The year in podcast dramas: The Alberta Queer Calendar Project

The Alberta Queer Calendar Project

By Liz Nicholls,

Lately I feel like I’m constantly on the edge of a vortex. Swimming. Trying to keep my head above water.”

— Local Diva, Liam Salmon

In January when his “one-person drag queen drama” premiered in podcast form, playwright Liam Salmon can’t possibly have predicted how eerily the opening line of Local Diva would resonate by April.But then, who knew just how indispensable podcasts would prove?

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Salman’s play launched The Alberta Queer Calendar Project, a joint initiative by Cardiac Theatre and What It Is Productions, to showcase the talents of by queer Albertan writers and “broadcast to the world.” The aim? One original podcast drama a month for 2020. So far three, all by Edmonton writers, are up and running.

Salmon, who shares producer duties with Cardiac’s Harley Morison and Jessica Glover, traces the idea back two years to the inspiration of Toronto’s PlayMe podcast, audio versions of new (and newish) Canadian plays. “We wanted to feature queer Albertans,” says Salmon. “Our voices aren’t always as audible as elsewhere in the country….”

A playwriting grad of the National Theatre School in Montreal, Salman returned immediately to his home town after his time in the East. “There’s something about Edmonton that just feels more interesting to me…. Emerging (as a theatre artist) in Toronto is so different, so hard. Financially it doesn’t really work. In Edmonton you have more of a place, more access.”

Salmon spent four years in the Citadel’s Young Playwriting Company while he was doing an Education degree (in pre-COVID days he’s been teaching pre-school). He never gravitated to theatre via acting. “Playwriting made a lot of sense to me,” he says. His first play, All That’s Left, which premiered at Nextfest, chronicled the fortunes of a gay kid in a straight family. Silence of the Machine, in which “a perfect A.I. is forced to get pregnant” in order to prove her female credentials, premiered at the U of A’s New Works festival, won a prize at a horror fest, and was produced by Calgary’s Theatre Basement. “Sci-fi and horror elements really appeal to me….”

Image by Michael Vetsch.

The Queer Calendar Project producers spent about a year collecting submissions before the January launch, says Salmon. Their call was to “any queer-identifying writer from or residing in Alberta.” There were no stipulations about queer content, characters, themes. In fact, Salmon’s own original submission was about a straight couple. But as a one-person show in which a drag queen talks, Local Diva seemed more easily suited to the podcast form.

Most of the podcast dramas are under an hour, says Salmon of the calendar roster. They come in a wide variety of forms, subjects, styles: comedies, dramas, musicals, true stories…. Some of the writers are more established than others. If he’s noticed anything that the queer submissions share, it’s perhaps that they seem to have a special insight into what it means to be an outsider, to be outside looking in. “It brings a different texture to the work.”

As for Salmon himself, he figures “the last thing anyone needs at the moment is a head-on COVID drama. “Too much too soon…. The world feels on standby.” He’s thinking comedy; it’s more oblique. “A comedy about a theatre trying to put on a COVID production and what a terrible idea that is? A social-distancing comedy about woman falling in love with an A.I. toaster?”

Image by Michael Vetsch

Meanwhile, you can consult the Alberta Queer Calendar. The episodes for January through March are available at or any podcast archive, each sponsored by an Alberta arts organization: 

January: Local Diva, Liam Salmon’s “one-person drag queen drama” with support by Glass Bookshop

February: À vendre, Émanuel Dubbeldam’s “family drama” written and recorded in French (with English subtitles), with support by L’UniThéâtre

March: Suspension, Hayley Moorhouse’s “dark, absurdist comedy,” with support by the SkirtsAfire Festival and Edmonton Arts Council.

The full schedule of releases, available at, has been delayed by the current travails. Pending is April’s episode, Pretty Ugly by Brett Dahl, supported by Theatre Outré. 

The podcasts are free; donations to the Queer Calendar’s Patreon campaign are welcome. 

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A time for dreaming: we asked theatre artists what roles and plays they’d love to do

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics

Dead Centre of Town, Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls,

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Everything’s Coming Up Chickens, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo supplied.

Live theatre hasn’t disappeared. It’s just on hold, suspended like time and probability, until we can all be together again in person: artists and their audiences, people sharing stories in a room.

Along with the human proximity that’s built into live theatre by definition, theatre artists have lost their livelihood, their jobs, their income — all on hold. But as you can tell from the ingenious ways they’ve devised to keep connecting in this time of isolation, you can’t stop creativity. And it’s artists who will eventually help us understand the experience and its weird sense of unreality. 

Meanwhile, maybe it’s a time for dreaming. We asked theatre artists —  actors and directors and producers — about the roles and the plays they dream of doing.    

Kendra Connor in Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

KENDRA CONNOR (actor, Teatro La Quindicina and Plain Jane star, Skirts on Fire, Everything’s Coming Up Chickens):

I have always had a soft spot for the older musicals. When I was a kid, I had a VHS tape of My Fair Lady that i watched over and over. I adored that musical and still do. I even sang Wouldn’t It Be Loverly in the Kiwanis Festival when I was in Grade 8, in a costume that my brilliant mother had cobbled together with a bunch of finds from Value Village. The part of Eliza Doolittle has been on my bucket list forever.

Also on my bucket list: I desperately want to play Amalia in She Loves Me again. I played that part opposite Farren Timoteo with Leave It to Jane years ago. We were just baby actors out of theatre school; Tim Ryan directed. It’s one of my all-time favourites. Would love to dig into it now that I’m a bit older. I’d also love to play Mrs Lovett in Sweeney ToddReally, I’d love to play anything in any Sondheim musical! 

For plays, I’d love to take a stab at something by Noel Coward — Private Lives maybe? Blithe Spirit?

Belinda Cornish, Christine Nguyen, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

BELINDA CORNISH, actor, playwright, director, improviser, producer, artistic director of Bright Young Things (her new play The Garneau Block was to have opened at the Citadel this season, postponed along with Peter Pan Goes Wrong):

“Plays I want to do, roles I’d love to play:

Joan Scott-Fowler in After The Dance by Terence Rattigan. It’s a beautifully bitter, big-cast comedy drama about the Lost Generation crumbling into liver failure in the ’30s. Like Noel Coward on a knife edge.

Gibbs (written as a male) in The Hothouse by Harold Pinter. Funny funny funny black comedy of menace set in a mysterious institution. Brilliantly reflects on authoritarian paranoia, and the brutal absurdities of bureaucracy.

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. This is, in my opinion, one of the most incredible plays ever written, savagely funny, epic and wild. I think it resonates most deeply with Brits…. “There’s a bass note that rings through it that sings, for good and ill, with the voice of the dark old gods of England.

Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. I played her 10 years ago with the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, directed by Marianne Copithorne, and had a glorious time. It’s just one of those roles I’d love to take another crack at!

Scandalabra by Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s utterly bananas, and I’m not totally sure it makes sense. Which is probably why its inaugural production back in the 30s tanked and, as far as I know, was never done again. But I love her, her stage directions are exquisitely funny, and it features an invisible leprechaun … so, what’s not to love??

Mathew Hulshof and Chris Pereira in Bed and Breakfast, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

MATHEW HULSHOF,  actor (Happy Birthday Baby J, The Finest of Strangers, Skirts On Fire, Bed and Breakfast, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley): 

“My big dream show would be Angels in America. I have been obsessed with it since I was a teen.  I think I’d make a pretty good Louis. sI can relate to him because he also never stops talking. I also love how unlikeable he is and it’s very fun to play people like that. 

Dream big, right? 

Dave Horak’s production of The Skin Of Our Teeth, with Vincent Forcier, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeff Haslam, Lauren Hughes in The Skin Of Our Teeth, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

DAVE HORAK, director/ actor/ artistic director of Edmonton Actors Theatre, with directing credits that include Every Brilliant Thing, The Skin Of Our Teeth, Fun Home, The Winter’s Tale, Burning Bluebeard, Terry and the Dog. His Much Ado About Nothing at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is, as of this week, still slated to open in mid-June). 

“I was supposed to start rehearsals on the new Hannah Moscovitch play at Theatre Network, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes  (directed by Marianne Copithorne). Not surprisingly it was cancelled, but it makes the next month tough, both financially and emotionally.… At least I know I’m not alone.

One thing that having time gives me is that I’m able to catch up on reading plays and dreaming of future productions. Once this whole thing is over with, with so many actors out of work, I’d love to do a big- cast comedy! So I’m looking at those big comedies from the 30’s and 40’s: many of those comedies came out of the Depression, and I think there is always something so hopeful and optimistic in the writing.

One of my heroes is George S. Kaufman and I’ve always wanted to do You Can’t Take it With You. It’s a bucket-list play I think would speak to us now…. Did you know Kaufman’s debut was something called Someone in the House that opened on Broadway in 1918 during the Spanish flu epidemic. I guess Kaufman suggested that the best way to avoid crowds in New York City was to attend his play! 

He also wrote for the Marx Brothers and I really feel like I need some Marx Brothers right now…. On a different note, I’m just getting out of self-isolation, and I’ve been thinking of plays that capture that feeling:  Isolation, loneliness, hopelessness. No one better that Sam Beckett! And he’s pretty funny, in a really bleak way.”

Julien Arnold as Bob Cratchit. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

JULIEN ARNOLD, actor/ director/ artistic director of Atlas Theatre, ( Mesa, The Finest of Strangers, Once,  A Christmas Carol, Two):

I’ve always wanted to play Dogberry (in Much Ado About Nothing), and the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, and the grave digger in Hamlet. Also, on a more ambitious note, Salieri in Amadeus. A part that I’d love to do but will probably never get the chance to: Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof!. 

MARGUERITE LAWLER, actor/ Rapid Fire Theatre improv star (The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius):

Marguerite Lawler in The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography,

A lot of the (shows) that have been mulling around in my brain lately have been big shows, whether in theme or in spirit, which makes sense given our collective solitude…. I’m feeling the need to sing my love for someone from the rooftops or get into an elaborate fake sword fight right about now.

I would really love to play Hamlet. Specifically outside in a thunderstorm…. And I’ve even had time to pen some of my own soliloquies to throw on in there that I’m sure would fit right in.

I would love to play the girl in Once. I think the show is beautiful any time of day, but a story about music bringing people together featuring love is resonant in all new ways in the New World…. I would REALLY like to be in The Book of Mormon. I really would. I’m completely serious about this.

I think we will need to remember to laugh, so I dream of doing some really great comedies…. I want to play Pat Wallace in Punch Up! By Kat Sandler, or be in Good Mother by Damien Atkins, a play very near and dear to my heart that made me feel less alone after my own mother’s stroke. I would love to do Next to Normal, play Evan Hansen, be in Venus in Fur or The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

JOHN ULLYATT, actor, playwright, playwright, director, street performer, aerialist (Every Brilliant Thing, Matilda, A Christmas Carol): 

John Ullyatt as Miss Trunchbull, Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

“I’ve been busy working on house renos (drywall) for a replacement gig at the moment.… Working with my neighbour, learning and having a good time…. 

Really, I’ve been so lucky to play so many great roles. I’d gladly do any of them again: Frank ’n’ Furter, Biff, Brick, Emcee, Katurian Katurian Katurian, Billy Bishop, Charlotte von Marlsdorf…  But during the rehearsal for Matilda, I stopped and said I didn’t have to do anything else, because I got to do everything I’ve ever wanted and more!  Throwing a kid by their pigtails!? Being a hulking ogre who does a gymnastic ribbon sequence!?  Being terrible to children for fun!?  All there.

I’d like to go back and do the first and second Dr. Grot shows. I’d love to work with Mike Kennard and John Turner. I’d love to play Richard III again, and Richard II. I’d like to play all the roles I didn’t get cast in that were real heartbreakers ( I won’t mention them). George III in Hamilton.  Hamlet (in a very re-imagined version). I’d love to work with Peter Hinton on anything. Metamorphoses? …. Dave Clarke is working on a couple of things that I would love to do….”

Coralie Cairns, Nadien Chu in The Roommate, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

CORALIE CAIRNS, actor, artistic associate and general manager of Shadow Theatre (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, The Roommate, most recentlyThe Children, cancelled several performances into its run). 

“Hmm, off the top of my head Mary Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill. Love the writing and the complexity of the character. I’ve been navigating the business side of the theatre and the Varscona since we entered this strange, surreal world so will have to have a think about your question.…

MIEKO OUCHI, director/ playwright/ actor/ co-artistic of Concrete Theatre (Pia and Maria, The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood, Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, The Antyssey):

“Mine would be a strange collection (of roles) I’m afraid. Auntie Mame: I LOVE Rosalind Russell in that kooky movie. Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown: despite Roman Polanski, I so love this movie. Robert Towne’s screenplay may be the best ever. And the role of Evelyn is magnificent. Sorry, all I’m thinking of right now are movies!  I’ll keep thinking…

Jeff Haslam and Cathy Derkach in The Finest of Strangers, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby Photography.

JEFF HASLAM, actor/ director/ star and ex-artistic director of Teatro La Quindicina (Fun Home, Lend Me A Tenor, A Likely Story, The Finest of Strangers, The Bad Seed, The Skin Of Our Teeth): 

“My fave answer always used to be ‘the role that hasn’t been written yet’ because my best friend and hero is a playwright and I always did all the new plays and worked for the new play companies, and that’s sorta why I stayed here.… Think I’ll go with my original gut answer.”

Byron Martin in Macbeth, Malachite Theatre. Photo by BB Collective.

BYRON MARTIN, actor/ director/ playwright/ producer/ artistic director of Grindstone Comedy Theatre and Bistro (The 11 O’Clock Number, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Urinetown):

“Yes, it is such a strange reality right now, I feel like I’m in hibernation mode.… These days I dream more of what plays I hope to produce and direct: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder; Avenue Q; The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee; The 39 Steps: The Book of Mormon, The Rocky Horror Show, Reefer Madness; Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. A fairly obscure David Mamet, Keep Your Pantheon.

I’m also really focusing on getting ThunderCATS (an original musical) to its next stage of development….”

Get Happy! directed by Kate Ryan, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo suppied

KATE RYAN, actor/ director/ playwright/ artistic director Plain Jane Theatre Company (Fun Home, most recently creator/director of Get Happy!).

So, musicals I have been dreaming about, listening to and singing out in my living room: Gotta love Sondheim! I would love to direct or act in any of his musicals! I never tire working on his songs, such complex thoughts and feelings…. I find myself singing everything these days from Dot in Sunday in the Park with George to Mama Rose in Gypsy. Right now-our old English sheepdog Charlie is my audience, so I sing “Charlie, why can’t it be like it was?” (Merrily We Roll Along).

Mostly I’ve been working on and dreaming about the musicals I’m hoping to do some time in the near future. Teatro La Quindicina’s Everybody Goes to Mitzi’s (July) and Sondheim’s Assassins with the Citadel Theatre’s Young Company. The Citadel has enabled us to continue working on Assassins via Zoom. A company of 10, a musical director and myself: it’s a whole new rehearsing experience for all of us. We got the ‘Zoom giggles of weirdness’ out on Monday evening, and start up again tonight.”

Playwright Ellen Chorley with cast of Everybody Loves Robbie, Jayce McKenzie left and Richard Lee Hsi. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

ELLEN CHORLEY, actor/ playwright/ director/ artistic director of Send in the Girls Burlesqueand Nextfest (Everybody Loves Robbie):

“As I get older and progress in my career my dreams about the arts have changed.  I definitely graduated theatre school with a bucket list of dream roles but now my dreams for my corner of the theatre world have definitely changed…. They’re more focussed on writing, producing. As a playwright, my dream is to be produced more on a national level and have a play published.  As a producer, my dream is to make Edmonton a hotbed of innovative and exciting work, so young artists can feel as if they can create here and STAY HERE….”  

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Shadow Theatre focuses on local writers next season

Elena Porter, Julien Arnold, Linda Grass in The Wrong People Have Money, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls,

Shadow Theatre will finish its current season — but not until the fall.

The Wrong People Have Money, the Shadow season finale with the resonant title (I can see you nodding), was to have premiered at the end of April. In updated news, says artistic director John Hudson, it will premiere Oct. 21 to Nov. 8 at the Varscona Theatre. 

“Since we now can’t do everything we planned,” says Hudson of the new reality that saw the cancellation of Shadow’s production of Heisenberg after just three performances, “we’re committing to the new plays by local writers. That’s our priority.” So premieres of plays by McColm, Conni Massing, and Darrin Hagen will happen under the Shadow flag.

“We’ve been working on it for two years,” says Hudson of The Wrong People Have Money, five-actor comedy by McColm, whose writing credits include assorted movies of the week and episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The timely fantasia on brainstorming and ingenuity is “such a great satire, very funny, very sharp.” Hudson describes the premise: “a professor teaches a class about striving for the impossible, and gets a lot of publicity (for the speculative assignment) ‘what if you took Greenland and moved it south, to the middle of the Atlantic?’.” Is this completely loony? Is this the great business opportunity we’ve all been waiting for? Feasibility studies ensue.

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Hudson’s cast includes Linda Grass and Elena Porter, with Steven Greenfield and Andrea House taking on a variety of roles. One of House’s characters has “a very funny anti-Canada rant,” says Hudson. And plays the professor. 

The Wrong People Have Money, which remains part of the current season, bumps the 2020-2021 season opener to occupy the October slot. And Bloomsday, the much-produced “missed love story” (as Hudson puts it) by the American playwright Stephen Dietz, has been re-scheduled to Shadow’s 30th anniversary season in January 2022.

2020-2021 season image, Shadow Theatre. Photo supplied.

The upcoming season, reduced from four to three productions, opens in January 2021 with The Mountaintop (Jan. 20 to Feb. 2). The 2009 play by the young American writer Katori Hall — launched originally in a London fringe theatre before its 2011 Broadway incarnation starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett — is spun from a turning point moment in American history. It’s 1968 in a cheap Memphis motel room, the night before the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King. 

The infrastructure of The Mountaintop, named for one of King’s most celebrated speeches, “is King’s interaction with a mysterious housekeeper,” says Hudson. “It’s about the nature of legacy and what we accomplish in our lives.”

Hudson is considering bringing in “the beautiful Rosebud Theatre production” of last fall, directed by artistic director Morris Ertman and starring Ray Strachan and Patricia Cerra.

The season includes two premieres by star Edmonton playwrights. Fresh Hell by Conni Massing (March 10 to 28) is, thinks Hudson, “a huge departure” for a playwright best known for her wry, off-centre comedies and romances.

“She’s never written anything like it,” he says says of a play that’s an trio of imagined encounters between two formidable women: the American writer/ poet/ activist/ critic Dorothy Parker and Joan of Arc. “In one of her suicide attempts, Dorothy Parker conjures Joan,” says Hudson. And themes that come up between them includes “sacrifice, legacy, being a woman in a male-dominated world….”

Hudson has assembled an all-female team for Fresh Hell. Tracy Carroll’s production stars Kate Newby as Parker and Paula Humby as Joan. “It’s a fascinating journey to be on with Conni, as she exercises different muscles as a writer,” he says. 

The season finale is a new play by Darrin Hagen, the presiding muse of Guys in Disguise and the author of such plays as The Empress and the Prime Minister, Tornado Magnet, Buddy, With Bells On. As Hudson describes, 10 Funerals (April 28 to May 16, 2021) follows the same couple as they age together through 30 years: in each scene they’re returning from a funeral. Four actors play the couple, younger and older. “There’s so much heart and warmth in Darrin’s writing. But it’s funny as can be!”   

“We’ve lost two shows this season,” says Hudson. “And there’s a real (financial) hit to that. But we have a great board and we’re a pretty stable, well-managed company…. We’re plunging more and more into new work. It’s a real focus and passion of mine.” 

Further information at, 780-434-5564.

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‘Hello. My name is Jamie Cavanagh. And I want to be Wolverine’.

Jamie Cavanagh in Wild James: A Wolverine Fan Film. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

In a mapless, chaotic universe, it’s kind of reassuring to find a goal, and a campaign, to get behind. Here’s one, and it even has clarity and showbiz sense on its side: Jamie Cavanagh wants to be Wolverine.

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Now that Hugh Jackman has retired from his movie alter-ego as the iconic, super-powered,  brooding Marvel character, star of X-Men and Avengers, Cavanagh is campaigning Disney to occupy that role in “the inevitable MCU reboot,” as he puts it.

And why not? Start with the Wolverine origin story, and the way it synchronizes with Cavanagh’s own: “My home town is Edmonton, Alberta, Canada” as the multi-faceted Toronto-based actor/ playwright/ director/ comic improviser says in his official candidacy launch on YouTube. And it’s right here in northern Alberta that James Howlett, who would grow up to be Wolverine, was born in the late 19th century. “Initially it was probably because of its remoteness and harshness, the middle-of-nowhere,” Cavanagh concedes. But, hey, amazing things have happened here, as we know.

Jamie Cavanagh in Wild James: A Wolvering Fan Film. Photo supplied.

On the phone from Toronto Cavanagh remembers “a campaign that got a bit of news traction a few years ago to get a Wolverine statue in Churchill Square.” But Cavanagh’s affection for Wolverine goes much farther back. “Since always,” he says. “Ever since I was a kid. He’s the coolest. Great powers. Tough…..” 

Theatre audiences here have applauded Cavanagh’s work on stages large and small, including Freewill Shakespeare, Theatre Network, Shadow, Punctuate!, Rapid Fire. Until the virus he was going to be the title character in the Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club co-production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, right after a Toronto production of The Huns at the Brighton Fringe across the pond. He has an ever-expanding resumé of film, TV, and online credits. He trains MMA and kickboxing three times a week. In short, Cavanagh has every possible credential for playing Wolverine  — except one. Fame, and maybe that’s over-rated, as Cavanagh wants to explore. Since Disney is in the position of re-casting the character with the distinctive super-powers, now is the moment for his Make Jamie Wolverine campaign. “I wanted to beat the story, to come in before the announcement” of a new star.

Coralie Cairns, Davina Stewart, John Sproule, Jamie Cavanagh in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

His agent has told him “that’s not the way this industry works.” But the the actor/ comedian, a U of A theatre school grad most recently seen here in a very funny turn in Shadow’s 2019 season finale Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (he played the remarkably fit Spike), is undeterred. “I’m testing the gatekeepers a bit,” he says. “How much can I actually do by myself?”

Quite a lot, actually. There’s a petition to sign at  There’s a beautifully shot, intensely acted short film Wild James: A Wolverine Fan Film, starring Cavanagh as the young Howlett, beginning to discover his special powers and beset by hostile thuggish locals who reject him as a freakish outsider. The fight scenes choreographed by Jeff Hanson are highly impressive. Hey Disney, this is one visceral, kick-ass audition.

“OK, it’s a crazy idea,” says Cavanagh, currently working on another unusual venture, Outside the March’s unique on-the-phone experiment, The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries, custom-made for every ticket-buyer who contributes a mystery from their life for the cast to improvise. “Is it possible for me, a relative unknown, to be considered for the role of Wolverine? There are no precedents, no blueprints.”

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The Digital Fringe: Chase Padgett’s bright idea for tough times

For Science! starring Christine Lesiak, available on Digital Fringe. Photo by Johanna Hung.

By Liz Nicholls,

The Fringe has always been a lab for bright ideas. That’s why the people love it; that’s what it’s for, this bright idea hatched in Edmonton 38 summers ago. So here’s a new one, from Fringe fave/ playwright/ actor/ musician/ and now video producer Chase Padgett, of 6 Guitars and Nashville Hurricane fame.

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Digital Fringe is a series that brings 10 Fringe hits — in a wide range of styles and genres — to you in your living room stronghold, for a Fringe-y ticket price of $11.99 (or the entire season for $39.99) of which 90 per cent goes directly to the artists.

Search either Digital Fringe Volume 1 on or go to And you’ll find shows that include TJ Dawe’s Operatic Panic Attack (which Padgett filmed at the Vancouver Fringe), Reality Crack, an unclassifiable experimental piece written and performed by Candace Berlinguette and Laura Raboud (filmed at the Edmonton Fringe), and For Science! Small Matters Productions’ delightful clown experiment in applying the scientific method to matters of the stage (filmed here).

It all started out a year and a half ago, at the end of the 2018 Edmonton Fringe, Padgett’s project for capturing and preserving the pleasures, challenges, and excitement of top shows from the circuit of Fringe festivals across the country. And it’s still that. But in this new world of isolation and uncertainties, postponements and cancellations, it gains an additional creative lustre — for both Fringe audiences and artists who have suddenly lost their financial (and artistic) footing. Padgett himself is one.

Chase Padgett and Christina Garies, in Chase Padgett Gets Married, at Edmonton Fringe 2019.

Fringe credentials don’t come more gilt-edged. His actual wedding last summer was a one-night Fringe show, Chase Padgett Gets Married at BYOV 20, the Garneau Theatre. 6 Guitars was slated for a Toronto run this very week with Mirvish Productions, and is now on indefinite hold. “Right now I’d have been waking up in Toronto, getting ready for my matinee,” says the amiable and articulate Florida native on the phone from his new home, Vancouver, B.C. “Here I am, surfing the apocalypse like everyone else. 

The “Fringe tour,” a circuit of Fringe festivals that crisscrosses the country (and the continent) and contributes mightily to artist incomes, is now precarious, every step of the way. As Padgett points out, his home town Fringe in Orlando — slated for May 11 and the oldest and “widely regarded as the best in the States” as he says — has been cancelled. Heartbreaking news. Another May Fringe, in London, Ont., has been rescheduled for late September.

TJ Dawe in Operatic Panic Attack. Photo supplied.

The mighty Edmonton Fringe, the oldest and the biggest of them all, owns August, just before Vancouver and Victoria, and after Montreal, Toronto, and in July, Winnipeg. “I sure hope it happens,” says Padgett, a 10-year veteran of the Fringe tour. “No one really knows at this point…. What I do know is we’ve all already lost gigs we needed to pay the bills.” Digital Fringe “just gives us a way to maybe weather the storm a little better. Also, I can work on video without going outside!”

Padgett unspools his digital idea back to its origins. “For 10 years (on the Fringe circuit) I’d been seeing shows that blew me away…. They became lore; there was a romanticism to them,” he says of legendary Fringe shows that vanished into the cultural ether as titles alone. “And I thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool to re-live them?’ And in a way that would be more than just an archive.”

And there was a financial impetus too. Unlike film and TV, “there are no residuals for stage actors, no mailbox money for them, no cast albums…. If I could prove a viable business model for monetizing theatre beyond a cast recording, if it became financially viable, the whole world of indie theatre would transform. It would open more doors. And maybe even raise the bar (on indie productions) in time….”

There Ain’t No More, starring Willi Carlisle, Breaker/Fixer Productions

The inspiration came from affection. “I love the environment of the circuit,” Padgett says of the world of the artists who move from Fringe to Fringe across the country. “It’s a very interesting life; I feel part of this very special fraternity.”

As every indie theatre artist will tell you (and I can attest, from a zillion press kits), “it’s so hard to get good video,” he says of the theatre need that he set about filling, the vast gap between Netflix quality and the average archival video footage of the average theatre artist. “In every town I’d hear ‘does anyone know anyone who does video?’”

Padgett, who “nearly went into electrical engineering in college,” tapped the technical side of his brain. He taught himself video production, “a real craft … tailored for a Fringe environment, set-up in 30 minutes. I was learning and providing a service to artists.”

In the summer of 2018 Padgett “didn’t have a lot of gear,” only a camera he’d been using to capture his own Disney cruise line shows (a showbiz life he details in his Fringe show Heart Attacks and Other Blessings). He was in full borrow-stuff mode. But he had a discerning eye — and ear. “For a real professional production you need multiple cameras. And it needs to sound great.” It’s in audio that most theatre videos fall dramatically short, says Padgett, a top-drawer musician himself as his theatre fans know from his shows which invariably include music. “The eye is way more forgiving than the ear.”

And, as Padgett points out, especially in Fringe productions which tend to be sparing in the visuals, the presence of the audience via expert aural capture is indispensable in creating a sense of space and dimension.

The current Digital Fringe series is Volume of a long-term dream for “a video-on-demand service for new theatre … a sort of Netflix for new creative work by minds that love the theatre.” He’s already thinking of a Volume 2 that will include storyteller Paul Strickland’s 90 Lies An Hour that he filmed last year. 

His medium-term plan was to mention Digital Fringe in post-performance shout-outs this summer, “and build awareness.” But the world overtook him. Times being what they are, very tough for artists, he went into production tempo. “I just want to ease the pain a little bit for everybody…. I wish I had more more diversity (in artists and genres). But this is all the video I had on hand.”

Padgett will be shooting more shows, whenever the Fringes ramp up this summer. Look for his updated Heart Attack and Other Blessings at the Winnipeg Fringe in July, and the Garneau Theatre BYOV in August. “If it happens, I’ll be there!”

The first 100 people to use the promo code “freefringe” will get a 100 per cent discount. And if you’re struggling to get the ticket price together, email Padgett at for a hand with that.

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Zoom in on Shakespeare: Malachite Theatre bridges the gap

Shakespeare Sundays continues with Henry IV Part One. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls,

At a stressful moment when a virus is conspiring to make borders, to divide us from each other, what is live theatre to do? It is, after all, an art devoted by very definition to creating an imaginative connection, directly, with real people. Sharing, on the spot. But there’s this: Ingenuity and inventiveness are a theatre specialty. And though gatherings are on hold (which is vital, but lordie, how we miss them), creativity stops for no mere virus.   

Shakespeare himself, actor/ playwright/ theatre impresario par excellence, negotiated his way through periodic outbreaks of the plague. He’s the resident playwright at Malachite Theatre, a trans-Atlantic indie company that specializes in Shakespeare (and divides its time and human resources between Edmonton and London).  And Malachite is determined bring its audience an international experience to share — live, or as live as possible. 

Wine Wednesdays and Taco Tuesdays may not be happening. But Shakespeare Sundays are gathering momentum, in a weekly series of play readings chosen to follow Shakespeare’s history play cycle, in story order.

Artistic director Benjamin Blyth explains Malachite’s bright idea. Via the free and interactive online platform Zoom, every Sunday — morning here (11 a.m.) and evening in the U.K. — an international cast of artists joins an international gathering of audience members, for another play in the history cycle.

Shakespeare Sundays

Why the history plays? Says Blyth, “they’re all about privilege, isolationism, greed, nationalism.” You can’t argue with the fit, times being what they are.

Last week’s inaugural offering was the rarely performed Richard II, about a disastrously unqualified leader urged to abdication. “And I was just amazed how well it went,” says Blyth. “It was really an international event, artists and audiences interfacing from the U.K., Canada, U.S., China … places Malachite has toured.” And the reading was followed by a group discussion. “Heartwarming times in iambic pentameter!” as billed.

As he says, “everyone is in the same boat,” and hungry for a shared theatre experience. In a cast of 20-plus (“we don’t have to worry about doubling the parts”), he himself played the Duke of York, and his actor/composer wife Danielle LaRose played the Duchess of York.

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This Sunday coming up, it’s Henry IV Part One, a play rich in vivid characters, including the great carousing dissolute John Falstaff and his drinking buddies (Prince Hal among them), and the fierce high-achiever Hotspur. And Blyth is hoping for a cast of upward than 30, depending on who signs up before the parts are assigned Saturday night. Ben Waring, an actor currently living on a boat in Suffolk, England, played Bolingbroke in Richard II, and he reprises his role in Henry IV Part One. “He has a three-month-old baby boy Christopher, who makes an appearance from time to time,” says Blyth.

The Zoom app, already much in use in the business world for meetings, is admirably suited to bringing artists and audiences together, says Blyth. “At home you can turn video or sound (of yourself) On or Off,” depending on whether you prefer just to watch and listen in, or be visible as part of the audience. Your view, adjustable on the app, can be “speaker only, or the gallery view, everyone at once.”

So your preferences and idiosyncrasies as an audience member can be accommodated. Are you the person who always gravitates to the back of any theatre? Under the circumstances do you prefer to stay in your bathrobe? You can turn the video off.

“It works really well for a reading,” says Blyth of the debut edition. “It flattens the distance between actor and audience…. You can join in. Or not. Oddly, it’s more intense, in a way, since you’re invited into people’s homes.” And here’s a bonus for Shakespeare: “you don’t need to cut the play,” to fit the time requirements of the theatre venue.

The post-reading discussion is “in the Q and A style. So if you want to offer something, you can go for it. It’s really good as a way of encouraging active listening.” He laughs. “It’s a very polite medium; everyone gets space to speak, and reflect.”

“It closes distances. It’s great to see people from the north of England next to people from Calgary, and someone in New York…. And to know that this conversation is happening across vast distances.” And there’s something intimate about the whole experience. Blyth laughs. LaRose “made cookies in the middle of Act II, and they appeared later in the play.”

“Now we’re keen to explore what the production possibilities are,” says Blyth, who’s looking at reviving the Malachite Macbeth that ran at Holy Trinity Church in 2019.

“The conversation is a way of building an international community. Breaking down borders that have newly gone up…. We’re a community that comes together to share stories. It’s a way of bridging physical distances without social distancing!”

Here are Blyth’s instructions. “The Zoom link: Please download the zoom app to your computer or phone first, then click the link above to join on Sunday!”


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Bring on the women: Northern Light Theatre’s 45th anniversary season

Northern Light Theatre 45th anniversary season. Photo by Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls,

There’s a certain wincing irony attached to cancelling the run of a play called Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver, to be sure. And that’s what happened, sadly, in the case of Northern Light Theatre’s season finale, which was to have opened this weekend in the Studio Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barns.

But NLT’s longtime artistic director Trevor Schmidt, an expert in juggling shoestring budget planning, and the fine art of theatrical ingenuity to match, says “we’re not taking a huge hit…. I don’t think it (the cancellation) will mean any changes to next season’s programming.”

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And NLT’s upcoming 45th anniversary season is what has him excited. “I picked the theme first,” Schmidt says of planning his four-play line-up — up a play from the company’s usual three — that launches in September with The Oldest Profession, a 1981 black comedy by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American star playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned To Drive).

NLT’s quartet of 2020-2021 shows will be occupied by actors of a certain age, all women. 

In a youth-oriented culture “I really want to acknowledge the senior performers in our community, that I think are being neglected or overlooked,” says the director/designer of his season focus. “We’re in a society, and especially in our industry, that really values the new and emerging…. We’re seeing a lot of young people coming out of training schools after four years, feeling very entitled, and not quite recognizing there are people who went to school four years ahead of them, and worked really hard and paid their dues.”

“There are no grants for people in their ‘50s who are changing their focus, starting in a new direction….” he points out. The NLT season is “a sign of respect from our company. There are very few roles for women over 55…. I’ve purposefully tried to cast them, through as many shows as we could manage, with as many cast members. And to bring back some people who haven’t been seen onstage for a few years.” 

The Oldest Profession (Sept. 18 to Oct. 3) got its world premiere, curiously enough, in Edmonton in 1988, in a joint Theatre Network/25th Street production (with the late Barbara Reese in the cast). Lo these many years, it’s back, the largest show in the NLT season.

The characters are five sex workers in their 70s and 80s. The play, says Schmidt, operates on the “blackbird principle”: In the first scene there are five, then four, then three, two … “because they die off. Reaganomics, trickle-down economics, ideas about how that affected the elderly, and women in their business with no security, no pensions; their clientele is getting older, their bodies that aren’t what they used to be.…”

“It’s a comedy, but it’s a Northern Light kind of comedy: super-dark. You know me; I like my comedies pitch-black!” Schmidt laughs.

Schmidt’s cast includes Holly Turner (The Testament of Mary, Origin of the Species), Nimet Kanji (Contractions), Karen Gartner, and Coralie Cairns, with the fifth role yet to be cast. “I wanted to make sure we cast a good group, and made it a safe and supportive environment,” says Schmidt. “No pressure, no panic.”

Naturally, he’s looking forward to the costume design for the show. “Hmm, an 80-something sex worker … how high is too high a heel?”

The Ugly Duchess, by the Victoria-based playwright Janet Munsil, is a 1999 solo show imagined from a historical woman, Margaret Maultasch, the 14th century monarch of Tyrol reputed to be the ugliest woman in the world. She was also a highly desirable bride thanks to the advantageous location of her realm. And the arc of the play, explains Schmidt, “beautifully poetic and lyrical, is her dressing and putting on her make-up, her armour, in front of a mirror.”

Originally performed by a man (Paul Terry), the play has been something of a festival hit in its time. The star of Schmidt’s production, which runs Nov. 6 to 21, has yet to be announced.

Mirrors and faces figure prominently, too, in The Look, by the Australian playwright and TV screenwriter Alexa Wyatt (whose presence in the season continues an NLT practice of introducing us to writers whose names and work we don’t yet know). As Schmidt describes it, “an older woman, the former face of Estelle Cosmetics, has been aged out, demoted to training (younger) women to work on the new campaign…. And she starts to lose her mind!”

“It’s very funny, in a Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs kind of way,” he says of a play that’s never been produced. “Funny until it’s not.” Linda Grass stars in the Schmidt production (Jan. 22 to Feb. 6), to be set up as a cabaret.

The season finale is Something Unspoken, a Tennessee Williams one-act two-hander from the early 1950s and set in a house in Mississippi. That’s where two women, the lady of the house and her personal secretary, are waiting on the results of a vote; the former is running to be the Regent of the Daughter of the Confederacy, which has the kind of politics you might imagine.

Schmidt’s production (April 15 to May 1) pairs a white and a black  actor, Davina Stewart and Patricia Darbasie, casting that ups the play’s ante “from class to racial imbalance in power…. I’m excited to explode the play open,” he says of a scanty 25-page script “filled with stage directions.”

The title, says Schmidt, alludes to “something that happened 14 years ago.” And that something hints at the sexual. “I’m thinking (Williams) wrote a gay play in 1952!”

The season has an add-on, a two-night stand (Nov. 27 and 28), in a “special rehearsed reading,” of a new Schmidt play We Had A Girl Before You, a Gothic thriller set in a cliff-side house.

Early-bird subscriptions available through April 15, at 780-471-1586 or


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Are you Stuck-In-The House? The Citadel can help with that (an update from E-town’s biggest theatre)

The Garneau Block, postponed by The Citadel Theatre. Photo by Arthur Mah.

By Liz Nicholls,

True, you can’t show up for a live in-person experience at the theatre. But Edmonton’s largest theatre company invites you to share the work of our impressive talent pool of local artists anyway — in your own home.

The Citadel’s bright idea is a timely adaptation of their House comedy, cabaret and concert series introduced last season and cut short in these challenging, isolating times. This very day the Citadel launches its new Stuck-In-The-House Series.

Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran. Photo: Ryan Parker.

Artistic director Daryl Cloran, stuck in his own house at present, explains. “We’re inviting Edmonton artists to send us videos (or live-streams) of their performances, whether they be excerpts of shows that got cancelled, or other pieces of art, songs, music, comedy, they want to share.… There are so many talented people in Edmonton. And all of them had something cancelled or postponed.”

The idea is “one video per day every day the theatre is closed, as long as we need to” says Cloran. “And we’ll put it online, on our Facebook page. And we invite the people who watch to donate.”

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All donations go directly to the artists; the theatre doesn’t take a cut. Additionally, with the support of the Edmonton Community Foundation, which agreed to move part of the Citadel’s grant into the project, “every artist will get paid an honorarium.” As Cloran says “it’s a little money going their way. And a chance for us to keep the art alive.”

First up in Stuck-In-The House, available online today at 4 p.m., resonates strongly in that regard. Oscar Derkx, a cast-member in two Citadel productions, As You Like It and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, impacted by the current crisis, sings Let It Be, from the former: Cloran’s ‘60s-style production, set to some 25 Beatles songs, closed four performances earlier than slated. “It’s just heartbreakingly gorgeous,” says Cloran.

Every day at noon, expect a new Stuck-In-The-House offering. Saturday’s has actor/ playwright, improviser Belinda Cornish presenting “a look at her adaptation of Todd Babiak’s novel The Garneau Block,” which was to have had its world premiere last weekend. On Sunday, the premier theatre couple Kristi Hansen and Sheldon Elter, talk about their cancelled shows, Edmonton Opera’s Candide and Punctuate! Theatre’s After The Fire (respectively).

As You LIke It. Photo by Dylan Hewlett

Cloran says he and Citadel executive director Chantell Ghosh have done an introductory video “where you get to see me play my drums! One night during previews for As You Like It, I wore a referee costume, and played with the band!”

As for this season’s heartbreaking news, Cloran is determined that Citadel audiences won’t be deprived of either The Garneau Block or Peter Pan Goes Wrong, both postponed, not cancelled. “We’re committed to these shows,” he says, “both for artists to get to do them and audiences to get to see them…. ” But the “when” can’t be nailed down, of course. “We’re drawing up plans, imagining them, right now. But things seem to change hourly.”

The Garneau Block got as far as the final dress rehearsal before the run was shut down, the night before the first public preview. The Citadel invited “a really lovely audience” of artists whose shows had been cancelled, As You Like It, Candide, Noises Off (at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre), etc. “Then we locked the doors of the Maclab, and walked out. It’s all still set up in there. And our hope is that when we get the go-ahead, it’ll just be a matter of trying to get the artists back together and ramping it up again.”

That reassembling of actors and the creative team depends, of course, on the length of the hiatus. A couple of months delay is a very different situation than six, or a whole season, as Cloran points out. “If we’re able to get back in the summer, we have some flexibility.” Elvis the Musical is slated to run in July, “if the world allows our first big show back… Maybe we could run The Garneau Block in August, to celebrate an Edmonton story along with another Edmonton story, the Edmonton Fringe…. If it gets pushed back into next season then we have to make choices.”

Could The Garneau Block be delayed till the following season? Might it displace one of the announced 2020-2021 productions? “It’s all dependent on what the world allows,” says Cloran. “And we really can’t know until we get closer to summer and fall…. Right now we’re going with the thought that next season remains in place as planned.”

As it stands, a cancellation of The Garneau Block (a Citadel commission) and Peter Pan Goes Wrong (a co-production with Vancouver’s Arts Club, which was to have staged it in the summer), represents “more than $1 million loss in box office revenue alone, not counting what we spent building and rehearsing. A big hit.”

The Garneau Block “is going to happen!” Cloran declares. “We just can’t guarantee when. Whether it’s this summer or next season, or two seasons from now, it will. We have a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D….”

“Belinda (playwright Cornish) did a great job of it; Rachel’s (director Rachel Peake) production is really lovely….We’re committed,” he says. “Please stick with us over the next couple of months as we develop a plan…. You can choose to hang on to those tickets, or transfer them to another show. Or donate that ticket cost to support us.” And if none of the above is workable, “a refund, of course.”






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When the curtain doesn’t open: strange nights without theatre

The Garneau Block, postponed at the Citadel Theatre. Dress rehearsal shot by Arthur Mah. Jackson.

Playwright Belinda Cornish and director Rachel Peake, in the rehearsal room, The Garneau Block, postponed at the Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

It’s a strange feeling. I’ve spent most of my adult life encouraging people to go to live theatre. Exhorting people to share the excitement, the fun, the surprise, the laughter and the tears, the shared gasp, the surge of feeling, the new ideas, the sense of breathing together … and trying to write about the experience in a way that might intrigue them.

It goes against the grain, to put it mildly, to be advising people that they’re much better off by themselves, at home, at a safe distance from their fellow humans — and for their own good. It’s like discovering that the law of gravity has been suspended.

And when you’ve gone out for a living, night after night, for the last 35 years, just staying home feels a bit like floating off the planet into outer space, and holding your breath. Not to mention that theatre is, supremely and by definition, a live and living form that’s all about the proximity of real people, the spark that happens when artists and their audiences share a room. It’s a spark you don’t get watching a screen.

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And there’s this: live theatre is also a culture of close calls and close-to-the-bone operations. No one (sane) goes into live theatre for the money. Theatre people are incredibly good at making much of little. But not-for-profit theatre companies aren’t sitting on cushy margins; they’re precipice-dwellers at the best of times. The very necessary hiatus, the cancellations and postponements at theatres large and small that are the through-line of theatre news these days, are heartbreaks, every one.

When Edmonton Opera announces the cancellation of Candide, which was to have opened last Saturday night, that production is one of three for their entire season. When the Varscona Theatre announces the temporary closure of its 200-seat house, ditto Grindstone Comedy Theatre in their tiny venue, the loss of revenue from(very) modestly-priced tickets, is a huge body-blow to venues, and every arts group that uses them.

The chief investors in theatre are its artists. They inhabit a precarious world of freelance gigs and short-term contracts, unstable at the best of times; to survive most of them take on other gigs, waiting tables for example, in industries that are also inextricably linked to the gathering of real live people. 

Here’s the thing about theatre artists, of every stripe: they’re ingenious, and urgent, about sharing. They always have been. And the current physical separation of artists and their audiences, necessary as it is, won’t last forever. In the meantime, artists’ bright ideas and resourcefulness in connecting is inspiring.

Theatre and opera companies around the world are taking to the world of live-streaming. The Social Distancing Festival launched, online natch, by Toronto-based actor/playwright Nick Green, whose play Happy Birthday Baby J was recently onstage at Shadow Theatre, gathers information about cancelled and postponed shows from across the country. Check it out:

Die-Nasty, Edmonton’s live weekly improvised soap opera — this season a Jazz Age setting — isn’t running in person at the Varscona, of course. But every Monday night the performers, deluxe improvisers all, gather online from their 12 homes, and through the magic of video conferencing they improvise the Die-Nasty Radio Play, set in the early days of vaudeville. The first episode was last Monday; you can catch it on YouTube.

Northern Light Theatre has cancelled the production of Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver that was to have opened next week. But, says artistic director Trevor Schmidt, they’re planning to post to their website some video sequences from rehearsal, and views of the set and costumes. At least we can catch a glimpse of what we’re missing. 

It’s tricky, to be sure. But director Stephen Heatley, a drama prof at UBC, says they’re devising ways to have acting classes online.

Darka Tarnawsky of Bottom Line Productions, agents provocateurs and specialists in arts marketing and publicity strategies, sent out a letter, full of brainstorming initiatives and provocations, to the arts community. “Is this the opportune time to share some fun archival content? To write and post that blog about art appreciation  you’ve always wanted to do? To prep and share a short video performance, Skype interview or haiku about your coming season? No idea is too out-there.”

With the closures and postponements that have happened in New York, where theatre is dark till at least April 16. Time-Out New York, devoted to telling its readers what’s on in the Big Apple, has re-christened itself temporarily Time In. The chief reviewer presides over a “theatre from home” site to announce webcasts and live streaming entertainment events. Broadway World (@BroadwayWorld) has a #LivingRoomConcerts series featuring Broadway stars singing numbers from the musicals audiences are missing at the moment.

Or there’s reading. Mark Fisher of the Guardian has suggested resorting to the page — and starting, with all the allegedly unstageable plays you can get your mitts on, like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Hey, is this the moment for a GBS binge?

Artists and arts companies do need our support to stay afloat and breathing. Instead of collecting a refund, consider donating an unused ticket for shows that aren’t happening right now. Or buy a subscription for the upcoming season.   

In the note that Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater sent out to its audiences this past week, they said “our greatest hope is that this current hiatus of live theatre at Steppenwolf and elsewhere will only serve to rekindle our love and appreciation for it.”

In Edmonton, we already have a profound and lively sense of what we’re missing. Hold that thought, and stay tuned.



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Sad news: In Barbara Reese Edmonton theatre has lost a fine artist

Barbara Reese, painted in the 1970s by Margaret Mooney.

By Liz Nicholls,

With the death last month of Barbara Reese, Edmonton theatre has lost a fine artist, a generous collaborator and friend to artists, and an irreplaceable player in the drama of its history.

Her departure has left us a little unpinned from the days in which theatre here began to proliferate and boom — as a hinterland city 2,000 miles from Toronto gradually, but strikingly, took on the energy and colour palette of a bona fide theatre town.

Her embrace was wide and warm: Reese was onstage at every Edmonton theatre, from the largest playhouse, the Citadel (Uncle Vanya and The Trojan Women were among her credits), to the start-ups, like Workshop West and Theatre Network, that were springing up as alternatives in the late ‘70s. The Reese resumé includes Walterdale, the U of A’s Studio Theatre, and Theatre 3, the company out of whose ashes Phoenix Theatre arose. Fringe audiences enjoyed Reese’s performances too, in plays like Cut!, a witty theatre spoof by Lyle Victor Albert. “Cliché as it sounds her favourite show was always the one with which she was currently involved,” says her actor/ director/ teacher son Larry Reese, who appeared with his mother in more than a few films.

Reese was awarded the Sterling for outstanding contribution to Edmonton theatre in 1997. And by no means did she stop then. 

Her career, on stage and screen, first took off in the ‘70s in Edmonton, where she and her husband Will Reese, a science educator, poet, and notable storyteller in his later years, re-located from the U.S. and became Canadian citizens. Another invaluable grand dame of the theatre, Margaret Mooney, remembers working with Reese in the box office of the old Citadel, in the ex-Sally Ann citadel on 102 St. She recalls walking with her friend from the “new Citadel” to the Westin Hotel for lunch. “The doorman rushed over and said he’d seen Barbara in a play and raved and carried on! This was charming,” says Mooney, who painted her friend’s portrait in the 1970s.  

Reese taught in the Citadel’s “Drama Workshops.” The brochure for the 1971-71 season describes her as “a highly competent and popular returnee to Workshop staff … much in demand as a performer in radio and television.” Her experience, says the blurb, “includes acting and directing theatrical productions from East Pakistan to Edmonton.”

Barbara Reese

In 1979, the second season of Workshop West, a new company devoted to the Canadian repertoire, its founding father Gerry Potter remembers directing Reese in David French’s Of The Fields, Lately, the second of his seminal Mercer family saga (she appeared in the series’ first play Leaving Home at Walterdale). She played Mary, the mom character and Mercer family mediator in “the production that put the company in the public eye in Edmonton,” says Potter, not least “by later winning what was called the First Night Award for Outstanding Production…. Much of that attention was due to Barbara’s carefully crafted but very passionate performance.”

Stephen Heatley, an early artistic director of another of Edmonton’s new “small theatres” Theatre Network, and now a drama prof at UBC, remembers Reese in The Oldest Profession, the Paula Vogel play (in Northern Light Theatre’s upcoming season lineup) that was part of Network’s annual exchange with Saskatoon’s 25th Street Theatre in the ‘80s.

He himself directed Barbara in Raymond Storey’s thriller The Angel of Death in 1983. “She played the housekeeper and was truly wonderful.” He describes her as “such a generous performer and such a wonderful person to have in the cast. She really was like a mom to all of us. And she had a wicked sense of humour.”

She left her mark, literally, at the old Network, a very funky ex-Kingdom Hall near Northlands. “The space at Network was tiny and Daniel (designer Daniel Van Heyst) had designed a staircase that supposedly went to an attic; it was actually more like a clothes closet,” says Heatley. “Barbara’s character was to head up the stairs with a lantern and get suddenly yanked by ‘something’…. The stage walls were only made of tentest, and she launched up the stairs as directed, braced herself against the wall at the top and went right through. She was OK, but there was a patch on that wall up until the day we moved out of that space!”

Reese’s screen resumé includes such films as Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping, Road to Saddle River directed by Francis Damberger, and Jake’s Gate, a short film made and directed by Potter. By then Reese was in her ‘80s.  “We filmed some of that piece in mid-winter, outside,” recalls Potter. “Barbara cheerfully stood around in the 30-below weather and knee-deep in snow, waiting for us to get the shot right.” 

“She took the sketchily-written supporting role I wrote, and made it into a sensitive and moving performance. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because her work was always so committed and empathetic.” 

Anecdotes from Reese’s theatre colleagues invariably allude to the fun of working with her, her graciousness and sense of humour. Judy Unwin was a cast-mate in Dirty Work At The Crossroads, the first of Walterdale’s series of Klondike melodramas at the Strand Theatre in the ‘60s. Reese was the “femme fatale.” Says Unwin, “I played the ingenue, Purity Dean and I was a rookie, 19 maybe…. Barbara was so giving. She was so helpful, so generous to me. And she was funny! Very gracious. I’ll always think of her smile!”

Potter echoes the thought. “Barbara’s working attitude was always calm, supportive, and full of good humour and wit. A pleasure to work with for a director and for the entire team…. Her calm and focused demeanour in a rehearsal hall starkly contrasted with the fire she could bring to a performance.”

She has left her mark.

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