Impressed with Theatre of the Unimpressed

A review of Jordan Tannahill’s novel on Canadian theatre

Tannahill’s book cover.
Image by: Kendra Pierroz
Tannahill’s book cover.

It may have slipped your notice, but Canadian theatre is in dire straits. 

The biggest problem with the national theatre scene is that the general public doesn’t care about it, playwright and critic Jordan Tannahill claims in his new book, Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama. 

Tannahill, an up-and-coming Toronto-based artist known for works like the suburban horror Concord Floral, consults professionals, amateurs and audience members and discusses his own experience in theatre to discover why Canadians are disinterested in theatre today.

Tannahill’s prose is sincere and incisive, and his blunt perspective is a refreshing approach to cultural investigation. 

By dissecting the elements of boring theatre and, perhaps gleefully, disembowelling the “well-made play” whose compact setting and formulaic twist plague stages across Canada, Tannahill proves a vital part of a new approach to the national artistic conversation — one that bucks convention and ceaselessly chases new and invigorating experiences. 

It’s a testament to the conviction of his argument that Tannahill’s own work consistently reflects a restless hunt for the avant-garde. 

Besides Concord Floral, which won a Dora Mavor Moore award for Best New Play earlier this year, Tannahill is known for works like rihannaboi95, a 2013 “viral play” that was performed as a live stream on YouTube. 

According to Tannahill, if a live-streamed play strikes audiences as experimental or strange, that reflects theatre’s debilitating unwillingness to embrace the digital age. An interdisciplinary approach, he argues, is crucial for theatre to maintain its cultural relevance. 

If film or music have integrated new media and adapted to the changing demands of a globally networked society, why shouldn’t theatre?

An appeal to modernization isn’t the only argument Tannahill champions. The slim book is densely packed with anecdotes, interviews, personal confessions and unflinching assessments of the world of the Canadian stage. 

Those who make theatre — or any art  — or are just curious about the cultural landscape of contemporary Canada will find Tannahill’s writing accessible and charming. 

Both a love letter to the productions that captivated him as a young man, and a call to arms for creatives everywhere, Theatre of the Unimpressed is quick, fun and genuinely inspirational.

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