Last Act

Inside ATP's decision to end Camada's most important new-play incubator

By Jessica Goldman

On a summer day in 2012, Calgary-born actress, improviser and director Rebecca Northan got the good news. ATP artistic director Vanessa Porteous had accepted Legend Has It, Northan’s audience participation play about a hero saving the world, for the 2014 playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays. What neither Northan nor Porteous knew at the time, however, was that Northan’s play, along with three others in the 2014 festival, would be the last productions under the playRites banner.

After 27 years of developing and premiering 115 new Canadian plays, which received over 250 subsequent productions around the world and put Calgary on the national theatre map, ATP announced in November that they are pulling the plug on playRites. The company will continue to develop and stage new Canadian plays (two or three per year), but as part of a six-show regular season.

PlayRites has performed a crucial role in the development of Canadian theatre. Originally conceived as part of Calgary’s Cultural Olympiad in 1987, playRites was put together by D. Michael Dobbin, ATP’s producing director from 1983 to 1999. Dobbin had big dreams for the company, which he envisioned becoming the national centre of production and development of new Canadian plays. In the 27 years since, and with the help of long-time artistic director Bob White, Dobbin’s dreams came true. The festival supported an impressive roster of playwrights across Canada and premiered such diverse works as Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, Stephen Massicotte’s Mary’s Wedding and Joan MacLeod’s The Shape of a Girl, all of which went on to national and international productions with overwhelming critical and audience support.

No matter how many plays won awards or were produced farther afield, the goal of playRites was always the same: to realize the best possible first productions of Canadian plays. In fact, playRites was the only festival to premiere new Canadian work with full productions.

ATP offered its playRites artists two phases of support: development, which included workshopping, retreats, ongoing dramaturgy (adapting a work for the stage) and sometimes seed money for writing and creating; and production, which included two months of rehearsal and the month-long production of the premiere. On average, to get a playRites show to the stage took 18 months and cost much more than most playwrights could afford on their own.

If achievement is measured in terms of how many productions have legs beyond the festival, playRites has had good results. The company developed and premiered 47 plays at the festival between 2003 and 2013, of which 30 went on to subsequent productions. Of those, 22 have been published and 11 have received awards locally, nationally or internationally.

It’s that second-production figure that sticks out for Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck when he contemplates the end of playRites. “There’s too much new-play development in Canada presently,” said Nestruck. “We have a funding model in this country that encourages new work, but these plays get produced once and that’s it. But playRites’s model had a really strong history of second productions. Last I heard it was 65 per cent, and that’s really high.”

But Bobby Theodore, who is translating Quebec playwright François Archambault’s play about dementia, You Will Remember Me, for the 2014 festival, isn’t worried about subsequent productions in the absence of playRites. He said the days are long gone when artistic directors and producers flocked to the festival to pick up shows for their upcoming seasons. Now, he said, those decisions are made long before plays ever premiere at playRites.

“What I’m not so sure about is where new Canadian plays will get launched as easily,” said Theodore. “For playwrights it’s a loss, as we now have one or two fewer slots to get our work produced.” Theodore is pleased ATP will still produce new Canadian plays, and he applauds the risk they take in doing so. “But playRites was a national showcase that brought people together from all over Canada, and I’m not sure the new model will do this. Without the critical mass, that national conversation might dissipate.” Nestruck said dropping playRites is a valid artistic decision, but he agrees with Theodore. “People like to see things in a festival setting, so ATP is going against the trend of festivalization in theatre. As for me, I’m less likely to come out for a single production as opposed to four in a festival.”

Porteous scoffed at the notion that ATP needs a festival to get their work noticed nationally. “Let the shell of the festival fall away,” she said. “We don’t need it anymore to prove that we have new-play credentials.” She believes putting more resources into fewer new Canadian plays will result in work that stands out. “Our reputation won’t be based on whether we host a festival each year. We will be the home of Canadian plays as opposed to the home of a Canadian festival.”

Despite the Canadian theatre community’s initial expressions of shock at the news, ending playRites was by no means a snap decision, nor was it a great surprise to anyone paying attention to the way Canadian theatre gets made.

“Ending playRites is a recent decision with long roots,” said Porteous. “In a strategy we initiated three years ago, a major goal was to refresh the festival, as our artistic desires weren’t being met. We didn’t know the answer at the time, but once we did there was no reason to wait.” Choosing to do away with the festival altogether was motivated equally by practical, creative and financial factors, Porteous said.

Across the country each year, a fixed amount of government funding is shared by an increasing number of creative outlets. Getting less of the pie means ATP could have trimmed budgets across the board, but they dismissed this as an exhausting and uncreative solution. Meanwhile, playRites had become a huge financial drain on the company, costing at least $850,000 per year. “Festival settings used to be a cost-effective way of producing new Canadian work,” said Porteous. “Now it’s the more expensive way.” The repertory structure of playRites is expensive because while some actors play multiple roles, some have no second part to take on. For example, last year ATP brought in the critically acclaimed Pakistani actress Samiya Mumtaz to star in Dust, but then had no other role for her to play in the festival. “It was fantastic to have her here,” said Porteous. “But we had to put her up in a hotel for three months as opposed to the one-and-a-half months we would normally for a regular-season play. The expense meant we couldn’t bring in more international actors, the way we would have liked.”

playRites premiered diverse works that went on to international production with overwhelming critical and audience support.

Creatively, the festival had issues as well. “More and more, playwrights are interested in working closely with directors and designers,” said ATP executive director Vicki Stroich. “They come to us with ideas about what their show will look like or how large the scale will be. But at playRites we need to tell them that they’re sharing a thrust stage with the other shows, and that puts physical parameters on the work, [which] can be frustrating to the artists.” To help address this, playRites added a stage at a separate location free of the mainstage’s constraints. But while this allowed for some exciting and unique programming, it wasn’t enough to solve the problem.

And audiences had stopped coming. “We found in the last 10 years that it was difficult for people to find their way to the plays,” said Porteous. While the festival had the second-largest audience after ATP’s holiday production, Porteous believes it’s increasingly hard for busy people to get out to more than one or two plays in the festival.

Some critics argue the plays themselves kept audiences at bay. “There’s no use just doing four Canadian plays for the sake of doing four without making them the best four Canadian plays they can possibly be, which it didn’t feel like [playRites was] doing,” said Calgary Sun theatre critic Louis B. Hobson. “The productions were always slick, but the quality of the writing and the readiness of the material for the audience was questionable.” This dissatisfaction was voiced strongly over the last couple of years, with critics (myself included) only keen on one or two playRites shows, giving mediocre to harsh reviews for the rest. “Here’s hoping this will be remedied with the new model,” said Hobson. “Now they will have more time to work on the scripts and coax better plays out of them.”

Critics had also started to question ATP’s interpretation of a “premiere.” Hobson, who covered the festival since the beginning, says he misses the days when the work was actually new. “Almost every play at playRites these days has been workshopped or performed outside of Calgary,” says Hobson. “In the early days of the festival, you forgave the shows a great deal because they were actually new. Now I can go online and read reviews, and I can read about other productions these shows have had.”

Porteous agrees the festival dabbled in grey areas as its processes and atmosphere changed. “We often partnered with other companies so that the plays had life beyond our stage,” she says. “But we aren’t about definitions or categories; we’re fine with boundaries being somewhat elastic.”

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The Shape of a Girl, by Joan MacLeod; Premiered: ATP playRites 2001; Toured in English and French. Produced more than 30 times and translated into six languages. Toured the US in 2005, including a two-week run in New York City. (David Cooper)

 

Recent reviews and declining attendance aside, playRites was important. “Without question playRites has been a success,” said Dobbin. “All over the world, everywhere I go, people know the festival and the plays that have come out of it.” But, he added, “The money issue has always been there. Once, when we found ourselves squeezed financially, we were seriously thinking of dropping the regular season and just keeping playRites and perhaps the holiday show. Thankfully we didn’t have to, and in the end we moved on.” But while Dobbin has an understandably bittersweet reaction to the end of playRites, you won’t catch him bemoaning the end of the festival he championed. “I’ve been enthusiastic on Vanessa and have been waiting for her to turn the place upside down, and if this is the way she wants to do it then I’m all for it,” he said. “This decision may work or it may not, but it won’t be the wrong decision. Change is good, and I hope the change will be good for ATP and new Canadian theatre.”

Northan, who faces the unexpected honour of premiering a show in the final playRites festival, had already recovered from the shock when I spoke to her in mid-November. “I think it’s great, exciting news,” she told me. “Putting new work alongside established plays is ultimately more exciting for Canadian playwrights.” Northan added that the cult of uniqueness that cloaked ATP as a result of playRites is not as important as many think. “Being obsessed with being unique is not as important as stepping back and putting more into the work and focusing on producing the best play.”

Her 2014 festival colleagues aren’t all as optimistic; Toronto playwright Linda Griffiths, author of Games, about the perils of online gaming, worries about new-play development in the absence of the festival. “I’ve received the advantages of playRites three times now,” said Griffiths, whose 2007 show Age of Arousal premiered at the festival and went on to international success. “My plays are complex, and the two-and–a-half months rehearsal time playRites gave Age of Arousal was crucial to its development, as opposed to the four weeks you usually get for a regular-season play.” Anita Majumdar, who this year brings a show about Bollywood stardom, Same Same But Different, said she doesn’t deny the glamour factor of the festival, but sees benefits in the new model. “I’m interested in what happens when you take away the festival and allot resources to just a few productions,” she said. “I think it can only be a benefit if they are really going to invest in just a few shows and let them blossom.”

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Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, by Brad Fraser; Premiered: ATP playRites 1989; Produced in Toronto, New York, Chicago, Milan, Sydney, London, Athens, Sao Paulo and Buenos Airies. (Matt Griffin)

 

While this may be true from a purely creative standpoint, even Stroich acknowledges that ATP will have to work hard to hold on to the distinctive reputation playRites afforded the company. In the past Stroich has called the festival a “cross-national pollination” that allows local artists to work with and learn from people all across Canada, affecting creative communities nationwide. “When deciding to end playRites we talked about what to maintain from the experience,” said Stroich. “The national thing was tricky because it will for sure be a different feeling. During playRites, for three months, a tribe of people come together from all over Canada. That’s really cool and we want to find ways to continue that.”

For the moment, however, Porteous looks forward to one last playRites and plans to honour the festival’s achievements and celebrate all they’ve done. “It’s like hosting a dinner party; you’re there, but you never really get to enjoy it because you’re so busy,” said Porteous. “This year we intend to live it up.” #

Jessica Goldman founded the theatre blog Applause! Meter and is the theatre critic for CBC Calgary’s Eyeopener.

 

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