By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
2020 was the year that a beaming singer arrived on the Varscona stage, draped herself in a chair centrestage to deliver a torchy number. And the host (Andrew MacDonald-Smith) calmly strode over and threw a sheet over her head.
In Teatro La Quindicina’s live Welcome Home cabaret in November, Chariz Faulmino, one of the year’s brightest new musical theatre talents, just kept right on singing — Come Rain Or Come Shine, which might, incidentally, be a musical mantra of sorts for the plucky Edmonton theatre community this season. Who knew that singing onstage would turn out to be red-alert dangerous, or that theatre would see the rise of the mask joke?
But then, who knew a lot of things?
Here, then, is an assortment in no particular order of high- medium- and lowlights from a pandemical year in theatre.
Paradox of the year in theatre: “distanced intimacy.” The time-honoured theatrical notion of creating “an intimate experience” live has a lot to do with generating a crowd for a shared experience up close. This idea had to do a punishing back flip (with small theatre having the advantage over the larger houses). The Found Festival was the first here to try a drive-in “private viewing experience” like Chamber Obscura. Each outdoor scene in Workshop West’s Here There Be Night had one actor performing to an audience of one or two.
“Distanced intimacy” is closely related to “reverse marketing.” The Citadel, for example, had to figure out how not to sell 681 seats (only 100) to A Brimful of Ashes in the Shoctor Theatre. Free Willies, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s new chamber trio of touring players, didn’t promote their guerrilla appearances, in case too many people actually showed up.
The rise of the monologue. Solo shows, long a Fringe specialty, entered the mainstream, even in online creations, in a new way in these isolating times. In Here There Be Night, Workshop West took monologues outdoors, a series of eight originals, in an adventure tour of Old Strathcona. Northern Light Theatre gave us Edmonton theatre’s most deluxe example of a monologue with We Had A Girl Before You, a complete, elaborately plotted, suspenseful homage to the Gothic romance — for a single actor (Kristin Johnston).
The shocking moment we knew without a shadow of a doubt … that the pandemic had settled in for the long haul and changed everything: the cancellation in April of the Fringe, Edmonton’s great invention, a life-sustaining and truly international festival that for audiences defines the summer season and for theatre artists a focal point for their dreams, aspirations, and income.
On the plus side, in a year with a LOT of negatives: Connectivity and access. In exile on digital platforms Edmonton theatre got wired, to the country and the big wide world. Inter-city casting? No problem. I saw an inventive Calgary production of Romeo and Juliet (from Downstage and Theatre Calgary), with a cast divided among Edmonton and Calgary actors, and the characters communicating by text. Inspired by isolation, The Izmores, a very funny web series about a marriage from hell, was created by Belinda Cornish in Edmonton and Ron Pederson in Toronto.
If there had been no pandemical challenge to space and time, would I have gotten to watch Deer Woman, a barn-burner about justice from Calgary-based Indigenous playwright Tara Beagan, this year’s Siminovitch Prize winner? Or a beautiful production by Toronto’s Crow Theatre of the Dave Malloy song cycle/ musical Ghost Quartet? Or Natasha Mumba’s remarkable performance in Acts of Faith at Toronto’s Factory Theatre? Or Elena Eli Belyea’s internet comedy The Jubilant, in its premiere at the University of Windsor? Or a hit Fringe festival circuit show, The Unrepentent Necrophile by the Brooklyn troupe The Coldharts?
The morphing of the Fringe: Fringe TV (previously a paradox in itself) was born. Chase Padgett’s bright idea of sustaining the life of hit Fringe shows became a web series, Digital Fringe, and you could buy a ticket. Jon Paterson’s Fringe LiveStream brought shows from everywhere directly to you, streamed live. It’s not the same, of course, since the Fringe by very definition all about live jostle, not to mention the unmistakeable smell of green onion cakes and those heart-clogging mini-donuts. But it kept our imagination, and hopes, alive.
Graduate studies for video majors in the college of pandemical life: Yes, theatre on video did get better, thank god. Way better than the kind of deadening archival video footage that always makes live theatre look so bleak. Video was better edited, too. And multi-screen Zoom application actually got witty and playful (the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol has an amusing example, of carollers getting the boot from Mr. Scrooge). Actors tossed props from screen to screen, or “exited” one screen and “entered” another, which gave staged readings — Steppenwolf Theatre’s Zoom version of Chekhov’s The Seagull for example — momentum and animation.
Sponsorship initiative of the year: Kudos to EPCOR’s invaluable $1.25 million Heart + Soul, big in both. The fund was designed to support Edmonton’s hard-hit arts sector in adapting to video platforms with equipment or reconfiguring the theatre, or covering ruinous expenses, or creating something ingenious and new. We have all been beneficiaries of this enlightened venture.
Distancing as metaphor: In some ways the most successful pandemic productions on the online platform found resonances with themes like alienation, loneliness, isolation, maginalization, family dysfunction. Mac Brock’s Tracks (from the indie Amoris Projects) was one: nine personal stories about the essential loneliness of creating art, for an audience that can’t be seen, starring nine artists tracked to their home habitats where they performed, solo.
Meg Braem’s Chrysothemis (which premiered at the U of A’s Studio Theatre online), was another. The family that’s spread out so strikingly at the dinner table is the spectacularly dysfunctional House of Atreus (no wonder no one’s passing the gravy).
Northern Light unleashed We Had A Girl Before you in a big dark theatre (the 300-seat Westbury) for an audience of less than 20. We sat alone, far apart, in the eerie black with only a bank of candles to light the stage — just like the solitary heroine up against it. The storied Old Vic in London ran a series of solo and small-cast plays live to an audience of zero; I saw Three Kings, a stunning Stephen Beresford solo play about a father-son estrangement, starring Andrew Scott onstage in the completely dark theatre.
Most improbable online success: magic. In An Exceptional Night In with Lucy Darling, this glamorous personnage makes magic happen, convincingly across the screen. And in her very sophisticated use of of the Zoom gallery (with its “virtual front row” volunteers) you actually feel you’re part of an audience. Now, that’s magic.
Theatre sound of the year: as a (poor) replacement for applause or laughter, the ping ping of the chat box for audience responses. At least there’s no coughing.
Commercial product of the year in theatre (besides hand sanitizer): Plexiglass. Moved by the proscriptions against singing onstage, musical theatre got ingenious with it. In the Mayfield’s revue Keep Calm and Rock On, a veritable Plexi wonderland, the band was ensconced in a Plexi cube, the characters entered Plexi booths akin to record studio isolation chambers whenever they sang, the tiers of audience tables were separated by tall Plexi panels.
Backstage theatre prop of the year: the tape measure (for stage managers and directors on distancing patrol).
Trigger warning of the year: The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, a gore-splattering production that included beheading, dismemberment, cannibalism, infanticide, and a few other misdemeanours, cautioned that that the production “might include interpretive dance.”
Go short or go home: the rise of the Tik Tok musical (of which Gender? I Hardly Know Them are expert practitioners) is a tip-off. Our attention span for online theatre (possibly online anything) is limited, and shrinking by the minute. Damn, spilled my coffee. Just a sec, I have to deal with a text, where the hell are my reading glasses?….
Two adjectives you will never see in theatre reviews for the foreseeable future: “infectious” and “contagious” (as in laughter, high spirits, vivacity). On caution: “unprecedented” (through sheer relentless overuse).
Slur turned to plaudit: what theatre a year ago would have wanted to be called “safe”?
Did you read 2020: a year like no other in Edmonton theatre (part 1)? It’s here.