2020: a year like no other in Edmonton theatre (part 1)

Here There Be Night, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

2020: the year the laws of probability bent so far out of shape they snapped. Along with satire, futurist dystopian fantasies ceded pride of place to … reality. Every definition of live theatre was up against it, from every angle.

For live theatre 2020 could hardly have been more devastating. A whole industry was abruptly shut down, here and everywhere, on the weekend of March 13, some shows in mid-run, some in mid-rehearsal. Productions (at least 14 of them at the time) then whole seasons got flung into the outer space of an indeterminate future. Theatre artists lost their jobs, their livelihoods. An art form whose origin story and First Cause and very being are rooted in proximity, the kinetic engagement of real live people sharing a space, took a shattering blow to the solar plexus of its identity. And the phrase “going out to the theatre,” with its anticipatory thrill, was suddenly one of those retro exit lines like “flying to the moon”  (or “exeunt pursued by a bear”).

And yet …

In all the carnage the year has seen, 2020 in theatre has seen a kind of creative validation of the performing arts. It’s made us realize, in a visceral way that’s a bit like homesickness, what we’re missing of course. But there’s something downright awe-inspiring about the ingenious, creative ways theatre artists, in exile from their usual habitat, immediately starting adapting, by experimenting with new forms of storytelling and audience engagement, learning on the fly how to create on unfamiliar platforms, on screens of every configuration. Suddenly theatre was into digital ventures, video streaming, digital-live hybrids, unexpected live locales, theatrical “home deliveries” (and invasions), radio plays, aural channels….

Whole festivals — Nextfest, the Found Festival, and even in a seminal blow the mighty Fringe — went online. Improv, even magic (the magical Lucy Darling), went digital. And they all sucked it up, in different ways, to face head-on what’s maybe the greatest challenge of theatre in exile on screen: how to engage (and be engaged by) the audience. How to make the screen a window, or a door, and not a (fifth) wall. Is it possible? Even harder, how to create a space where the audience interacts with each other. It’s one of the things I’ve missed most, the laughing and gasping together, shoulder to shoulder, the sense of togetherness.

All this learning. All in order to do, under the most daunting circumstances, what theatre artists do: tell stories, challenge sensibilities, capture imaginations. And the experiments got more adventurous, and more dexterous in being expressive on a small scale. Plays were adapted for live performances with actors far apart from each other onstage or tiny audiences scattered here and there (A Brimful of Asha at the Citadel among others) or sitting in their own back yards. Lodestar Theatre offered a menu of on-location options for home delivery (like a five-actor A Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw in the director’s front yard in the summer). The Freewill Shakespeare Festival launched a travelling group of musical players, the Free Willies. New pieces created for the new world actually made the medium the metaphor, or the setting, witness comedy sketches from Girl Brain and Gender? I Hardly Know Them (httpeepee).

Nimet Sanji in A Brimful of Asha, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Janice Saxon.

And in this interminable intermission, theatre has had time in 2020 to reflect on its own power structures. To wonder how to make theatre more accessible to racialized and marginalized talent, and therefore more reflective of (and meaningful to) the world we live in. At Azimuth, which led the way, co-artistic directors Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin, stepped aside last summer “to make room” as they said for new, young, BIPOC talent (Sue Goberdhan and Morgan Yamada). The Citadel enlisted a trio of BIPOC associate artists to choose, cast, and direct cast shows, including A Brimful of Asha and the upcoming Métis version of the Canadian classic Mary’s Wedding (online Tuesday).

In surveying the year in theatre, I’m struck by the way that everything I saw in 2020 in the all-too-brief Before Time, seems in retrospect to take on new colours, and a kind of ominous prescience.

The compelling thought in Catalyst’s stunning new musical play The Invisible – the art of ungentlemanly warfare, that history can be changed by passionate teamwork, seems now to have directly anticipated our moment. The question in Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network), Colleen Murphy’s bouffon version of Shakespeare’s goriest play, of how death and brutality should be avenged, has turned out to be our question, too.

Even in the ultra-door-slammer farce-within-a-farce Noises Off, at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre mid-Feb, the reduction of a production to rubble looks now like a portent of things to come, when not just noises are off, everything is off. And Waving Through A Window, the show-stopper song of Dear Evan Hansen (the 2015 hit which arrived here in February in an excellent Broadway Across Canada touring production) in which the hero sings of feeling outside the world, and his own life, looking in, seems now to have been written directly for all of us, in advance.

Heisenberg, one of the last two productions I saw in a theatre (at Shadow Theatre March 12) before the shutdown lo these many months, takes its prevailing metaphor from the famous Uncertainty Principle. Speaks for itself.

So, a selection of theatre highlights of a year like no other, when even venturing into a theatre felt like an adventure. Some were “plays.” Some were “cabarets.” More were “theatre experiences.”

Here There Be Night: in October, as temperatures dropped,  Workshop West, under new artistic producer Heather Inglis, took us out in the world on a night-time outdoor adventure in unexpected locations in Old Strathcona, an arts district we thought we knew well. Led by a narrative voice on a cellphone app, we had eight one-on-one encounters with actors in original five-minute solo plays (by Edmonton writers) that spoke in very different ways to the weirdness and isolating anxiety of COVID-ian times.  Read the 12thnight review HERE

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Catalyst Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics

The Invisible – agents of ungentlemanly warfare: The stunning new musical play from the Catalyst team of Jonathan Christenson, Bretta Gerecke, Laura Krewski, happens in the secret, encoded, subversive world of World War II espionage. Its all-female team of action heroes of the “here today, gone tonight” persuasion led by the mysterious Romanian-born spymaster (Melissa MacPherson), is borrowed from real-life history. Christenson’s richest score yet, with strikingly lit film noir/ graphic novel imagery by Catalyst designer Gerecke. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside-Out Cabaret, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo supplied.

Scenes From The Sidewalk: an inside out cabaret: In September, the doors of the Varscona opened for the first time since March. We sat, 20 at a time, in the lobby, looking out through the windows at the performers singing and dancing out on the street, looking in at their audience. The Plain Jane Theatre venture, which made real-live Edmonton (including the tent city for the homeless across the street in Gazebo Park) its set was both an ingenious work-around to the restrictions of the moment — singing indoors was verboten — and a witty metaphor for perpetual questions about art and the real world. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Curio Shoppe: With their spooky latest, Catch The Keys Productions, an inventive indie company specializing in immersive and site-specific performance, took their annual all-hallows excursions in the lurid reaches of Edmonton history, home. Our homes, actually. With the lights out. The online story unfolds according to your choices. And then your cellphone rings, and the dead consult you directly. Read about it HERE.

The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius:  In Colleen Murphy’s riotously black comedy, at Theatre Network, a gaggle of eager misfits, tackle Shakespeare’s grisly early revenge tragedy (mainly because it has the most murders of any play in the canon). In retrospect Bradley Moss’s exuberant production in Feb. was everything a COVID era show shouldn’t be — i.e. surrounded by a laughing audience, with the front rows draped in plastic due to the splattering gore. With gusto. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

until the next breath, Catalyst Theatre, Grand Acts of Theatre. Photo by Alan Kellogg.

until the next breath: Catalyst’s dreamy, grand-scale outdoor performance for a distanced audience of 100 in Victoria Park in October was part of the National Arts Centre’s Grand Acts of Theatre: live, outdoors, one-off “events” commissioned from 11 of the country’s most innovative indie companies to “mark the moment.” In an encampment of giant coloured balloons that “breathed” with gust of wind, a cast of 50 actors, dancers, and musicians played with the metaphor of breath — and a sense of a world holding its breath until the moment of exhale. Read about it HERE.

Kristin Johnston in We Had A Girl Before You. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

We Had A Girl Before You: Northern Light Theatre opened its season live (for an audience of 20 in the vast dark space of the Westbury Theatre) with Trevor Schmidt’s witty and atmospheric homage to the Gothic romance, in all its spooky convolutions. And here’s the capper: it’s a solo show for many characters, multiple settings, bizarre encounters. And Kristin Johnston, the star of Schmidt’s clever production, carried off all the complications with dazzling skill and ease. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Nicole St. Martin, Michael Bradley and son Luc in Chamber Obscura, Found Festival 2020. Photo supplied.

Chamber Obscura: At the Found Festival in July, an extravaganza of experimental zest devoted to unexpected encounters between artists and audiences, the most memorable experience was live, ingeniously so. We “found” ourselves in a Depression era gothic folk tale (with music) — by driving down an alley in Strathcona into a tent, watching a theatre family (Michael Bradley, Nicole St. Martin and their son Luc) through the windshield, and hearing them through the car radio. Read about it HERE.

A Christmas Carol: In an homage to a bona fide Yuletide tradition, the Citadel turned film company to re-fashion, under COVID-ian proscriptions, its new $1 million production of A Christmas Carol that premiered in 2019 and moved the celebrated Dickensian ghost story ahead a century to the post-war world. The results (available online through Dec. 31) have a compelling momentum about them that re-creates theatrical magic for a different medium. And you appreciate in a different up-close way the economy and force of the performances (led by Ted Dykstra as the man of the hour). Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Reneltta Arluk, Jenna Rodgers, Lebogang Disele, Makram Ayache, Amena Shehab, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, Tai Amy Grauman, All That Binds Us, Azimuth Theatre. Photo supplied.

All That Binds Us: This Azimuth production (live and live streamed), by a five BIPOC creators for a cast of six BIPOC performers, and directed by Reneltta Arluk, takes apart the multi-cultural multi-ethnic mosaic of Canada into individual personal stories. The characters are a gallery of the marginalized — Indigenous, refugee, queer, black, immigrant, Asian-Canadian — and the accommodations they make for a so-called Canadian identity. And it wonders whether in the end all that binds us isn’t just white supremacy. All that binds the play, theatrically speaking, judging by this premiere outing, could use a re-knotting. But the provocation packs a real punch.  Read the 12thnight review HERE

This entry was posted in Features and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.