UnCovered: The Music of Dolly Parton alights here (digitally), courtesy of Catalyst

Jully Black, UnCovered; The Music of Dolly Parton, The Musical Stage Company. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Here they come again…. Some of the country’s top musical theatre talent has a date Saturday night — at your place.

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Toronto’s Musical Stage Company returns with a digital version of their hugely popular annual “signature concert.” For this 15th incarnation of UnCovered, hosted here by Catalyst Theatre, the six-person cast of artists, filmed in performance at Koerner Hall, presents the music of Dolly Parton.

As you’ll know if you had the fun of seeing last year’s concert, UnCovered: Notes From The Heart — which plumbed a repertoire from Leonard Cohen to Billie Holiday, Carole King to Bob Marley —  The Musical Stage Company has a highly entertaining way of letting musical theatre stars loose on the pop repertoire. The results are fascinating.

The cast of UnCovered: The Music of Dolly Parton, photo by Dahlia Katz.

For 2022, it’s hits by the queen of country (and COVID hero), reimagined in inventive original arrangements by the company’s musical director Reza Jacobs. And with it, the Toronto company again pairs with Catalyst, a theatre with its own highly original take on musical theatre, as we know from such hit productions as Frankenstein, Nevermore, Vigilante.

The “digital tour” arrives chez vous at 8 p.m. Saturday, with a cast that includes Jully Black, Beau Dixon, Sara Farb, Hailey Gillis, Kelly Holiff, and Andrew Penner. Tickets ($30 per household) are available at catalyst theatre.ca.

•In other theatre news, Die-Nasty, Edmonton’s award-winning improv comedy troupe, has bid adieu to the Stroganoffs, that fractious, treacherous, angst-ridden Russian clan. The deluxe improvisers of Die-Nasty return Monday night — and every Monday night through March 31 — with the second half of their live improvised season at the Varscona: Murder at the Off-Whyte Lotus Hotel. The notably quick-witted Edmonton murder mystery novelist Janice MacDonald co-directs. Tickets: varsconatheatre.com.

•Shadow Theatre has delayed this week’s performances of their current production The Mountaintop till Tuesday, due to positive COVID tests. Tickets (and ticket adjustments) for the show, which imagines in an encounter with a motel housekeeper Martin Luther King’s last night on earth, are available at shadowtheatre.org. Check out the 12thnight review here.     

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New faces in theatre, six bright up-and-comers: meet designer Beyata Hackborn

They’re young, adaptable, and creative. And as theatre returns in this late-pandemic grind, and the doors open to live audiences, we’ll be seeing the work of these theatre artists light up, and transform, the scene here, on- and backstage. Meet six of these sought-after up-and-comers in this annual 12thnight New Faces series. First up, designer Beyata Hackborn.

Metronome, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca


Here’s an artistic puzzle (maybe even an existential one) to challenge the wits of any theatre designer:

A new solo memoir/play that tells the story of a gay small-town prairie trailer park kid and his life-changing relationship with a piano — in which the instrument itself does not appear onstage.

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The piece, which premiered at Workshop West this past fall, is Darrin Hagen’s Metronome. And the beautiful design solution, both object and metaphor in Heather Inglis’s production, was the work of Beyata Hackborn. We see Hagen, Metronome’s creator and star, under a giant rainbow of piano fragments, keyboards, sounding plates, strings. One end of the arc is anchored to the ground with an accordion; the other floats, unhinged in space, full of possibility.

theatre designer Beyata Hackborn

“Darrin made it very clear early on he wasn’t going to want to play the piano,” says the cheery voice of the designer, on the phone from Niagara-on-the-Lake where she’s contracted by the Shaw Festival for the 2022 season as an assistant designer. “So, does the piano live onstage even though he’s not playing it? What does it represent?”

“Oh no, how am I going to do this?” Hackborn remembers asking herself. “How to have the presence of a piano that is never played but is always talked about being played?”

Her solution has been one of the memorable designs of the season.

“I like discovering design during the rehearsal,” says Hackborn, who graduated from the U of A’s BFA-in-design program in 2019. “I want design to be be really engrained into the words of the script …” and changing along with it. And so it went with Metronome. Hagen was actively developing and editing his play, in rehearsal, when a new line about his irresistible attraction to the piano keys themselves — “something about piano keys has always pulled me in” — hit a chord with Hackborn. “It informed exactly where I put (them) in the set…. I love theatre because it’s so live, so ever-changing!”

Hackborn grew up in Camrose, in a family with an artistic bent. “My mom, who went to school for cartography, encouraged all of us kids to go into the arts — yup, none of us are making money!” she laughs. Musicals were her entry-level showbiz hook, after school with the company About Time Productions.

And she was always drawing. “When you’re eight, if you can draw a coherent smiley face or a coherent firetruck, everyone’s like ‘o my gosh, an artiste!’” When you’re always drawing and you’re in high school, you might, as Hackborn did, get asked to start designing for shows.

“Early on I knew I wasn’t going to be my happiest onstage,” she says. She remembers painting a set one year when a pal said “it was the only time they’d seen me happy…. Wow, dark, dude. That’s when I knew I should probably be pursuing design.”

Bug, Studio Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson.

Even before she graduated from the U of A, Hackborn had landed assistant designer gigs with the Banff Centre and Shakespeare in the Park. She remembers a university production of Tracy Letts’ Bug in her last year at the U of A as the one “when everything came together…. A really visual play, a lot of fun and campy psychosis that can bleed its way into the design.”

E Day, Serial Collective, Photo by BB Collective.

But “I have a very large nostalgia for big musicals. At the other end of the spectrum from Metronome, and its evocation of memory and sound, was Hackborn’s ultra-realistic design for E Day, her first professional production out of university. Jason Chinn’s political comedy, which premiered in the fall of 2019 in Theatre Network’s Performance Series, took us behind the scenes of the 2015 provincial election that swept the NDP into office. And Hackborn created a grassroots pop-up constituency office in an anonymous strip mall, the clutter detailed in every way — from cheap coffee maker, jars of pencils, post-it notes, fold-up tables, down to the hand-lettered sign ‘Make Sure Coffee Pot Is Turned Off At The End Of The Day’. 

Hackborn had fun with the details. “Really ugly things!” she says happily. “I kept adding little gems! The team was so good, so friendly and flexible. ‘Here, try on this dress I got two seconds ago!’”

Julius Caesar, Malachite Theatre’s Winter Shakespeare Festival. Photo supplied

Hackborn spent much of 2020 supporting herself by making models (she bought herself a 3-D printer as a graduation present). And just before the crushing entry of the pandemic, she designed Malachite Theatre’s Winter Shakespeare Festival productions of Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Holy Trinity Church in Strathcona, a challenging space for both sight lines and acoustics.

“I have a very large nostalgia for big musicals; that’s what I grew up on,” says Hackborn. “The whole show is written in the music; you can hear when certain design elements are supposed to happen, a real rhythm.” As an example she points to that indelible keyboard arpeggio in the overture to Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. “That’s when the painting reveals itself….”

But site-specific theatre, immersive productions, theatre that the audience moves through (Catch The Keys’ Dead Centre of Town series in the river valley, for example) … they’re Hackborn’s particular jam. “So much possibility, making the world so close up to people….” Productions in freezing warehouses with dirt floor and no fixed seating? “O my gawd, that’s what I want!” she laughs.

The configuration of all theatre careers is always pencilled in. But for artists now, the future is unpredictable as never before. Hackborn, now in her mid-twenties, is thinking of being based in Edmonton. “There’s so much potential here. And it’s a close-knit community. In a bigger city it would be harder to get that support.” Besides, she says, “I have a household of roommates and dogs I love!”

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A mysterious encounter en route to the Promised Land: The Mountaintop opens the Shadow season. A review

Ray Strachan and Patricia Cerra in The Mountaintop, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Why America is going to hell … ” repeats the man before us, testing different ways of rolling off each syllable for a speech-in-progress.

It’s a sonorous voice gone scratchy around the edges by hard use (and Pall Malls). A road-weary Martin Luther King (Ray Strachan) is just back from delivering his celebrated I’ve Been To The Mountaintop speech at the Mason Temple in support of striking sanitation workers.

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He’s in a depressingly dingy Memphis motel room (designer: Even Gilchrist, who evidently knows bleak beige lino when he sees it) on a stormy night, checking for hidden microphones, trying to phone his wife. And, as the recipient of innumerable death threats, King jumps at every crack of thunder as he waits for his colleague Rev. Ralph Abernathy to return with cigarettes.

We’re backstage in the life of a hero, where the mundane and not the momentous rules. But everything about it seems portentous, not anti-climactic. It’s April 3, 1968, King’s last night on earth, imagined by American writer Katori Hall in her 2009 play The Mountaintop. The Shadow production directed by Patricia Darbasie at the Varscona is the theatre’s first live show in two years, and launches a three-show season.

The next day, April 4, will bring a terrible, defining moment in American history and the violent story of the civil rights movement. King will be assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Meanwhile, the play sets forth an encounter that reveals the human dimensions of a larger-than-life hero.

Patricia Cerra and Ray Strachan in The Mountaintop, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

A motel housekeeper arrives at the door of room 306 on her first night on the job, bearing coffee and, as it turns out, a surprising identity. Camae (Patricia Cerra) is sassy and flirtatious, mysteriously feisty, knowing, and skeptical as she engages with the great man on subjects like protests, heroism, America’s defaults in living up to its professed sense of self. “Tomorrow,” she says looking at the date on the late-edition newspaper she’s been assigned to bring him, “is already here.”

The performances in Darbasie’s production are compelling and vivid. Strachan has the tricky assignment of capturing both the grandeur of King the star performer whose cadences are an indelible part of our collective history, and the self-doubt and vanity of the lonely, human-sized man who lies to his wife and has holes in his socks. And he does; he inhabits a portrait that is, in that sense, sculptural.

There’s an escalating strangeness about Camae. Cerra shines brightly as a mystery character with an unexpected confidence about her, an enigmatically intense stare, pauses that have their own incantatory quality too. I can’t tell you more about Camae without spoiling your own discovery, but Cerra is terrific.

As captured by Darbasie’s production, the rhythms of the encounter, are disconcerting, always surprising till they’re not. A play that spends a lot of time (possibly too much time since it feels long) being play-ful, The Mountaintop starts in the valley — the ultra-realism of that cheap motel, the flirtatious maid, the tired man with the smelly feet, the wandering eye, and the cough — and climbs to something else. Magic realism takes us out of the play’s present and into a vision of the future. The video and the ominous sound design by Dave Clarke have a kind of suspense and tension to them that the play itself, which has its cumbersome moments, can’t quite sustain on the ascent.

In his last monologue, King tells us “everybody said we’d never get there. But then again nobody thought we’d get this far.” Ah, that expansive multi-faceted vista on the future: it’s been a few years of marching forward, but also rolling backwards. The ending of the play, with its exhortation to pass the baton into new hands, feels a little blurrier than it did in 2009. Black Lives Matter, yes, gives the vision a new resonance. But an assault on the Capitol by white supremacists; a concerted campaign, undertaken by the Republican party, to disenfranchise Black voters in a clear assault on the civil rights movement of the ‘60s … the list goes on. “The Promised Land is so close, and yet so far away, so close and yet so far away so close and yet.…”


The Mountaintop

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Katori Hall

Directed by: Patricia Darbasie

Starring: Ray Strachan, Patricia Cerra

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 6

Tickets, schedule, COVID protocols: shadowtheatre.org


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The Mountaintop: a human portrait of a hero and the landscape of dreams, at Shadow Theatre

Ray Strachan and Patricia Cerra in The Mountaintop. Photo by Morris Ertman for Rosebud Theatre

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Like most men you ain’t gone be able to finish what you started. — The Mountaintop

The play that launches Shadow Theatre’s delayed three-play live season Thursday is named for one of Martin Luther King’s most celebrated speeches. And the great man himself (Ray Strachan) is one of its two characters. The other is a mysterious, surprisingly un-awestruck housekeeper (Patricia Cerra) on her first day on the job.

The Mountaintop, a 2009 play by the then-unknown young American playwright Katori Hall (who won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for The Hot Wing King), takes us to room 306 in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of a seminal moment in the history of American civil rights. It’s April 3 1968, the night before King’s assassination, in the city where he has just delivered a speech in support of striking sanitation workers.

The history of the play is unexpected: it premiered, oddly enough, in a London fringe theatre before its starry Broadway incarnation (Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett). And surprising, too, is the way the encounter between King and the housekeeper Camae unfolds into a confrontation with a  magic realism reverb (the secret of that route is something I must not reveal).

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It surprised director Patricia Darbasie, too, the first time she read the play. Since then she’s read the book by King’s close associate Rev. Ralph Abernathy, with its dimensional human portrait of a hero. “On the last day of his life he spent time with three women; he was a bit of a player,” says Darbasie of “one idea that the playwright ran with.”

It’s not as if you have to hunt for reasons in 2022 to revisit the terrible events of the ‘60s. After all, as Darbasie points out, even King’s passing observation in the play that the looting in the wake of a peaceful demonstration ‘just  gives the police an excuse to shoot innocent folks’ “is as true in America today as it was in 1968.” Consult the news for proliferating evidence.

“What appeals to me,” says Darbasie, “is that the play calls on all of us, the baton passes on. Other men, the movement, will carry it on. King’s final monologue to the audience is about our responsibility…. If we’re actually going to change things significantly, it’s up to each individual. It’s not a one-man show. And things are not going to change on their own.”

“King really was a visionary…. He really did understand (the interconnection) of civil rights, human rights, and poverty. You can’t solve things with just one of those.”

As an artist of colour Darbasie, a first-generation immigrant from Trinidad (she arrived here at age seven with her family), has had more than a few occasions to consider that “a lot has changed, and a lot has not changed. I think we forget that.” She tells the story of a Black Canadian friend who’d gone down to Alabama for a family reunion and been advised by a relative that “we don’t go to that part of town after dark; it’d be inviting trouble.” The friend, taken aback, said something about Obama being the president, and the rejoinder was “well, Obama ain’t here in Alabama.”

“It’s so much more subtle here in Canada,” says Darbasie, whose commissioned play West Indian Diary (about the experiences of Caribbean immigrants here in the ‘60s and  ‘70s) premiered in 2011. She notes “the issues” that attended Black and South Asian candidates who went door knocking during the most recent civic election campaign. As a new arrival in Canada as a little kid, she remembers “hostility, but with negotiation. The thing about Canada is that (incidents) surprise you. In Alabama it’s been that way since the Civil War. In Canada it’s ‘O, I did not see that one coming’.”

The Mountaintop, which was produced at Rosebud Theatre in 2019 (with Strachan and Cerra), was announced by Shadow in 2020, when the pandemic still seemed like a minor blip. It was a couple of months before the murder of George Floyd changed the landscape of awareness here and internationally. “It was a seismic shift (in awareness). People had to notice. We were all home by then, watching it unfold,” as Darbasie points out. And we were locked down with our screens when the story of mass graves of Indigenous children finally emerged. “The pandemic has shone some light on the uglier race relations in our history…. The ‘news’ became unavoidable.”

Ray Strachan, Patricia Cerra in The Mountaintop. Photo by Morris Ertman for Rosebud Theatre

The Mountaintop is a challenge, both for its actors and director Darbasie, as she says. The Shadow production is the third in which  Winnipeg-based Strachan has played King (in addition to the Rosebud production, he starred in a recorded version at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre). And his task is to capture “the cadence, the rhythm, of a real person”  as revealed in some of the great performances, and speeches, of the 20th century.

The play “takes a figure who has been mythologized, larger than life, and makes him human size,” says Darbasie. “There’s vanity there. And ego…. And we forget that for anyone in the public eye, there is a cost. As Camae tells him ‘you’re maybe only 39 but you have the heart of a 60-year-old’.”

“I love that he is real, that he is human and therefore not perfect.” Paragons do tend to be a drag onstage. “And Camae is very human too.”

That the actors are returning to a play, and roles, they’ve done in other productions is something of a challenge, too. “I love peeling the onion. We’re able to go deeper in the work, and I think they’re enjoying it too,” says Darbasie of her cast. “They’re being so gracious.”

An actor herself, Darbasie says “I try really hard in my own directing process to ask questions so the actors find their own way to fill a moment…. I’ve been directed by directors who want the actors to do exactly what they would do (in the role). I’m not interested in that.”

Directing, she thinks, “is a matter of asking questions. What’s the question that needs to be asked? So bring me your best, and we’ll see how it fits with everybody else.” And then there’s the exhilaration of choosing, she laughs: “I want that, that, and not that, and a bit of this…. I get to choose. It’s kind of how I cook.”


The Mountaintop

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Katori Hall

Directed by: Patricia Darbasie

Starring: Ray Strachan, Patricia Cerra

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Feb. 6

Tickets, schedule, COVID protocols: shadowtheatre.org

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The Hunchback Variations: the quest for the elusive. Meet director Davina Stewart

The Hunchback Variations, Northern Light Theatre. Poster photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The comedy that opens Friday in a Northern Light Theatre production starts in absurdity, a concept that’s taken a beating from reality, times being what they are.

Start with this: The Hunchback Variations is a panel discussion on sound delivered by a pair of history’s most famous Deaf artistes: Beethoven (Ian Leung) and Quasimodo (Dave Clarke), the bell-ringer of Notre Dame.

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In the 11 scenes of the 20-year-old piece by the American playwright Mickle Maher, co-founder of Chicago’s Theatre Oobleck, the unlikely collaborators are working to create “an impossible, mysterious sound.” It’s Chekhov’s elusive stage direction at the end of The Cherry Orchard: “Suddenly a distant sound is heard, coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away.”

“It’s fascinating, uncanny, the shows Trevor (Northern Light artistic director Trevor Schmidt) picks for this time … and the way this piece fits into the world,” says director Davina Stewart. She points to an NLT season devoted to exploring “failure and setback and how we move on from them.” It’s a mapless terrain the performing arts in the pandemic have been forced to confront, over and over, in the last two years.

“Are we living in an absurd world?” Stewart asks the question, and there’s a follow-up. And what does absurdity even mean in an absurd world? In our precarious moment in history, when certainties freeze and snap off (or mutate into variants), every arrival and departure is conditional, with an odds-against clause. En route to rehearsal last week Clarke texted Stewart to advise that he’d be a bit late. It was so cold the doors of the bus froze shut, and he couldn’t get off.

The Hunchback Variations is the third Northern Light production Stewart has worked on since the pandemic, the first two as an actor. Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver was cancelled mid-rehearsal in March 2020. She and Patricia Darbasie did a film version of Something Unspoken, when it became clear that live in-person performance wasn’t an option last May.

In The Hunchback Variations a scene repeats, with small but crucial adjustments in wording and tone, 11 times. Stewart finds an analogy  in the serial Warhol portraits of Marilyn Monroe, each modified in minute but meaningful ways.

In each variation Beethoven does the honours. He introduces himself and his partner, “hunchback and former bell ringer,” and welcomes us to a panel discussion on the mysterious and possibly impossible sound. Quasimodo presides over a selection of noise-making devices and samples a different one. And every time Beethoven says “that is not the sound.”

As Stewart says, a smile in her voice, Clarke as Quasimodo “is re-living some of his life as a sound designer…. ‘How about this sound” No, that’s not it. OK how about this sound? Nope…. Dave says he’s had lots of experience of people telling him that’s not the sound he wants.” And now he’s playing a character who gets that from his creative partner in every scene. Schmidt’s interview with playwright Maher (you can find it on the Northern Light webside, northernlighttheatre.com) reveals that the original inspiration was an unusual project that paired playwright/directors and sound designers.

The broader question, Stewart thinks, is about the ways collaboration works en route to creation. She was glued to the Beatles doc that unspools the hits back to their origin. It takes us into the room with the band “when they have nothing, and ideas are being embraced or rejected. You’re watching that collaboration occur. And it’s so interesting because we have more knowledge than they do. We know what the outcome will be.”

Progress is incremental — or non-existent in the case of Beethoven and Quasimodo, those unlikely collaborators, one real and one fictional. Maher says in his NLT interview that they’re connected “primarily as being notoriously grumpy Deaf guys.” True, they could have worked at Beethoven’s place since he’s the one with the nice digs. Or Beethoven could have gotten around to reading The Cherry Orchard. But Quasimodo says flat out “our failure was certain.” If their artistic quest is doomed, the mystery is the creative drive that keeps them trying.

In these COVID-ian times we know something first-hand about variations. “The way the play repeats itself,” as Stewart muses, speaks powerfully to “what’s happening to us daily, how we’ve been repeating ourselves, what our expectations are, what’s considered a success or a failure.”

As she and the actors have worked on the play, that question has fascinated, and haunted them, Stewart reports, more than the absurd comedy of the piece. “It’s uncanny. Ah, so we don’t get to do something the way we imagined we were going to do it … is it no longer a success? What makes an artistic failure?”

And in an age of cancellations, postponements, and pivots, “what do we do with those pieces of work that don’t get to come to light? Where do they go?” wonders Stewart, cued by the play. As Quasimodo puts it, “where is the room for keeping all the nothings?” The ether must be full of their ghosts by now, she says, “like all the birthdays and Christmases  and concerts missed during COVID. We have two years of that; it’s kind of a blur.”

“What do you do with a failed recipe? Do you turn it into something else? Do you throw it out and start again? So many people are feeling that the tasks we have are impossible, that we can’t get anywhere. Is the act of doing something, is that success?”

“It happens a lot in TEDTalks, successful people talking about failures and how we build on them….”

Now a play that seems to be tuned to the setbacks built into our lives.  At 45 minutes, “the play is a good length for the world right now,” thinks Stewart. “It’s been a while since we sat in a room and watched things with others. Some people have done it more than others…. I’ve been very fortunate to have the chance to be creating and collaborating with other people!”


The Hunchback Variations

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written by: Mickle Maher

Directed by: Davina Stewart

Starring: Ian Leung, Dave Clarke

Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Running: Friday through Jan 29


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Rapid Fire Theatre: back live, and back on their home turf in Old Strathcona

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Rapid Fire Theatre has a new home for the new year.

The agile Edmonton improv company, 41 seasons old (but young at heart), de-camped this week from downtown and moved back to their traditional stomping ground, Old Strathcona.

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After eight seasons, the Rapid Fire ensemble of improvisers, some 40 strong, is exiting the Citadel’s Zeidler Hall. For the next year they’re leasing the adaptable ex-warehouse black box theatre on Gateway Boulevard that’s had such distinguished occupants as Catalyst Theatre, the Fringe (as a venue in the summer), and for the last half-dozen years Theatre Network. And after that, they have big still-secret plans in Old Strathcona.

You’ve known it as Catalyst or C103 in its time, the Roxy on Gateway, maybe Fringe Stage 17 or “that space next to the Yardbird.” Starting with a 2022 season launch party Jan. 14, you’ll be calling 8529 Gateway the Rapid Fire Place (I just made that up) or words to that effect. And you’ll be thinking up cues as you watch quick-witted people, in a variety of permutations and combinations, create characters, scenes, sometimes entire plays or musicals onstage, before your very eyes in weekly shows and special events.

Eight years ago Rapid Fire outgrew its longtime home at the Varscona Theatre, where their crammed shows were limited to late-night slots. And they moved across the river to the Citadel’s Zeidler Hall. “It was a great location for us,” says artistic director Matt Schuurman, an improviser of note himself as well as a video and projection designer. “And we had long-term plans for downtown,” including a move to the stalled Artists’ Quarters east of the Citadel.

The pandemic and its uncertainties changed that vision. So did the feasibility study RFT conducted with its fans a year ago, says Schuurman. “The response was overwhelmingly in favour of us moving back to Old Strathcona! That’s where we were for over 20 years. And that’s where we’ve been looking to re-establish, coming out of the pandemic.”

Zeidler Hall, the Citadel’s long, narrow, strikingly non-intimate ex-cinema, isn’t exactly a natural for the kind of audience interaction that feeds improv. The ex-Roxy on Gateway is a much more share-able room in which to return to live in-person performance. “The flexibility of the space, being able to re-configure on the fly, to improvise if you will, is really an advantage right now!” says Schuurman. “When you don’t know what capacity restrictions will come, it allows us to adjust. And it allows for distancing … to respond to a variety of comfort levels, to meet the audience where they are. For all those reasons it’s going to be a great little space for us!”

As Schuurman points out, “Rapid Fire is no stranger” to the ex-Roxy on Gateway. That’s where they’ve often performed The Big Stupid Improv Show and Off Book: The Improvised Musical during Fringes past. In Fringe incarnations, the space has has 120 or so seats. “For the time being, we’re treating it as 75-seat capacity,” he says. The plan for the season is some risers and some spaced cabaret seating, which works well for distancing. “And it looks intentional, not just an empty theatre,” he laughs.

The Rapid Fire crowd, with its younger demographic, is tuned to the vibe of the Old Strathcona entertainment ‘hood. “It feels like the most obvious, most natural fit,” says Schuurman of the move from downtown. “It’s where I first started going to Theatresports,” he says remembering his high school excursions with classmate Amy Shostak, his predecessor in the Rapid Fire artistic director job. “We were going to late-night shows off-Whyte. Our parents loved it because we weren’t going to a bar or a nightclub. We were going out to see some theatre!”

“It has a special place in my heart. And to be living that magic again….”

The season launch on the 14th is a variety show, featuring samples from shows that will be onstage live during the season. “We’re especially excited to bring back Theatresports!” says Schuurman of the team matches that gave that classic improv format its name. “It’s definitely the bread and butter of what we do as a company. It’s a show the audience love, and it’s a show that really strengthens our ensemble too.”

Theatresports had a short run at the Fringe. But when Rapid Fire moved its improv programming online in ingenious ways in response to COVID, they didn’t adapt Theatresports for the digital world. Live interaction with the audience, and direct feedback, were just too indispensable, Schuurman thinks. “We had a lot of success with online stuff, and if that’s the way we have to move, we certainly know how. But that’s what we’ve missed the most, creating an experience together with the audience.”

“We’re bringing back a lot of audience favourites, shows that were cut short, or didn’t happen, due to the pandemic,” says Schuurman. Chimprov, for example —  veteran performers creating long-form improvs in virtuoso formats, fuelled by audience suggestions — is back.

The RFT ensemble embraces a variety of smaller troupes with improv specialties (Gordon’s Big Bald Head, Sphinxes, Improvised Dungeons & Dragons among them). They’ll rotate through the season. The Late Night Double Feature Improv Show, “two of our troupes doing their thing,” starts Jan. 15. The sketch troupe Marv N Berry is back in June with a run of the show they never got to finish in March 2020. You can expect a run of Off Book: The Improvised Musical later this winter.

And the season includes the return of RFT’s festivals, including Wildfire (for student improvisers across Alberta), Bonfire (RFT’s experimental long-form improv lab), and the international Improvaganza. Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s … Rapid Fire celebrates all the known high holidays with special shows.

New this year is Kidding Around, a series of Saturday matinees for kids, directed by RFT’s Joleen Ballendine, a new parent herself. “We were inspired by our proximity to the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market,” says Schuurman.

Rapid Fire does 300 shows a year. Find the schedule, as it unfolds, at  rapidfiretheatre.com.


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Getting excited about Edmonton theatre in 2022, a how-to guide

Two Headed/ Half Hearted, Northern Light Theatre. Poster photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

I sometimes have to wonder if my annual ‘what to look forward to in theatre’ piece in January has become speculative fiction in our pandemical world. A universal disclaimer seems to hang over everything like ice fog.

Last January I even declared fearlessly that among all the upcoming unknowns and uncertainties, at least we could be sure of one thing: 2021 was bound to be a better year than the devastating shitstorm of 2020.

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Yeah, well…. Don’t hold that over me. But Edmonton theatre did return to live this past year, to surprise, excite, and delight us. And its hold-your-breath/ cross-your-fingers pencilled-in calendar of postponements and cancellations, plans, re-plans, un-plans, backups to backup plans, online experiments was a validation of the sheer persistence, the force of will, at work in theatre as the parameters of live engagement — on and offstage and in the audience — changed, and changed.

So here it is, in the spirit of positivity: a sampling in no particular order of theatre to look forward to, and be excited about, in 2022. The exact “when” might change. So might the “how,” as we’ve seen from ever-more ingenious ways of making stages from platforms. But theatre artists, those amazing acrobats of creativity, will make it happen. It’s what they do.

And, my fellow theatre-lovers, this is just a selection, to whet your appetite. Expect other productions, already in the wings or dreaming their way into existence, or as yet unforeseen.

•Northern Light Theatre premieres Two Headed/Half Hearted, an original small-scale musical by artistic director Trevor Schmidt and actor/composer Kaeley Jade Wiebe, a young Métis up-and-comer artist. As billed, it’s “a gothic prairie song cycle” with particular (and extreme) demands on its co-stars since it’s jointly narrated and sung by conjoined twins Venus (Wiebe) and Juno (Rebecca Sadowski). It chronicles their life and death, along with stories from history and mythology. Speaking as we were of artistic acrobatics, we will see them jointly play the guitar. Two Headed/Half Hearted runs April 22 to May 7 at Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barn.

•Cottagers and Indians is the latest from by the notably quick-witted playwright/ storyteller, satirist/ journalist Drew Hayden Taylor, a member of the Anishinaabe First Nation. It’s inspired by a real-life dispute over water between Ontario cottagers and the Indigenous locals who are trying to revive old traditions by planting wild rice on a lake shore. The Shadow Theatre production, running March 9 to 27 at the Varscona, stars Trevor Duplessis and Davina Stewart.

Jane Eyre, Citadel Theatre, Photo supplied.

•One of literature’s most compelling heroines has bided her time. And now: Jane Eyre, originally slated for last March, will finally premiere at the Citadel, the theatre that commissioned it (March 19 to April 10). The 10-actor adaptation of the 1847 Charlotte Brontë masterpiece is the work of star Canadian playwright Erin Shields (Paradise Lost, The Lady From The Sea), who’s demonstrated a particular gift for adaptations, as director Daryl Cloran has pointed out. Jane Eyre, he says, both embraces the period and has contemporary feminist resonances for audiences. The production stars Hayley Gillis and John Ullyatt.

•The Freewill Shakespeare Festival celebrates its 35th summer season with a double-bill: one of Will’s most perennially popular comedies, alternating with a rarely staged one. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Dave Horak, runs in rep on the Heritage Amphitheatre  stage opposite Nancy McAlear’s production of Measure For Measure, framed through a #MeToo lens. It’s Freewill’s first foray into Shakespeare’s dark, unsettling mid-period comedy.

The shows alternate June 16 to July 10 (auditions happen Jan. 14 through 17). And unless the city re-thinks its radical decision to close the entire park for three YEARS (seriously?) for renos, this coming summer may be Freewill’s grand finale at that location.

•Teatro La Quindicina’s live four-production 2022 season of comedies (opening at the Varscona in April with Caribbean Muskrat), includes Evelyn Strange, an elegant noir-ish 1995 Stewart Lemoine mystery/ thriller of the Hitchock-ian persuasion, originally slated for a 2020 revival.  Shannon Blanchet, the original Evelyn Strange, directs the Teatro production in which Gianna Vacirca stars as a beautiful amnesiac on the loose in ‘50s New York, along with Oscar Derkx and Belinda Cornish. And there’s a Wagner joke. (The season, incidentally, includes the first-ever revival of Lemoine’s 2003 Margin of the Sky, which hinges on a piece of music by Stockhausen).  

•Ayita by Teneil Whiskeyjack is the mainstage production at this year’s 10th annual SkirtsAfire, an ever-expanding theatre and multi-disciplinary arts festival dedicated to showcasing the stories, voices, and talents of women and non-binary artists. Billed as “a fusion of theatre and Indigenous contemporary dance,” Ayita follows three generations of Cree women. And with its cast of three actors (the playwright, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Janira Moncayo) and a chorus of four dancers, it unfolds in a fusion of text and movement.  Co-directed by Lebogang Disele and choreographer Sandra Lamouche, the SkirtsAfire production runs March 3 to 13 at the Westbury Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barn.

In May Workshop West Playwrights Theatre and Theatre Yes premiere a new play that ventures boldly into the messy tangled contemporary terrain where public and private space intersect. Tell Us What Happened, by actor/playwright Michelle Robb, tackles sexual assault, friendship, and the internet: the premise could hardly be more challenging. Heather Inglis directs a cast of five in a production that runs Mary 12 to 22 (location TBA), two years after this 2020 Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate winner was announced.

RISER participants (clockwise) Cuban Movements Dance Academy, NASRA, Even Gilchrist, Tai Amy Grauman. Photo supplied.

Thanks to RISER Edmonton, one of the brightest ideas of 2021 (the E-town branch of a national initiative by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre to support independent theatre), we’ll see the premieres of four indie projects next month at the Backstage Theatre. The artists couldn’t be more different: the Cuban Movements Dance Academy, Even Gilchrist, NASRA, and Tai Amy Grauman. They’ve been supported by the technical and creative resources of the theatre community, and a year of mentorship from the Edmonton Fringe, the Citadel, Azimuth, and Catalyst. The first two run in rep for two weeks starting Feb. 4, the other two after that.

•AND IN THE SPIRIT OF ANTICIPATION, here’s an exciting morale-booster, in two parts:

The new Roxy Theatre, in progress on 124th St.

(a) Times may be dauntingly tough for theatre, but Theatre Network is getting ready to open the new Roxy, on the footprint of its old ex-cinema home on 124 Street, felled by fire in 2015. And Edmonton will have not one, but two new theatre spaces, a 200-seat MainStage house named after Nancy Power and a 100-seat studio/rehearsal black box named in honour of actor Lorne Cardinal.

(b) Rapid Fire Theatre, Edmonton’s deluxe 42-year-old improv company, is leaving its headquarters at the Citadel’s Zeidler Hall and moving into new digs. Catch their plethora of weekly shows at the ex-Catalyst Theatre ex-Theatre Network space in Strathcona (8529 Gateway Blvd., next to the Yardbird Suite). Opening night is Jan. 14.

Hunter Cardinal in Lake of the Strangers, Naheyawin and Fringe Theatre. Photo supplied.

•Wishful thinking: a very large — well, boundless — department for all of us, but start with this. One of the most haunting productions of the season so far, Lake of the Strangers, a collaboration between Edmonton Fringe Theatre and Naheyawin of the play by the brother-sister team of Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal directed by Murray Utas, ran for only one night, Dec. 11. It should have a full run.

•So, you see, intermission is nearly over. Grab your vaccine proofs, theatre-goers. Northern Light’s production of The Hunchback Variations, starring Ian Leung and Dave Clarke, is up and running starting Jan. 14 at the Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barn. And Shadow Theatre’s The Mountaintop, with Ray Strachan and Patricia Cerra opens at the Varscona Jan. 20. More about them anon.

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Richard Gishler: Edmonton theatre has lost part of its story and its heart

Richard Gishler as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Northern Light Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A hard year in theatre got harder still in December. With the passing this month of actor/ playwright Richard Gishler, at 74, this theatre town has lost some of its lustre: part of its origin story, its history, its improbable narrative drive … and its heart.

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As a genre-busting stage career attests, Gish (as he was affectionately known by everyone who passed through a stage door), was a veritable Edmonton theatre history himself, a symbol of continuity through the decades. And, by personality, he was a community-builder off the stage too. The social media tributes from across the country speak to the Gishler ripple effect. Actors and directors found him professional and passionate in his work — and funny, generous and unpretentious in bonding casts and companies.

The Gishler resumé, which includes training at the U of A, touches down on every stage, large and small, in town. It’s a repository of Edmonton theatre cred that goes back to the early days of Walterdale, Theatre 3 in the ‘70s, and its ‘80s heir Phoenix Theatre. A wonderful farceur, he was onstage frequently in the comedies and door-slammers that were a staple feature of programming when Howard Peckett launched Stage West in Edmonton in 1974, and later at its successor, the Mayfield Dinner Theatre.

The versatile Gishler did shows in the defunct Salvation Army citadel that was the earliest incarnation of the Citadel Theatre. Among his other roles there, he was “Lightfoot” McTague in John Neville’s Sherlock in 1975. He was the Prince in the starry Neville production of Romeo and Juliet that opened the Citadel’s glass-and-brick playhouse downtown in 1976.

Fellow actor Patricia Casey, now Toronto-based — their close friendship goes back 45 years — was Lady Montague in that production. She remembers the fun of the rehearsals. The whole company returned to rehearsal after lunch wearing team T-shirts, Montague and Capulet. And as the Prince, Gish wore a striped umpire shirt, as the play’s arbiter between the feuding clans.

Says Casey, “we did four shows together, including a two-hander! (Michel Tremblay’s Damnée Manon sacrée Sandra), without ever speaking to each other onstage.” She remembers that when they finally got to play a husband and wife (in Marianne Copithorne’s production of The Twilight of the Golds some 15 years ago) “we joked that we wouldn’t be able to do it!”

Gishler was in Northern Light Theatre shows when NLT was a Shakespeare company doing shows on the river valley hill that’s home to the Edmonton Folk Fest these days. Casey remembers him as a wonderful Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So does Glenn Nelson, who used to drive down from his home town Grande Prairie to see theatre here before he moved to Edmonton in 1980.

Actor/ playwright/ composer/ gay activist Darrin Hagen remembers that the Workshop West production of Michel Tremblay’s landmark Hosanna, starring Gishler and Jack Ackroyd, was one of the first plays he saw when he moved to Edmonton in 1983 from Rocky Mountain House. And it changed his life. In “a role I wrote specifically with him in mind,” a recent Zoom workshop reading of Hagen’s 10 Funerals for Shadow Theatre was one of Gishler’s last gigs.

Nelson saw him perform long before he was ever onstage with him. “Richard was one of those actors where I went ‘Oh my gawd, that’s what acting is.…” Among other shows Nelson remembers Alice in Wonderland at Theatre 3, and As Is, the influential ‘80s AIDS play, at Phoenix. “Just stunning, the work he would do…. He inhabited everything he did; he dove in with both feet.”

Richard Gishler

“He worked all the time in his prime, and across Canada,” says Nelson of his longtime friend. And in all kinds of plays. “In comedies he was simply hilarious…. But he looked at everything with the same approach: ‘I’ll do it to the best of my ability’. There was a practicality to him.”

“To him, theatre was a job, and also something you revered. He was hyper-professional that way. The one thing he didn’t have patience for was anyone in the biz who just phoned it in. He never liked confrontation, but it made him crazy. He was ‘we’re all really lucky to have a job, so….’”

Actor/director Patricia Darbasie, who directed Gishler in a 2010 Fringe production of The Domino Heart, echoes the thought when she calls Gishler “the consummate professional.” She remembers him being very upset about missing three words one performance.“Oh Richard, the story continues without those three words,” she remembers telling him. trying to console him. He “was “very hard on himself.”

Gishler grew up in the Garneau ‘hood (that’s the local skating rink featured in Kenneth Brown’s hit Life After Hockey, in which Gishler gets a mention as “little Dickie Gishler”). And “he was in the theatre business right from the beginning; it was all he ever wanted to do,” says Nelson. Judy Unwin remembers that at age nine and seven (respectively) she and Gish took city of Edmonton theatre classes (ah, those were the days) on Saturday mornings: one hour of drama, one hour of movement, one hour of speech.

Early chapters of the Gishler story include the Playground Players, a local touring troupe for kids, along with (costume designer) Pat Burden and (filmmaker) Anne Wheeler. “He kept the marionettes, beautiful harlequins his mom and dad brought him from Europe,” says Nelson. “And Richard made plays for them, to perform for kids at the Valley Zoo; they had a regular kiosk there.”

There’s a long string of comedies and farces in the Gishler resumé, many of them at Stage West. That was the site of the first show he and Nelson did together, All For Mary. “Dreadful,” laughs Nelson. “Kind of a farce, more of a light Brit comedy. Light on on the comedy, light on everything….” But Gishler applied himself with his usual professional vigour.

Nelson tells a story on himself about entirely missing a cue one night. In the gap between his character’s entrances, he occupied himself backstage playing chess with the assistant stage manager.” The cast was gracious in accepting his apologies, Nelson reports. The usually affable Gishler “turned into a block of ice; he didn’t want to hear my excuses.”

I first saw Gishler in productions like the female Odd Couple (as half a pair of outrageous Spanish suitors) and Ray Cooney farces like It Runs In The Family. “He had natural timing,” as Nelson says. “He didn’t have to force anything. The man could tear a house down with a look…. Your game was up when you were onstage with him!”

And offstage, too, Gishler was a natural orchestrator of theatre camaraderie. In the early days of Stage West (and for that matter, thereafter) Edmonton later Sunday night after the last show of the week was pretty dead. Where could actors go to kick back and have a drink together? Gishler hosted the cast in his dressing room in a kind of salon. At Lurid Acres, as he called it, there was “tasteful lighting” (he changed the lightbulbs, a particular obsession of his) and actors and crew showed up “to laugh and point,” as he phrased it.

Speaking of laughing and pointing, when Gishler bought a condo, Casey had a brass plaque engraved with  Lurid Acres for his door. His neighbours assumed he was Mr. Acres.

When he was recovering from throat cancer nine years ago, Gishler, a stoic about his enforced diet of soup and smoothies, turned playwright. He tapped that wealth of experience at Stage West working in shows with impossibly demanding (and often spectacularly miscast) celebrity TV stars for a “very funny sort of horror thriller comedy” as Darbasie describes it. The script, set at The Starlight Dinner Theatre, awaits production. And he continued to work on another play, with a World War II spy backstory.

“One of the many wonderful things about Richard was that he was worldly,” says Darbasie of a 30 year-plus friendship that involved a lot of theatre-going. “So many actors just talk about theatre. Richard read newspapers cover to cover, and we’d have great discussions … about everything!”

Actor/stage manager Elizabeth Allison-Jorde, whose mother is Stage West and Mayfield costume designer Pat Burden, grew up appreciating the Gishler sense of inclusiveness.  Later, at a cast barbeque, she noted to her husband actor Kyle Jorde that the cut of steak was chuck blade. “To which Richard said, totally deadpan and without missing a beat, said ‘that’s my porn name’.” It stuck, a running joke between the three of them.

Theatre people describe a man with a gift for friendship — who often showed up with lightbulbs and paint chips — through all vicissitudes. During Darbasie’s recovery from knee surgery five years ago, for example, Gishler would take two buses and a taxi to bring her soup, and they’d drink tea and watch movies.

The return of his illness recently was a shock, after so many years of remission. When Hagen heard the news he immediately composed a requiem. Here it is: requiem 2021.

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2021: the year in Edmonton theatre, part two

Donovan Workun and Abby Vandenberghe in Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer The Musical, Grindstone Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

2021 was the year a mystery box, gift-wrapped in silver with a Do Not Open warning, arrived at the house. At showtime three days later, it turned out to contain cues for a play — no, a theatre experience — custom-made for me out of my own memories, lost sensations, special moments, connections.

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Ah, not so much made for but made by me. Starring me, blindfolded. Created on the spot, entirely by hearing and touch.

That was La Boîte Sensorielle, a theatrical Door Dash delivery from Edmonton’s francophone L’UniThéâtre of a “production” by Ghost River Theatre. Co-created by Christopher Duthie and Ghost River artistic director Eric Rose, it was an ingenious demo of the endless contortionist resourcefulness of theatre artists. And a reminder that there are many ways in a Zoom-flattened, constricted world to re-animate the old theatre truism that there’s no show without the audience. It felt like a hug. (Check out the mystery box here).

Here’s a sampling in no particular order of highlights from another pandemically obstructionist year in theatre.

The hot ticket of the year and the catchiest singalong: In a part of the world where political satire tends to be an import product, Grindstone Theatre’s hit musical Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer is of the here and now. It’s into its “fourth wave” come January (the first, second, and third waves have sold every ticket). Inspired by the year’s most infamous mantra “the best summer ever,” as proclaimed by the most unpopular premier in Alberta history and his compliant doctor sidekick, the rockin’ ‘80s frat party musical by Byron Martin and composer/musician Simon Abbott gave us the title character (played to the hilt by Donovan Workun) as a dazed ignoramus with a party-hearty “base.” Of the clever songs, the best part of a wilfully goofball entertainment, Fuck Kenney is the one that has the audience singing and cheering.  Here’s the 12thnight Review.  

The Hooves Belonged to the Deer by Makram Ayache, part of The Alberta Queer Calendar Project. Poster image by Makram Ayache.

And next … the cosmos (go vast or go home): From playwright/ actor/ theatre-maker Makram Ayache, a dizzyingly ambitious time-traveller, border-crosser of a play, epic in scale and vision, in which origin mythologies collide. At the centre of The Hooves The Belonged To The Deer is an outsider: a young Arab Muslim boy, a first-generation immigrant gradually discovering his queerness in a small/ rigorously conservative/ very white prairie town. In an era when the walls seem to be closing in on us, here’s a play that expands; it flies across cultures, out of the present the present back back back past whiteness to where the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge stands. It happened as part of The Alberta Queer Calendar Project, directed by Peter Hinton as a two-act podcast, with hopes for a live production in 2022. Read the 12thnight Review.

The get-off-your-butt tour: Playwright Gerald Osborn’s audio walking Fringe journey, in honour of the four-decade anniversary of our beloved summer theatre bash, took us, on foot, to 40th and Fringe, seminal sites in early Fringes to hear stories assembled by the festival’s wry unofficial archivist.

At Nextfest, the most calming experience of the year was Would You Wander, Sam Jeffery’s “nature/storytelling” podcast. It  unrolled  in six high-contrast episodes of storytelling and conversation direct to your ear, designed to accompany your own walking escapes from your house. Everything from an educational meditation on mushrooms to the invitation to sit under a tree and hear some poetry. See the 12thnight interview with Jeffery here.

Go small (AND stay home): The moody, troubled Prince of Denmark already gets more lines by nearly two to one than any other character in Shakespeare. In Thou Art Here Theatre’s experimental mini-series Hamlet in Isolation, he didn’t have to shove over for anyone else. The six half-hour episodes in May and June, starring up-and-comers who had never before played the role, were spun from the soliloquies. Read about it here.

Linda Grass in The Look, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The filmic pivot: In Northern Light’s handsomely produced The Look and The Ugly Duchess, two solo plays about appearance, image, screens, mirrors, screens (adapted by Trevor Schmidt and starring Linda Grass and Lora Brovold, respectively), had the satisfying reverb of medium and message in sync. Read the 12thnight reviews here, and here.

Lost Lemoine Part 2: A Second Round of Seconds, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

At Teatro La Quindicina, playwright/ actor/ director Belinda Cornish directed a selection of early short “lost” plays of Stewart Lemoine, absurdist in flavour, as a film — streamed in a real theatre (the Varscona) with a real stage, a real red velvet curtain, and real live opening nights in the theatre. That was Lost Lemoine Part 1. Lost Lemoine Part 2: A Second Round of Seconds, a whirl of small two-hander scenes capitalized on the recurring imagery only possible on film. In A Fit, Happy Life, a series of encounters between a department store bed salesman (Mathew Hulshof) and his customers, Kristen Padayas became a different character, in a different costume, in every scene.

Helen Belay in The Fiancée, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

The lure of the local: One of the delights of Belinda Cornish’s The Garneau Block, adapted from Todd Babiak’s 2006 novel, was the detailed way it lived in this place, down to references to Remedy, Continental Treat, and endless one-lane closure on 109th Street. Which felt like a response to the perennial question of why we live here. Holly Lewis’s farce The Fiancée brought its post-war setting and riotous sense of impending chaos on location to Edmonton too. They both premiered at the Citadel.

Prop of the year: the monkey sock puppet in Hiraeth. In Belinda Cornish’s new play (which premiered in a Bright Young Things production), an odd-couple comedy that turns emotional in a  heartbreaking way, the puppet is the pivot on which the mystery turns.

Busiest theatre artist of the year: Belinda Cornish (see above). In the last half of 2021 two of her plays premiered, and she directed three films, and a live staged play (Fever Land at Teatro La Quindicina).

The Viola Desmond accessory display, Hero Material, a Leona Brausen costume installation at the Varscona Theatre. Photo by Davina Stewart.

Storytelling as dress-up: Hero Material, designer Leona Brausen’s series of costume installations in the windows of the Varscona Theatre, told the stories of four inspiring and influential Canadian women — Viola Desmond, Emily Carr, Buffy Sainte Marie and k.d. lang — in costumes.

Inspired idea of the year (administration division): More than a few contenders. Here are four.

RISER: Edmonton is the first national expansion of an initiative by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre, designed to make indie theatre more do-able. Read about it here.

AZ-MAP: Azimuth Theatre’s mentorship and apprenticeship program gives the careers-in-progress of emerging artists a boost, with instruction, self-guided learning, and a real-live 8-month contract. Read about it here.

EPCOR’s Heart + Soul Fund continued to live up to its name. It’s made possible so many theatre productions and pivots of every shape and scale that you’d be right to wonder what theatre we would actually have experienced this year without it.

Péhonán: The name means “meeting place” in Cree. The Fringe devoted one of its 11 indoor venues exclusively to Indigenous theatre, a different show every night. Bear Grease was the first Fringe show to sell all its tickets in advance. Read about it here.

Scenes From The Sidewalk – an inside-out cabaret relocated to the Westbury Theatre lobby, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo supplied.

Re-pivoting the pivot (or the pirouette): The Plain Janes’ summer sequel to Scenes From The Sidewalk, their ingenious “inside out cabaret” that put the actors on the street looking at the audience inside the theatre lobby, had to be flipped. In a last-minute reversal smoke and the terrible air quality drove the cast inside the Westbury Theatre lobby (so… the “inside inside cabaret”). See the 12thnight review.

You know you’re in a deluxe improv town when … Die-Nasty does Chekhov. With The Stroganoffs, the first half of the current Die-Nasty season, the weekly improvised soap opera put the suds back into the Russian master. Many references to orchards.

The creative life of artists (living the dream?): The meta-musical Tick, Tick … Boom!, the feature film debut of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a riveting capture of what it’s like to live the artist’s life — the all-consuming passion, ambition, insomniac anxiety, fear, loneliness, frustration. A terrific performance from Andrew Garfield as angst-riven Rent playwright Jonathan Larson who died suddenly  at 35 on the eve of that global success is centrestage.

No theatre artist was more articulate about inspiration and creation than Stephen Sondheim, whose death has made us all remember the first time they saw one of his musicals. A true game-changer. The  2013 HBO documentary homage Six By Sondheim is a fascinating glimpse into his world, and the mind of a genius.

Did you see 2021: the year Edmonton theatre returned to live (part 1)? You can read it here.



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2021: the year Edmonton theatre returned to live (part one)

Sheldon Elter (centre) and the Bears ensemble. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In theatre, 2021 is a year that isn’t ending as it began.

It was more than half over when The Pivot pivoted. Live performance gradually, cautiously ventured out of its online exile, where it had creatively taken up residence in the devastation of 2020— and back into theatres. And audiences, who’d been watching shows in their bathrobes as the year began, donned masks and pants, and (gradually, cautiously) did the same.

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And there was a certain unmistakeable exhilaration attached to that return in late summer. Contrary to our darkest thoughts in an interminable and destructive pandemic, we discovered that live theatre, experienced in person with other people — even masked and distanced — did still exist. And it was a thrill.

Meanwhile, in the tumultuous course of 2021 theatre artists, who have proven themselves the world’s quick learners, had become ever more adventurous and resourceful about adapting and custom-creating from scratch for unfamiliar digital platforms, for engaging audiences across screens and through earphones, for personalizing theatre experiences in unexpected live locations. Home delivery? You got it. Podcast tours? Back alley shows? “Drive-by” theatre? Cellphone mysteries? Check. All in the quest for that elusive but tangible quality of liveness, the sense of sharing a space that’s the raison d’être and identity of the art form.

Theatres did what they could to ease our traumatized selves back to proximity and kinetic engagement. No thanks to the provincial government, of course, but the vaccine mandate was a material reassurance. In these pandemical times I’ve written “Plexiglass” so many times I started to get emails from suppliers offering me import deals.

And as live in-person performance gradually returned, theatre didn’t jettison streaming, but added it as an option. Bonus: we could see what theatres across a very big country, borders, and the pond, were up to.  I saw theatre in Ireland, New York, Chicago, Toronto and London that way, without ever wearing actual shoes or dusting off my passport.   

Re-fashioning theatre as a hybrid, straddling platforms, is a complicated, and labour-intensive, experiment. The mighty Fringe came back live and online for the summer’s 40th anniversary edition of the continent’s oldest festival of its kind. Our beloved giant wasn’t its usual gargantuan jostling self, to be sure. It was a smaller, quieter sort of festival; the view from the beer tent was downright eerie. But there were live shows, 61 of them (a quarter of the usual) inside 11 “theatres” operating at 60 per cent capacity, in addition to digital productions on Fringe TV. And in the end, more than 37,000 tickets to shows were sold.   

Hunter Cardinal in Lake of the Strangers, Naheyawin and Fringe Theatre. Photo supplied.

It was the Fringe’s Murray Utas — in the course of directing a beautiful new live and live-streamed production of Lake of the Strangers by the brother-sister team of Jacquelyn and Hunter Cardinal — who asked two of the year’s seminal questions. “What does theatre as film mean? How do we include both audiences (live and remote) without cheating either one?”

And speaking as we are of questions…. Theatre has had time in The Great Pause to question its place in the world and its own power structures. In 2021 it stepped up to do something about accessibility to artistic leadership, witness the variety of theatre mentorship programs — launched at companies including Azimuth, the Citadel, the Fringe, Catalyst, Shadow, Punctuate!. The idea is to open the stage door for marginalized talents who might otherwise have spent a long time gazing through the theatre windows.

Abby Vandenberghe, Mark Sinongco and Donovan Workun in Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer. Photo by Darla Woodley, Red Socks Photography.

Hold those questions as we revisit a theatre year that began with Northern Light’s clever film version of a solo play, The Look, and ends with the Citadel’s live full-bodied music-filled adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Ah, AND a hit show with ‘jason’ in the title: Grindstone Theatre’s Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer.

Here’s a selection of highlight theatre productions and “experiences” in another pandemic year of struggle and ingenuity — and a return, in newly uncertain times, to the live in-person engagement that is at the heart of the matter.    

Bears: Matthew MacKenzie’s witty, boldly imaginative fantasia on Nature and Man’s place in it, had a stunning homecoming. Trailing honours from across the country, Bears finally returned to Edmonton where it all began six years ago. And this time, the Punctuate! Theatre production was in the big house, on the Citadel’s Maclab stage, which looked beautiful and felt meaningful. In choreographed movement from a seven-dancer ensemble, light, sound, poetic text, humorous asides and a magnetic performance from Sheldon Elter, Bears is a chase. It conjures the transforming journey of a Métis oil patch worker on the lam, from the city to the sea through the wilderness along the route of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Ingenious theatricality in the service of Indigenous vision and environmental activism. Read the 12thnight review here.

Darrin Hagen, Metronome, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Metronome: In Darrin Hagen’s new solo memoir, which premiered at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, the multi-faceted artist, a genial and piquant raconteur, traced his origins back to his boyhood self. It’s his story of a gay small-town prairie trailer park kid whose life is changed, and sense of creative possibilities untethered, by music and the arrival of A Piano. In Heather Inglis’s production, the storytelling happened under a gorgeous rainbow arc of deconstructed piano parts, strings, sounding plates, disembodied keyboards (designer: Beyata Hackborn). In its funny, elliptical way, Metronome is a more powerful manifesto about the importance of art in our lives than any committee pamphlet. Hagen is his own proof. Read the 12thnight review here.

Thomas Tunski, Christina Nguyen, Gavin Dyer, Amber Borotsik, Jesse Gervais in Michael Mysterious. Photo by BB Collective Photography.

Michael Mysterious: In 35 named and numbered scenes this dark comedy (which pushes at the boundaries of that descriptive) by the high-profile theatre experimenter Geoffrey Simon Brown explores in a captivating, funny, sharp-eared way what it means to have a “family” — to be in one, to find one if yours is missing in action, to resist one and still be an individual, to escape from one — and a “home.” Directed by Patrick Lundeen, Pyretic Productions did it proud. Read the 12thnight review here.

Laura Raboud, Nadien Chu, Rochelle Laplante in Macbeth, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Macbeth: How often do you get to say you laughed out loud at a production of the Scottish play? Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s riotous three-actor production, directed by Dave Horak at the Fringe and other locales, made of Macbeth a black comedy with contemporary insights into the cycle of corruptibility built into leadership (its acquisition and maintenance), and our fatal drift to follower-ship. Perfect for these parlous times in our part of the world. An excellent cast of three — Laura Raboud, Nadien Chu and Rochelle Laplante —  played the characters, the bouffons who deliver the stage directions, and the Unknowns who are versions of the Witches.  Read the 12thnight review here.

Lora Brovold in The Ugly Duchess, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

The Ugly Duchess: Trevor Schmidt’s Northern Light Theatre filmed production found an intricate, clever visual way, perfectly conceived for screen, of re-imagining Janet Munsil’s rather straight-forward 1993 play. Margaret, the last countess of the strategically important Tyrol, was both highly desirable as a bride and, by historical reputation, the ugliest woman in history. The production, starring the terrific Lora Brovold who’s behind the looking glass, unfolds as a series of mirror images or window frames, the infinitely angled reflections of intersecting public and private portraits. Read the 12thnight review here.

Helen Belay, Patricia Cerra, Sheldon Elter in The Fiancée, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

The Fiancée: Life is complicated; chaos is nigh…. I know, right? Farce may well be the perfect theatrical form for our time. Ambitiously deluxe, unusually feminist, Holly Lewis’s World War II-era piece of seven-door engineering launched the Citadel’s live season in the fall. At the centre is a woman who has to think on her feet ever faster, improvising ever more outlandish lies, to save the day. Her daffy sister, a serial fiancée, has gotten herself engaged to three men. And they’re all arriving back from the war on the same day. It’s fun to see what happens when women are instigators and fine-tuners of the impending chaos that is the astute farce insight into our world. Daryl Cloran’s production sparkled with comic performances from a cast of six, led by Patricia Cerra and Helen Belay as the sisters, and Lora Brovold as their formidable landlady. Read the 12thnight review here.

Jenny McKillop and Andrew Macdonald-Smith in Fever Land, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Fever Land: This mysteriously haunting, happy/sad 1999 Stewart Lemoine “comedy,” set in ‘60s Winnipeg, marked Teatro La Quindicina’s return to live in-person performance as the finale of a season that started with three filmed productions. In Jenny McKillop’s perfectly pitched performance we meet a mild-mannered junior high home ec teacher whose placid life unravels in an illicit love affair, and whose romantic predicament fortunes are taken in hand by two flamboyant life coaches. The Erlking (of Goethe and Schubert fame) and Myrtha Queen of the Willis (from the ballet Giselle) have had a lot of experience translating human setbacks into art. Belinda Cornish’s five-actor production savoured the strange, bold contrasts of a piece you’d want to call heartbreaking when you aren’t laughing. Read the 12thnight review here.

The Garneau Block, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

The Garneau Block: After The Most Terrible Summer Ever (and 18 months of stops and starts), a play about what it means to live in a community, to pull together to make something happen — here in our own backyard! — finally premiered at the Citadel in Rachel Peake’s production in September. And it felt like a validation and a rallying cry. Belinda Cornish’s play — like the Todd Babiak novel from which it was adapted — is of this place in a detailed way, its locales and venues, its weird little traditions. Funny, built on secrets, and full of heart. Read the 12thnight review here.

The Makings of a Voice: “We need to know we have a story.” This unusual “theatrical song cycle” by singer-songwriter/actor about finding your own story and your own voice to tell it was the mainstage headliner at the 2021 SkirtsAfire Festival. Wylie’s own honesty as a performer and her conversational, easeful way of incorporating songs into text, gave the show its unique shape and its captivating shimmer of intimacy. (I saw Vanessa Sabourin’s production online, streamed from the eerie depths of the old Army and Navy in Strathcona. It returned for live dates at the Arden this fall). Read the 12thnight review here.

Zoë Glassman in Night, Major Matt Mason Collective. Photo by Whittyn Jason.

Night: In June The Major Matt Mason Collective, an innovative artist-run troupe hitherto rarely seen in Edmonton, took us out of our houses, into our cars, and into Rundle Park at dusk. Night didn’t so much fall and sneak up on us in Geoffrey Simon Brown’s “drive-by” play. We met a character — powerfully played as a movement piece with sound track by Zoë Glassman — who is straining to break out of the human cage and join the wild. They think they’re becoming a wolf. After months of group quarantine, Night resonated eerily  with our own pandemical moment, of feeling that we’re between identities, not quite ourselves, and possibly not quite human. Read the 12thnight review here.

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