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  • Liam Salmon

Intergenerational Trauma in Theatre Schools

And other things Capitalism has wrought.


I always knew the thing I wanted to do in theatre was to write. Writing has been a consistent part of my life, from writing super angsty teen poetry to literal videogame fanfiction in my late/early teens. In a complicated world, it’s always been my way of processing, of trying to make sense or navigate through the senseless. I think of it as a sort of life raft on the rough ocean of ‘reality’ where my neurodivergence played a massive part in my feeling isolated and disconnected from the world in my twenties.

There’s an interesting pattern that I’ve noticed since the very beginning, since the first time one of my plays went through a workshop process, and I’ve only now – almost a decade later – been able to put it to words. There have always been folks older than me who seem to have some sort of internalized resistance to listening to me or treating my work seriously. I’ll be the first to admit – I have a baby face. Blessing/curse moment for sure. Or a humblebrag? I leave that interpretation to you.

When I was just starting off in theatre – I got it. I laughed along with them. I sat and tolerated questions from folks interrogating my work as if testing to see if I understood what my own work meant. I thought that was a normal part of the process – justifying myself, proving that: yes, I do really know what I wrote. I wrote it, after all.

The turning point for me in this journey was when I turned thirty. I was sitting down in a workshop as a dramaturgical consultant, and I talked about the genuine emotional feeling I was experiencing transitioning out of my twenties into my thirties and the experience of ‘growing up.’ We all know the artificial milestones, right? Arbitrarily marked by decades. 20, 30, 40… In any case, in the workshop, an actor older than me turned to me and said something to the effect of: Oh, you sweet baby. You haven’t seen anything yet.

Not their exact words, and forgive me for the indulgence, but the subtext was there.

I’m thankful for that moment because instantly, I realized: there will always be someone older than me. I don’t mean that pejoratively. It’s just kind of a fact, right? There will always be people who look down on me and immediately judge me based on my age.

I get that this comes out of anxiety. Age in our Capitalist society is essentially something to be shunned, to be medicated away, surgeried away, moisturized into oblivion. There’s the motif of the younger artist ready to replace you in the wings. There’s also the spectre of jealousy, which I want to touch on especially.

A lesson that has stuck with me my entire life was in grade seven Social Studies, when we were reviewing a test the class at large did poorly on. We encountered the question: “How do you solve Scarcity under Capitalism?” Out of everyone in the class, I was the only one who got full marks for the response. I got full marks because I qualified the rest of my answer with: “You can’t. But here are the ways we try.”

I think there’s both a hyper-perceived and real scarcity in theatre. Especially when you’re a playwright writing new work trying to compete for a spot in a season against all plays that have existed since the dawn of time, including Shakespeare et al. A very real discussion I’ve had when I was in talks for a theatre to produce my play was, ‘Sorry, we’re not doing new work this year. Instead, we’re doing Hamlet.’

Much better than some paltry excuses I’ve heard some (generously – perhaps unintentionally rude) Artistic Directors give, like: ‘There are too many scene transitions.’ We work in theatre. If you can’t imagine the scene transitions – that speaks to a lack of imagination on your part, not on the writer’s. We can be straightforward with each other, no? We’re professionals, after all. Rejection is part of the job as a writer. If you can’t accept that. maybe you shouldn’t be a writer.

Back to the scarcity question, a real thing I struggled with in my twenties was a destructive feeling of ‘why not me.’ I saw folks I felt I compared with (largely determined by age) succeeding or winning awards and felt a real sense of jealousy. Now I’m in a more stable position (thank you therapy & medication!) where I’ve worked through this feeling and landed in a much healthier place.

Scarcity breeds this kind of competition mindset. The feeling – imagined or otherwise – that someone getting an opportunity inherently means an opportunity was taken away from you.

The feeling still happens to me sometimes. However, it’s less jealousy, and more irritation usually manifesting when I see a theatre show I don’t like. In fact, quite a few theatre shows where I sit back and can’t help but shake my head. ‘THIS show? People are saying THIS show changed their lives?’ While the show in question felt performative and superficial to the highest degree in my eyes, I witnessed many others leave the show moved. That’s the beauty of theatre in many ways. What may seem cheap and artificial to me may mean something else to someone else. The curtains close, the ghost light goes on, and on to the next show.

A couple of years ago, I was on the selection committee for a playwriting competition, and a well-known Artistic Director in that city’s community applied with a new play. We read it—and, let me be clear, they’re an incredible playwright. Truly, their work always sings. But compared to the many other plays submitted and the collection we were curating, their play just didn’t fit.

Fast-forward to the day after we sent out the rejection letters, and this Artistic Director shows up at my colleague’s office. “When are you making the selection for [Playwriting Contest]?” They asked.

My colleague, completely overwhelmed by this incredibly aggressive act of being, let’s face it, accosted in their workplace, had to explain face-to-face to this Artistic Director why their play wasn’t accepted. Apparently, this playwright ‘hadn’t gotten their e-mail yet’ but somehow coincidentally showed up in my colleague’s office the day after. I think we can all agree that stuff like that needs to stop. The sense of sheer entitlement in this story baffles me even today.

But it begins to get to the heart of a more complicated matter, the very real anxiety that I think many writers have where ‘someone younger’ will ‘steal’ their spot. I’ve put that very crudely, but I trust you understand what I mean.

This bias toward the young is an interesting one that I’m not sure I’ve heard many folks talk about in theatre. Allegedly, yes, there are more ‘opportunities’ for emerging writers. Shouldn’t that be the case, though? Like – I don’t think anyone advocates that we should remove any of those opportunities. Really, what I hear when people say this is: ‘What about me?’ Or, more to the heart of the matter, ‘Where are the opportunities for the mid-career playwrights?’

The former is undoubtedly a better question and leads me all the way back to how we’re attempting to solve ‘scarcity’ in arts. What kind of weird universe do we live in that we must constantly pair theatre, an art form that notoriously makes no money, with Capitalism?

It’s almost like taking a hospital and saying: this is for profit! No… I’m pretty sure a hospital’s goal is to make people ‘better’, not turn a profit. Or a transit system saying: this doesn’t make any money! Sorry, but again, I think the goal of a transit system is to get people from place to place as efficiently and speedy as possible, not to turn a profit. So why are we letting the big ‘C’ Capitalism bleed into the way we think about our art, ourselves, and our artistic practices? Short answer: time is money.

I love to use this thought experiment, where we pose the question: How do players behave when they play the board game Monopoly? We’re cut throats, we argue, we barter, and we make all the rest of our opponents go bankrupt until we ‘win.’ We don’t carry any of that into our real lives, though, or statistically, we don’t. If Daryl Katz is reading this, my message to you is: Maybe you should stop playing Monopoly.

But the question stands: is how people behave under Capitalism how people are? Or do we tend to bend towards particular inclinations because we’re rewarded for it under Capitalism? I certainly don’t know. If someone could solve Capitalism, they might get an award before they tear it all down.

In my mind, the central building blocks of theatre are based around community. It takes a community to put on a show, and it takes a community to see a show. Emphasizing the ‘one’ as a genius or the ‘one’ as the featured artist is inherently antithetical to capital ‘t’ Theatre, and it’s a misrepresentation of what healthy rehearsal rooms should look like.

Early in my career, I got a lot of bad advice. I also got a lot of good advice. But it means that I carry the following disclaimer every time I talk to Student Artists; it’s something I’ve had to sort through and learn for myself:

“You’re probably going to get a lot of guest speakers in this program. They’re here because they want to impart what they’ve learned in their careers. Now: an important thing to consider is that a career in Arts is not straightforward, and it’s usually anything but consistent. These people who come and speak to your class may preach certain things or practices as gospel. And they say that because those ‘things’ they speak to are probably gospel for them. But they won’t necessarily work for you. Instead, I encourage you to look at the commonalities. As an example, in these three playwrights’ resumes, they list the same theatre company that produced their show. That’s important. I guess at the end of the day, what I’m trying to say to you is that these speakers are passionate. And what may be gospel to them may not work for you. Take their advice with a grain of salt.”

I’m just going to come out and say it: there’s a lot of abuse in the arts. And by arts, what I’m specifically speaking to with my own experience is Theatre, but I know similar kinds of abuse exist in many other art forms.

There’s a tragedy at the core here: why so much abuse in something like Art? Perhaps it’s because folks who are usually drawn to the Arts have many questions inside themselves, a lot of things they’re trying to work out. But I don’t think living a hard life directly correlates to 'good' art.

This is another thing I learned when I was in theatre school, and I wrote a piece with a, I’ll be honest, terrible ending. The ‘payoff’ felt cheap, and the dramaturg rightfully called me out on it. But I was uncomfortable, something was off, and I couldn’t identify in the moment what was wrong. Several years and some therapy and reflection later, it’s because that dramaturg was there only for the story, writing a good story. But neglected her duty as an instructor to me, as a student. The event I was writing about was based on a real moment in my life, and it was tough, or even harmful, for me to talk about it. It still is.

I don’t know where the adage came from, where people seem to continually champion good ‘art’ over the wellbeing of people. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say: yes, X was abused, but look at this beautiful painting! To that, I say I would burn all the ‘good art’ in the world if it meant all that abuse never happened. The sheer multitudes of silenced voices, disenfranchised – primarily women – who have been abused in the name of ‘art’ completely towers over any perceived value of the ‘art.’

People always come first.

So how does all of this relate to age or being perceived as a ‘young’ playwright? This is where we need to talk about generational abuse in Art.

In a similar way where we’re understanding generational abuse in families, I think there are a lot of parallels to be made in Art. Number one: if a workplace calls you a family, that’s at least an orange, if not a red flag. You are not my family. You are my workplace. Number two: Folks who were abused frequently fall into the pattern of passing on that abuse to those who come ‘after’ them.

We can talk about the many, many forms of abuse in theatre school. Using acting programs as perhaps the most egregious example with phrases like the following as commonplace: “In the first year they break you so they can rebuild you.” I think, even from a language level, there should be a lot of alarm bells with this sentence. But this is how a predominantly ‘older’ generation of theatre practitioners learned their craft. This is how those theatre makers who came before us began their practice as artists. And do genuinely feel that there is no other way to ‘teach’ than to trace the same lines of abuse and inflict this upon their students.

I think reconciliation needs to happen here, and that’s going to involve a lot of emotional work from our theatre teachers. A lot happened in your training that shouldn’t have, and that’s not fair. I’m sorry if I’m the first person to tell you this, and I truly grieve for you in your process. But that doesn’t give you the license to continue the cycle of this abuse and pass it on to a new generation.

We should question structures like the almighty, genius, unquestionable director with absolute authority in the room. That’s only true if the director takes on the responsibility of care with the power. And it seems like there are many, many people who don’t, all in the name of what they see as good ‘Art.’

Here’s one more thought before I wrap up this now somewhat unwieldy blog. Art is subjective. Sure, there are shows that resonate with many people, and then there are shows that will only resonate with one person. Which is more valuable?

And does that answer come with the baggage of Capitalism? Does the question of asking which art is more ‘valuable’ only exist as a question under Capitalism?

In the pursuit of capital ‘T’ truth, Theatre is so heckin’ subjective. The same performance on the same night may make someone feel moved while their audience cohort is bored and unamused. Theatre is too subjective to ‘torture people’ into a good performance. Who knows—not feeling the ‘emotion’ at all and simply telegraphing it could, will, and often does illicit the same response in an audience member. I'm deliberately being facetious when I quote Laurence Olivier when he said, "Just Act."

I’m not sure how to wrap this up, because the work very much isn’t done. It’s only beginning. I guess all I can say is: how do we move towards a more people-focused theatre and toss those pesky artistic egos aside?

How can we better love each other?


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