Why Does New Canadian Theatre Matter?
Spring is a busy time of year. It's summed up by three words that most Arts Administrators I know dread: grant writing season. I've finished five grants already in the last month and I'm working on finishing two more before the week is done. Most years, I'm scrambling just to get enough words, budgets, support materials, and reference letters just to get submissions in on time, but this year I've been taking a little more time to think about why I'm doing theatre in Canada and why it's important to me and my community. Somewhere between being in the middle of tech week, writing all these grants, and still trying to find time to sleep, I wanted to take a moment to share some of my thoughts. It is, of course, also great way to procrastinate finishing those last two grants... but of course I'm pretending that's not the case.
As I was typing up one of these grants, this sentence sprang from my fingers, "I exclusively produce new Canadian work, which I believe to be paramount to fostering the growth of the national Canadian theatre landscape." Now, this might just sound like grantspeak (that strange language artists and administrators use exclusively when writing grants), but it really struck me how much I believed that. After living in Kamloops for eight years, I left the city last fall to pursue theatre in Calgary. I had been running a company I founded in Kamloops called Chimera Theatre for four years and once I landed in Alberta, I began thinking about starting a new company and what that company's mandate might be. I'm still figuring that out, but the first thing that I KNEW was that new Canadian work would be the centre of the company, like it was with Chimera Theatre. Luckily, this is now very common in the national theatre landscape, from Tarragon Theatre in Toronto to Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary, but is producing original Canadian Theatre enough to be the centrepiece of a company's mandate today? And if it is, why is it important?
The Cast of The Invisible. Writer, Director and Composer - Jonathan Christenson. Production Designer Bretta Gerecke. Sound Designer and Music Producer - Matthew Skopyk. Choreographer - Laura Krewski. Photo by Keyano Theatre Company.
Right now, I'm in the middle of technical rehearsals in Fort McMurrary for Catalyst Theatre's latest production, The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Working on this production over the last month or so has really reminded me what I love about theatre. (I sort of hope that Jonathan from Catalyst doesn't read this, because I really just want to gush about how great this show is.) It's the type of theatre that bring the audience along for the ride. It's touching on really important themes that are in the political word today. Even though we're just in previews, I find that this show is really speaking to people today and that's because this show is for today!
We don't have to find reasons why a script that's fifty or a hundred years old is relevant today because when artists create new work that's important to them, it's inherently relevant.
Working on this show is letting me rethink what our duty is as artists and what our role is with audiences. Alberta just finished its provincial election a couple weeks ago, and the province voted the United Conservative Party into power under the leadership of Jason Kenney. Last year, the Ontario PC Party won the election under the leadership of Doug Ford. Many of my artist friends and colleagues in these two provinces are very, very worried about the state of their art, families, and even lives. We're just four months away from another national election. How will this affect the future of theatre in our country? And can making new Canadian work make a difference? I think it can. I think that theatre in general can make huge impacts on people's live, I wouldn't be in this crazy industry if I didn't believe that, but I think one of the most efficient ways to do that is to make new work for the people of today.
I hear a lot of theatre companies, and I've been guilty of this too, saying how important it is to support art by buying tickets. Instead, why don't we make art that doesn't make people feel obligated to go, but gets them exciting about the live performance experience! Let's make art that makes people flip out and want more and more. Even with the bad news from earlier this month that the National Arts Centre's Indigenous Theatre was denied $3.5 million dollars of federal funding, we are still lucky to have an incredible amount of support for the arts in this country on national, provincial, and municipal levels, so let's use this money to get people activated in our communities.
Award-winning playwright Kevin Loring, the first-ever artistic director of the NAC's Indigenous Theatre program, posted a missive on Facebook lamenting what he called a lack of support from Canadian Heritage in the 2019 federal budget. (Fred Cattroll/Canadian Press)
To me, theatre is about two things: entertainment and connection. As odd as this sounds, I sometimes feel like companies and artist forget that theatre is meant to entertain. If theatre is too in-your-face with its views or not diverse enough, audiences won't be entertained. And, to be clear, entertaining does not mean funny. Entertainment can be gut-wrenching, it can be thought-provoking, it can be emotional. The point is, let's not ostracize our audiences, let's include them. Theatre is about connection. Film does so many things better than theatre, so let's focus on what we can do best and that's tell a story, live, in a room with other humans. Research from 2017 found that "watching a live theatre performance can synchronize your heartbeat with other people in audience, regardless of if you know them or not." Make your audience a part of our work and share it with them.
I believe, one of the easiest ways to connect with your audiences is by presenting work that speaks to them today, in the present, in this very moment.
Canada has so many amazing artists and companies, and not just in Toronto. There is incredible and interesting new work being done in British Columbia, Alberta, and the prairies and it's work that's speaking to underrepresented communities. Shows like Children of God from Vancouver's Ubran Ink Productions (an important and timely indigenous piece), GLORY from Kamloops's Western Canada Theatre, and Catalyst Theatre's The Invisibles (important stories about brave women in history) can attest to that. One of my favourite things about new work is how diverse it is. We have so many new voices wanting to burst onto the stage now and we need to embrace that.
Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit. Wendy D Photography.
I want to see less productions of American playwrights like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard. Let's tell Canadian stories! Look at the success of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, which was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards while Off-Broadway (and is, by the way, coming to Calgary at Alberta Theatre Projects next season) and Come From Away which won a Tony Award and was nominated for six more, and Kidd Pivot's Betroffenheit, which won an Olivier Award in London, UK for Best Dance Production. When I was at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, I went to the CanadaHub (where I saw Calgary's The Old Trouts perform) and was so proud and excited to see amazing Canadian work being showcased at the world's biggest theatre festival. It's clear that Canadians are making amazing art that's being appreciated around the world. But even as I'm writing this, I wish I could tell you how great Canadian Theatre is without saying it also goes to New York or London, because it can be world-class and successful right here in our borders.
Let's put Canada in the centre of the world stage for theatre. Let's scream out "We are here!" in our communities, in our provinces, in our nation, and throughout the world. Let's set this world on fire and ignite something in the hearts of humans around the country and around the globe. For me, new Canadian work does that and that's why it matters.
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