New plays for big stages: Collider, the Citadel’s debut play development festival

By Liz Nicholls,

Line most often heard from Canadian theatre producers by playwrights labouring on new scripts. “Great, but could you make it smaller? How about three actors, better yet two, instead of five?”

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If ‘think small’ is the working mantra of new play development in this country, where do playwrights and theatre-makers get experience (and exposure) telling their stories in a bigger way, for Size L and XL performance spaces in Canada and beyond? Spaces like the Citadel, for example.

There’s a new festival for that. The Citadel’s Collider Festival, originally scheduled for a March 2020 debut edition, collided … with COVID. Now it’s launching, in entirely digital form, May 12 to 16.

Collider, a collision of artists and forms, is devoted to new play development. In its play readings, workshops, and keynote address, it’s  all about theatre creation on that larger scale. In the local theatre ecology, “there are already many new-play companies in Edmonton. I’ve kept looking at what the Citadel can provide,” says artistic director Daryl Cloran. “The great thing, and the challenge, at the Citadel,” as he puts it, “is that both its mainstage performance spaces are 700-seat houses.”

“What does that large-scale mean?” that’s the question for artists. “It doesn’t mean super-populist or a cast of 20 every time,” says Cloran. “But there has to be something about the work that resonates on a larger scale…. It could be thematically; it could be in production value; it could be an adaptation of something that captures people’s attention.” The question for him is “what do we need to provide (creators) in order to have them thrive, to dream, on that larger stage.”

Amongst the six new pieces, in various stages of development, getting full readings at Collider,  the assortment of forms is wide — among them a period literary adaptation, a black comedy thriller, a door-slamming farce, a musical. The casts are gathered from here and across the country (and in one case across the border),

Jane Eyre, which brings to life the Charlotte Brontë masterwork of 1847, is a Citadel commission. Originally slated for a 2020 premiere, audiences here will see it, says Cloran, as soon as the theatre can return to big, live onstage performances. The adaptor is acclaimed Canadian playwright Erin Shields.

“She, more than any playwright I know, has such a gift for adaptation,” Cloran says, citing such plays as Shields’ versions of Paradise Lost for Stratford and (Ibsen’s) The Lady From The Sea for the Shaw Festival. “Erin really gets it, how to take a classic story, look at it from her contemporary viewpoint, make it resonate for a contemporary audience.”

Cloran was responding to the demonstrable fan-dom of Citadel audiences for full-scale costumed period shows (the Jane Austen adaptations are perennial hits). The new Jane Eyre, he says, “is very much a period piece. But she’s given it a contemporary feminist viewpoint. And it’s real ensemble storytelling; everybody plays a whole bunch of different parts, a kind of low-tech theatricality I really love….”   

The most complicated to assemble for an online reading is Almost A Full Moon, a musical by the team of composer/lyricist Hawksley Workman and playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman (the latter a finalist for this year’s Governor-General’s Literary Award for Guarded Girls). It’s based on Workman’s original Christmas album of 20 years ago, a Cloran seasonal fave (“for me and my generation and peer group, it’s integral”). It’s not a song cycle per se. But the songs, are “thematically related.”

Last fall, directed by Cloran, the new musical got a six-week workshop with students at Sheridan College’s Canadian Musical Theatre Project (where Come From Away was originally developed).

As Cloran points out, Workman is a rock star with a distinctly theatrical bent; the new holiday musical is by no means his first foray into theatre (he composed music for The Silver Arrow at the Citadel, his one-man cabaret The God That Comes premiered at the High Performance Rodeo). Workman said he imagined the intertwined multi-generational stories evoked by the songs in a Love Actually sort of way.

Playwright Corbeil-Coleman, says Cloran, “wrote a beautiful script that takes place in three different timeliness, World War II, the ’80s, that intertwine and overlap.”

Ten actors and a six-piece band that includes violin and cello: a lot of editing intricacy is involved in putting it together on Zoom “for a true experience in what it sounds like,” says Cloran. We’ll see its full stage premiere at the Citadel, “as soon as we can do big musicals!”

He laughs. “We’re trying to fully corner the market on the holidays!”

A new farce, a classic six-actor door-slammer called The Fiancée, is the work of actor/playwright Holly Lewis. “Secretly, if Holly could be anyone she’d be Lucille Ball,” laughs Cloran who’s married to Lewis. “She loves to be funny; she loves the mechanics of farce….” And those mechanics are dauntingly intricate, as Lewis knows from starring in a Theatre Found production of Steve Martin’s farce The Underpants in Toronto.

“I’m wildly biased, but I think her idea here is really good,” Cloran says. The premise riffs on Boeing, Boeing, a farce in which a guy juggles a romantic schedule involving three flight attendant girlfriends who work for different airlines, and are unexpected grounded during a storm. Lewis’s thought, says Cloran, was “how to create a great farce with women at the heart of it.”

As Cloran describes The Fiancée, during World War II, a young woman accepts proposals from three men, expecting they won’t all make it back from the war.” But they do, “and all arrive back on the same day.” Which sets in motion an escalating chaos of “shoving people in closets, slamming doors, putting on wigs to be someone else.” And then the formidable landlord shows up; eviction looms.

Mieko Ouchi’s Burning Mom chronicles her newly-widowed mom’s journey, in a Winnebago, down to Burning Man in the Nevada desert. And it imagines large scale in a different way. It may be a solo show (starring Nicola Lipman) with an intimate story, “but Mieko’s vision for the show is huge,” says Cloran. He reports that the playwright/director has been collaborating with a Montreal projection designer with Cirque cred. Yes, the Winnebago opens up.

A Distinct Society by the Canadian-born New York- based Kareen Fahmy, had a reading in Chicago last fall. “We wanted to introduce it to Canadian audiences,” Cloran says of the strikingly topical cross-border play that, quite literally, straddles the Canada-U.S. border — in a library with a line down the middle. That’s where a Muslim family meets, to circumvent the “Muslim ban.”

In collaboration with Script Salon, Kenneth T. Williams’ new play Paris, SK, gets a reading directed by Keith Barker of Toronto’s Native Earth Theatre. “A crime thriller/ noir kind of feeling, very cool,” says Cloran. “And the playwright as “smart, political, and funny.”

Collider opens with an address by Sherry J Yoon, the artistic director of the experimental Vancouver indie Boca del Lupo, specialists in grand-scale theatre spectacle. She was the  National Arts Centre’s Jillian Keiley’s collaborator on the Grand Acts of Theatre series. The lineup includes an afternoon of 10-minute readings from new plays developing as part of the Punctuate! Theatre’s Playwrights Unit.

And there are two workshops for who’d rather go big than go home: one from Shields on the subject of adaptations, the other from Michael Rubinoff, the head of the Canadian Musical Theatre Project at Sheridan, on developing new Canadian musicals.

 Says Cloran, “we already have the largest Fringe on the continent…. My dream is putting Edmonton on the map as a place where great new work is being created. What Austin with SXSW is to music, we can be for theatre.”

Registration and attendance are free, but space is limited. Check out the full Collider schedule and register at citadel theatre.

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