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.

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