2021: the year Edmonton theatre returned to live (part one)

Sheldon Elter (centre) and the Bears ensemble. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In theatre, 2021 is a year that isn’t ending as it began.

It was more than half over when The Pivot pivoted. Live performance gradually, cautiously ventured out of its online exile, where it had creatively taken up residence in the devastation of 2020— and back into theatres. And audiences, who’d been watching shows in their bathrobes as the year began, donned masks and pants, and (gradually, cautiously) did the same.

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And there was a certain unmistakeable exhilaration attached to that return in late summer. Contrary to our darkest thoughts in an interminable and destructive pandemic, we discovered that live theatre, experienced in person with other people — even masked and distanced — did still exist. And it was a thrill.

Meanwhile, in the tumultuous course of 2021 theatre artists, who have proven themselves the world’s quick learners, had become ever more adventurous and resourceful about adapting and custom-creating from scratch for unfamiliar digital platforms, for engaging audiences across screens and through earphones, for personalizing theatre experiences in unexpected live locations. Home delivery? You got it. Podcast tours? Back alley shows? “Drive-by” theatre? Cellphone mysteries? Check. All in the quest for that elusive but tangible quality of liveness, the sense of sharing a space that’s the raison d’être and identity of the art form.

Theatres did what they could to ease our traumatized selves back to proximity and kinetic engagement. No thanks to the provincial government, of course, but the vaccine mandate was a material reassurance. In these pandemical times I’ve written “Plexiglass” so many times I started to get emails from suppliers offering me import deals.

And as live in-person performance gradually returned, theatre didn’t jettison streaming, but added it as an option. Bonus: we could see what theatres across a very big country, borders, and the pond, were up to.  I saw theatre in Ireland, New York, Chicago, Toronto and London that way, without ever wearing actual shoes or dusting off my passport.   

Re-fashioning theatre as a hybrid, straddling platforms, is a complicated, and labour-intensive, experiment. The mighty Fringe came back live and online for the summer’s 40th anniversary edition of the continent’s oldest festival of its kind. Our beloved giant wasn’t its usual gargantuan jostling self, to be sure. It was a smaller, quieter sort of festival; the view from the beer tent was downright eerie. But there were live shows, 61 of them (a quarter of the usual) inside 11 “theatres” operating at 60 per cent capacity, in addition to digital productions on Fringe TV. And in the end, more than 37,000 tickets to shows were sold.   

Hunter Cardinal in Lake of the Strangers, Naheyawin and Fringe Theatre. Photo supplied.

It was the Fringe’s Murray Utas — in the course of directing a beautiful new live and live-streamed production of Lake of the Strangers by the brother-sister team of Jacquelyn and Hunter Cardinal — who asked two of the year’s seminal questions. “What does theatre as film mean? How do we include both audiences (live and remote) without cheating either one?”

And speaking as we are of questions…. Theatre has had time in The Great Pause to question its place in the world and its own power structures. In 2021 it stepped up to do something about accessibility to artistic leadership, witness the variety of theatre mentorship programs — launched at companies including Azimuth, the Citadel, the Fringe, Catalyst, Shadow, Punctuate!. The idea is to open the stage door for marginalized talents who might otherwise have spent a long time gazing through the theatre windows.

Abby Vandenberghe, Mark Sinongco and Donovan Workun in Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer. Photo by Darla Woodley, Red Socks Photography.

Hold those questions as we revisit a theatre year that began with Northern Light’s clever film version of a solo play, The Look, and ends with the Citadel’s live full-bodied music-filled adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Ah, AND a hit show with ‘jason’ in the title: Grindstone Theatre’s Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer.

Here’s a selection of highlight theatre productions and “experiences” in another pandemic year of struggle and ingenuity — and a return, in newly uncertain times, to the live in-person engagement that is at the heart of the matter.    

Bears: Matthew MacKenzie’s witty, boldly imaginative fantasia on Nature and Man’s place in it, had a stunning homecoming. Trailing honours from across the country, Bears finally returned to Edmonton where it all began six years ago. And this time, the Punctuate! Theatre production was in the big house, on the Citadel’s Maclab stage, which looked beautiful and felt meaningful. In choreographed movement from a seven-dancer ensemble, light, sound, poetic text, humorous asides and a magnetic performance from Sheldon Elter, Bears is a chase. It conjures the transforming journey of a Métis oil patch worker on the lam, from the city to the sea through the wilderness along the route of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Ingenious theatricality in the service of Indigenous vision and environmental activism. Read the 12thnight review here.

Darrin Hagen, Metronome, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Metronome: In Darrin Hagen’s new solo memoir, which premiered at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, the multi-faceted artist, a genial and piquant raconteur, traced his origins back to his boyhood self. It’s his story of a gay small-town prairie trailer park kid whose life is changed, and sense of creative possibilities untethered, by music and the arrival of A Piano. In Heather Inglis’s production, the storytelling happened under a gorgeous rainbow arc of deconstructed piano parts, strings, sounding plates, disembodied keyboards (designer: Beyata Hackborn). In its funny, elliptical way, Metronome is a more powerful manifesto about the importance of art in our lives than any committee pamphlet. Hagen is his own proof. Read the 12thnight review here.

Thomas Tunski, Christina Nguyen, Gavin Dyer, Amber Borotsik, Jesse Gervais in Michael Mysterious. Photo by BB Collective Photography.

Michael Mysterious: In 35 named and numbered scenes this dark comedy (which pushes at the boundaries of that descriptive) by the high-profile theatre experimenter Geoffrey Simon Brown explores in a captivating, funny, sharp-eared way what it means to have a “family” — to be in one, to find one if yours is missing in action, to resist one and still be an individual, to escape from one — and a “home.” Directed by Patrick Lundeen, Pyretic Productions did it proud. Read the 12thnight review here.

Laura Raboud, Nadien Chu, Rochelle Laplante in Macbeth, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Macbeth: How often do you get to say you laughed out loud at a production of the Scottish play? Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s riotous three-actor production, directed by Dave Horak at the Fringe and other locales, made of Macbeth a black comedy with contemporary insights into the cycle of corruptibility built into leadership (its acquisition and maintenance), and our fatal drift to follower-ship. Perfect for these parlous times in our part of the world. An excellent cast of three — Laura Raboud, Nadien Chu and Rochelle Laplante —  played the characters, the bouffons who deliver the stage directions, and the Unknowns who are versions of the Witches.  Read the 12thnight review here.

Lora Brovold in The Ugly Duchess, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

The Ugly Duchess: Trevor Schmidt’s Northern Light Theatre filmed production found an intricate, clever visual way, perfectly conceived for screen, of re-imagining Janet Munsil’s rather straight-forward 1993 play. Margaret, the last countess of the strategically important Tyrol, was both highly desirable as a bride and, by historical reputation, the ugliest woman in history. The production, starring the terrific Lora Brovold who’s behind the looking glass, unfolds as a series of mirror images or window frames, the infinitely angled reflections of intersecting public and private portraits. Read the 12thnight review here.

Helen Belay, Patricia Cerra, Sheldon Elter in The Fiancée, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

The Fiancée: Life is complicated; chaos is nigh…. I know, right? Farce may well be the perfect theatrical form for our time. Ambitiously deluxe, unusually feminist, Holly Lewis’s World War II-era piece of seven-door engineering launched the Citadel’s live season in the fall. At the centre is a woman who has to think on her feet ever faster, improvising ever more outlandish lies, to save the day. Her daffy sister, a serial fiancée, has gotten herself engaged to three men. And they’re all arriving back from the war on the same day. It’s fun to see what happens when women are instigators and fine-tuners of the impending chaos that is the astute farce insight into our world. Daryl Cloran’s production sparkled with comic performances from a cast of six, led by Patricia Cerra and Helen Belay as the sisters, and Lora Brovold as their formidable landlady. Read the 12thnight review here.

Jenny McKillop and Andrew Macdonald-Smith in Fever Land, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Fever Land: This mysteriously haunting, happy/sad 1999 Stewart Lemoine “comedy,” set in ‘60s Winnipeg, marked Teatro La Quindicina’s return to live in-person performance as the finale of a season that started with three filmed productions. In Jenny McKillop’s perfectly pitched performance we meet a mild-mannered junior high home ec teacher whose placid life unravels in an illicit love affair, and whose romantic predicament fortunes are taken in hand by two flamboyant life coaches. The Erlking (of Goethe and Schubert fame) and Myrtha Queen of the Willis (from the ballet Giselle) have had a lot of experience translating human setbacks into art. Belinda Cornish’s five-actor production savoured the strange, bold contrasts of a piece you’d want to call heartbreaking when you aren’t laughing. Read the 12thnight review here.

The Garneau Block, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

The Garneau Block: After The Most Terrible Summer Ever (and 18 months of stops and starts), a play about what it means to live in a community, to pull together to make something happen — here in our own backyard! — finally premiered at the Citadel in Rachel Peake’s production in September. And it felt like a validation and a rallying cry. Belinda Cornish’s play — like the Todd Babiak novel from which it was adapted — is of this place in a detailed way, its locales and venues, its weird little traditions. Funny, built on secrets, and full of heart. Read the 12thnight review here.

The Makings of a Voice: “We need to know we have a story.” This unusual “theatrical song cycle” by singer-songwriter/actor about finding your own story and your own voice to tell it was the mainstage headliner at the 2021 SkirtsAfire Festival. Wylie’s own honesty as a performer and her conversational, easeful way of incorporating songs into text, gave the show its unique shape and its captivating shimmer of intimacy. (I saw Vanessa Sabourin’s production online, streamed from the eerie depths of the old Army and Navy in Strathcona. It returned for live dates at the Arden this fall). Read the 12thnight review here.

Zoë Glassman in Night, Major Matt Mason Collective. Photo by Whittyn Jason.

Night: In June The Major Matt Mason Collective, an innovative artist-run troupe hitherto rarely seen in Edmonton, took us out of our houses, into our cars, and into Rundle Park at dusk. Night didn’t so much fall and sneak up on us in Geoffrey Simon Brown’s “drive-by” play. We met a character — powerfully played as a movement piece with sound track by Zoë Glassman — who is straining to break out of the human cage and join the wild. They think they’re becoming a wolf. After months of group quarantine, Night resonated eerily  with our own pandemical moment, of feeling that we’re between identities, not quite ourselves, and possibly not quite human. Read the 12thnight review here.

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