Theatre

The sway of paper dollars over the paper wheat

Mark Czarnecki November 24 1980
Theatre

The sway of paper dollars over the paper wheat

Mark Czarnecki November 24 1980

The sway of paper dollars over the paper wheat

Theatre

Mark Czarnecki

It's a dying opening-night tradition for the cast to party until dawn in drunken expectation of the morning editions with their fateful reviews. Few actors since the days when the Puritans inveighed against the theatre have had as sobering a read as Dennis Robinson after the recent opening at Theatre Network of his one-man show, Twentieth Century Jig. In the opinion of Edmonton Sun entertainment editor Brian Gorman, “The people responsible should be publicly flogged—at least that would be closer to entertainment. . . .” Strangely enough, neither buggery nor bestiality are rampant in Jig, only meandering, occasionally inspired insights into the breakup of contemporary relationships, Alberta-style. Under its new artistic director, Andy Tahn, Theatre Network is now the only Edmonton theatre committed exclusively to the production of new Canadian plays—judging by the initial reaction from the local critical establishment, it will be a hard fight to keep out of the pillories.

Tahn’s crusade to revitalize Canadian theatre, first mounted six years ago at Saskatoon’s 25th Street Theatre, brings into abrasive focus the artistic and financial problems facing new theatres and unproduced playwrights in Alberta and Saskatchewan today. During his reign at 25th Street, Tahn approached Prairie sociopolitical issues from a populist perspective, using “collective” (non-scripted and collaborative) theatre techniques; now on a one-year sabbatical, the engagingly hyperactive Tahn feels that past successes like his classic Paper Wheat have made him too secure. Edmonton will provide a unique challenge: “Alberta and Canada are sitting in the lap of history,” he says, “but there are no writers addressing the issues—there’s no new work being done here that would last more than a month.” Edmonton’s current season seems to support his contention: Gerry Potter’s Workshop West has a season of financially sound Canuck classics; Scott Swan’s Northern Light Theatre is heading toward a Stratford-type summer festival; and The Citadel, under executive producer Joe Shoctor—with its notorious policy of mounting productions headed for Broadway—will present only one new Canadian work out of 11 in 1980-81.

Despite Robinson’s Rabelaisian ninecharacter performance, Twentieth Century Jig isn’t going to spur other companies on to any immediate rescheduling. Its patchwork incompleteness only confirms Theatre 3’s Keith Digby in his belief that “the playwright should get back to his typewriter—I’m against workshopping plays.” Digby’s emphasis is on proven contemporary works (“I like to think of Broadway as a tryout for Edmonton,” he grins) mixed with modern interpretations of the classics—his’ controversial Taming of the Shrew, in which Petruchio makes Kate submit by employing brainwashing techniques, is the highlight of the Edmonton season so far. This formula is also being successfully applied at Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre by new artistic director Eric Schneider and at The Citadel, a trend-setter in its “commercial” approach to scheduling plays.

The Citadel may also set a trend in its handling of artistic directors—Shoctor and his board are considering eliminating the position entirely in the wake of recent nastiness surrounding the resignation of British thoroughbred artistic director Peter Coe. Gold bracelet dangling from wrist, autographed photo of Pierre Trudeau tucked safely away behind a bookcase, Joe Shoctor is The Citadel and The Citadel defends the business of art. Proud of his theatre’s long-lived and efficient administration, he claims it can provide a liberating stability for guest directors on a play-byplay basis. But many fear that effective control of artistic decisions by money managers will reduce even further the growth of original indigenous theatre. In a time of subsidy freezes and inflation, the theatre office of the Canada Council has recognized this possibility and revised its granting policies to give top priority to Canadian content. Shoetor considers this a dangerous precedent: “More government funding leads to more government interference, which leads to more censorship and quotas about how many plays you produce that should be written by Canadians, for example, or by Red Chinese.” Shoctor’s go-it-on-your-own approach fits in admirably with the Alberta government’s grants policy—a matching dollar for every dollar raised from private individuals and corporations. No problem for a theatre with Shoctor’s business connections and administrative staff, but an eternal round of door-knocking and knee-scraping for an unknown experimental company like Theatre Network. Alberta Theatre Projects climbed aboard the same fundraising merry-go-round in 1975 after a season of “6 Great Canadian Plays” and a deficit of $122,000 coincided—but ATP has returned debt-free and thriving. Artistic director Douglas Riske nevertheless sees fine strings attached to corporate generosity: “With so many grant applications going before corporations, it’s becoming more difficult for them to decide who to give to—in effect, they will become the arbiters of theatre tastes.”

ATP’s finances were also helped by deemphasizing original Canadian plays, though the recent world premiere of Generations, a restrained inquiry into how-we-gonna-keep-’em-down-onthe-farm by firebrand playwright Sharon Pollock, may be an indicator of changes to come. With only two major theatres, ATP and Theatre Calgary, in town, competition for audiences is minimal. Both receive extensive community support and provide wide-ranging educational theatre as well as having launched nationally known local playwrights like Pollock, John Murrell and W.O. Mitchell. Both companies will get their just rewards when they each abandon their present restricted quarters for joint residency in the city’s glittering new performing arts centre, scheduled for completion in 1984.

Regina’s Globe Theatre also has a new theatre, but not without a prolonged struggle to convince funding bodies that they deserved it—only emotional appeals to their dedicated audiences won the day. Paradoxically, the Globe’s past success was probably its worst enemy. Feelings still run strong in Saskatchewan that art is and should remain a grassroots phenomenon, with no distinctions drawn between amateurs and professionals like artistic director Ken Kramer, who founded the Globe 14 years ago. Both he and longtime playwright-in-residence Rex Deverell,whose latest work,Drift, recently opened the renovated old city hall, have a solid commitment to articulating the concerns of their community: last season’s smash was Medicare, Deverell’s innovative drama about the divisive introduction of provincial health insurance in the ’60s. True to his mandate, Kramer flatly states that much of modern Canadian playwriting is too urbanly sophisticated to be relevant to his audience.

Back at the 25th Street Theatre, however, new artistic director Layne Coleman is charting a new course into the future with playwright Marc Diamond’s The Ziggy Effect, an ultramodern dissection of the latest generation gap between aging ’60s liberals and their hard-edged punk offspring. Touring the country with the theatre’s previous homegrown products made the acerbic Coleman a nationalist: “We’re trying to break out of the regionalistic frame of mind we helped create in the first place,” he says ruefully. But the 25th Street style will remain much the same as under Andy Tahn. Ziggy is a classic example of how an original Canadian work can be collectively created, fine-tuned by a skilled playwright, produced by a small experimental theatre to international standards of acting skill and technical expertise and still be sponsored by a large corporation (Labatt’s). There’s obviously still hope for theatres in Alberta and Saskatchewan concerned with original work. In the words of Marc Diamond, “This is the future—we hope you like it.”