Interview by Megan Robinson.
This year will be the fifth time that accomplished storyteller, Graham Isador, is presenting his work as part of the SummerWorks Performance Festival. Isador is well-known for his successful one-person shows, but, with White Heat, he’s written a traditional play that he hopes will succeed in having a life beyond the festival.
Based on real events, Isador’s new play draws on his insights from working as a culture writer and journalist (most notably for Vice, GQ, and CBC), as well as the challenges and dangers that many of his co-workers and friends have faced in their careers as journalists. In our interview, Isador continues to grapple with the seriousness of online harassment, wondering how we can determine the severity of a threat, and the problem of assuming it’s all just talk. It’s this curiosity that drove him to write the show, which is about a journalist who becomes targeted by an alt-right podcaster. The story of White Heat is relevant and thought-provoking, exploring what can happen when online threats become a reality.
We spoke with Graham about his ambitions for White Heat, dealing with online trolls, and the hustle of writing.
MR: Why SummerWorks?
GI: Laura (Nanni) has been pretty pivotal to my career in a lot of ways. It’s funny, I don’t really know her that well but I have immense respect for what she does and the dramaturgical questions she’s always asked about my work has elevated it in a way that has been super beneficial for how I think about my work and the way I want it to move forward. I think I owe SummerWorks a lot for anybody recognizing my work in theatre. So there’s that. And it’s a very conscious choice, to be completely transparent about it. This is the first time in the last couple years that I’ve put on a show that hasn’t been a one-person thing. This is me sort of shooting my shot. I understand why maybe my stuff hasn’t been programmed in the past, because it didn’t really fit within the context of theatre seasons or what not, but it’s sort of a chance to be like, ‘this is the crew I’ve assembled who are very talented, the script is good and relevant, and I want to get it seen by artistic directors’. I’m extremely proud of the crew we’ve put together to elevate this story and SummerWorks is a showcase, at this point, to be able to hopefully get it programmed somewhere else.
MR: When you wrote those other shows, did you think a theatre might pick them up? So is this you sort of like, acquiescing and saying, ‘okay no one wanted that so I’m going to play your game’ a little bit?
GI: I think that the stories I’m wanting to tell, on a personal level, is why I wrote those one-man shows. And because every once in a while I’ll get an ache and I’ll think I want to be an actor, but that’s not true. I don’t really want to say other people’s words or remember other people’s lines and be accountable in that way. But I do have a need to be on stage once in a while, so the one-man show is sort of a way to get that out of my system so I don’t embarrass myself in front of our community trying to be a different character than myself.
White Heat is built out of the fact that, in the past year, there’s a handful of colleagues, mutuals on twitter, and friends who are journalists who have been put on neo-Nazi kill lists. If I have an article that’s a hit, for a week someone will tell me to get hit by a bus, or that they’re going to beat me up, or that I’m a fag. So I started thinking about the relationship between those two things, and the people behind those comments. The extreme examples of all this is not stuff that has happened to me. The stuff I deal with in terms of harassment on a daily basis is peanuts compared to what a lot of my colleagues who are writing hard news deal with. But I wanted to be able to talk about what the reality is for me in those situations, as well as what the reality is when I’m having beers with friends and we’re talking about this stuff – that harassment part of our daily lives. And it’s all a joke and it’s all online until somebody gets shot.
The offices at Vice Montreal last year were occupied (for a lack of a better word) by bikers from the alt-right who came to the office because of an article that was written and offered threats to the Vice Montreal writers. A couple weeks after that, there was a shooting in Maryland at the Capital Gazette where five journalists were shot and a handful of others were injured because of things they wrote.
I mean I write about bars and buffets and abs and dumb culture shit and I get some of this as a blowback but the reality is that it’s feeling, even for me, a little more dangerous and a little more real lately. So it was like, ‘this is the story that I need to tell’, and I didn’t feel like doing it as a one-man show because it couldn’t really do justice to all the stories. It allowed me to dig into the themes and dig into the realities of what that is for friends, without having the burden of it all being 100% factually accurate.
MR: So your play is about the most extreme case, the really violent and the more political version of it, but what you experience is mostly the bullying and the trolls?
GI: Yeah and I’m not a victim in this situation. I choose to put myself out there in a lot of these ways but it’s just interesting to me that it’s a reality of these things. And as the temperament of society changes, this becomes politicized regardless of what I do.
MR: What do you mean?
GI: Well, by writing for the CBC, by writing for Vice, people have narratives about what those institutions are. So it doesn’t really matter what I’m writing, I become an enemy to them based on this thing. I’m very fascinated with the idea that anything that gets written or anything that reaches a certain level of critical mass just becomes fodder for countless vile comments towards you. And what is it that we’re doing that it’s now just a by-product of doing work like this and what does it say for the larger societal context?
MR: Has it ever made you want to stop writing? Have you ever had an article go up and felt like you needed to take a break from it or take a pause?
GI: The only time that it’s kind of given me pause, at this point, is when it’s starting to affect people who aren’t me. I chose this, right? No one is telling me to write stuff.
MR: But you can choose it without knowing what it’s going to feel like.
GI: I think that’s true but I’ve also been doing this for seventeen years. I started writing about bands when I was thirteen. I kind of know what’s what at this point. One of the things I’ve been trying actively to do when I’m writing true personal stuff is get other people out of it as much as I can. Then it only becomes about me and not my friends or partners or whatever else, because they didn’t ask for this in the same way that I did. So that’s when I think about stopping. And then there’s times when you’re having a day that’s particularly hard for whatever reason, and then an article pops up that calls you names. And I engage with that stuff. I read the comments. I know you’re not supposed to.
MR: Why do you read the comments? What do you get out of it?
GI: Well if someone was saying something about you, wouldn’t you want to know?
MR: Personally, not always, no. Because it can still get under your skin even if you know they don’t have anything worthwhile to say, right? I guess you probably have thick skin, but I definitely have thin skin.
GI: I don’t know if I do. I go back and forth with it. I think part of anything with performance, with writing, with whatever, is a certain desire to make sure that your opinion is relevant. There’s a certain arrogance that goes along with it. To be like, ‘look, what I’m telling you is important and you should pay attention to me.’ I don’t think I would do this work in theatre, in journalism, if I didn’t feel that way. I think that’s the manifestation of why I do this stuff in the first place: I want my ideas to be important to other people, and I have something to say. Which also means that I am curious how people respond to that. It’s part of my temperament that I engage with those types of things. And sometimes I take them more seriously than others.
MR: How long has it taken you to write the play?
GI: Three months? I pitched this with an idea, and probably about two monologues and SummerWorks was interested in the themes and interested in some of the people that I’ve been working with. Jill Harper, who is directing it, is pretty incredible – she won a Dora for Pool (No Water). Tim Walker is mostly known as a comedic actor but this gives him a chance to show off his drama chops. And there’s Makambe Simamba – I think if this were a year from now I would not be able to work with her because she’d be booked for something huge. She’s going to be a really big deal.
MR: I’m curious what your end goal is. You do so many different things – is there one thing you’re reaching for more than anything else?
GI: No, I just kinda want attention… No, all this is the same thing to me. It’s all storytelling. Producing, writing, photography, all of it. It’s just the way to communicate ideas that are important to me. I look at who my heroes are, people like Jon Ronson or Anthony Bourdain, who are able to dabble in all this different stuff. All of it is facilitating this one idea that their life is also their art. There isn’t this big barrier between what I am and what I do and what I’m trying to bring to the world. Bourdain was a huge hero of mine. There was like eighteen different things that guy did and it was all playing to this bigger idea of using food to be able to talk about human experience and culture. For me, it’s how do we use all these different mediums to say, ‘these things are important’. More recently, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can use those same avenues that I have to be able to tell stories of people who may not be able to have their own voices. So that responsibility is something I’ve been thinking about recently. I’m exhausted all the time but I also don’t do anything I don’t want to do.
MR: I see your name popping up online all the time, and every time I see another article come up, I’m so curious about how you’re so productive… you seem overwhelmingly productive! How many articles did you write last year?
GI: Sixty. Maybe more. This year I’ve done fifty-four.
MR: That feels like a lot. Does it feel like a lot to you?
GI: Yeah. I think at some point in the next couple years I’ll be able to calm down and focus myself to do less. But right now the reason I get to do stuff is because I keep doing stuff. It’s a hustle, right? And like, if you want these things for real, that’s what you do. But there’s something to be said, definitely, for taking your time and thinking about these things, but I’m not talented in the same way. I’m a worker, and I have a little bit of talent, I’m decently smart, but the difference between me and a lot of other people is that I will continue to keep doing things until I get better at them. There’s a handful of other writers in this city who I know are better writers than me but the difference is that I try to do it absolutely every day and by doing that you just gain enough experience to keep growing and growing and growing. Between all these things I can make an okay living for myself, just barely. I don’t want to do anything else except write. So I just write all the time.
SummerWorks Performance Festival with Pressgang Theatre
Written by Graham Isador
Directed by Jill Harper
Performed by Makambe Simamba and Tim Walker
Sound Design by Christopher Ross-Ewart
A revealed identity leads to an impossible decision.
Journalist Alice Kennings grapples with how to act after uncovering the identity of an alt-right podcast host calling for violence against the media. Based on real events, White Heat is a play about all the things we justify to ourselves. Written by Graham Isador (VICE, GQ) and directed by Dora Award winner Jill Harper (Pool No Water).
Longboat Hall at The Great Hall
103 Dovercourt Road, Toronto, Ontario
Sunday August 11th8:30pm – 9:45pm
Monday August 12th9:30pm – 10:45pm
Wednesday August 14th6:00pm – 7:30pm