Concrete plans for a big upcoming season

Zak Tardif, Onika Henry in Concrete Theatre’s Bello, which plays Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre next season. Photo by Kim Clegg

By Liz Nicholls,

It’s no coincidence that the most influential and travelled show in Concrete Theatre history has a title with a question mark: Are We There Yet?.

For the 28-year-old Edmonton theatre, devoted to exploring the thorniest social and cultural issues of the day with and for kids, the question is revealing. And, in the spirit of questers, the answer has always been No.

Still, a certain festive air prevails these days at the Playhouse, the Strathcona headquarters Concrete shares with Alberta Opera. As announced this past week, Concrete will return next season to the delicate and difficult subject of teen sexuality addressed by the now-retired Are We There Yet? with a new play. Consent, by Concrete artistic director Mieko Ouchi, challenges its junior and senior high school audiences with questions about sexual encounters, gender equality, individual rights and respect.

Ouchi explains that the production, which takes Consent to 65 Alberta schools and some 22,750 kids next winter and spring, has attracted community partners. The Sexual Assault Centre and Compass Sexual Wellness have offered informational packages and add-on workshops. Financial support comes from the Edmonton Community Foundation and Toronto-based Wuchien Michael Than Foundation supports Ouchi’s playwright commission.

And Alberta’s new Status of Women department will contribute $80,000 to enable Concrete to offer the show to schools for $240, a fraction of the usual $850 fee for Edmonton schools and up to $1480 for out-of-town expeditions.

Ouchi reports that in announcing the grant, minister Stephanie McLean remembered taking Drama 149 from Concrete’s artistic associate Caroline Howarth at Concordia University. And, in a coincidence that’s far from rare given its 16-year touring history, McLean saw Are We There Yet? in Grade 9. “We taught her sex ed!” laughs Ouchi. “And the minister said she was happy to be able to provide a grant in return for others to see a (Concrete) show on the subject.”

In a particular challenge for its three-actor cast, Consent will tour in tandem with a revival, for younger kids, of Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull’s 2013 Paper Song, nominated for both Sterling and Dora Awards in its travels across the country. The play uses origami and shadow puppetry to tell a Japanese folk tale about two enterprising mice up against an oppressive overlord.

The season begins with a fall revival of Ouchi’s The Bully Project, which has been touring to elementary and junior high kids, in two different versions, for three years. It’s an example of Concrete’s “participatory theatre,” a three-actor production that’s “half scripted half improvised, and invites interaction with the audience,” explains Ouchi. “After each scene, the kids check in  with the characters, who analyze their actions and choices with questions. ‘What did you make of that? What else could I have done?.”

In all Concrete surveys to teachers about crucial issues the theatre might usefully address, “bullying was mentioned 100 per cent of the time,” says Ouchi.

Next fall, the Concrete/L’UniThéâtre co-production of Vern Thiessen’s Bello, which premiered this past season, has been picked up by Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre for a two-week mainstage run, with both English and French performances. 

The finale of the 2017-2018 season is a summer arts festival for Syrian refugee kids ages six to 12. Laeib! Play! happens in July 2018 at the Playhouse, under Amena Shehab and Lora Brovold. 

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