Workshop West: the playwrights’ theatre is back, live, with a new season

Workshop West Playwrights Theatre announced a 43rd season

By Liz Nicholls,

Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre turns 43 this season with a live, all-Canadian lineup, dubbed “Daring Greatly,” that includes two premieres by Edmonton playwrights, the return after a decade to a signature WWPT new play development festival, and a special local edition of a national storytelling initiative.

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As announced by artistic director Heather Inglis Thursday, the only producing theatre in the country with ‘playwrights’ in the title launches their season next month with a homegrown love story. And it’s of a sort that speaks powerfully to us as the pandemic grinds its way through our lives. In Darrin Hagen’s new solo play Metronome, the Edmonton playwright/ actor/ director/ composer tells his own “origin-story” — the story of a boy, growing up queer in small-town Alberta, whose life is transformed when he falls in love …  with music. The life-changer is his cherished first piano, an Ennis & Sons. It’s the instrument for big events, young Darrin’s move to the big city, and his entry into a tumultuous, high-risk new world of performing and creating.

Darrin Hagen. Photo supplied.

“A lot of the art we consume isn’t local,” as Inglis points out. “Darrin’s work is so grounded in this place, Edmonton specifically.” And a story about “the transformational power of art and how it draws people together is a story we need to tell right now. People are craving art. They need to laugh and cry….”

“Darrin is as close to a local ‘celebrity’ as we get. He’s a classic storyteller, and a charismatic guy.”

Inglis directs the production, which runs Nov. 11 to 21 at the Backstage Theatre. Hagen’s fellow musician Jason Kodie, who works frequently in theatre too, designs the sound.

playwright Michelle Robb. Photo supplied.

The other premiere in the Workshop West season is by a newcomer to the scene, Michelle Robb, a recent U of A theatre school acting grad. Her play Tell Us What Happened, winner of the 2020 Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate Prize, is a bold foray into tangled contemporary territory: “sexual assault, friendship, the way the internet affects our lives, its real-world consequences, the knotty implications of what we post in public space,” as Inglis describes.

“It’s a challenging play, and she’s not afraid of that,” Inglis says of the playwright, now in her mid-20s, who began writing it at 21. “I’m a real fan of writers not posing easy solutions to complex problems.”

The Workshop West premiere arrives onstage May 12 to 22, due to COVID fully two years after it was originally announced under the Theatre Yes flag. The upcoming co-production with that indie company has a cast of five, directed by Inglis.

The Springboards New Play Festival, March 21 to 27, is a return to a popular cabaret-style event that is “a pretty perfect expression of Workshop West’s raison d’être,” as Inglis puts it. The company, dedicated to the nurturing of playwrights and the development and production of new Canadian theatre, connects with playwrights of every level of experience all season long through a variety of writing circles and workshops. It last produced a Springboards in the 2011-2012 season.

For playwrights Springboards’ series of public staged readings — and the workshopping with actors, designers, and dramaturges that precedes them — is a chance to hone works-in-progress. For audiences, as Inglis says, “it’s an invitation into the heart of the creative process…. It makes them part of it.”

“My goal is to hire a whole lot of Edmonton artists,” she says of a line-up that will include offerings from 15 or so playwrights.

The finale of the season, The Shoe Project (June 16 to 19), is Workshop West’s part of a 10-year-old national initiative to showcase in performance the experiences of immigrant women from around the world. Under the mentorship of playwright Conni Massing, six participants learning English write and then perform their own stories of arriving in Canada and adapting to a new life. Their experiences of travel and dislocation are focussed through the image of a pair of shoes they’ve worn.

Inspired by a 2020 instalment of The Shoe Project at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary, Inglis launched an Edmonton edition last year at Workshop West, but performances had to pivot to online. Of the four live performances this season, two are by women in last year’s group and two in this year’s.

“It’ll be a remarkable evening of getting to know people in the community,” says Inglis. “Very emotional and moving.”

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