Subscribe
Vancouver, British Columbia

A Year of Sucking: Mnemonic Theatre in 2013

I find myself laying on my childhood bed in my childhood room (now my father’s office) on New Year’s Eve with nothing better to do but write down my thoughts. I tend to stay from the cliché and dance to the shakes of my own maracas, but since I seem to be without New Year’s Eve plans (a handsome young man was called into work leaving me plans-less) I find myself drawn to the infamous self-reflection of year-end-year-beginning bullshit. Well, I say if you can’t beat the cliché, you might as well join it.

My name is Caleb McMullen, and this is my (biased) first-hand reflection on the growth of Mnemonic Theatre Productions in 2013.

MNEMONIC THEATRE MOVES TO VANCOUVER

On September 24th 2012 I moved my newly 25 year old ass from my hometown of Toronto to Vancouver, British Columbia. This came at a time when Mnemonic Theatre Productions was firmly and gracefully getting its roots into the ground. I was running a scene study class and had four rounds solidly booked (resulting in a modest income). I was hosting a monthly actors networking event that had the promise of picking up steam. All was well in my world, but I was tired of working alone and needed out.

Toronto had somehow become stale to me in a big way. I had trouble finding a good paying job with the flexibility I needed to be actively growing my career. No one really wanted to date me (… and still don’t). The area of the city I was living in was shitty and over-populated. Outside of Mnemonic Theatre, I had very little going for me. My angst was extremely high and happiness an all-time low.

I messaged my best friend and co-founder of Mnemonic Theatre, Jordan Dibe. He had moved to Vancouver with his boyfriend two years prior. I asked him if his second bedroom was unoccupied. As fate would have it, the girl residing in his second bedroom had departed only two hours earlier. I was invited. I accepted and six weeks later I was on a flight to Vancouver, without any idea of what I would do there or who I would become. It was the best thing I could have done.

In the first four months of living in Vancouver I had found a well-paying job with room to grow. I was still serving tables, but the restaurant was big enough (720 seats) that I could rise in seniority and gain the better-paying sections. I started setting the ground work for financial success in my place of employment. Meanwhile, I was smoking nearly as much pot as I had in university. It rained every day and smoking pot was merely a way out, to nullify the bleakness that is Vancouver in the fall/winter.

It rained for six months. I wanted to die. Sometimes I thought I had died and this was perhaps my limbo, or even my hell. Rain every day. Inescapable rain. However, in my more sober of moments, I took strides in my career that ended in huge payoffs and successes.

Minh Ly, a brilliant actor who I had roomed with in my last summer in Toronto, was also in Vancouver at the time and was eager to mount a collective production of Proof by David Auburn. “Who is producing it?” I asked coyly. Next thing you know I was producing said production.

I came home after this little meeting to find Jordan sitting at the table reading blog posts. I informed him of my new project and I set out to work with him by my side.

PROOF AND THE MONEY-BACK GUARANTEE

I was still making the occasional post on TheatreisforSuckers.com from time to time as more or less a creative outlet. I had decided that I wanted to write something about Atomic Vaudeville’s Ride the Cyclone, which was playing at Arts Club. I had heard a lot about this production and wanted to share my first-hand experience at seeing a Canadian production so widely and nationally acclaimed.

Long story short, the production left me feeling bewildered. “This is the best Canada has to offer?” I thought to myself. In reflection of this production, it probably wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be in the blog post that I wrote in its regard entitled, Canadian Theatre Can Do Better. But, it was not very good, to say the least. However, the underlying truth of the post remains the same: we must do more and be better if we want the Canadian Theatre Industry to succeed.

The blog post, while being challenging and perhaps inspirational, was not nice. It also did not name names. However, I learned that when a blog post gets read by 2,500 people in two days that it doesn’t matter whether you name names, people are smart enough to put two and two together. The cast of Ride the Cyclone did.

So it began: the twitter hatred from the cast, the blog comments denouncing my right to ‘dislike’ or have an opinion. It was like no one had ever disliked a production before. To be fair, I did compare the production to getting mugged by junkies in a dark alley and that I would have preferred the junkies because at least I would have felt something. Not very nice… but highly accurate.

I owe the following success to one man: Elliot Loran. He was an actor in Ride the Cyclone. In an attempt to defame me (or blacklist me, perhaps) he tweeted to various reviewers in Toronto regarding my post. I suppose his attempt was to share my post with them and then rally their support for him and against me. They had read my post (like everyone else) and a link to their twitter conversation in its regard was sent to him. I was mentioned in all tweets so this conversation was subsequently sent to me. Because of Elliot Loran, I was able to read that conversation. Through that conversation I was introduced to J. Kelly Nestruck, Theatre Critique for The Globe and Mail.

Nestruck was the only reviewer who had any sort of negative response to my post. “Blah, blah. I’m young” was all he had to say about it. So, from that point onward, I knew that he was the one I would send my ideas to: the most critical of the critics.

The rest of the reviewers’ twitter conversation revolved around my evaluation of the standing ovation. Can we trust this as a means of measuring our impact on the audience? In response, I wrote a blog post suggesting that too often standing ovations succeed any production’s curtain call rendering them completely irrelevant in signifying the audience’s true response. I then presented an idea to “correct” this behaviour by “dictating” how audiences should respond through explanations of the artist’s perceptions of the audience response at curtain call. I sent this blog post directly to Nestruck.

I believe Nestruck called my idea “juvenile and insulting” thus beginning what turned out to be a very publicized twitter debate between Nestruck and me. Long story short, Nestruck writes an article in The Globe and Mail comparing me to Morris Panych. Really, Morris Panych? I was honoured.

At the end of his article Nestruck challenged me saying “If Mr. McMullen really wants to know what his audience thinks of his work, maybe he should offer a money back guarantee.” So, I did.

Mnemonic Theatre’s Money-Back Guarantee made national headlines, in The Globe and Mail no less. There was even talk about it on theatre blogs in the UK and in Northern Africa. The whole story exploded brilliantly. That is how Mnemonic Theatre got on the map as being a loud-mouthed, no-bullshit contender in the indie theatre community in Vancouver. The money-back-guarantee has since been picked up and adapted by several large theatre companies including Arts Club in Vancouver and Harbourfront Theatre in Toronto.

ROMEO AND JULIET AND THE POWER OF “FREE”

Jordan wanted to produce it. I didn’t. I was tired. By this point we were just closing Proof to great houses, reviews and audience responses (and zero takers on the money-back-guarantee). However, regardless of the success, I was tired. I had been through the works with Proof and there were moments when I thought I’d have to throw in the towel. I didn’t.

But, nonetheless Jordan was going to direct Romeo and Juliet, so help him god he was, with or without me. So, it was with me. And away we went. Eight weeks later we were running nightly performances of our free production on Vancouver’s beautiful Sunset Beach in a record-breaking-ly dry summer.

A dilemma arose when we realized that only women were auditioning for our close to non-paying production. So after much booze and pot we decided to cast the best actors in the roles regardless of gender. It became “a lesbian love story” with two female leads. This was not a step forward in innovation. It wasn’t even Jordan’s directorial vision. It was just him rolling with the punches and taking what he could get for nothing. A good survival skill to have.

Through this production we realized how powerful the word “free” could be. People flocked to our free production like we were giving out samples at Costco. We even landed a PR firm sponsorship that got us some major publicity. People like free and through this production we realized that there can be a feasible business model in offering theatre for absolutely nothing other than the attention and asses in seats (look for more of this is 2014).

BUILDING THE INFRASTRUCTURE, GROWING THE COMPANY, LOOKING FORWARD

When Romeo and Juliet closed, Jordan and I looked at each other baffled (and giddy). In eight months we had pulled off two major productions (and two subsequent and necessary fundraisers) and turned a lot of heads in the process (including our own). So we immediately started to get to work on nurturing the foundations of our company from a business perspective so that we could continue the snowball effect. Among other things, this involved focusing our attention on our outreach through TheatreisforSuckers.com. We started posting articles and resources for professional theatre practitioners once a week and we continue to see a steady rise in readership from one week to the next. This endeavor continues to be our main focus for nation exchange of communication from our company to every theatre community in Canada, which resulted in a collective 24,000 views in 2013.

Further development included the hiring of Natasha Alexander, our new Director of Outreach and CJ McGillivray our new Artistic Intern and promotion of Jordan Dibe to Artistic Director. Meeting weekly, we grew our social media and national viral impacts, researched thoroughly our demographic audience, researched our potential in public funding procurement, made connections with many theatre practitioners in our industry, solidified our company’s mandate, decided on our upcoming season and most recently signed the rental agreement on our new office/studio space.

I’m a little beside myself right now. How could all of this have happened in twelve short months? I do not know. I also cannot predict what another twelve months will bring. However, I have confidence in the team that has come to work dutifully for Mnemonic Theatre Productions under my leadership. I believe that we currently stand on a precipice that will inevitably change all of our lives and perhaps change the way people perceive (and create) theatre not only in the City of Vancouver, but in all of Canada and beyond.

Happy New Year,