By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the comedy that premieres Friday at Northern Light Theatre, a starry high school couple, drama kids who live and breathe the oxygenated air of musical theatre, come up against doubts. The kind of doubts that make you pause to reassess. That hand you questions about the sliding scale of sexuality and make you wonder where you belong and who you’re with.
Everybody Loves Robbie, the centrepiece of NLT’s three-production season of plays, is the creation of one of Edmonton’s most adventurous, strikingly versatile theatre artists — a playwright and actor, mentor, dramaturg, curator, director and festival artistic director, founding parent of both a kids’ theatre (Promise Productions) and an experimental burlesque troupe (Send in the Girls)…. The list goes on.
“It’s not autobiographical,” declares Ellen Chorley, whose exuberant good nature comes with the kind of laugh that makes people at adjoining cafe tables want to buy subscription tickets to a theatre immediately. “But it’s very much based on growing up as an Edmonton theatre kid.”
Chorley, who took over the reins of Nextfest (Theatre Network’s innovative emerging artist festival) in 2016 — “my dream job!” — revels in memories of her younger self immersed in the magic-making of live theatre. High school drama will never have a more enthusiastic front-line soldier. “I went to Ross Shep, a very sports school,” she says. And they had a very tiny drama program, with a really champion woman (Pamela Schmunk) who was our drama teacher and invested in us! Amazing!”
And the program grew and grew; Ross Shep now has a real theatre instead of a chunk of the gym separated from the jocks by a removable garage door. Says Chorley, “that experience really changed my life, shaped what kind of theatre artist I am today! I left high school knowing I’d work in theatre for life! I’m forever grateful….”
“We could do all these awesome things,” says Chorley, musing fondly. “I started playwriting… In Grade 11 I was in the first year of Teens at the Turn (a Citadel program mentored by Vern Thiessen)…. Writing, directing, costume design, costume building, stage managing, lighting designing. And then acting!” At 16 she and her Citadel Theatre school classmates collaborated on a show (Caroline’s Court) and took it to Nextfest. For Chorley, from the start, theatre artistry was a multi-stringed instrument. “And I’m forever grateful.”
“Not everyone gets out of high school wanting to work in theatre, of course,” says Chorley. “But the skills you get from theatre are transferrable…. Creative problem-solving, working as a team, project-based deadlines, accountability, empathy.” Everybody Loves Robbie is “a bit of a love letter to high school drama.”
“Theatre programs,” declares Chorley decisively, “are so essential to building community, and giving kids a place to belong…. That’s what the play comes down to, these kids finding a community and finding out who they are and where they belong. That’s where the action and the conflict are.”
Chorley, who has a contagious way of speaking in high-speed exclamations, remembers “we’d go to improv, Rapid Fire Theatre at the Varscona at 11 o’clock at night,” an era when queues would start forming outside the theatre an hour before curtain time. She doesn’t have time to do improv these days, but the friendships last. “I didn’t set out to put that stuff in the play. It just sort of came out,” grins Chorley.
“I tried to see everything. As much as I could. Every kind of theatre, every way to tell a story, anything I could get a ticket to,” says Chorley, who went to MacEwan, attracted by the musical theatre program founded and led by the late Tim Ryan. “This city really gave me an education…. I tell young artists they must see plays!”
Stewart Lemoine’s A Grand Time in the Rapids, “a lesson in how to write a farce.” She remembers Kill Your Television’s production of Shakespeare’s R&J and “the way that story could be told with a piece of fabric, four actors, and a metronome.” Shadow Theatre’s Three Days of Rain sticks in her mind, along with The Drowning Girls, Stop Kiss, Leave It To Jane’s Violet, Wonderful Town….
By her second year of college Chorley’s playwriting career was nudging acting off the stage. “I had the revelation that I was going to be a dime a dozen,’ she laughs. “There were a lot of young girls like me who could sing and dance and smile.” And she’d had her first play produced, Bohemian Perso at Nextfest (“that’s where all my firsts are!”). Soon Chorley would be launching Promise Productions and writing the first of her 18 plays for young audiences. She’d be landing commissions from the Calgary theatre Mob Hit (Bridezilla, Good Girls Don’t, Emma Burden). And in 2010 she and Delia Barnet would be experimenting with marrying theatre to burlesque.
“We wanted to try the medium out,” says Chorley, Send in the Girls’ resident playwright. So she and Barnet applied to the Nextfest performance nite clubs for a slot. “Can we make a play out of this? With burlesque numbers instead of singing?” She laughs. ‘We knew we’d have to make it work; if we don’t we are literally going to be naked onstage. With nothing!” The debut of Send In The Girls was Tudor Queens, in which the six wives of Henry VIII reveal more than their thoughts on the monarchy.
Everybody Loves Robbie started life as a 12-minute playlet for Loud ’N’ Queer in 2014, on prompting from Darrin Hagen. Last year Northern Light general manager Gina Moe and artistic director Trevor Schmidt (who had directed the little three-scene play) asked Chorley whether it had expandable full-length potential. Short answer: yes. A commission was born. The full-length one-act unspools farther into the past: we meet Robbie and Chloe in Grade 10, and follow them through high school, in a drama program that sprouts impressively, along with their relationship.
Two top-drawer actors (Jayce McKenzie and Richard Lee Hsi) play Robbie and Chloe, and everyone else in their world, “from acting teachers to the other kids at theatre camp, people they meet….”
When Robbie — a character inspired by a close friend of Chorley — suddenly considers he might be gay, Chloe has questions too, not least about their future together. The characters are young, yes. But, says Chorley, “I believe everyone has had the experience of being in a relationship, whether love or friendship, where the rules have changed without you knowing it. You don’t have to be a kid who went to a drama program in Edmonton to feel that belonging and un-belonging. And that’s the heart and soul of the play.”
It’s especially meaningful to Chorley that the premiere of Everybody Loves Robbie, the first of her shows commissioned for a theatre’s official season (and one she didn’t have a hand in producing), happens at Northern Light. Chorley has a history with the company that goes back a decade — sometimes as an administrator, sometimes the box office manager. “I’ve been watching Trevor’s NLT shows since I was 15,” says Chorley of Schmidt, who directs and designs the premiere production. “He’s very much part of my education; the way he directs and imagines shows has really influenced the way I work.” She beams. “This. Is. Big!”
Everybody Loves Robbie
Theatre: Northern Light
Written by: Ellen Chorley
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Jayce McKenzie, Richard Lee Hsi
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Friday through Jan. 25
Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com