The World of ‘Self-Producing Theater.’

The Good Bad & Appeal!

Chris has a relentless passion to serve the theatre community. He believes art should fuel questions and spark debate so people understand the world in which they live. It’s why his talent extends beyond playwright, to producer, director and actor.

Chris Coculuzzi, Canadian Playwright

We wanted to interview Chris about the World of ‘Self-Producing Theatre’ to understand his take on why he refuses to do it any other way! Chris’s views offer one perspective of self producers.

Q1. The phrase “overnight success” is rarely paired with the phrases “10 times they said no before finally, they said yes” or “it took so long to convince them that my project was worthy of funding.” Waiting can be frustrating. How do you deal with it?

“ The short answer is: I don’t deal with it. In twenty-five years of doing theatre. I have rarely applied for public funding, and the very few times I have applied (twice maybe), I correctly assumed that I would not receive any funding and proceeded accordingly. Now, why don’t I apply for public funding and how do I deal with producing my work without it? That is more complicated and has to do with how the Arts and artists are constructed within a consumer-capitalist model in Canada, and I “deal” with it because of who I am: a high school teacher who grew up working class in the Maritimes who gravitates toward anarchist critiques of State power. Let me try to unpack that.

I find the Arts in Canada to be elitist in terms of class, especially when it comes to theatre. From the perspective of the State, they have a limited amount of funds to give to people and projects, and so they impose conditions for receiving those funds. Grant writing itself is an art to master and often requires someone with the appropriate social capital and training to successfully navigate. From the perspective of the individual, anyone who wishes to make a living as an artist more often than not comes from the middle or upper classes because it takes economic and psychological support/privilege to risk such a precarious living. And the entire model is built on the classist belief that artists are a specialized breed of humans. It’s what I call the Harry Potter model: artists see themselves as a small caste of magical wizards that are born with this special capacity and everyone else is a Muggle. In contrast, I feel every human is a creative agent and no one is deserving of special status and the funds that go along with that when it comes to the Arts. Instead of maintaining such a system that a privileged few benefit from, we should critique it and work toward freeing the creative capacity of every citizen from economic servitude. Interesting how the theatre community is silent on this perspective…but I digress.

Next, I also believe as a general rule that my creative ideas should not be subsidized by the State. That is, my background and upbringing instilled in me the idea that I have to work for things that I want and not be given any handouts, and my Catholicism instilled the idea of guilt if I didn’t. To apply and receive funding as an artist in Canada under the current structure is, in my opinion, to promote the idolatry of the Self, which is why most middle and upper class members have no problem with it. In addition, my upbringing and my profession as a teacher speaks to my dedication to volunteerism. Like all jobs and professions that are viewed as female labour in our society, sacrifice and free labour is expected in teaching, and unfortunately I too have internalized those damaging gendered constructs. Therefore, I have no problem volunteering my creative and physical labour in the Arts. In fact, there is a large part of me that feels we have a moral obligation to give back to our community with whatever skill set we may possess.

Finally, philosophically and politically as someone dedicated to anarchist principles of participatory democracy, I don’t feel one should participate in a classist funding structure. That is, if the State cannot provide opportunities for all (which it should), then one shouldn’t participate in and by extension validate such a classist structure. I also don’t feel one should look to the State for validation through things like funding. If you have a story you feel you should share, then do everything possible to share it — without State support. That is, don’t give the power to the State to determine which stories are worthy to share, nor the power to interfere with the creative process through State-imposed conditions for receiving funding.

It should be clear that I’m speaking to artists of the dominant culture and others who have the social and cultural capital to produce without State funding — which I admit I do. I do feel that given our current structure of inequality the State has an obligation to fund marginalized groups — including artists from working-class backgrounds (which I don’t think I’ve ever seen a program for). And I also recognize that my own complicated beliefs benefit middle and upper class artists because there is one less working class artist competing for those limited funds. But at the end of the day, I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror.

So these are all the ways that I “deal” with it. And so I never wait. If I have a story I want to share, I simply get to work to make it happen while balancing my other public and private responsibilities. The only drawback is that given my other responsibilities I cannot dedicate more time to sharing these stories. But I don’t blame lack of funding for this, rather I blame the structure of our consumer-capitalist society that keeps me and most others in economic servitude just to provide a relatively decent existence for me and my family.”

Q2. You often focus on pre-20th-century works. Why are you passionate about exposing this genre to today’s audiences?

“From my observations over the last twenty-five years, the centre that theatre and arguably our culture has been moving toward is autobiography. Not surprising: more idolatry of the Self. Although out of fashion, I’m attracted to the writer as chronicler…of deeds of tribal heroes, of lucky and unlucky days, of historical memory…or more like historical amnesia. But which heroes am I interested in? There are particular stories of the past that pique my interest and that I feel have relevance today, and many of them (but not all) are stories about women. Perhaps it is because I grew up with three women (sister, mother, grandmother), that I live with three women (wife and two daughters), or that I teach at a mostly female school and that I am member of a profession that is gendered female. Perhaps it is because most of the other people who volunteer in theatre are women and that there are more women interested in theatre as participants and audience. Perhaps it is because I find the everyday heroism of ordinary women (and men) fascinating and extraordinary. Perhaps it is all of the above. Whatever the case may be, I’m compelled to share these often hidden stories. I think another reason I gravitate towards the past is the fact that whether writers are aware of it or not, the heroes we focus on have the potential to become “myths to live by.” I find it easier to fictionalize a person from the past to serve that purpose rather than someone from the present. I think we are inspired by dead saints and despise living ones.”

Q3. You were involved with the Upstart Crow Theatre Group for 10 years. How did this contribute to your growth as an artist?

“It contributed to my growth as an artist — and a human — immensely. When I was 18 years old, I briefly entertained the idea of going to theatre school. But as I’ve said, with my upbringing and background, the Arts as a vocation was not something I could seriously consider because it involved too much risk for someone who grew up with the constant anxiety of economic uncertainty. But it was also a passion I could not ignore or contain. So I compromised: I sought secure employment to support myself while devoting most of my leisure time to theatre. Upstart Crow was my theatre school, my sandbox, my laboratory, my family, my life. It also helped me to discover my passion for teaching and to lay the groundwork for my pedagogy. And even though I didn’t choose the name, it probably best sums up my identity. I am the opposite of the classist theatre culture in Canada that is based on theatre schools and middle/upper class connections: I never went to theatre school and I have no social or financial connections. And yet I have the audacity to think I can write and participate in Canadian theatre and culture in my small way. So Upstart Crow is probably a more appropriate moniker for me than for Shakespeare…in arrogance only, not in talent.”

Q4. Name your biggest challenge and greatest reward producing your own work and what did you learn?

“Money is an obvious challenge, but since I can produce on next to nothing, it’s not that big of a deal. The bigger challenge is recognition from Media — even independent media. And I’m not talking critical recognition, which I don’t particularly care about. I’m talking just simple acknowledgement through publicity. The classism of the Arts is maintained by the classism of the Media due again to how the Arts are constructed in our consumer-capitalist society. Theatre as a whole is getting less and less recognition, so you can imagine someone who produces on the margins is going to be simply ignored. But as a good friend told me, “It’s not the audiences who don’t come that matter: it’s the audiences who do come.” And that is the greatest reward: the audiences who understand what you are trying to do and appreciate that you are sharing these stories. It is hearing them laugh and cry. Another great reward is bringing together a community of people. Some of my greatest rewards are knowing the pairings of humans that have happened because of my commitment to creating these experiences. Deep friendships, marriages, and offspring: the recreation of the community. And there’s always the reward of seeing a project through to fruition and of participating in the creative process. What do I learn? What it means to be human. And with every production I dig deeper and find new answers and new questions.”

Q5. One can feel your love for achieving artistic mastery when you say “someone who works with their hands, mind, and heart is an Artist.” What does that feel like for you? How much do you sacrifice to hold on to that feeling?

“For lack of a better term I’d say self-discipline. I don’t mean this in the context of obeying rules, often instilled by fear of punishment. I mean it in a more traditional way of classical liberalism. That is, having self-discipline means there is a body of knowledge that you are committed to and you have developed the tools to engage with it as your own master. That doesn’t mean you are perfect or won’t make mistakes, but that you also have trust and faith in yourself to overcome obstacles and learn from mistakes. For me it also means feeling uncomfortable receiving payment. That doesn’t mean one can’t be paid as an Artist. But it does mean that to be an Artist according to the above definition, one gives the same commitment and discipline regardless of monetary compensation.

It’s interesting that you mention sacrifice. No doubt sacrifice is involved: physical, mental, and emotional. But the Artist in any profession practices self-discipline not from a source of fear or a desire for fame and/or fortune. They practice it from a source of Love and a deep desire to share that source. And that is a feeling that gives the sacrifices meaning.”

To learn more about Chris, CLICK HERE!

Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.