Theatre

Stranger in a (somewhat) strange land

SUZANNE ZWARUN July 10 1978
Theatre

Stranger in a (somewhat) strange land

SUZANNE ZWARUN July 10 1978

Stranger in a (somewhat) strange land

Theatre

Edmonton, with a population of only half a million, supports a dozen theatre companies and bills itself as Canada’s second busiest theatrical centre. A quarter of a million people, in fact, annually trek through the new $6.5-million Citadel theatre, the orange brick-and-glass jewel that gleams brightly in the city’s heart.

Over the last six months, however, Edmonton’s habitually intense interest in things theatrical was heightened as debate raged over the appointment of England’s Peter Coe, 49, as Citadel artistic director. Radio talk-back shows, cab drivers and the Citadel’s patrons all argued the merits of hiring anyone but a Canadian to replace Britain’s John Neville who has moved on to the Neptune theatre in Halifax after a five-year Citadel stint. With Coe’s arrival in Edmonton last month, the controversy has spread across Canada. The dispute could grow so bitter foreign actors might eventually be banned from any Canadian stage.

Coe—a guest conductor at Stratford, Ontario, in 1962—was surprised by the swell of nationalism but considers it reassuring that Edmontonians care so much about their theatre. He is more bewildered by the fuss touched off by his announced intention to take the Citadel to Broadway, an ambitious aim he expected Canadians to applaud. Edmonton theatregoers, in fact, are mostly delighted by the heady season in the offing. They’ll be treated to North American premieres of Terence Rattigan’s Cause Célebre or Anthony Schaffer’s Murderer (a sequel to Sleuth), and to world premieres of Colin Higgins’ Harold and Maude and Charles Strouse’s Flowers for Algernon in the ll-play lineup. Glynis Johns has already accepted the costarring role in Harold and Maude, Ron Moody will play Shakespeare’s Richard III. Negotiations are still under way with a glittering array of other international players, including Britain’s David McCallum and John Mills, and William Atherton of the U.S.

The lineup has attracted immediate attention from Broadway producers and Coe, who earned an international reputation as a director in the late 1950s and early 1960s, sees that as good. He figures the Citadel should launch itself on Broadway in the same way Britain’s National and Royal Shakespeare companies regularly stage their productions in London’s West End. The Citadel would thus reach more people and earn more money, which might eventually make it self-supporting, he says.

Opponents see it otherwise. They charge Coe with using the Citadel as a launching

pad to get his own productions to New York. Critics suspect star and play will go on to Broadway, leaving behind the Edmonton talent, which is contrary to the theatre’s whole raison d’être. From Halifax, John Neville even wondered whether Coe’s plans might not endanger government financing of an institution dedicated to giving priority to local interests.

The crunch will come on July 13 at a special Canadian Actors’ Equity meeting prompted by a 50-name petition organized by Sean Mulcahy, Citadel director from 1968 to 1972, now in Toronto. The meeting could change Equity’s constitution, closing Canadian borders to foreign actors. If it happens, Coe predicts that foreign stages will be cleared of Canadians in retaliation. “Every country decides its own fate,” says Coe, “but it would be a pity if Canada chose to become a cultural backwater, a South Africa, when it could choose to be an expansive theatrical experience. It would be genocide.” SUZANNE ZWARUN