The sellout attraction at last year’s Toronto Theatre Festival was John Krizanc’s exotic Tamara. This exclusive theatrical event—attendance was limited to 50 a night-split up its audience and sent them chasing the cast through the rooms of a stately mansion. After peeking at drama in the drawing room and eavesdropping on lovers in a sandbox, the audience wolfed down pastries at intermission and compared notes in an attempt to reconstruct the elaborate plot based on the life of the Italian poet and patriot Gabriele d’Annunzio. A small local theatre company called Necessary Angel had saved and slaved for months to concoct Tamara, but when the show became a success, artistic director Richard Rose sold the production rights. He then returned to home base at Toronto’s Theatre Centre and to his true function as a “producer of new goods.” Since October, when Tamara finished its extended run, his next offering has been eagerly anticipated.
This month, the wait ended. Richard Wolfe’s first play, Passchendaele, directed by Rose, is now running at the centre, a classic warehouse venue that Angel shares with four other experimental groups A.K.A. Performance Interfaces, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Autumn Leaf. A First World War tale of love and betrayal, the play has been poorly received and the script has been labelled as not ready for production. Rose acknowledges difficulties—the first two acts were switched around two days before opening night— but continuous changes during a run are part of his artistic philosophy. “I don’t stop directing once a show is on,” he says. “There’s no reason why a
production should stand still.”
Such a statement may distress audiences who want proof-in-packaging drama. However, unpredictability is essential to experimental theatre, that rare but vital subspecies of the dramatic art. The genre usually originates in urban centres with a substantial artistic community that can provide an
audience willing to tolerate theatre in the rough. In English Canada, with the isolated exceptions of Café Nelligan in Montreal and midnight shows at Vancouver’s Waterfront and Firehall theatres, only Toronto has enough theatre professionals and artistic activity in general to support experimental theatre on any scale.
Experimental theatre has as many definitions as true religion has heretics. Toronto experienced an attack of experimental fever in the early ’70s. Says Jim
Garrard, the godfather of the city’s innovative companies: “Experimental
theatre then was like a tree-top fire—it went everywhere but didn’t really penetrate.” Practitioners of the latest outbreak seem to have more concrete ideas of what theatre should be. Nightwood aims at a comprehensive synthesis of music, dance and audiovisual technology, while Autumn Leaf’s productions underline the fact that several of its members studied mime under Jacques Lecoq in Paris. The companies at the centre are in fact passionately interested in the international theatre scene. Such European influences as Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook, and such American artists as the La Mama troupe and Robert Wilson are openly acknowledged.
The impact of electronic technology is also crucial to the new experimental theatre. A.K.A. incorporates video and film in its works, as does Videocab, a separate company that adapts music and video to such traditional stories as 198k and Brave New World. All the groups manifest a common sensibility, perhaps best defined—with a touch of garrison mentality—by Sky Gilbert of Buddies in Bad Times, a company devoted to dramatizing poetry on stage: “We all hate the rest of theatre in Toronto more than we hate each other.”
The centre exists mainly because its individual members cannot afford to rent their own space on annual government grants of less than $20,000. On its own, the centre receives enough funding for one (underpaid) administrator, and the companies rent the facilities separately. Most of the artistic directors, like their actors, hold part-time jobs and all of them live below the poverty line. Performances take place in an informal atmosphere, the seating is often
rearranged and hospitality is a keynote. These new-wave companies have clearly questioned what D. Ann Taylor of Videocab’s Hummer Sisters called “the traditional setup with the audience and performers in the missionary position—the audience eating their culture cookie watching the poodles on stage.”
None of the companies is happy with the centre as a theatre space, however. “There are no real theatres in Toronto, just warehouses with four chairs and three lights,” exclaims Theatre Solitude’s Victor Solitario, who leases out his tiny Café Concert to innovative companies. But Solitario feels Toronto is ready for a giant step forward. This summer he will lease the Palais Royale, a historic ballroom on the lakefront, and run it as a theatre club morning and night. Autumn Leaf’s Thom Sokoloski also anticipates “a rise in GNP every year,” and he, like Rose, searches for specific environments to match his artistic concepts. The two will soon team up for an ambitious workshop production, Yankees at York, to be set in Toronto’s Old Fort York.
Tamara’s success away from the centre and the continuing debate over space have focused the experimentalists’ attention on a crucial issue: how large an audience can they reach and how desirable is it to do so? As Cynthia Grant of Nightwood says, “The stigma of fringe theatre is its inaccessibility.” And the now-defunct Theatre Second Floor is often mentioned in this regard. This experimental theatre closed in 1979 when it became clear that after five years its total audience—estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 by former director Paul Bettis—would not grow. The new companies are therefore keenly aware of the need to cultivate a receptive audience.
The desire to proselytize and join forces means that such venues as the Theatre Centre and Café Concert are committed to providing space for even smaller and more indigent companies and individuals. Says Richard Shoichet of A.K.A.: “Professionals use the centre just to keep their creative juices flowing after doing television, film and regional theatre.” Several times a year, Buddies, Nightwood and A.K.A. present series of off-the-wall pieces that hark back to Dada and recall the festival of one-minute theatre which took place a decade ago. Among the professionals recently donating services were Bettis, Garrard and actresses Jackie Burroughs and Kate Lynch. Even experimental theatre reflects the changing tenor of the times, however. Last December, Burroughs appeared in works by Jean Cocteau and Tennessee Williams; at the one-minute festival she had soliloquied to acid rock dressed only in a jock strap.
As governments and the press demand greater accountability from arts organizations, experimental artists often adopt an isolationist stance that they feel is necessary to their survival. “I know the audience for my work is out there,” says Solitario. “That’s why I don’t allow the critics in—I don’t want the shows killed by their ignorance.” But a limited audience may discourage self-criticism, and another veteran director of the ’70s, Hrant Alianak, believes experimental theatre in Toronto has lower standards than before. His despair with Toronto in this respect
tempts him to tread the well-beaten path to New York, but the new wave is not looking for warmer beaches to crash on yet. Says Sokoloski: “Those who don’t have the patience go to find fame and fortune somewhere else—the ones who believe in the society stay here.” The commitment of the new experimentalists to creating powerful theatrical experiences that can raise and alter consciousness is undeniable. Concludes Taylor: “Theatre should be more like sports—spills and thrills, a triumph of some kind. Ignorance and darkness should lose every night.”
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