"Is the essence of being Canadian finding joy in second-rate drama?" This provocative question, posed only half rhetorically by Richard Plant of the Queen’s University drama department, articulated a ground swell of concern over standards and quality at the Canadian Theatre Today conference earlier this month. Co-hosted by University of Saskatchewan drama Professor Tom Kerr and English Professor R. L. Calder at the Saskatoon campus, the ambitious five-day event attracted some 500 theatre academicians and practitioners, who read papers and crossed swords in numerous panel discussions on subjects ranging from “Beyond the banality of surface: Herman Voaden’s Canadian expressionism” to “Cultural protectionism: a mandate for mediocrity?” Also featured were kiwi fruit for breakfast, fullscale productions of five new Western Canadian plays and the noisiest midnight cabaret on the Prairies. Billed as a mammoth stocktaking of Canadian theatre, the conference predictably offered few ready solutions and often had difficulty formulating questions—in other words, it accurately reflected the state of Canadian theatre today.
The angry response to Plant’s query demonstrated the theatre community’s considerable pride in its achievements so far. The loudly hailed renaissance of Canadian theatre in the early ’70s was masterminded by a generation of professionals described by playwright and producer John Gray as “a watermelon passing through a snake—as we go along, we redefine everything.” Now, having put Canada on the world theatre map, for better or worse, with shows such as 1837: The Farmers' Revolt, Billy Bishop Goes to War, Ten Lost Years and Waiting for the Parade, a more detailed analysis of the country’s successes and failures is in order—and sometimes the questions hurt. Many delegates expressed dissatisfaction with the standards imposed—or not imposed— within the theatre. Said actress Janet Wright: “We refuse to criticize ourselves. The Canada Council funds masses of theatres, but they never say, ‘We’re not going to fund you because you’re doing crap.’ ” Not that the council is unaware of the issue; during the same discussion, theatre officer Walter Learning agreed that “we’re still not ready in this country to really examine the quality of our work.”
The opening-night production of Betty Lambert’s Jennie's Story seemed tailor-made for the debate. A jumbled melodrama about a feeble-minded, passionate Alberta farm girl seduced by a priest, it displayed not only skilful dialogue and characterizations but provided moments of awesome theatricality and a gutsy performance by Sherry Bie in the title role. Clearly, lack of talent was not at issue, but the ponderous production only highlighted the need for a thorough rewrite of the second act.
Here was yet another example of a deeply rooted malaise in Canadian theatre: the premature presentation of a potentially worthwhile play paralyses its natural evolution and discourages the playwright from reworking. Who is to blame? The playwright? The dramaturge (if one exists)? The director? The producer? Ironically, the company responsible for Jennie's Story was Vancouver’s New Play Centre (NPC), the country’s premier workshop for original Canadian plays. During a panel discussion the next day, David Robinson of Talonbooks, a leading publisher of Canadian drama, bluntly suggested to NPC artistic director Pam Hawthorn that the centre “coddles playwrights too much. The output of good plays is not proportional to the effort put into them.” The implication was that the criticism held true for the country as a whole.
Jennie's Story should not have been presented as a finished work, and the conference itself was partially to blame for raising expectations by heralding the five new works as premieres. Not only that, with vast resources of professional experience present, why was time not set aside each day to discuss the plays informally? Feelings ran strong among theatre practitioners that too much time was devoted to academic papers and not enough to the hands-on practice and appraisal of living theatre.
Rex Deverell’s Black, Powder: Estevan, 1931 from Regina’s Globe Theatre demonstrated that communication could break down between established theatres and their audiences as well. Deverell, the Globe’s writer-in-residence since 1975, and artistic director Ken Kramer take pride in filling their theatre to capacity by presenting topquality Canadian plays, often with a strong populist slant, as in their highly successful Medicare! The failure of Black Powder, a stereotyped agitprop piece about the RCMP suppression of the Estevan coal miners’ strike, was a complete surprise. Playwright Erika Ritter reminded Kramer that he had refused to do her popular Automatic Pilot on the grounds that his audience wouldn’t like it. Her rhetorical “How do you know?” and the debacle of Black Powder lent support to Ritter’s suggestion that theatres with paternalistic attitudes toward their audience ran the risk of determining rather than responding to their needs.
Brian Swarbrick’s Night Talk, a confusing docudrama about alcoholism redeemed by fine acting from Eric House and Eric Schneider and co-presented by the university’s Greystone Theatre and Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre, as well as the trashy but amusing sitcom A Very Modest Orgy by Patricia Joudry from Saskatoon’s 25th Street Theatre, were the least innovative among a very conservative selection of plays. The absence of any stimulating experimental theatre—25th Street’s “off-conference” fringe presentations only partially excepted—typified the withering of avant-garde theatre in the past five years, a barren era compared to the heydays of Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, Free Theatre and Factory Lab. Passe Muraille’s artistic director, Paul Thompson, felt that “the really frightening thing in theatre today is the reluctance to do new and experimental work. People keep looking at entertainment in terms of proven value.” Des MacAnuff, a Canadian director now working in New York, pointed to similar trends in that city: “Off-Off Broadway died because it began to use box-office as a measure of success. A lot of room for failure is absolutely vital to develop your craft.”
At the root of the problem, claimed John Gray, were the regional theatres and their entrenched artistic directors, who deny talented younger directors access to space and resources. “They’re all white elephants and should be blown up,” opined Gray. “Either that or be used just as transfer houses for successful plays from smaller theatres.” MacAnuff indicated that lack of opportunity was one of the reasons he left Canada. “Here, a free-lance director is only offered a Shakespeare play in the larger theatres once he’s lost the energy and excitement to do it.” Significantly, only one head of a major regional theatre agreed to appear at the conference and that was Joe Shoctor of Edmonton’s Citadel, the Broadway-oriented theatre nationalists love to hate; in the end Shoctor cancelled due to ill health. Where were the others? According to conference co-ordinator Lynn Morris, one eastern artistic director “just laughed when he heard the conference was at a university in Saskatoon.”
Angry young directors used to have the option of starting their own companies but grant cutbacks and soaring real estate prices have sharply curtailed these possibilities. Also, as actress Susan Cox pointed out, “There are limits to experimenting in tights and tops— we’ve been through all that. Now Pve something to say and, yes, it’ll be more expensive to produce, but we’re still proverty-stricken.”
How readily “yesterday’s weirdness becomes today’s mainstream,” in Gray’s parlance, was demonstrated in Rig, a collaborative work by Geoffrey Le Boutillier with Edmonton’s Theatre Network. Squarely in the documentary collective tradition that produced classics like The Farm Show and Paper Wheat, Rig was unexpectedly the conference’s most polished presentation, with powerful performances by Dennis Robinson and Wendell Smith, but this tale of life on an oil derrick lacked depth and imagination. The threats to innovative work are therefore obviously psychological as well as economic. As Ritter put it: “Being 35 isn’t the biggest tragedy in life, but being complacent is. We need to bring up a new generation of people who are going to topple us.” Canadian Theatre Today may have been inconclusive but it broke even on a combined grants and revenue budget of $160,000, a hopeful sign which Morris suggests might point to a repeat performance next year. Prospects for publishing the conference proceedings are also good. “This is one of the few chances to hear a full spectrum of theatre practitioners and academics express their opinions,” says Morris. “There’s a need for this kind of forum and I don’t think the ball should be dropped.” The last word rightfully belonged to John (Rock n Roll) Gray, whose enthusiasm raised many discussions from the rarefied sublime to the pragmatically ridiculous. His hope for the future: “I don’t care if I bomb —I lust want to get rich.”
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