Theatre Goes South

A Calgary playwright makes the case for crowning Cowtown our drama capital.

By Eugene Stickland

Sometime in 1995. Another evening, another fundraiser, this one at the Red and White Club in Calgary. I’ve been trotted out as a celebrity, along with the other usual suspects: a radio talk show host, a football player, an aging rodeo star, an exciting young recording artist, a couple of outrider Cheerleaders.

When the MC gets to my introduction it’s suddenly like he’s introducing someone from Mars. He looks at his little card and says, “I’ve never heard of this guy before. It’s someone named Eugene Strickland. Says he’s from Alberta Theatre [thee-ate– er] Projects, whatever that is. And it says here he’s something called a ‘playwright in residence,’ and I don’t even know what that means. But I guess he’s a celebrity, so give him a hand!” There’s no small amount if mirth in the room, and only a smattering of applause when I stand and give a feeble wave to the crowd.

Here’s the deal: in the thee-ate-er world in Canada, there was at the time no better gig than being playwright in residence at Alberta Theatre Projects. A theatre company paying a playwright to write plays for them? And then producing those plays? It was unheard of, and on account of that position I thought I was a big deal. obviously it hadn’t filtered down to the masses.

I vowed that I would change things in Calgary, as far as I was able—that all these people laughing at me would know who I was, and where I worked and what I did for a living.

At the time, it seemed like a hopeless task. It seemed impossible. That night I asked myself, “Why didn’t I move to Edmonton?”

She moved easily between the tables of hors d’oeuvres and the wine bar, a veteran of the opening night circuit. The sort of person who could hold a small plate of food, a glass of wine, a napkin, her purse and a sheaf of glossy pamphlets without spilling anything, while I was dribbling red wine and seafood sauce down the front of my starched white shirt.

SHE: It must be terribly exciting to have a play running up in Edmonton.

(She said “Edmonton” with the sort of delicious inflection usually reserved for even more exotic places like Barcelona, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur.)

ME: I suppose.

SHE: Edmonton is a much more cultural place than Calgary.

ME: Is it?

SHE: Of course it is. Everyone knows that.

Erin McGrath in Alberta Theatre Projects’ Still Desire You. Has Calgary supplanted Edmonton as the provincial theatre capital? (Photo Courtesy of Brian Harder)

I’ve had this conversation more than once, always with Calgarians. The lingering perception is that Edmonton is a rich cultural centre, whereas Calgary is still a raw frontier town where all that anyone really cares about at the end of the day is making a quick buck.

November 23, 1994, was a cold, blustery day in Calgary. Bob White and I bundled ourselves into my rusting Volvo station wagon and headed up Highway 2 to Edmonton. We were going to attend the opening of Northern Light Theatre’s production of my play Some Assembly Required.

Bob, who is now Alberta Theatre Projects’ artistic director, was then the company’s artistic associate in charge of new play development. In that capacity, he had commissioned Some Assembly Required a few years earlier. Bob and I were curious to see how it would work with a different cast, and how an Edmonton audience would respond to a play that had been a bona fide hit in Calgary.

There was another reason we wanted to go up to Edmonton: the position of artistic director at the Phoenix Theatre in Edmonton had just come open, and Bob wanted to check out the city to see if he liked it—and, if he did, possibly apply for the job.

Beyond that, we were curious about Edmonton. It was thought to have a very vibrant theatre scene, and to be light years ahead of Calgary in all areas of culture.

Calgary was still trying to make up its mind about the kind of city it wanted to be. (It still is, in many ways.) When I had moved from Toronto to Calgary a year earlier, there were some who thought I was making a mistake, and that I should have gone to Edmonton instead.

At the time, they were probably right. Many good artists were working in Edmonton at very good theatre companies, producing a lot of work, much of it new plays by Canadian playwrights. The Edmonton Fringe had become one of the great theatre attractions anywhere in the world. The University of Alberta, which was and continues to be one of the best theatre schools in the country, was graduating good artists who had every reason to believe they could stay in Edmonton and have a decent career in the theatre.

But that was then and this is now. In these intervening 13 years, I believe, Calgary has eclipsed Edmonton as Canada’s most active theatre city west of Toronto. In fact, the level of activity in Calgary these days reminds me of what was going on in Toronto when I lived there in the eighties.

When I moved to Calgary, it had only five professional theatre companies (Theatre Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects, One Yellow Rabbit, Lunchbox Theatre and Vertigo Theatre.) Now there are about 20 companies in the city that are professional or aspire to be. It seems like a new company starts up every month or so; I receive countless invitations from fledgling companies to attend productions, many of them new plays by young local playwrights. The Fringe Festival has completed its second year. Mount Royal College and the University of Calgary continue to feed good young artists into the community. At the same time, it is getting more and more common for University of Alberta grads to move to Calgary because they feel it offers more opportunity.

Edmonton was thought to be light years ahead of Calgary in all areas of culture. Calgary was still trying to make up its mind about the kind of city it wanted to be. But that was then and this is now.

On top of all the activity onstage, two Calgary companies, Vertigo and Theatre Junction, now have new, state-of-the-art theatres. Each of these represents an investment of around $10-million. The Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts in downtown Calgary, completed in 1988, houses four theatres and a concert hall. These facilities are all within a few blocks of each other, creating something of a theatre district in down- town Calgary. In the centre of it all is the Auburn Saloon, at the base of the Calgary Tower, which has served as a vital meeting place throughout the city’s theatre boom. Its importance to the community is such that the saloon was awarded a Betty Mitchell Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Calgary Theatre Community. No such facility exists in Edmonton, a fact often lamented by Edmonton theatre artists.

The night Bob and I saw my play in Edmonton was one of those brutally cold and dark prairie nights in the dead of winter, easily 40 below, with a howling wind. The play did well enough, but it’s just not as exciting when it’s not the premiere production. The audience seemed much more reserved than our Calgarian crowds had been. Despite some brilliant performances (especially by Marianne Copithorne in her reprise of Stacy from the premiere production), it was a somewhat tepid evening.

As for the job at Phoenix Theatre, Bob never did apply. Maybe the cold scared him off. Just as well—the Phoenix closed shortly after our trip to Edmonton, never to live up to its name and rise from the ashes. It’s always a sad day when a theatre closes, especially one that was actually willing to produce Canadian plays.

Last year, another Edmonton theatre, Workshop West, suspended operations. It is now trying to erase its deficit and get back to work, but the theatre community is very concerned about its fate, which seems precarious at best. This is a serious concern for playwrights in the province, as Workshop West helped develop and produce many plays by Alberta playwrights.

The beer garden at the Edmonton Fringe. Although it’s still August, I am wearing a woollen scarf and gloves… and shorts. The beer is cold but I’m even colder.

HE: You’ve never had a play at the Fringe, have you?

ME: (Shivering, drinking) n-n-n-n-n-n-o.

HE: Not interested?

ME: (Still shivering and drinking, as if cold beer would warm me up) It’s not something I’ve had the chance to do. Yet. I’d like to some day. It’s just that I’m old. And cold.

HE: You’re not old.

ME: Maybe not. But I’m cold. Do you think it’s a good thing? The Fringe? For the community?

HE: Well, look around you. It’s a Festival. Or a Carnival. It’s good times for sure, and some of our writers have done very well by it.

ME: Do you think it hurts their chances of getting done in the regular season?

HE: I don’t worry so much about the writers. It’s good experience, especially for younger writers. They don’t have to wait around for decades like you did to see their work get produced.

ME: Right…

HE: I worry more about the audience. They come and feast on all these plays, but then when September comes and you try to lure them back, they feel sated. They’ve gorged on all this—not just the plays, but the food and everything else. It’s hard to compete…

While playwriting In Canada is still a young art form, there are times when I feel extremely old. For example, I wrote my first play on a typewriter. The only “memory” involved in the Typewriter Era was that fallible thing you carried around inside your skull. The rest of it was just your fingers pressing the right keys and the letters banging against the page. The first play I ever wrote, entitled The Family, was typed in navy blue ink on cream-coloured paper. It was produced twice in Toronto. I don’t know if I even have a copy of it anymore.

The timing of my entry into playwriting—I completed my MFA in 1984—meant not only that I began my career typing my plays, but also that I entered the world of the theatre before the advent of the Fringe circuit in Canada. I’m not sure exactly what the cut-off date for this would be, but playwrights who grew up with the Fringe and write for the Fringe have a different mindset than those of us who didn’t and don’t.

I come from the school of playwriting that seems almost medieval now, wherein the playwright toils away for years at his or her script in a garret of some description. Following the blessed moment when the last page has been spit out of the printer, the playwright, script held aloft, runs to a director or producer like a child hurrying home with a good report card. And the wheels of the production are set in motion. A theatre is booked, a cast is chosen, a poster is printed, tickets are sold—and none of these things is done by the playwright, whose involvement rarely goes beyond the rehearsal hall.

Theatre Junction’s Insomnia. (Photo Courtesy of Theatre Junction/Charles Hope)

For many writers, the Fringe changed all that. Fringe Festivals such as Edmonton’s allow playwrights at a very young age to see their work played before an audience. I was 37 years old when Some Assembly Required opened in Calgary. I’d had other productions in Toronto when I was younger, on a much smaller scale, the first of these when I was 29. At last year’s Fringe in Calgary there was an entry by a spirited group from Red Deer College whose average age must have been about 20. This year there were other young groups. Or maybe they’re not getting younger, maybe I’m getting older. no, that can’t be. They must be getting younger.

On any account, it’s obviously different for each individual writer, but the gestation period of a playwright has traditionally been lengthy.

The arrival of the Fringe circuit has dispelled the notion that the playwright must engage in a seemingly endless apprenticeship to learn the subtle secrets of the craft from the old masters.

Quite frankly, I don’t believe I could have written anything at 20 that anyone other than my immediate family would have wanted to see—and even they would have watched it somewhat grudgingly.

It’s not an absolute, but Edmonton playwrights tend to write for the Fringe, and Calgary playwrights to write for, shall we say, the conventional theatre. (I’ve never written a play for the Fringe, though I must admit it’s on my list of things to do.) Most of the Calgary theatre scene is still taking place between September and May; a large part of Edmonton’s scene is taking place in the month of August.

“It’s not so much about the writers or what they write or how they write,” says an Edmonton friend of mine. “To my mind, the greatest impact the Fringe has had is on our audiences. They get used to plays that are 50 minutes long. They get used to a lot of very broad comedy. But when you try to get them into the theatre again in the fall and winter to see a full-length play, it’s not that easy. A lot of people feel they’ve seen enough theatre to hold them over the winter. And you can feel an impatience in the theatre waiting for a play to develop in, you know, more subtle work.”

Fragment of a late-night phone call from a friend in crisis.

ME: How are things in Edmonton?

HE: Good, good.

ME: That’s good.

HE: Actually, not that good.

ME: No?

HE: No. There’s just no buzz here. no excitement. It’s drying up. I can feel it.

ME: Bummer.

HE: I want out, Euge.

ME: Really? But you’ve been there forever. You’re a big star.

HE: I’ve had enough. I want to move to Calgary.

ME: Why?!

HE: Because there’s more going on.

ME: More than in Edmonton?

HE: More than anywhere.

The same enthusiasm that fuels Calgary’s current boom is infusing the theatre community as well. Government funding continues to be feeble—a reality for both cities, although Edmonton fares better on a municipal level. In Calgary, many oil and gas companies are investing in the arts in a significant way, creating a vibrant new cultural life in the theatre particularly.

I wrote my first play on a typewriter. The only “memory” involved was that fallible thing inside your skull.

In Edmonton, beyond the Fringe, things seem more guarded and cautious—in some cases, such as Workshop West, downright bleak. no doubt things go in waves. Edmonton has such a great tradition of the arts that, even if things seem a little down right now, they should bounce back before too long.

Meanwhile, we in Calgary’s theatre patch, like our fellow citizens in the oil patch, are riding the current wave and, as they say, making hay—albeit somewhat nervously—while the sun shines.

That’s the thing about booms: they end. But no matter how it ends, the current surge has moved the barriers once and for all. The physical theatres that have been built are here to stay. Some mid-sized companies, such as ground Zero Theatre and hit & Myth productions, have taken themselves to the next level. Some of the smaller companies, such as Sage and urban Curvz, have staked out their places and don’t appear to be going anywhere.

If I were just arriving in Alberta now, instead of 15 years ago, I wouldn’t change a thing. I would still choose Calgary.

Eugene Stickland’s newest play, Writer’s Block, opens in March. It will be produced by Ground Zero Theatre—a Calgary company.



Crowfoot Comes Home

Herman Yellow Old Woman was asleep in his home on the Siksika reserve east of Calgary on April 7, 2020, when the phone started ringing at 5:30 a.m. It was Alison Brown, a professor of anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She told Yellow Old Woman that Exeter City Council ...

Reclaiming Ghosts

As we crawl outside our tent, the golden glow of an autumn sunrise makes its way over towering coal slags and toward a distant hillside on the site of Mountain Park, a ghost town since 1950. The dissipating shadow of Mount Harris from the east unveils past and present mysteries in ...

Listening in a Time of Pandemic

I was in Spain when the world went sideways. I was visiting one of the world’s oldest universities, founded in 1218, the University of Salamanca. It sits atop a hillside on the river Tormes, about an hour and a half from Madrid if you take the fast train. (All of ...