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Shuffling Performance Discourse

What makes one show more valuable than another?

In 2018, Milton Lim and Patrick Blenkarn created culturecapital to examine how value is being determined and shifted within the Canadian performing arts industry. The game- and research-based project maps the complex relationships artists have with public funding, being socially relevant, and navigating today’s rapidly changing landscape of ethics, politics, and economics. The following is an interview with and by the creators.

Note: The role of the interviewer in this article is being played by a variety of leading Canadian artists and producers. These individuals did not actually ask any of these questions. But they did agree to let Milton and Patrick pretend that they did.

two people standing infront of a large projection

Joyce Rosario (PuSh Festival, Vancouver): culturecapital, in part, has emerged from your frustrations with how performing arts discourse unfolds in Canada. What aspects of that discourse frustrates you most?

Milton Lim: We’re tired of the fact that the only avenues for addressing serious issues in our industry are panel discussions, where just a select few are empowered to really speak; blog posts or online personal essays, which tend to burn bridges; and whispers at the bar, which usually have little influence on greater public discourse. None of these contexts strike us as particularly conducive for inviting many people to speak at once, be transparent, or work collectively to take control of our arts system.

Patrick Blenkarn: Also, a lot of our public contexts don’t encourage artists to talk specifically about the conditions under which their art is being made. The fact that our entire discourse—scholarly and popular—around the “value” of a performance work excludes reference to how much funding a work received, or how much funding the company received annually, or whose family wealth tops up the work’s budget, seems problematic to us.

Andrew Barrett (Impulse Theatre, Victoria): What is culturecapital then, and how did it grow out of these thoughts?

Milton: culturecapital is a trading card game and live art performance about performing arts economies. We build versions of the game for specific regional economies and we invite people to play it both casually and in more formal settings, like tournaments as part of performance festivals. The heart of the project is to create an alternative context for discourse about the arts and how value is constructed in this industry.

Patrick: The game is also something of an archive of other artists’ frustrations with the industry—as well as what they think is worth celebrating. We build each version from a lengthy research process into a region. Specifically, we gather two sets of data:

  1. Interviews with artists about their experiences making performance.
  2. Public funding data.

We take this information and translate it into a series of different types of cards: Companies, Grants, Projects, and Strategies. We then print different starter decks (like in Pokemon) that players can get and play against each other with. They can also trade. And if they win one of our tournaments, they win real public dollars.

Sophia Wolfe (Festival of Recorded Movement, Vancouver): Some might argue that a card game isn’t really theatre. Why have you chosen to make one?

Milton: In our work, definitions of theatre have proven too narrow for the type of performance we’re interested in making. Games have always been important to both of us, even when our respective projects were more traditional theatre. Games are a fundamental component of a lot of performance training, after all. Recently, they have become important to us principally because they offer exciting contexts to reconsider the ethics of participation and the etiquettes of performance spaces.

Patrick: In many ways, a card game is a perfect example of a performance form that challenges theatrical notions of duration, silence, linearity, and variability. All of which, we recognize, have become quite desirable traits within many new forms of performance in the last number of years. And though many fetishize the liveness of live performance, games feel a lot more alive to us than most of the performance we see in Canada.

We think it’s imperative for the future of live arts that we expand our definitions of performance.

Milton: Lastly, there are performance communities out there, such as gaming and sports communities, that the greater performing arts (theatre, dance, live art) continues to exclude from their spaces. We think it’s imperative for the future of live arts that we expand our definitions of performance. After all, games and sports have largely supplanted the performing arts as a primary gathering context for many people around the world.

Vanessa Sabourin & Kristi Hansen (Azimuth Theatre, Edmonton): Let’s get more specific about the game. What are the basic rules?

Patrick: The rules are based upon a simplified dramaturgy of how the arts economy is actually working. Two players face off with their own culturecapital decks. They have seven cards in their hands and their goal is to play (real) Companies, roll a die for Grants, use those Grants to make Projects of varying value, and then use Strategies to change the value of their Projects. The value of a Project is equal to the number of Communities—think of them like Health Points—that a Player can take from their Opponent, and the Player with the most Communities at the end wins.

graphic of four cards

Luke Reece (Obsidian Theatre, Toronto): Why do you call the points in the game Communities?

Milton: Because we think that at the end of the day performance productions are, in theory, increasingly being funded for the sake of cultural and social enrichment. We see this explicitly on grant applications where questions on the “impact” of artistic works and ideations on target audiences or “who the work is for” have become standard.

Jacob Zimmer (Nakai / Small Wooden Shoe, Whitehorse): This conversation we’re having now is happening on HowlRound, and I’m realizing we’re technically in an American context. While many of the experiences of artists from Canada seem to be transferable to other spaces and places, we shouldn’t assume the nuances of our arts system will translate 1:1.

Patrick: True. For those who don’t have a strong familiarity with how Canadian public funding works: We have federal, provincial, and municipal granting bodies that typically have councils (and sometimes other bodies) dedicated towards disseminating sums of money collected through taxation to artists. At varying times throughout a given year, most Canadian artists are feverishly writing grants to get money for their next year’s project.

This can be for as little as $10,000 CAD for younger artists or $25,000 to $40,000 CAD for projects for more established artists. For those getting core funding or operating funding, the amounts can be much higher. There are individual performance companies that receive, from the different public sources, over $700,000 CAD each year—not including donations, ticket sales, and sponsorships. In the game, these Company cards get Grants 100 percent of the time.

Milton: Some big theatres, akin to American LORT theatres, will take in millions of taxpayer money. These include Arts Club Theatre (Vancouver), Citadel Theatre (Edmonton), Canadian Stage (Toronto), Tarragon Theatre (Toronto), Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (Montreal), and more.

graphic of canadian theatres and they're yearly income

In progress data collection from 2015-2019 of top earners in Toronto, Ontario.

Gislina Patterson & Davis Plett (We Quit Theatre, Winnipeg): How do you feel about companies getting that much taxpayer money?

Milton: Ahem. First, we’re very supportive of governments funding art, despite some of the ways policy and government-outlined criteria can heavily influence who is getting that funding and what kind of work is being elevated. Second, we think that if people knew the size of the government cheques that some of these major companies receive, they might be more inclined to question or reflect more rigorously upon the significance (and execution) of those companies’ productions.

Patrick: For example, how many theatres in our country throw millions of dollars at a version of A Christmas Carol every year?

Milton: Womp womp.

If people knew the size of the government cheques that some of these major companies receive, they might be more inclined to question or reflect more rigorously upon the significance (and execution) of those companies’ productions.

Darren O’Donnell (Mammalian Diving Reflex, Toronto): Do you think the question of funding should be even more central to our arts discourse?

Milton: Yes.

Patrick: In addition to addressing the frustrations Milton mentioned earlier, culturecapital largely originated as a point of inquiry into how differences in public funding create and perpetuate unspoken hierarchies within the performing arts community and the arts community more broadly—hierarchies of income, but also hierarchies of status and aesthetics. Public funding is, more often than not, the condition for what we are valuing and highlighting in larger arts discourse.

Milton: This is because arts juries are made up of other working artists—our peers. Therefore, anyone who gets a publicly funded grant in Canada to create artwork is ostensibly validated by the professional community. Their aesthetics are validated as well.

close up of three people's hands playing the culturecapital card game

Laurel Green (High Performance Rodeo 2020, Calgary): But does it worry you as artists to make art that is so specifically about the arts community? I’ve heard through the grapevine that culturecapital has been called divisive and niche on more than one occasion.

Patrick: No.

Milton: At the end of the day, Patrick and I understand why culturecapital looks precarious. It openly exposes vulnerable topics, experiences, and observations that artists have anonymously shared with us, sometimes about each other. But if artists are perceiving the project as divisive, especially at a structural level, we believe it’s gesturing towards a possible truth: that the system we are translating is divisive. That’s worth talking about.

Patrick: Regarding nicheness, I think the fear of being niche is a particularly unfortunate trend within our community. On the one hand, there are theatremakers that assume they need to make work that serves the interests of “everyone” because of a certain humanist morality and because the form depends upon gathering a “public.” But, on the other hand, as I’m sure every playwriting teacher would say, specificity always wins in the end. Digging deep into a specific context, or character, always reveals the “universal”—whatever that is—best.

Milton: Bureaucracy is very relatable.

graphic of four cards

Jessie Mill (Festival TransAmériques, Montreal): Sure, but aren’t you just reproducing a broken system in the game rather than changing it? Why not make a game to outline the changes you want to see in Canada’s performing arts community? Especially given the state of the industry at the moment.

Patrick: That’s true. culturecapital is not a blueprint for systemic change. It is not an instrument. However, to go back to our core goal: it does create a context for conversation, reflection, and critique. From that space, blueprints can be concocted.

Milton: If we wanted to tell people what to say and do, we’d have written a play and not made an open-ended game where different narratives emerge depending on what cards get played. At the beginning of making culturecapital, there were some artists who recommended that we script our presentations of it. Which is also called “cheating” in any card game and completely misses the point of why we are making it.

We want to see more transparency in our highest funded arts institutions. We want to see these institutions engage more rigorously and thoughtfully with art history, performance history, and their global contexts.

Alex McLean (Zuppa Theatre, Halifax): I get that. There’s a cult of worshipping playwrights and respecting scripts to the letter in Anglo theatre culture. It makes me think about how games often have house rules where the “script,” or rules, become more suited to the players.

Patrick: Right, eh? Even though the game is a standalone object, it’s not fixed. People can change the rules of culturecapital and reimagine the industry. We’d love that.

Milton: Regarding changes we’d like to see as artists outside of the context of culturecapital, we certainly have our own thoughts and desires. We want to see more transparency in our highest funded arts institutions. We want to see these institutions engage more rigorously and thoughtfully with art history, performance history, and their global contexts.

Patrick: We also want to see more performance-makers in Canada be more rigorous in learning from each other’s work. From the interviews we’ve done in numerous cities, people have noted a significant lack of awareness of their peers’ work and aesthetic values. In July 2019, we started a separate project, videocan, specifically to address this need.

Aryo Khakpour & Arash Khakpour (The Biting School, Vancouver): So culturecapital isn’t done. Where is it going next?

Milton: We’ve had some hiccups with the global pandemic of course, but we’re going to continue expanding the game. We’re always hungry for new cards, new ideas, and new experiences we think are vital to understanding our ecosystem, and we are creating new opportunities for players to discuss what’s working and what isn’t working in the arts. We’re also hoping other artists might want to collaborate with us on the data collecting and analyzing in the future.

Patrick: We recently tested out, here on HowlRound, what an online game over Zoom looks like and we’re considering doing some more. We’re also planning on a Canadian championship. Once we’ve finished enough versions, we’ll bring together winners from regional tournaments to play—phyiscally or digitally—and then we’ll try to really dig into the regional differences and similarities.

Milton: And we’re planning on going international, using the game’s core philosophy as a blueprint for creating versions that respond to and dramaturgically translate other arts environments to provoke conversations and collaborations elsewhere.

Mariah Horner (Cellar Door Project, Kingston): Rad. Thanks so much!

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