Theatre Network at 48: a new season for a new building

Chariz Faulmino and Jameela McNeil (back), Cathy Derkach and Kristi Hansen (front) in Joni Mitchell: Songs of a Prairie Girl, Theatre Network and Wild Side Productions. Missing: Alison Wells. Photo by Ryan Parker

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There are many firsts attached to Theatre Network’s 48th season, announced Thursday. 

The trio of mainstage productions is led by Jim Guedo’s innovative all-new Joni Mitchell musical, and includes a powerful drama by Canadian star Hannah Moscovitch and the premiere of a new cross-disciplinary Eugene Stickland play-with-music. It’s the first full season to be built, rehearsed, and staged in the company’s beautiful new $12 Roxy Theatre, built (amazingly) on the same 124th Street footprint of the ex-cinema that burned to the ground in 2015.

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The mainstage season opens Nov. 22 to Dec. 11 with Stickland’s The Innocence of Trees, a Theatre Network commission and world premiere in which the acclaimed prairie and international star painter Agnes Martin enters a theatre and encounters her younger self. 

“It isn’t simply a bio-play. It’s not a chronology of the artist’s life,” says Theatre Network artistic director Bradley Moss. “Though you are going to learn about it,” the turbulent journey that took the painter from Macklin, Saskatchewan to MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Maralyn Ryan in The Innocence of Trees, Theatre Network. Photo by Ryan Parker.

“It’s aspects of Agnes Martin, it’s ’what drives people?’” says Moss of the play’s capture, an artist’s life and sensibility fraught with mental health challenges.  “It’s a deep dive on her, an exploration…. And the whole building will be engaged, an enhancement of your theatrical experience.” What Moss and TN’s visual arts curator Jared Tabler have in mind is a kind of wrap-around amplification. Some of Martin’s drawings are coming from the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery as well as a photographic series from her time in New Mexico. 

And a team headed by Darrin Hagen plans “to animate the Lorne Cardinal” (the black box second theatre downstairs from the Nancy Power mainstage), with stations and projections. “Wow! The building can do these things,” says Moss, delighted with the as yet unexplored possibilities of the new multi-space theatre. “We experiment and we learn!” 

Moss’s production, which stars Maralyn Ryan and her granddaughter Emma Ryan, includes a projection-scape by Ian Jackson and onstage live music played by cellist and sound designer Morag Northey.   

Something of the same multi-dimensional optic on an artist inhabits Joni Mitchell: Songs Of A Prairie Girl, “a non-linear musical on her life, music, and art” as billed. As creator/director Guedo explained to 12thnight, he spent the pandemic shutdown “completely re-writing” the musical he’d originally created, with Mitchell’s blessing, in 2007, in honour of the Saskatchewan centennial. It was later revived at the National Arts Centre in 2011. 

The complete re-write was motivated at least partially by the dramatic changes in Mitchell’s life since the original piece — a health crisis and a return to performing, notably at the Newport Folk Festival.

As Moss explains, five actors play different aspects of Mitchell, a Canadian artist to whom the descriptive “iconic” does not go amiss: The young Ingenue, the Free Spirit, the Explorer, the Critic, and the Sage. Guedo’s cast includes Alison Wells, Cathy Derkach, Kristi Hansen, Jameela McNeil and Chariz Faulmino, all of whom have to be able to play. And they’re accompanied a live band. The production, in association with Wild Side Productions, runs March 7 to 26. 

Gianna Vacirca in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, Theatre Network. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The MainStage finale, Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, which was to have played TN in its Roxy-on-Gateway temporary home in the spring of 2020, will finally happen. “We would have had the second production in the country,” says Moss. “Now we’re the tenth.” 

“This one really moved me when I read it,” he says of the play that chronicles an affair between a university professor and a student. It’s “a discussion of power and the responsibility of that, such an important conversation in our world.” 

TN and Moscovitch go back, to productions of East of Berlin, Little One, Infinity, What A Young Wife Should Know. Moss is a huge admirer of her writing, “not too much in actors’ mouths, but so much going on! Funny, entertaining, serious….” 

As planned in 2020, Marianne Copithorne directs the TN production that runs April 25 to May 14. Gianna Vacirca will share the stage with John Ullyatt.

The Roxy Performance Series of indie productions in theatre, dance, comedy, music curated and supported by Theatre Network has been officially renamed the Phoenix Series (in honour of the 1997 union of TN with the late Phoenix Theatre). A complete Phoenix lineup hasn’t been finalized; “we announce stuff as it comes up,” says Moss of the work-in-progress. It opens with Alberta Musical Theatre’s production of Jack and the Beanstalk Oct 6 to 9 on the Nancy Power stage, and includes the hit sketch comedy troupe Girl Brain in the Lorne Cardinal Oct. 27 to 30.     

Everything’s a first in the new building. Behind the elegant store-front facade on a busy commercial street in a real neighbourhood, theatre has already been happening since April and Crow’s Theatre’s production of Cliff Cardinal’s As You Like It: A Radical Retelling. “Our first Nextfest” in the new Roxy happened in June. Ellen Chorley ran a theatre summer school there in July. It was a Fringe BYOV in August (Moss directed Ron Pearson’s magic show, his first show in the building). 

A full roster of equipment still awaits delivery and installation, held up by supply chain issues, says Moss. But now Alberta Musical Theatre is working upstairs in the sunlit rehearsal hall next to the offices. And a mainstage season is underway, starting with “our first show to be built in the shop here!” as Moss says of The Innocence of Trees. 

“All kinds of learning are going on,” he says. “Things get revealed; we have to live in a space to know the possibilities.” 

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