All Alberta’s A Stage

The different approaches artistic directors take in choosing a season’s plays tell us something about ourselves.

By Patrick Rengger

The stage but echoes back the public voice.
The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give,
For we that live to please, must please to live.
–Samuel Johnson

The struggle of theatre directors to please themselves and to please their public – and to do so while staying afloat – is as old as theatre itself. Tony Kushner’s award-winning Angels in America may have drawn capacity houses in theatre-obsessed Edmonton, and both crowds and controversy in Calgary, but in Alberta’s smaller cities it could mean box office death. Attitudes to and audiences for theatre in this province are as varied and diverse as Albertans themselves. In Red Deer, you find serious, new Alberta plays; in Lethbridge, musical entertainment; and in Medicine Hat, intellectually challenging works dran from an international repertoire. Theatres across Alberta reflect the differing needs and expectations of their communities and yet also struggle to make theatre not mere diversion but experience.

To Duncan McIntosh, artistic director of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, the theatre is a place where “despite fiscal concerns, it is possible to measure value in life by criteria other than money, where one can say that was beautiful, or wrong, or sad, or unfortunate.” The Citadel is the largest regional theatre in western Canada and, by some measures, the whole country. It has an audience of more than 7,000 a month, a company of up to 45 members, and 300 performances a year of mostly large-scale productions. The emphasis on performing larger works is due “to the ecology of our city,” explains McIntosh. “So many theatres are mandated to do smaller, new work and do it beautifully.”

The Citadel’s seasons feature Shakespeare and Shaw, works by traditional and renowned contemporary playwrights, and just for good measure, a large musical. This year’s program includes plays exploring everything from obsessive and murderous jealousy (Othello), to society’s attitudes to prostitution (Mrs. Warren’s Profession), to the story of opera diva Maria Callas (Masterclass). Also offered this season: Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams, David Hare’s Skylight, and Hello Dolly.

“Like Alberta itself – generally big, fresh, a little irreverent, generous of spirit and a little bit lawless” is how McIntosh describes the Citadel’s approach to its productions of classic and contemporary plays. Theatre that celebrates the complex nature of human life is timeless, says McIntosh. It has the ability to transcend an issue and speak to human experience, often to a collective experience, in the late 20th century. One need not look far to see contemporary, real-life parallels to Suddenly Last Summer (1958), about the sudden death of a famous and wealthy individual, or to Othello (c. 1604), the tragedy of the black man, a hero in his time, who murders his white wife in a fit of jealousy.

“The significance of a play can only be measured by the intensity of that experience for those who saw it.”

Given the number of classic and contemporary plays available, deciding which to include in a season is a Herculean task. As McIntosh describes it, choosing the shows for a season is only partly a cerebral decision, revolving around how much money is available, the appropriateness of actors for certain roles, and the need for variety. The larger part of the process is intuitive. “Like any art, you start in one direction, and then discover what the piece is really all about,” says McIntosh. “In the end, it is all kind of filtered down through a sieve of something that I want to say, but I won’t necessarily know it while I’m going through the process.” Last year, for example, the plays all involved a journey of some kind, whether it was the actual journey in Travels With My Aunt or the tormented journey to discover the truth in Ibsen’s Ghosts. This season “has been revealed,” as the puckish McIntosh prefers to say, around a theme of mendacity, the most prominent example being the lies of Iago.

McIntosh knows it would be a disservice to his audience to put on just a series of “sure-fire comic hit.” Edmontonians have “highly sophisticated tastes and have been coming to the theatre for years.” While some may measure the success of a play by box office receipts, as far as McIntosh is concerned, a more important indicator is the dense silence of a completely rapt audience. “The significance of a play,” he says “can only be measured by the intensity of that experience for those who saw it.”

Thomas Usher, 34-year-old artistic director of Red Deer’s Prime Stock Theatre, would probably give several highly prized body parts to draw the same kind of devoted public as the Citadel. As it is, Usher is not too disappointed with the average houses of 40 or 50 that are drawn to the more intimate theatre experience his company aims to provide. Prime Stock has also been gingerly testing its audience by staging shows in the round or on a thrust stage.

Formed in 1994, Prime Stock is dedicated to providing Red Deer and central Alberta with new Canadian, principally Albertan, plays such as Ken Mitchell’s Gone the Burning Sun, a poignant portrait of Dr. Norman Bethune, and Eugene Stickland’s Some Assembly Required, an all-Canadian family Christmas that puts the fun in dysfunction. By touring their productions to Stettler, Rocky Mountain House, and smaller centres, Prime Stock hopes to “expand audience perceptions about theatre, by giving them a story which reflects their experiences back to them.”

Perhaps demonstrating the triumph of hope over experience, Usher feels there is a place for what his company does. He recognizes that Prime Stock operates in a “very right-wing and conservative” market with audiences who are used to the work of Neil Simon, British farces, and other conventional fare. “We want to provide our audiences with pieces of theatre that actually have a dramatic edge to them,” says Usher. He does confess they are still trying to figure out who their audience is, a Grail-like quest hardly assisted by the theatre’s loss of a permanent venue.

Prime Stock’s original space was denied a fire permit and shut down on the company’s opening night. Since then, it has been unable to find funds to upgrade its facility or find another home. Lack of a regular space in Red Deer has made creating a solid, growing audience base an uphill battle, even for Prime Stock’s guaranteed seller, Shake on the Lake, the summer presentation of Shakespeare at Sylvan Lake.

With its market still elusive and ill-defined, Usher and his colleagues continue to ask themselves if they should be doing work that is more conventionally popular, paying more heed to the “please to live” part of the good Dr. Johnson’s advice. But Usher resists being dominated by a “bums in seats” mentality. “We keep coming back to trying to do the more challenging sort of work,” he says, “challenging in the sense that it is unknown.” And with true Albertan optimism and stick-to-it-iveness, he remains upbeat. Usher is determined to keep producing Canadian and Albertan plays which he feels can speak to his audience.

“An audience simply won’t tolerate on a stage what they would not think twice about watching on television.”

Theatres in other rural and small markets have taken a different tack. Lethbridge’s New West Theatre is a professional, non-equity theatre that produces musicals and musical revues, proven crowd-pleasers like Forever Plaid and Snow Business. Artistic director Brian Parkinson, who is also a professor at the University of Lethbridge’s drama department, believes New West provides a high quality of theatre to southern Alberta. But he understands that in his conservative, largely rural community the theatre’s key purpose is to entertain, and he sees nothing wrong with his “give them what they want” approach. Shakespeare, after all, was a fine provider of popular and entertaining shows that were commercially successful.

New West has built its reputation on its musical revues, which at Christmas time can command box offices of up to 80 per cent. The 50-year-old director is unapologetic about producing what is often referred to as “popular theatre,” a phrase that, depending on the source, can either be dripping with distaste or ringing with approval. Doing work that pays the bills allows New West to be as free from financial assistance as possible, which Parkinson feels is not a bad thing. Although he admits to a certain degree of artistic frustration, he also points out that when the company did stage three adult comedies, they bombed. New West could not put on the latest play by Edmonton’s provocative, gay playwright Brad Fraser, because the audience would recoil at “hearing all those ‘nasty’ words and seeing those ‘nasty’ people on the stage,” says Parkinson. “You have to make wise choices and know your audience.”

By its very nature, theatre is more in your face and provocative than television. An audience simply won’t tolerate on a stage what they would not think twice about watching on television, says Parkinson. “Nothing else is so immediate as theatre because it involves real people,” he says.

Like Parkinson, Keith Benford, artistic director of Medicine Hat’s Gaslight Theatre, is also an academic, a drama instructor at Medicine Hat College. Described by the Medicine Hat News as “amateur theatre at its very best,” Gaslight aims to produce a range of work that includes some of the best of the contemporary repertoire, populist musicals, and one new Canadian play each season. Given that the theatre is directly connected to and run from Medicine Hat College, Benford tries to provide a balance of shows that will appeal to the public. While his program partly reflects his own taste, he is primarily concerned with giving his students experience of different kinds of theatre.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the complex and sometimes challenging nature of many of Gaslight’s shows, Benford’s audience rarely responds negatively. Among its productions have been Nobel laureate and revolutionary leftist Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, Steve Martin’s play about ideas and creativity, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, or this year’s A Line in the Sand, by Guillermo Verdecchia, a Canadian Gulf War drama involving Somalia-like actions. “If you only do theatre that is pap and doesn’t keep the audience awake,” Benford says, “then that is just not very interesting.” But if a play moves the audience and – equally important for him – educates his actors, then it is a success.

For Blake Brooker, entertainment encompasses humor, visceral enjoyment, intellectual stimulation, and everything in between.

Medicine Hat is also home to Inter Act, an example of social theatre which uses dramatic interpretation as an educational tool for junior-and-senior-high school audiences. Audrey Redmond, who helps run Inter Act, says they consult the students to see what issues they would like covered in the play and panel discussion format – topics have ranged from AIDS to date violence. While she feels that the dramatic presentation engages the students in a much more visceral way, Redmon acknowledges that the play is really only an icebreaker to introduce the discussions that follow. Nonetheless, everyone at Inter Act is deeply committed to this process, since they recognize that acting things out provides the students with a greater perspective on issues affecting them.

Acting out takes on a very different spin when it comes to Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit theatre. One of Alberta’s premiere performance theatres, OYR prides itself on being removed from the mainstream. Since its formation in 1981, the group has strived to present what artistic director Blake Brooker calls “adult contemporary creation theatre.” OYR has been invited to perform across the country and has taken shows as far away as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but they don’t do work from London or New York. Instead, their self-generated work is primarily focused on Calgary and Alberta – what they call “stuff from our back yard” – and comes from the minds and creative sensibilities of the OYR ensemble and some special guests. “We try to provide an opportunity for people in Calgary to come to interesting theatre in their own city,” Brooker says. Given the increasingly international and sophisticated nature of Calgary citizenry – OYR’s audience is highly educated and drawn from a broad age range of the urban populance – this opens up a wide canvas. OYR’s productions have included the internationally successful Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp, by Brooker and David Rimmer, Denise Clarke’s Breeder, and last season’s Doing Leonard Cohen, also by Brooker.

One Yellow Rabbit is a far cry from what may be termed “drawing room theatre.” It is an original it its approach to productions as it is in content, and the group will never shy away from strong language or nudity if they feel it is intrinsic to the piece. Rather than purchase costly sets or props, the groups prefers to invest in rehearsals. And although the box office is important, Brooker also judges a show to be a success if it was a challenge and interesting for them as creators, particularly since they are aiming to build a body of work which can be a source of pride to them and a resource for Calgary. Brooker defines success by simply identified, albeit hard to achieve, criteria: “survive as a theatre, have fun, respect our audience and respect ourselves.” While he acknowledges that theatre has to be entertaining, for him entertainment encompasses humour, visceral enjoyment, intellectual stimulation, and everything in between.

Brooker is also quite prepared for his theatre’s work to be viewed as political, but he rejects any suggestion that he is out to change his audience’s thinking in any partisan or polemical sense. “People are too bright for that,” he says. Like everyone else, he says, the members of OYR are going through their lives “muddling and improvising through the changing circumstances” – and they try to express that in their work. “The theatre is a place to meditate about your own life,” Brooker concludes. And if OYR’s work can help stimulate that, he feels it had succeeded.

Swimming in a different part of Calgary’s dramatic consciousness is Theatre Calgary. Originally dedicated to producing new and contemporary work, an area now covered by Alberta Theatre Projects, Theatre Calgary has become increasingly recognized as the venue for more classic and traditional theatre – Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, this season’s An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestly, and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. In addition, the theatre also performs some Shakespeare and the ever-popular A Christmas Carol.

Artistic director, Ian Prinsloo, recently arrived from the Shaw Festival, is determined to move the theatre further into the performance of classics – works by Ibsen and Miller, for example – and to make them relevant to the people of southern Alberta. “History is very alive and seeing ourselves through that which has happened is a very exciting process,” he says. “Doing plays from the past is not doing history pieces. It’s seeing what this means to us here and now, especially in the climate we are in here in Alberta.” He cites as an example the potential for a dramatic connection between Chekhov and the Canadian plains – long train journeys, changing social dynamics, and extreme weather being common to both. Prinsloo hopes that someone from Toronto could see a Theatre Calgary production of The Cherry Orchard and gain an insight into southern Alberta mentality. Making these plays more personal and “about here” will de-mystify them, “break down the mystique of classic works, the idea that in some way they are artsy and fey, or that you need a degree to watch them,” he says.

Prinsloo is determined to find ways that the plays he chooses can reflect the southern Alberta personality and really “speak to the people of this city and province.” As he learns more about Calgary, the Ontario native says he has found the famous Big Sky of the area has acted as a metaphor. “People have big ideas here,” he says. “They believe in things and they believe in them very strongly.” He relishes this openness of spirit and the no-middle-of-the-road attitude, with all its virtues and faults.

Prinsloo is convinced playgoers want to be touched by theatre and challenged by the ideas it can convey. “The human experience cannot be denied when you are watching theatre,” says the 33-year-old director. In an age dominated by TV, videos and the Internet, theatre has “a more vibrant opportunity than ever before, because people crave the human experience.”

Workshop West Theatre in Edmonton focuses on producing new Canadian plays. Committed to a four-event season, including three full plays and the Springboard New Play Festival, Workshop West is run by the ebullient David Mann. The plays they produce – The Rich Man, by Joanne Osborne and Gerry Potter, Frank Moher’s Prairie Report, or Brad Fraser’s Poor Super Man – all have a distinct social or political edge. This is hardly a surprise, since the company was founded in 1977 by Gerry Potter, a graduate of the University of Alberta drama department with an interest in social activist theatre. Similarly, the 43-year-old Mann began his theatre career at the University of Lethbridge in agitprop (agitation and propaganda) theatre and political satire.

“In the theatre, you have a community of people sharing an experience. It is a profoundly personal and human moment.”

Despite this slant, Mann resists too restrictive a pigeon-hole. He says the plays he finds most interesting are those that strike a chord, make him laugh, or make him think. Juggling these basic requirements with what will make a balanced season, what the core subscribers expect, and what will sell tickets is no easy task. Mann acknowledges they are under a lot of pressure to choose plays not just because they like them, but to attract an audience. Like every other theatre company in this province, they need the revenues to survive.

Part of the struggle is to overcome what Mann perceives as the pervasive “event mentality,” the notion that going out to the theatre must be a big social event, a glitzy spectacle with a huge touring production and T-shirts for sale in the lobby. A great many of Alberta’s theatre patrons have demonstrated they are willing to pay $75 per ticket to see the likes of Showboat and Phantom of the Opera. Nonetheless, Mann remains convinced there is a place for his type of theatre, which can act as “a social conscience or brake.” Some of New West’s shows such as Poor Super Man, sold very well, but others have found the going rough. As to their actual effect, Mann is unsure. Poor Super Man, with its gay themes probably “opened some eyes and closed some others.” But Mann is hopeful that if the company can get people through the door and give them something entertaining, they will increase understanding and perhaps, bridge gaps. Mann feels it is precisely those thoughtful forms of art that question the status quo which merit the most public support. He would even go so far as to say they should be free to the public.

When it comes to developing new and contemporary work, few theatres in Alberta can rival Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects. Under the guidance of Michael Dobbin, its 49-year-old producing director, ATP has brought to the city a range of plays and new works that would be hard to equal anywhere in Canada. The shows have included the controversial Angels in America, Two Pianos, Four Hands by Canadian playwrights/musicians Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, now running in New York, and Oleanna, David Mamet’s exploration of sexual harassment which so outraged members of a London audience that fights broke out in the lobby.

Dobbin is the first to admit his preference for contemporary work. “At ATP,” he says emphatically, “we don’t do dead playwrights.” This is not to say he doesn’t believe that the classics shouldn’t be done. He hopes that Theatre Calgary will continue to proceed in the direction that Prinsloo has set for it. As for his own theatre, Dobbin is remaining true to its purpose of producing plays by playwrights who live, in a general sense, in the same “place” as we do.

ATP and Dobbin with his artistic associate Bob White, also created the widely acclaimed playRites, which run for six weeks from mid-January to March. It is the longest such festival in the country, attracts larger audiences, and is developing more new works than any other in Canada. Directors from around North America now routinely stop off in Calgary in mid-winter to scout for new material. Dobbin says the festival was initially greeted with “a huge amount of skepticism from the Toronto new play establishment.” But playRites is a fundamental part of what theatre is all about – pushing the envelope with new and different ways of expression, sometimes until it rips at the seams. As with any R&D, there have been hits and misses, even the occasional outright howling dog of a show. But you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. In a strange reversal for a city renowned for its civic boosterism, the national and international significance of playRites seems to have attracted little in the way of local, chest-puffing pride.

In a larger metropolitan centre, ATP would not likely be seen as profoundly edgy or challenging, but in recent years, it has developed a reputation for being controversial. It is not a reputation the theatre has chosen, nor is it deserved.

While ATP’s audience has remained steady at about 91,000, the average age of patrons has gone down, with most in the 30 to 50 age range. This decline in the average age troubles Dobbin, who clearly values the older members of the community. “They can bring an extraordinary wisdom to a collection of people,” he says, “and their opinions are very important and valid.” But he is equally concerned about how the low attendance among young people. The under-30 crowd doesn’t go to much theatre, at least not until they get married (over 60 per cent of ATP’s houses are women), but that age group is the future generation of theatre-goers. More needs to be done to get them hooked on theatre and to keep them coming.

Dobbin has also been frustrated by the rebuilding required after support for ATP wavered in the early 1990s and the theatre was forced to cut 30 per cent of its budget and downsize. In retrospect, Dobbin feels the cuts were cowardly and, ultimately, inhumane for those who lost their jobs. Despite the difficulties, he remains committed to his mandate to produce new work by contemporary playwrights. And he is passionate about theatre’s unique ability to move an audience. “In the theatre,” he says, “you have a community of people sharing an experience, sharing deeply human feelings with the actors and other people. It is a profoundly personal and human moment.” This dialogue of emotion between player and audience, he says, is a bit like going to a hockey game instead of watching it on TV. As in hockey, the great moments in theatre really only live for those who were there, caught up in the energy and shared spirit of the audience.

This shared sense of community is central to theatre’s enduring appeal. For playwright Vaclav Havel, voice of conscience in Eastern Europe before the Wall came down and now president of the Czech Republic, drama is not just another genre but the only one in which living human beings speak to each other: “In today’s dehumanizing technological civilization, theatre is one of the islands of human authenticity; that is, it is precisely what – if this world is not to end up badly – must be protected and cultivated.

“After all, the return of irreplaceable human subjectivity, of the particular human personality and its particular human conscience, is precisely what this world of megamachinery and anonymous megabureaucracy needs.” The theatres of Alberta struggle in their various ways to cultivate this “island of human authenticity.”

Greek theatres, which also served oracular and religious purposes, had inscribed on their entrances the words gnothi seauton – ‘Know Thyself’. Alberta theatres speak to their communities sometimes in challenging ways, sometimes with pain, sometimes with laughter and good times – but always promising a shard or two more insight into who we are and what is means to be human.

 

Patrick Rengger is a Calgary-based freelance writer. He broadcasts regularly for the CBC on theatre and poetry. He is currently finishing a play and a book of poetry on the war in Bosnia.

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