By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s a felicity of timing, an alignment of stars, that our first chance to visit Workshop West Playwrights Theatre in their new home in Old Strathcona is Springboards.
The festival of staged readings, workshops and cabarets that runs March 22 to 27 at the newly christened Gateway Theatre marks the return to Workshop West after a decade of a signature event for a company that’s devoted to the discovery, development and showcasing of new plays and their writers.
“It’s what makes us unique,” says Workshop West artistic producer Heather Inglis. Springboards “is a celebration of the (play) development process itself… by inviting audiences into the middle of it.”
Contrary to popular assumption plays don’t just leap onto the stage on opening night fully formed, all dressed up, fresh from the page. How do they get there?
They’re seeded; they develop; they’re trimmed and honed, tested and re-thought. Springboards is all about that: it’s the prequel to opening night, the audience’s backstage pass to the process of artistic creation. “None of the Springboards plays has premiered,” says Inglis. “The playwrights are working on them as we speak! So we’re connecting the audience to the core work of our company.”
Think of it as a specialized form of audience participation, “where you get to be part of the process of creation.” Says Inglis, “it’s super-exciting for audiences. Staged readings engage the audience’s imagination in ways a fully realized production doesn’t. You get to imagine the (future) production, along with the artists.”
For playwrights, having actors and an audience is a crucial part of a journey towards full production that can be long, winding, and rocky. The audience reaction as a script breathes its first public air is always revealing, says Inglis. “As soon as someone’s watching, you can tell very quickly if it’s working.”
The festival, an inspiration of the 1990s, has a storied history at Workshop West. And it’s played a tangible part in expanding the Canadian theatre repertoire. Plays by such premium Canadian playwrights as Conni Massing, Brad Fraser, Collin Doyle, Kenneth Brown, can trace their roots back to Springboards past. Restoring the festival after 10 years’ absence was a top priority for Inglis when she got the Workshop West job just before the pandemic struck live theatre down.
“It’s a big little festival,” she says of the scale of this return edition of Springboards (Heritage Canada kicked in, crucially): 23 playwrights, 33 actors, a production staff of 10. Inglis has made a point, she says, of including work in the line-up, at every stage of development, from writers involved in Workshop West’s multiple playwriting initiatives, circles, exchanges.
The festivities open March 22 with a staged reading of FUMBO by writer/ director/ dramaturge/ theatre scholar Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki, Kenyan by heritage and a specialist in post-colonial African theatre. Mūsyoki, who leads Workshop West’s BIPOC “creative incubator,” worked on the play, set in Nairobi, in WWPT’s Playwright Assembly for emerging writers last year. Vern Thiessen, a former WWPT artistic director and a playwright himself, directs the staged reading.
IN-COR-RI-GI-BLE: The Legend of Thundervoice is the work of actor/ playwright/ theatre creator Josh Languedoc (Rocko and Nakota, Feast), a member of Saugeen First Nation and Workshop West’s youth education coordinator. Based on the memoir of his Ojibwa father, who was adopted off the reserve, it unspools as a comic book-style chronicle of two young Indigenous brothers, survivors of the ‘60s scoop. “A big project, at seven actors, and dear to his heart,” says Inglis of the Blyth Festival commission. The notable Indigenous theatre artist Yvette Nolan directs the stage reading (March 24).
The Feast of All Saints by Cat Walsh (The Laws of Thermodynamics, Do This In Memory of Me) is the closest of the Springboards plays to being production-ready, thinks Inglis. It embraces the playwright’s signature affection for horror films, and unfolds at a family memorial on Halloween night. Jim Guedo, head of MacEwan University’s theatre department, directs (March 25).
As its title suggests, Liam Salmon’s Subscribe Or Like couldn’t be more topical: it’s set in the treacherous terrain of the internet and social media, where identity is fluid and cruelty is rampant. As Inglis says “it’s what’s affecting our lives and changing our culture the most…. Is who we are on the internet really us?”
The two characters are a couple of struggling millennial under-achievers who turn to “the digital frontier, the (new) Wild West,” as Salmon puts it, for their kick at self-creation and fame. As they say, “the self you present on social media is a performance; there’s a real threat of being lost to the persona.” And, they points out, there’s a horror story in that. The third character, “the spectre of the digital,” reads the stage directions. Inglis directs the March 26 staged reading.
There are two cabaret nights. Act I of Under Pressure (March 23), directed by Amy DeFelice, features excerpts from three plays in development, by Marina Mair-Sanchez, Amanda Samuelson and the team of Amena Shehab and Joanna Blundelland. Act II is a short one-act play, The Light Fishers, by Leslea Kroll, billed as “a meditation on compassion and compassion fatigue.”
Alive and Kicking Cabaret, the grand finale of the festival (March 27, presented in partnership with Script Salon and curated by Darrin Hagen, who knows his cabarets), features excerpts from 13 plays by writers at various stages of their careers — from new voices like Brett Dahl to Edmonton theatre’s most experienced playwrights, among them Collin Doyle, Nicole Moeller and Trevor Schmidt. And there will be songs.
Springboards New Play Festival
Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Where: Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: March 22 to 27
Tickets and full schedule of events: workshopwest.org