It can be very difficult to engage with the concept of the ‘canon’. Despite being lauded as a list of all-important creative works across the history of literature/theatre/film, it has traditionally skewed towards cis-, straight, white male authors. What’s worse, no definitive system exists to determine its contents, other than a general agreement between experts whose traits generally match the aforementioned artists they extol. For these reasons, many emerging actors in the performing arts enjoy a complicated relationship with canonical works. Why help perpetuate an outdated, problematic system by engaging with the material it celebrates? Why return to the well-trod works of playwrights like Shakespeare, Brecht, Williams and Miller? And if one’s goal is to subvert traditional theatre norms and create dynamic, new work, why bother learning things you’ll only strive to unlearn later?
In short, there is so much you can learn from consuming the art that came before you; you’ll deepen your understanding of your craft, and contextualise your place in its long history. Even if you’re planning the revolution on all that has come before, works considered canon in theatre (and cinema) need to be studied and interrogated if you wish to address these inequities and, ultimately, dismantle the system. Learn what has come before you and you will have a better chance of understanding the present and how it might change in the future. You don’t need to spend your last money for the month seeing the latest production of your national theatre company’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, just get your hands on a copy of the play and read that instead. There is honestly no better way you can improve yourself as an artist.
Build Your ‘Web’
Now, more than ever, actors are graduating from drama school with little-to-no knowledge of plays beyond the works they are forced to study. They’ll have some cursory understanding of the Classics, the residual knowledge of two weeks on Restoration comedy, the obligatory dose of Shakespeare… Most will engage with more ‘modern’ playwrights such as Churchill and Kane, failing to notice that the ‘theatre of today’ taught by many institutions relates more to the ‘today’ of when its staff, themselves, first entered the industry.
Take the time to read more plays and educate yourself. Look at how certain ideas or styles connect authors throughout history—how theatrical concepts like direct address, or realism, or devised theatre go in and out of style and cross cultural boundaries. Playwrights tend to read the work of those who came before them to improve their craft, just as actors might study a performance in a film or attend a masterclass. If you can identify who influences writers, and why they evolved to tell stories in the way they do, your understanding of their work will be far stronger when you step up to perform it yourself.
If you find the concept of this kind of study overwhelming, try thinking of the mess of plays and films to consume not as a timeline, but a web: read a script and think about what ideas and other works connect to it, forwards and backwards. What were its influences? What did it influence? What was happening in the industry at large when it was written? Who loved it/hated it? And what was happening on the other side of the world?
As your historical knowledge of theatre and film deepens, so will your ability to identify new movements and voices as they emerge. If your web connects you from a play – to its playwright – to a company they founded – to what that company is currently developing, you may uncover a new and exciting work you’d otherwise have missed.
Studying the past to predict future trends is particularly important if you wish to act in film and television. Cinema has faced so many existential threats in its short lifespan (television, the VCR, internet piracy, Netflix), so its creatives are constantly forced to evolve, adapt and innovate. The majority of people working in the industry, today, were never prepared for surviving in the streaming age when they were at film school. The now-dominant model for funding and distribution simply didn’t exist.
If you’re looking to be rebellious, know what you’re rebelling against. If you’re looking to create something fresh and new, make sure somebody hasn’t already tried the same thing twenty years before and failed miserably. And if they did, don’t make the same mistakes. If you want to break the rules and offer something unique to your craft, you have to learn what the rules are, and where they came from. Know which styles and aspects of stagecraft are still effective, and which might need to be retired. How many times have you sat down in a theatre and endured a show by artists who look as though they only discovered Brecht the week before?
By knowing the canon, we can start to identify its most problematic aspects: the lack of cultural diversity; the lack of BIPOC, femme and queer voices; the continued reverence for artists whose life and work would be totally unacceptable in a post-Weinstein world. When we can determine these aspects and speak to their flaws with knowledge and context, it becomes much harder for those who defend them to dismiss arguments on the basis of a perceived ignorance. Some will mount a defence simply as this is the tradition for when a ‘great artist’ or ‘great work’ is attacked. With some reasoning and a little compassion, these people can be converts to the cause.
Discover New Joys
At this juncture, it’s worth mentioning that this kind of exploration doesn’t need to consist entirely of ‘knowing thy enemy’. You are bound to uncover some plays and films previously unknown to you that you genuinely enjoy! It can be a genuine thrill to trace your favourite practitioner’s influences back through their careers; you may even discover that an aspect of their work you have always enjoyed actually comes from an artist you’d never before encountered.
You should also aim to consume classic works so you can discover why they are so enduring. Sure, you can dismiss Shakespeare as another beatified dead white male, but that would rob you of the richness of his language and the excellent stories he told. If you’re skeptic, that’s okay, but always make the effort to see what people are on about, and have been for centuries. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised.
The concept of a canon of plays, or films, or books or music will always be with us; as long as certain pieces of art affect audiences in profound, provocative and enduring ways. And although we are starting to see positive changes in the kinds of work that are counted among their ranks, even retroactively, we must remember that there is danger to the binary presented where some works of art are ‘great’ and others (sometimes their betters) are not.
This is perhaps the most important thing you can do when engaging with the canon: identify this binary and reject it. Aim to create art that deserves to sit among the ranks of great plays and films, that tackles epic themes, and that is geared towards longevity. If the notion of contributing to the canon sounds lofty and self-aggrandising, remember that a system has been carefully built and maintained to make you think exactly that. Learn it, understand it, pick apart the bad from the good and let your work be counted.