Things I learned at the Sterling gala: a selection

Sterling Awards night on the set of the Mayfield’s Sleuth.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A few things I learned at the Sterling gala, written by Belinda Cornish and directed by Kate Ryan, starring co-hosts Mathew Hulshof and Gina Puntil: 

•The Sterlings spilled their secrets on the grand, lavishly appointed set of the Mayfield’s current production of Sleuth: i.e. the posh country house of a very well-heeled writer of murder mysteries. The invariably droll and witty Mark Meer, who presented the musical director and score Sterlings alongside director Suzie Martin and actor Oscar Derkx, noted from the stage the sheer excitement of being on a set where “we might all be murdered. At any time. With any object.” 

Mathew Hulshof, a wry and funny co-host along with Gina Puntil, pointed out the working aquarium AND the portrait (of Laura Dern, he said) over the fireplace. All firsts for the Sterlings, along with the ASL signing throughout. 

•I missed the opening number, but at intermission people were still buzzing about a terrific version of Make Your Own Party by the eerily talented St. Albert Children’s Theatre. The lyrics seem specially tailored to Edmonton on Sterling night, and the improbable but dramatic truth that we are a theatre town:

“Sometimes it seems that dreams may escape but/ What’s round the corner you never know/ Don’t pack it in just make your own party…. If there’s no script, then write your own show.”

Right, in a way that’s exactly what we’ve done in Edmonton.

•You already know this if you’re a theatre-goer, but composer/ musician/ improviser Erik Mortimer sets the bar high in empathy, responsiveness and wit. He led the Sterling Awards Orchestra from the keyboard. And they were terrific. Dave Clarke, creator of Sterling-winning Songs My Mother Never Sung Me paid tribute to Mortimer, his musical director, as the one who helped him write down the score, a particularly tricky challenge since the story is about the hearing son of a deaf mother. 

•Shows I wish I’d seen and now it’s too late, damn, so now I have regrets and have to hope they get remounted: Jana O’Connor’s CTRL-ALT-DEL, for kids, in a Concrete Theatre production that looked great in the video montage. She’s a funny writer, with a light smart touch (witness her screwball comedy Going Going Gone for Teatro La Quindicina). How  did I miss it?

•I was struck again by Lawrence Libor who along with his Once castmate Emily Dallas delivered a lovely version of the musical’s bookending number Falling Slowly at the top of Act II. Libor, along with his guitar a recent arrival from the U.K., is in the Citadel’s first summer musical Ring of Fire, opening in July.

Bella King, Jocelyn Ahlf, Jillian Aisenstat in Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby

•The Plain Janes’ memorable account of Fun Home, the evening’s most awarded single production (including the Tim Ryan Award for outstanding production of a musical), was referred to by the Janes’ artistic director Kate Ryan, by director Dave Horak, and by musical director Janice Flower as “a show like no other.” A bonus for us Monday night: Jillian Aisenstat, as the youngest of the three Alisons at different ages, reprised her killer version of one of the musical’s great songs, Ring of Keys. Evidently, a young actor to keep your eye on.

•Hunter Cardinal, nominated in the leading actor (drama) category for his highly original Hamlet, accepted the outstanding new play Sterling Award for with co-creator Jacquelyn Cardinal, his sister. He opened in Cree, fought back tears, and later returned as a presenter (of the indie production Sterling) with Matt Schuurman: “I promised to speak less Cree and cry less,” he assured us.

Collin Doyle and James Hamilton in The Zoo Story, Bedlam Theatre Concern. Photo supplied.

Accepting his leading actor Fringe Sterling Award for his performance as Jerry in Albee’s The Zoo Story, Collin Doyle had co-star and long-time buddy James Hamilton with him onstage. The fine Sterling-winning Fringe production directed by Bradley Moss was, he told us, the third Zoo Story he and Hamilton had done together. The first time was in high school. Then came a Fringe production in 1993. And now another, “when we’re finally the right age to play the characters.” It was, says Doyle, “my first time onstage in 10 years.”

Naturally, Ken Agrell-Smith, the drama teacher/ mentor/ theatre aficionado who passed away this season, had seen the show, said Doyle. Naturally, he’d provided praise and criticism, helpful no-bullshit notes. Naturally, he did the same for reviewers like me — “wow, you really missed the mark there, Liz” or “good turn of phrase but wrong point of view.” Or the all-purpose “WHAT were you thinking?” He was fun to argue with, and to learn from — an ubiquitous presence in theatres. And they seem very empty without him.

I find myself looking over my shoulder at the Varscona, for example, hoping to catch his eye stage left, near the top. Edmonton theatre will keep missing him. I know I will.

Patricia Cerra, Jenny McKillop, Rachel Bowron, Mathew Hulshot in A Lesson in Brio, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.Jak

•Playwright Stewart Lemoine, whose lively, unusually structured comedy A Lesson in Brio was voted outstanding Fringe new play, explained that last summer he’d “decided to appoint myself the ambassador for vivacity.” Early in rehearsals for the show, his dad had passed away. And Lemoine spoke movingly of the way the fun of the ensuing rehearsals had been indispensable, the best kind of consolation. “I laughed so hard I almost made a sound.”   

Tami and Greg Dowler-Coltman

The DCs, Tami and Greg Dowler-Coltman, arts educators who have had so much to do with inspiring the creativity of generations of young artists, were charmingly introduced by their three sons,— Jordan, Braydon, Tim, all artists, all gifted. The couple spoke of mentorship, and the name Agrell-Smith came up again and again.

Jason Hardwick, working in Vancouver, wasn’t on hand to accept his leading Fringe performance (comedy) for his work in the new Darrin Hagen/ Trevor Schmidt comedy Don’t Frown At The Gown. His message of solidarity to cast-mate Jake Tkaczyk, onstage to accept the award for him, was “I promise I’ll always be there to put on your eyelashes for you. You have never learned!”

•Sterling-winning director Horak spoke feelingly of “learning so much” from the Fun Home cast, an the “dream come true” of working with Jeff Haslam.

Merran Carr-Wiggin, Cole Humeny, Bobbi Goddard in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson.

In accepting her supporting role (drama) Sterling for her fierce, vivid performance in What A Young Wife Ought To Know (in Bradley Moss’s Theatre Network production), Bobbi Goddard put her finger on the amazing, and disturbing, reality that Hannah Moscovitch’s story about poverty-stricken Irish immigrants in the 1920s who pay a big price for love hasn’t grown old. The desperately high stakes remain in place for many women. And there’s a drift backwards, as we’ve seen, in women’s reproductive rights and their very identity as sexual beings. 

•There was much chatter, pro-, con-, and undecided, about the potentially problematic division of performance categories into Comedy and Drama. Discussion is invited.     

 Meanwhile, have a look at the full list of Sterling winners HERE. 

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Celebrating the Edmonton theatre season: Fun Home and We Are Not Alone lead the way at the 32nd annual Sterling Awards

Jocelyn Ahlf in Fun Home. Photo by Mat Busby

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The spirit of off-centre, and small-scale, originality blew through the 32nd annual Sterling Awards gala Monday night toasting the best of the Edmonton theatre season — in a newly re-worked configuration.

Plain Jane Theatre’s production of Fun Home, a funny and exquisitely heart-wrenching coming-of-age/ coming-out musical about the ways we’re haunted by the mysteries of our past and our parents, proved the top choice of Sterling jurors.

Of its eight nominations in 24 categories, Dave Horak’s deeply moving production of the musical, adapted from a best-selling graphic memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, took home four Sterlings, the most of any single show — including outstanding musical and indie production, as well as nods for musical director Janice Flower, and best director Horak. It marks the fourth season in a row that a Horak production has taken top honours in the indie category. 

Its counterpart in the outstanding production category was We Are Not Alone, a sly, probing solo exploration of belief and our relationship with possible other worlds by (and starring) former Edmonton actor/playwright Damien Atkins. The Crow’s Theatre/ Segal Centre production that ran in the Theatre Network season picked up a Sterling as well for Kimberly Purtell’s ingenious lighting, which got to the crux of a show that’s puckish and persuasive about the notion of the “unidentified,” whether flying objects or aliens. 

Monday’s celebratory bash at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre — hosted in sprightly fashion by actor Mathew Hulshof (nominated for his performance in the Citadel’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly) and production manager/ artistic director Gina Puntil — followed the initiative by Toronto’s Dora Awards: this year’s edition marks the first time in Sterling history that all acting categories are gender-neutral. Instead leading and supporting Sterlings are divided between Comedy and Drama, as identified by jurors.

Vanessa Sabourin in 19 Weeks, Northern Light/ Azimuth Theatres. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

In the end, three of the four performance Sterlings went to women. In Drama, top honours went to Vanessa Sabourin for her starring performance in Northern Light’s provocative 19 Weeks and Bobbi Goddard for her supporting work as the feisty doomed sister of the title protagonist in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Hannah Moscovitch’s newly topical play at Theatre Network.

Both comedy performance Sterlings went to Citadel shows. Made In Italy, Farren Timoteo’s affectionate, and agile, starring performance in his multi-character memoir of growing up in a loud, fractious Italian family, garnered him the leading role Sterling. Top honours in a comedy supporting role went to Colleen Wheeler for her sensationally funny performance as the snappish, perpetual-motion campaign manager in the Citadel’s two new Kat Sandler political comedies The Party and The Candidate, which ran simultaneously with the same aerobic 10-actor cast catapulting between different Citadel theatres every performance.

Farren Timoteo, Made In Italy. Photo by Murray Mitchell.

In the end, of some 28 nominations (the most of any company by a long shot), the Citadel took home four Sterlings. Set and costume awards went to large-scale productions at Edmonton’s largest playhouse, the former to Cory Sincennes’s design for Matilda the witty Broadway musical wrested from the Roald Dahl novel and the latter to Dana Osborne’s lavish period costumes for the holiday rom-com Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly, which returned us to the Regency world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Hunter Cardinal, Lake of the Strangers. Photo supplied.

In the particularly competitive new play category that included the Kat Sandler comedies,  Stewart Lemoine’s The Finest of Strangers and two plays spun from real-life history, The Empress and the Prime Minister at Theatre Network and Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company at Shadow Theatre, the honours went to Lake of the Strangers. The funny and heartbreaking coming-of-age memoir by the brother/sister team of Jacquelyn Cardinal and Hunter Cardinal (and starring the latter) — two young brothers growing up on a First Nations reserve, setting forth on their last summer adventure together — marked a debut collaboration between Naheyawin and Fringe Theatre Adventures.

One of the season’s most intriguing multi-disciplinary initiatives, Trevor Schmidt’s Northern Light/ Good Women Dance Collective collaboration on The Cardiac Shadow, was recognized in Katrina Beatty’s Sterling for outstanding multi-media design.

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, Dave Clarke’s ingenious new coming-of-age musical about a hearing son growing up with a deaf mother, dominated the theatre for young audiences categories — with Sterling nods for Concrete Theatre’s production, Luc Tellier’s performance as the son poised between worlds and desperate to reconcile them, and Clarke’s score.

Patricia Cerra, Jenny McKillop, Rachel Bowron, Mathew Hulshot in A Lesson in Brio, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

The jurors awarded the five Fringe Sterlings to four shows from last summer’s giant festival, including outstanding production to Bradley Moss’s account of The Zoo Story, and outstanding new work to Stewart Lemoine’s A Lesson in Brio. 

Fringe executive director Adam Mitchell is the recipient of the outstanding achievement in production Sterling named for the legendary Margaret Mooney, with Alastair Elliot taking home the Ross Hill Sterling for career achievement in production. Both are supremely versatile multi-taskers. Tami and Greg Dowler-Coltman, whose galvanizing multi-decade leadership in arts education has had such an indelible impact on the scene here and across the country, were saluted with the Sterling for outstanding contribution to Edmonton theatre. By now their inspiration extends across generations of young artists.       

And here they are, the Sterling Awards for 2018-2019: 

Outstanding Production of a Play: We Are Not Alone (Theatre Network/A Crow’s Theatre/Segal Centre for Performing Arts Production)

Timothy Ryan Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical: Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company/Varscona Theatre Ensemble)

Outstanding New Play (Award to Playwright): Lake of the Strangers by Jacquelyn Cardinal & Hunter Cardinal (Naheyawin/Fringe Theatre Adventures)

Outstanding Director : Dave Horak, Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company/Varscona Theatre Ensemble)

Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role – Drama: Vanessa Sabourin, 19 weeks (Northern Light Theatre/Azimuth Theatre)

Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role – Comedy: Farren Timoteo, Made in Italy (Western Canada Theatre/Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role – Drama: Bobbi Goddard, What a Young Wife Ought to Know (Theatre Network)

Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role – Comedy: Colleen Wheeler, The Party/The Candidate (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Independent Production: Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company/Varscona Theatre Ensemble)

Outstanding Set Design: Cory Sincennes, Matilda (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/Arts Club Theatre)

Outstanding Costume Design: Dana Osborne, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Lighting Design: Kimberly Purtell, We Are Not Alone (Theatre Network/A Crow’s Theatre/Segal Centre for Performing Arts Production)

Outstanding Multi-Media Design: Katrina Beatty, The Cardiac Shadow (Northern Light Theatre/Good Women Dance Collective)

Outstanding Score of a Play or Musical: Dave Clarke, Songs My Mother Never Sung Me (Concrete Theatre)

Outstanding Musical Director: Janice Flower, Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company/Varscona Theatre Ensemble)

Outstanding Choreography or Fight Direction: Good Women Dance Collective, The Cardiac Shadow (Northern Light Theatre/Good Women Dance Collective)

Outstanding Individual Achievement in Production: Ariel Spanier, Technical Director

Outstanding Production for Young Audiences: Songs My Mother Never Sung Me (Concrete Theatre)

Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Theatre for Young Audiences: Luc Tellier, Actor, Songs My Mother Never Sung Me (Concrete Theatre)

Outstanding Fringe Production: The Zoo Story (Bedlam Theatre Concern)

Outstanding Fringe New Work (award to playwright): A Lesson in Brio by Stewart Lemoine (Teatro la Quindicina)

Outstanding Fringe Director: Mieko Ouchi, Concord Floral (10 out of 12 Productions)

Outstanding Fringe Performance – Drama: Collin Doyle, The Zoo Story (Bedlam Theatre Concern)

Outstanding Fringe Performance – Comedy: Jason Hardwick, Don’t Frown at the Gown (Guys in Disguise)

The Margaret Mooney Award for Outstanding Achievement in Administration: Adam Mitchell

The Ross Hill Award for Career Achievement in Production: Alastair Elliot

Outstanding Contribution to Theatre in Edmonton: Tami and Greg Dowler-Coltman

 

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Strangers till they’re not: one last chance to see A Likely Story at Teatro

A LIkely Story, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“You are a stranger though,” says a character, musing on whether to lay out her life conundrum to someone she’s just met in an unspecified place that turns out to be … a train station. “Ah, who isn’t?” is the rejoinder.

That’s the thing about theatre: people you haven’t met before invite you into their world, in all its imaginative possibilities.

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I’m so late coming to this, my theatre-loving friends; sorry, I’ve been laid up for a couple of weeks. But I wanted you to know that you still have a chance, but only one alas — tonight! —  to catch the light-hearted but very moving new Stewart Lemoine comedy that opens the new Teatro La Quindicina summer season at the Varscona.

A Likely Story, with its cheeky double-jointed title, either affirmative or skeptical, is all about the way stories get made, how characters set forth on “journeys” (as a much-used theatre metaphor has it) and as travellers find their way to destinations they hadn’t booked in advance. (stories aren’t the booking.com of narrative). And how, unhinged from prescribed logic and pre-ordained goals, they discover each other, and themselves, in exploring not what has already happened (theatre choked with exposition) or what will happen (leave that to speculative fiction), but what could happen.

As the mysterious and amusing Karl (Jeff Haslam) tells us in a sassy prologue about prologues, “sometimes it’s best when we all discover such things together….” Exactly.

That, in a nutshell is the fun of watching characters and their stories emerge from the anonymous strangers we meet at the outset of A Likely Story in the location that turns out to be a train station. The five-member Teatro acting ensemble is superb, led by Haslam as a wry intermittent presence who urges forward motion not through exposition but a succession of signature cocktails.

To Mathew Hulshof falls the delicious challenge of playing everyone the travellers meet in Europe, Salamanca to Gdansk. And he is just exceptional. You’ll enjoy the charm of Rachel Bowron, Jenny McKillop and Vincent Forcier, too, all so dexterous at floating Lemoine’s literate and highly amusing asides or amplifications, on everything from Baltic amber to obscure Castilian dances.

Endings aren’t final, says A Likely Story. Like the characters they propel themselves past resolutions that you feel are bound to be temporary, past the curtain call, into a future of which you are a part-owner. 

This is Lemoine at his most experimental, and playful. Do yourself a favour tonight.

Tickets: teatroq.com.

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“That special DC mojo”: Greg and Tami DC, retiring from Vic, will get the Outstanding Contribution to Edmonton Theatre Sterling

Tami and Greg Dowler-Coltman

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“O my gawd!” declares a vigorous voice on the phone from somewhere deep in the orbiting galaxy of rehearsal rooms and studios that is Vic. “You should see these kids! You have to see these kids! I’m so proud of them…. ”

The inspirational voice, which makes you somehow want to get off your butt and apply yourself to your long-neglected musical theatre training, belongs to administrator, director, mentor, visionary Greg Dowler-Coltman, the head of theatre at the Victoria School of the Arts. His production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s aspirational Latinx Broadway musical In The Heights hit the stage this past term, the most recent in an an archive of some 25 full-bodied, complex, challenging mainstage shows at Victoria School of the Arts. 

In The Heights, 2019. Photo supplied.

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For four decades, Greg and his equally magnetic wife Tami Dowler-Coltman the principal (and principle instigator) of Vic — the DCs as widely known — have inspired, mentored, excited, generations of young artists. Some have found their way into performing arts careers, across the country and beyond — OK,  potentially breaking the hearts of parents who’d counted on having a real estate mogul or divorce attorney in the family. But, hey, many of the ones you’ll never see on- or backstage have become passionate, and astute, occupants of house seats everywhere, supporters of (and lobbyists for) the arts and arts education. 

Seussical The Musical, 2005. Photo supplied.

The ripple effects of the DCs’ special mojo at every level of arts education, are exponential and everywhere in the theatre scene here, and coast to coast. Do an alma mater survey of actors in this theatre town, and you’ll hear “Vic, of course” float through the ether more often than not. Which is why top honours at Monday night’s Sterling Award gala, the “outstanding contribution to Edmonton theatre” Sterling goes jointly to Greg and Tami. And why their retirement from Vic, to be celebrated at a bash and alumnae show tonight, seems so, well, dramatic.

Fiddler on the Roof, 2000-2001.Photo supplied.

There was a time, now receding into the mists, when Vic wasn’t an award-winning arts school, but plain Vic Comp, a repository of dwindling student population and enthusiasm. Tami Coltman, a director, coach, teacher, creator of programming, was one of the original staff members at the moment in the ‘80s of its re-birth. An architect of this transformation, recognized across the continent, she led arts revitalization at every school she was at thereafter, before returning to Vic in the mid-90s.  No school was immune to her magic touch in creativity.

Meanwhile, Greg, “still just a Coltman” as Stephen Heatley puts it, was an administrator, director, choreographer, sometime actor at the old Theatre Network, ensconced in the grungy ex-Kingdom Hall near the Coliseum. “He co-directed The Mail Order Bride with me,” says Heatley, then Theatre Network artistic director and these days a drama professor at UBC. Greg directed TN’s original revue Welcome to Theatre Fabulous; he choreographed Bub Slug: The Musical; he acted in the prequel to Small Change Theatre’s One Beautiful Evening that opened Theatre Network’s Roxy on 124th St. in 1989. And he ran Theatre Network’s education programs. Heatley has found him “a great colleague, co-conspirator and friend….”      

Greg has always had a particular affinity for physical theatre and clowning, says Heatley, best man at the Dowler-Coltman nuptials. “Ask him to show you the important mime that I taught him at the Drumheller Drama School in 1980.” I did. And just outside the theatre at Vic last month, he flung himself to the floor to demonstrate: his mime rowing was highly persuasive.

Romeo and Juliet, 1999-2000. Photo suppied.

Greg has been at Vic, head of theatre, for the last two decades, as the arts programming extended to elementary and junior high kids. Actor/director Braydon Dowler-Coltman, for example, one of the couple’s three artist sons, was in Vic’s first Grade 1 class ever. And one of the signatures of Greg’s regime has been its links with the professional theatre community — whether it was a constant supply of Cratchits for Bob Baker’s Citadel productions of A Christmas Carol or Oliver!. Or guest workshops by original theatre creator/directors like Catalyst Theatre’s Jonathan Christenson or the great director and acting coach Scott Swan (one of the founders of Northern Light Theatre). Or visits from pros like former U of A drama department chair David Barnet.

The three Dowler-Colter sons, who “grew up running around theatres and rehearsal halls” (as the eldest, Jordan, reports) are a testament to the contagious multi-generational DC Effect, which extended to Alberta’s venerable annual Arts Trek summer theatre project where his parents met. “It’s another way of thinking, based on creativity and curiosity,” says Jordan.

Toronto-based actor Tim Dowler-Coltman was recently in David Storch’s Canadian Stage production of Sweat. Jordan, Vancouver-based, is co-founder of the film company Skyward Motion. He remembers his Grade 2 self, in his dad’s 1999 production of Romeo and Juliet: “I was in a flashback at the top of the top of the show, playing patty-cake while all the fighting in Verona is taking place…. It opened my world!”    

Something like that happened to Kendra Connor, too. The busy Edmonton actor/director, a Vic grad frequently onstage with Plain Jane Theatre and Sterling-nominated for her work in the Janes’ Fringe review Everything’s Coming Up Chickens, pays tribute to “Greg’s ability to capture the magic of theatre and what a privilege it is to participate.” She’s been back a few times to her alma mater to “do script and monologue work with the kids,” and loves the way “alumnae return to give pointers, share ideas and thoughts…. Kids are so lucky to have the professional perspective.”

Her “favourite experience” from those years? Greg’s 2003 production of The Secret Garden the musical.

Digital media producer Owen Brierley, CEO of Edmonton Digital Arts College and a long-time DC friend and appreciator, has launched many theatrical collaborations — some with Jordan, including projections scores for the Citadel’s Make Mine Love and La Cité francophone’s Flying Canoe Festival. He says he modelled the college “after the kind of dedicated mentorship and intentional culture the whole student the way (the DCs) did and do….”

 “It nurtures the whole student to help them see the world with a clown’s sense of authentic wonderment….Always exploring, always making a mess, always figuring things out, always embracing the journey ahead.”    

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And here it is: the 2019 Alberta Playwriting Competition shortlist

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The venerable Alberta Playwriting Competition, 53 years old, has announced this year’s shortlist of plays, three from Edmonton three from Calgary. The list is culled, by a three-person jury, from a wealth of submissions, some 43 this year. Bring ’em on: 

Kit and Joe by Jessy Ardern (Edmonton)

The Green Line by Makram Ayache (Edmonton)

WROL  by Michaela Jeffery (Calgary)

Boom Baby by Natalie Meisner (Calgary)

The Miracle Queen by Andrew Torry (Calgary)

Velvet Revolution by David van Belle (Edmonton)

The awards are a joint enterprise by the Alberta Playwrights Network and Theatre Alberta. The recipients of the “Grand Prize” and the “Novitiate Prize” will get announced  July 24 at Calgary’s theatre awards, the Betty Mitchells.  

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Camping out with Shakespeare in the park: Freewill Shakespeare Festival returns with an intriguing pair of plays

(clockwise from left) Gianna Vacirca, Ben Stevens, Patricia Cerra, Oscar Derkx in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker

The sheep ensemble, The Winter’s Tale, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“If this be magic, let it be an Art as lawful as eating.” — The Winter’s Tale

The actors pull up at rehearsals in shorts on their bikes, dodging geese (mosquitoes, squirrels  and the odd coyote), and ride right up to the stage. The directors take a break at picnic tables (and reapply Off).

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And as for the the audience … well, as we’ve discovered in the course of a love affair 30 summers long and counting, there is a powerful allure about the combination of nature, Shakespeare, and those lingering Edmonton summer dusks in the great outdoors. 

Yes, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is back this week rain or shine— with an alternating pair of high-contrast plays by their resident playwright (they’re on a first name basis with the world’s starriest).

In signature bold, accessible productions, Freewill has often let a Shakespeare tragedy and a comedy create unexpected sparks off each other. The 31st annual edition, opening Thursday and Friday at the Heritage Amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park, gives us two of the strangest, most category-resistant plays in the entire canon.

They almost bookend the celebrated and mysterious career. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (directed by Kevin Sutley) is a not-quite comedy with a romantic setup and a bitter taste; it dates from Shakespeare’s early days as an up-and-comer. The Winter’s Tale, a late-period “romance” full of magical interventions and surprising shifts of tone (directed by Dave Horak, is neither comedy nor tragedy, though it has elements of both, on its 16-year route to reconciliation.

Sutley, who’s making his Freewill directing debut with the odd and intriguing “comedy” after a dozen years as a member of the acting ensemble, calls The Two Gentlemen of Verona “a puzzle – even if it weren’t for the ending….” Two love-struck young men, best friends forever, go off, first one then the other, to see the world. And one of them, Proteus takes it into his head to fall madly in love with his friend Valentine’s beloved, with less than salubrious results for all concerned.

That ending can be a corker: Proteus assaults Silvia, who’s rescued at the last moment. “And then the men forgive each other … “especially problematic in a contemporary context,” as Sutley puts it. “There are ways to dampen the attack. But I feel we have to face up to it, to address it and make a different sort of comment on it.”

As Sutley says, “a puzzle,” the way The Taming of the Shrew is a puzzle and Carousel is a puzzle in musical theatre. “How do we address the dark moments in a play that’s otherwise a very silly light comedy? I’m pleased with how we’ve dealt with that.” 

Says Sutley, “it feels like a very early play with a writer experimenting with ideas that would be seeds for later plays.” He laughs. “I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into. But it’s been such a good experience!” 

““I leaned into the weirdness,” laughs Dave Horak of The Winter’s Tale.“I didn’t shy away from that.” In fact, for Horak, whose Edmonton Actors Theatre archive includes such unusual offerings as 70 Scenes of Halloween and The Bomb-itty of Errors, (a hip-hop re-telling of A Comedy of Errors), weirdness is part of the attraction. “I’ve gone with the fact that The Winter’s Tale is magical, mythical, an unbelievable story….” 

And so are the staging challenges that have perplexed and stressed  many a director for 400 years. “How do you do the bear? How do you do the statue?” summarizes Horak, who made his Freewill directing debut with last summer’s zany neon-drenched production of A Comedy of Errors he set on a lowball Hollywood backlot.

Start with the wildlife. The Winter’s Tale famously contains the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare: “exit, pursued by a bear” in Act III. It’s not considered out of the question that Shakespeare’s company borrowed a real one from the bear-baiting pits near the Globe.

And since there’s a sheep-shearing contest amid the rustic harvest festivities to which the play abruptly shifts after the harrowing court scenes, there are sheep. And they don’t just stand around looking sheepish, says Horak. “I’ve given the sheep a dance and a song, a production number!”

Belinda Cornish and Alice Cornish Meer in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona notably contains the canon’s most coveted non-speaking role. It’s for a dog. Crab, who regards his master with lofty disdain, belongs to Proteus’s servant Lance. In Sutley’s production he’s played by the adorable showbiz veteran Alice Cornish Meer, who resides in real life with Belinda Cornish and Mark Meer. “She’s been coming to rehearsal, getting to start to know the play,” says Sutley.

The bear is a challenge, and Horak is mysterious. “A person in a bear suit? An offstage report? A projection?” says Horak, reviewing a shortlist of staging possibilities  for this “moment of horror and comedy: weird, uncomfortable, strange, often gets a laugh… “

Like the play, “it takes tragedy and comedy and  and stitches them into something unclassifiable.”

“How can I give the bear his moment? I’ve gone with old-fashioned theatrical magic,” Horak says. “I hope it works! It’s an experiment for me too…. I keep fussing with it.”

And here’s another oddity: At the mid-point of the play, just after the bear has pursued poor Antigonus to a gory end, Time enters as a stand-alone character to announce that we’re about to arrive 16 years in the future. Horak says he’s given Time to the “ghost of the child” Mamillius, a mortal victim of his father’s inexplicable all-consuming suspicion that his wife has slept with his best friend.

The statue that comes to life in Act V, suddenly warm and breathing after those 16 years, is of Hermione, the wife of a king, Leontes, whose declension into raging homicidal jealousy happens so fast at the outset — “under a minute,” says Horak — it seems motiveless.

For any actor, whose first impulse is to search out ‘what’s my motive?’  Leontes is a challenge. Horak has cast Sheldon Elter, the engaging creator and star of Métis Mutt and a Freewill fave. “He’s so likeable onstage,” says Horak. “So good-hearted….”

Leontes is drawn as such a monster, as Horak puts it, and we’re  naturally disposed to analyze him, understand him. “But Shakespeare doesn’t give us that,” thinks the director. “There’s a kind of madness that sweeps over him. And he can’t figure it out himself: there’s no back story, no psychological reasoning.”

“That gives it the framing of a story around the campfire,” says Horak.

On even dates (and most matinees), then, you’ll see an odd early comedy, “so intriguing for its changes in textual style,” as Sutley says. It puts the ideal of romantic love up against male friendship, and lets the former win out. Sutley sets his production vaguely in the ‘90s (with original music by Matthew Skopyk).

On odd dates, you’ll see a strange late play with startling relocations “from courtroom drama to pastoral comedy to romance, and magic realism,” as Horak puts it. “Only a mature playwright would have the confidence to experiment with the narrative, with structure, with genre” the way that happens in The Winter’s Tale.

Horak locates the court in a setting that vaguely evokes the late ‘20s pre-Crash world of The Great Gatsby before it shifts to “the rustic feel of Appalachia, early 1940s,” (music for onstage players by Darrin Hagen). “I’m attracted to a play and a playwright who seems a little reckless. I mean, the guy has written Hamlet already. And when you’ve done that, you don’t have to take chances. You can be done!”

PREVIEW

Freewill Shakespeare Festival 2019

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Winter’s Tale

Directed by: Kevin Sutley, Dave Horak

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: Thursday through July 14

Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com or at the gate

 

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Vern Thiessen to leave his post as Workshop West artistic director

Vern Thiessen, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Time to move on,” says Vern Thiessen of his decision after five years to leave his post as artistic director of Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, effective Aug. 31.

He won’t be leaving Edmonton, though. “I need more room in my life for writing and teaching,” says the  award-winning playwright (Apple, Einstein’s Gift, Vimy, Lenin’s Embalmers, Shakespeare’s Will). “That’s what gives me the greatest joy.”

I was never a lifer,” he laughs, on the subject of artistic directorship. “That would take a certain resilience I don’t have….”

To help support 12thnight.ca YEG theatre coverage, click here

Thiessen arrived in Edmonton in 2015 after seven years in New York, trailing a host of commissions and premieres from both sides of the border. It was a homecoming of sorts. He landed at the very theatre company where he’d gotten his first professional gig after university here (a post-graduate degree in playwriting from the U of A) some 25 years before. As Thiessen put it at the time, his career-launching assignment at Workshop West — as resident script reader and dramaturg — came at a moment when Workshop West was starting to get a national profile for its devotion to Canadian playwrights and their new plays. 

Daniela Vlaskalic and Shaun Johnston in Apple by Vern Thiessen, 2001-2002. Photo supplied.

And Thiessen has made his own internationally notable contributions to that repertoire. Apple alone has had more than a hundred productions world-wide.

The well-connected playwright, with an indefatigable zest for outreach and mentorship, has shepherded a number of new Canadian plays, and remounts, into the big wide world. Kenneth T. Williams’ Cafe Daughter continues to tour across the country and internationally.  With projects like This is YEG: New Plays For A New City — in which Thiessen invited eight Edmonton playwrights to be “embedded” in an city community that fascinated them and create from there — he’s re-fashioned Workshop West to reflect the greater cultural and ethnic diversity he found in Edmonton after his return. The company’s annual Canoe Festival has allied itself with Sound Off, the country’s first professional deaf theatre, and Black Arts Matter, an initiative to explore black culture and showcase its artists.

“What I’m most proud of, the project closest to my heart is #writesofpassage,” which mentors junior high and high school playwrights: “a thousand kids a year from 16 schools, in French, English, and Arabic.”

Meanwhile, Thiessen’s happy to lose the endless grant-writing paperwork that goes with being a theatre artistic director, and return to his life as an artist and teacher. “I’ve got a lot of teaching here lined up for next year,” says the playwright. “And commissions from the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre an Stratford I want to finish.”

The company founded by Gerry Potter, which celebrated its 40th birthday a couple of weeks ago, has had more artistic directors than most of Edmonton’s small- and mid-sized companies. “And I think that (renewal) is a good thing. It’s been a great gig…. I have no idea who they’ll pick (to replace me),” he says, genially. “Someone younger and not as white as me!”

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A weekend at the theatre in E-town: happy birthday Varscona, A Likely Story, Improvaganza…

Mat Hulshof, Rachel Bowron, Vincent Forcier, Jeff Haslam, Jenny McKillop in A Likely Story, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls 12thnight.ca

It’s the weekend in E-Town. So obviously you need to be in a theatre. Have a peek at some of your options. You could…

To help support 12thnight.ca YEG theatre coverage, click here

Go to a theatre party. Three years ago, something dramatic happened to the topography of this theatre town: a new theatre in Old Strathcona rose from the bricks, the spirit, the memories (and the footprint) of an old one. The Varscona was Edmonton’s first new theatre in a dozen years; it had taken those 12 years for the theatre artists of its resident companies (Teatro La Quindicina, Shadow, Die-Nasty) to realize their dream.

The Varscona (10329 83 Ave.) is throwing a third birthday bash Sunday afternoon, with a celebratory mix of cake, sweet and savoury snacks, wine, and a show: entertainment from Varscona stars, with Steven Greenfield at the piano. Yes, song and dance and comedy will be involved. Teatro’s resident playwright Stewart Lemoine makes a rare appearance onstage himself in the course of the festivities. So do Plain Jane artistic director Kate Ryan and the cast of Fun Home.

The reception is at 2 p.m.; showtime is 3 p.m. And the gala tickets, at varsconatheatre.com, are all-inclusive.

Or a show. Saturday is a two-show day for Teatro’s season-opening premiere, Lemoine’s A Likely Story. Read about it, and the season HERE.

Catch some of the world’s most agile (and fearless) improvisers at work at Improvaganza, the 19th annual edition of Rapid Fire Theatre’s International and Sketch Comedy Festival. What will happen? No one knows. By definition.

Tonight, the great improviser (and archivist of nerd arcana) Mark Meer presides over the ultimate in sophisticated nerdism, with his hit brainchild Improvised Dungeons and Dragons (Zeidler Hall at the Citadel, 8 p.m.). Or catch the Festival Ensemble, an all-star team assembled from Improvaganza’s international array of troupes, who meet for the very first time on the Citadel Club stage for your entertainment (7:30 p.m.).

Or bring some of your evocative clothing items of yore to the Club at 10 p.m. And Sweater Puppies, an all-female troupe from Atlanta will undertake to use them as inspiration for both long- and short-form improvs: recycling at its most inventive. After the show, they donate the clothing to a deserving charity. Yes, your beloved cut-offs that don’t quite cover your butt can break into showbiz. 

Improvaganza tickets (and full schedule through June 22) at rapidfiretheatre.com.

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On, and above, the stages in Edmonton: a week of possibilities

Let There Be Height, Firefly Theatre and Circus. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The week on, and above, the stages in Edmonton. Consider the possibilities.

•Firefly refuses to stay put, in either time or space.

Edmonton’s pioneer theatre/ circus company and academy, devoted to defying gravity, is having an “aerial cabaret” Thursday and Friday at the Westbury Theatre. It’s their 15th annual Let There Be Height showcase and fund-raiser, devoted this year to time travel.

Finally, in this earthbound age, something to look up to. You’ll see daring people on their flying trapezes, wrapping themselves in aerial silks and plummeting towards the ground. You’ll see people who embrace the idea of hanging upside in a hoop, with one leg draped around an ear.

To help support 12thnight.ca YEG theatre coverage, click here

Let There Be Height runs Thursday and Friday (7:30 p.m., silent action at 6:30) at the Westbury, in the ATB Financial Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.). Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca). All proceeds go to Firefly’s circus academy.

 

Jeff Haslam, Rachel Bowron, Jenny McKillop in A Likely Story, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Ryan Parker.

•Here’s a likely story. No, really: Teatro La Quindicina launches their 32nd season this week with a new Stewart Lemoine travel comedy, A Likely Story. Five strangers in a train stranger, who set forth on a journey — once they discover who they are and where they’re going. It opens Friday and runs through June 22 on the Varscona stage (tickets: teatroq.com). Have a peek at the 12thnight preview here, an interview with playwright Lemoine. Bonus: he talks about the season, which also includes two Lemoine comedy revivals (A Momentary Lapse and Vidalia) and a vintage psychological thriller (The Bad Seed). Tickets: teatroq.com.

Max Hanic in rehearsal for Boy Trouble, Nextfest. Photo by Mac Brock.

•Nextfest, the multi-disciplinary festival devoted to emerging artists, continues at the Roxy, the Backstage Theatre, and a cluster of gallery venues, through Sunday. I caught Mac Brock’s Boy Trouble at the Roxy last week: it’s impressive for both its sharp, funny writing and for the solo performance by Max Hanic, a young actor to keep your eye on. It’s running Saturday and Sunday on the Roxy stage. Check out the 12thnight.ca preview, an interview with the playwright here.

Jessy Ardern and Jacob Holloway in Weal Thyman The Third, in rehearsal at Nextfest. Photo by Jenn Galm.

And have a look at the 12thnight.ca interview with Philip Geller, a co-creator of Weal Thyman The Third, a bouffon clown comedy of the outrageous persuasion (you can see it here). It returns to the Nextfest stage Wednesday (7 p.m.) with performances Friday and Saturday.

Nextfest tickets and schedule: nextfest.org.

•If you can’t have A Weekend in the Country to call your own, you can hear the song — in the Foote in the Door production of the great Sondheim musical of romantic ambiguity, A Little Night Music. Mary-Ellen Perley’s production continues through Saturday at La Cité francophone, 8627 91 St). Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca) or eventbrite.ca. Foote in the Door is an enterprising collective, formed by alumnae of the Citadel’s Foote Theatre School, that specializes in the musical theatre repertoire. A Little Night Music is the finale of their fifth season.

Bella King, Jocelyn Ahlf, Jillian Aisenstat in Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby

•If you’re in summer reflective mode, have a look at the 32nd annual Sterling Award nominations, and muse on the season just past. The complete list is here.

For the first time, stepping up to the times, the Sterling’s performance categories are gender-neutral, an example set by the Doras in Toronto. Instead, the outstanding leading and supporting performances are divided into comedy and drama, as determined by jurors, a discussable point (as the Sterling committee acknowledges ) in an era when much of the most interesting work onstage evades that division. 

  

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The week on, and above, Edmonton stages

Let There Be Height, Firefly Theatre and Circus. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The week on, and above, the stage in E-town. Consider the possibilities.

•Firefly refuses to stay put, in either time or space.

Edmonton’s pioneer theatre/ circus company and academy, devoted to defying gravity, is having an “aerial cabaret” Thursday and Friday at the Westbury Theatre. It’s their 15th annual Let There Be Height showcase and fund-raiser, devoted this year to time travel.

Finally, in this earthbound age, something to look up to. You’ll see daring people on their flying trapezes, wrapping themselves in aerial silks and plummeting towards the ground. You’ll see people who embrace the idea of hanging upside in a hoop, with one leg draped around an ear.

Let There Be Height runs Thursday and Friday (7:30 p.m., silent action at 6:30) at the Westbury, in the ATB Financial Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.). Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca). All proceeds go to Firefly’s circus academy.

 

Jeff Haslam, Rachel Bowron, Jenny McKillop in A Likely Story, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Ryan Parker.

•Here’s a likely story. No, really: Teatro La Quindicina launches their 32nd season this week with a new Stewart Lemoine travel comedy, A Likely Story. Five strangers in a train stranger, who set forth on a journey — once they discover who they are and where they’re going. It opens Friday and runs through June 22 on the Varscona stage (tickets: teatroq.com). Have a peek at the 12thnight preview here, an interview with playwright Lemoine. Bonus: he talks about the season, which also includes two Lemoine comedy revivals (A Momentary Lapse and Vidalia) and a vintage psychological thriller (The Bad Seed). Tickets: teatroq.com.

Max Hanic in rehearsal for Boy Trouble, Nextfest. Photo by Mac Brock.

•Nextfest, the multi-disciplinary festival devoted to emerging artists, continues at the Roxy, the Backstage Theatre, and a cluster of gallery venues, through Sunday. I caught Mac Brock’s Boy Trouble at the Roxy last week: it’s impressive for both its sharp, funny writing and for the solo performance by Max Hanic, a young actor to keep your eye on. It’s running Saturday and Sunday on the Roxy stage. Check out the 12thnight.ca preview, an interview with the playwright here.

Jessy Ardern and Jacob Holloway in Weal Thyman The Third, in rehearsal at Nextfest. Photo by Jenn Galm.

And have a look at the 12thnight.ca interview with Philip Geller, a co-creator of Weal Thyman The Third, a bouffon clown comedy of the outrageous persuasion (you can see it here). It returns to the Nextfest stage Wednesday (7 p.m.) with performances Friday and Saturday.

Nextfest tickets and schedule: nextfest.org.

•If you can’t have A Weekend in the Country to call your own, you can hear the song — in the Foote in the Door production of the great Sondheim musical of romantic ambiguity, A Little Night Music. Mary-Ellen Perley’s production continues through Saturday at La Cité francophone, 8627 91 St). Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca) or eventbrite.ca. Foote in the Door is an enterprising collective, formed by alumnae of the Citadel’s Foote Theatre School, that specializes in the musical theatre repertoire. A Little Night Music is the finale of their fifth season.

Bella King, Jocelyn Ahlf, Jillian Aisenstat in Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby

•If you’re in summer reflective mode, have a look at the 32nd annual Sterling Award nominations, and muse on the season just past. The complete list is here.

For the first time, stepping up to the times, the Sterling’s performance categories are gender-neutral, an example set by the Doras in Toronto. Instead, the outstanding leading and supporting performances are divided into comedy and drama, as determined by jurors, a discussable point (as the Sterling committee acknowledges ) in an era when much of the most interesting work onstage evades that division. 

  

Posted in News/Views | Tagged , , , , ,