By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Workshop West Playwrights Theatre has a new “artistic producer.” She’s Heather Inglis, the founder and artistic director of the adventurous Edmonton-based indie company Theatre Yes.
With the departure of Vern Thiessen after five years as artistic director, to pursue his own playwriting and teaching career, Inglis becomes the fifth artistic chief in Workshop West’s four-decade history of dedication to playwrights and the development, promotion, and production of new Canadian plays.
In the Edmonton-born Inglis, the company acquires an adventurous theatre artist — director, dramaturg, producer, curator, educator — with a zest for experimentation, and indie red to match. The 20-year Theatre Yes archive extends both into the controversial contemporary repertoire, new plays by local (and beyond) writers, and immersive site-specific “experiences” that challenge conventional relationships between actors and audiences.
A National Theatre School grad (“my training is in straight theatre”), Inglis says, laughing, that after two Theatre Yes decades with an ample measure of producing “installations, conversations, explorations, that people could ask ‘is it a play?’” she’s “looking forward to plays that colour between the lines a bit more.”
Inglis brings with her, as she says, “a fairly comprehensive (record) of every aspect of theatre creation and producing.” Commissioning plays, dramaturging, curating, workshopping and directing them (often in spaces too unconventional to be called “theatres”), writing grant proposals, making much with little … that’s a skill set that happens when , as Inglis did, you build an indie theatre company that’s “small but with a significant set of resources.”
Ah, and with a national profile bigger than its size. Anxiety, a 2016 Theatre Yes promenade project, acquired original 10-minute “immersive performance installations” from six of Canada’s indie companies, Halifax to Victoria, that explored the modern epidemic of anxiety. Then Anxiety bused audiences to a “secret location” in an Edmonton warehouse district.
The National Elevator Project, the Theatre Yes bright idea of 2013, (which proved contagious coast to coast) assembled 16 original five-minute plays — commissioned from playwrights by theatres across the country (including Workshop West) — and presented them, eight at a time, in a succession of downtown elevators.
In addition to its original guerrilla projects, often designed to take audiences into spaces that are too small or ephemeral to be called theatres, Theatre Yes history has its share of producing “scripts no one else in our theatre ecology will grab,” as she has said of plays like My Name Is Rachel Corrie, cancelled in New York and Toronto (and at the Citadel, where it was programmed, then removed from the season), or David Mamet’s Race, or Shoot/ Get Treasure/ Repeat by the English provocateur Mark Ravenhill.
In Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, Inglis inherits a larger-scale small theatre (with a budget of about $350,000), known across the country for its focus on playwrights and new plays. One of Thiessen’s first official acts as artistic director was to restore the word Playwrights to the official company title. “It’s a bigger company, yes,” says Inglis. “But for me the creation of new Canadian work will always be the aim.… New play development is at the forefront of what I do.” Her new job, she says, “is an opportunity to test myself in a different environment, my production and organization capabilities in a larger frame.”
Like Thiessen who got his first professional gig out of university at Workshop West, Inglis has a history with the company. “When I got out of the National Theatre School I set up an apprenticeship for myself at Workshop West,” she says. David Mann, just taking over from (company founder) Gerry Potter at the time, “took me on as a dramaturg. And it opened up opportunities for me across the country.” And since its official birth in 2000 Theatre Yes has collaborated with Workshop West (Cat Walsh’s The Laws of Thermodynamics, as one example), the Works Festival, and most recently the Citadel on Beth Graham’s Slight of Mind. An exploration of the human desire to transcend limitations, it took audiences into the nooks and niches of Edmonton’s largest playhouse — everywhere except its theatres.
The idea of theatre like Slight of Mind, Anxiety, The Elevator Project, says Inglis, is “engaging writers to work in unconventional circumstances.” Ambulatory these theatrical projects may be, but they’re “text-based,” as she points out.
Meanwhile, Theatre Yes will be looking for new leadership. “It’s lovely to have created the resources” for someone to inherit, says Inglis. And under its new artistic producer (the title and position afford “more financial oversight,” says Inglis), Workshop West Playwright Theatre’s 41st season, which began with Nicole Moeller’s new thriller The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, continues as planned. Programming for the Canoe Festival, Workshop West’s contribution to the Chinook Series in February, has yet to be announced.
“I really believe in the importance of Edmonton voices, Canadian voices in theatre” says Inglis. Under her leadership Workshop West will continue to be a repository of new plays at every stage of development from bright idea to “plays getting close to production,” as she puts it. “One of my tasks is to go out and talk to writers in Edmonton and find out how we can support them. We want to keep the door open, start conversations….” …