By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Edmonton’s Concrete Theatre, a company with a national profile in theatre-for-young-audiences, is into its mid-30s with a new pair of co-artistic directors — and in this strange pandemic time, the need to re-invent one of its prime raisons d’être.
Live theatre? Plus school touring? In a plague year? Now there’s a mind-expanding multiple suspension to wrap your imagination around.
They have different ages (by a couple of decades), different theatrical specialties, connections, and cultural perspectives, as you might expect. But, as they take over the artistic directorship of a company named for its street-level savvy, what Tracy Carroll and Corben Kushneryk share is a zest for young audiences and the creation and showcasing of new plays to reflect kids’ experiences growing up in a complex, diverse Canada.
Both partners have roots in Concrete, so to speak. “I directed Lig and Bittle (by Elyne Quan and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull) 20 years ago!” says Carroll. Kushneryk’s Concrete debut was as an actor in The Bully Project five years ago (Carroll directed, and stage managed).
As Carroll points out, a complementary co-artistic directorship is nothing new for a company that was born as a five-way collective in 1987. For much of its life since, it’s been run by partnerships of artists, and more recently, a pair of artistic directors, Mieko Ouchi and Caroline Howarth.
And now, by a pair of theatre artists with a skill set of striking breadth. Carroll is a veteran dramaturge and director, with a formidable record in new play development. Kushneryk, a bona fide triple-threat, is an actor/ director/ designer and an up-and-coming producer with indie cred: he’s a co-founder of the indie company Impossible Mongoose (The Fall of the House of Atreus, Prophecy).
“It’s such an interesting time to join a (theatre) that’s primarily a touring company!” says Carroll, with a wry laugh. “It’s fun to come up against these barriers!” declares Kushneryk cheerfully. “I love controlled chaos; it can be a beautiful thing!”
On the eve of the annual Sprouts Festival, a Concrete spring-planting tradition of some two decades standing that happens (all online for the first time) next weekend. The Concrete partners were on Zoom together this week — a platform where they spend a lot of Concrete brainstorming time — to share their thinking.
“I love having a partner!” says Carroll. “We share a brain.” Says Kushneryk, “it’s such a helpful thing in a partnership to have different generations and perspectives…. I love having Tracy’s experience as a writer, a dramaturge, a director — and as a mother!”
As the name will hint, Sprouts plants theatrical seedlings: new and original playlets, 10-minutes or so in length, collected from unusual artistic, cultural, ethnic, and professional sources — designers, actors, novelists, journalists, improvisers, playwrights who’ve never before written for kids.… Some of the sprouts they create grow up, get fully produced (and re-produced), tour, “and join the canon,” as Carroll puts it. “Some live in that (10-minute) time.”
The trio of short plays we’ll see at this year’s edition (acted by a cast of three, directed by Kushneryk, dramaturged by Carroll) were inherited from Ouchi’s tenure as artistic director. They all started pre-pandemic, and have had an extra year of seasoning, thanks to the COVID hiatus of 2020.
With The Colour Keeper, Patricia Cerra, best known to Edmonton audiences as an actor (and currently in an artistic director internship at the Nepture Theatre in Halifax), tries her hand at playwriting. As Carroll describes, it’s a story about girl on a quest to bring the joy of colour back into a world where it’s missing.
The title character of Mika Laulainen’s Wag is a Dalmatian who had an epic adventure in company of a friend. The Enchantment is by the multi-tasking team of Dave Clarke (also in charge of Sprouts sound) and Marissa Kochanski, whose designs have been part of Sprouts for many years.
“We rehearsed over Zoom,” says Kushneryk. “It’s been all about how to connect, and make (the experience) as live as we can.” And the cast of three — Chariz Faulmino, Andrés Moreno and Christine Nguyen — “jumped right into the characters; they’re so infused with joy.” Technical director Bobby Smale “drove bags of mics, and lights, and props (design by Heather Cornick) and costumes (by Betty Kolodziej) to the actors at their homes.
A pandemic year gives all three plays different layers, as Carroll and Kushneryk report. A play about a world without colour, for example, and a quest to restore it, has gained a heightened social reverb in a new alertness to diversity. A play about friendship and anxiety is bound to have a different force field, too, in these isolating times.
For live theatre, the times are a test of creativity. When the pandemic closed the theatres suddenly 14 months ago, Concrete’s Pia and Maria by Josh Dalledonne and Bianca Miranda, fully rehearsed and ready to go, got cancelled on the eve of opening. The intergenerational play about two elderly Italian sisters bonding with a young Filipina girl is back in June, adapted as a radio play (directed by Mieko Ouchi).
Acting Our Colours, a Concrete in-school residency designed to celebrate the richness of cultural diversity, is currently being adapted in a digital version. The plus side to the pandemic has been accessibility to new communities, new audiences, beyond the city and across the country.
“At heart Concrete is issue-based theatre,” says Carroll. We can expect to see new plays, yes, but it’s not as if the issues that kids confront vanish from the scene, as the perpetually timely repertoire of Concrete shows — The Bully Project, Consent (sexual coercion), Routes (family violence), or Under Cover (cultural prejudice) — confirms. “Kids grow up; there’s a new audience every year.”
Last word to Kushneryk. “It’s such a gift to be working in theatre for young audiences…. From my experience there’s no audience like a TYA audience. They’re so with you, so alive!”
Sprouts New Play Festival For Kids
Written by: Patricia Cerra, Mika Laulainen, Dave Clarke and Marissa Kochanski
Directed by: Corben Kushneryk
Dramaturged by: Tracy Carroll
Where: online, concretetheatre.ca
Running: May 22 and 23, 2 p.m.