes for Women” sign. If you can get to the frontier and walk over it, you can look out on a new land that will be unfolding in real time, and beyond that land is a new horizon and another odyssey for another hero. Then you’ve earned your sleep.

Written By

Gabriella is not a doctor or lawyer like her Nonna wanted, but she can make a decent tomato sauce. She’s an actor who loves food, wine, and bourbon Manhattans (40 percent for the cherries, 60 percent because she feels cool ordering one).

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