A new season, a new mission, all new work: Thou Art Here in 2023

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A dozen years ago, a couple of emerging Edmonton theatre artists in love with Shakespeare started a theatre collective that, light on its feet, would take them along with their favourite playwright to the people — in assorted disguises and in unexpected locations. They’ve taken the Bard to bars and bedrooms, museums, historic homes, cinemas and subway stations, street corners, into parks, onto puppet stages, into a cemetery.

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Since then the collective started by Andrew Ritchie and Neil Kuefler has expanded, to include core artists Alyson Dicey and Mark Vetsch. It has hatched a contemporary sibling, You Are Here Theatre, premiered new Canadian plays, unleashed clowns, yanked plays from the existing repertoire out of conventional theatres where they tended to be ensconced, into other kinds of spaces. 

On Sunday night at Boxer (the Strathcona bistro and bar), Thou Art Here, the agile artist-driven collective founded by Ritchie and Kuefler in 2011, morphed again. “We needed to re-brand,” says the former, Thou Art Here’s current artistic director, “new people, new voices, new artists as producers and directors.” The 2023 Thou Art Here season announced Sunday is a radical reimagining: “a new mission, 3 new projects, and all new work.”

What hasn’t changed for Thou Art Here is the “Here” (it remains “authentically and intentionally Edmontonian”). And for that matter, neither has the “Thou,” the audience. Thou Art Here remains devoted to “breaking the expectations of audiences, and the (conventional) rules of engagement” as Ritchie puts it. “Activating audiences outside theatres.”  

“I still love Shakespeare,” says Ritchie, who has a master’s degree in directing and creation from York University. “But I feel more motivated by theatre responding to contemporary issues and situations.” 

It’s a 2023 season entirely devoted to new work, its development and its presentation in workshop form — works-in-progress that can lead to full premiere productions in 2024. Ritchie’s Cycle (May 19 and 20), as he describes, is all about urban bicycling, a passion of his and a veritable minefield of contentious hotly current issues: the politics of active transportation in Canada, urban planning and who exactly we’re designing our cities for, climate change, the gig economy, the connection between bikes and children…. 

“People get upset so quickly,” says Ritchie cheerfully. Just think about the heated discussions ignited by the two words “bike lanes.” 

“I’m pretty passionate about it,” says Ritchie of the new solo show, inspired by his personal experience as a bicycle food courier in Toronto. Even labour issues are involved. The company he worked for, he says, pulled out of Canada completely when the workers tried to unionize. 

The multi-disciplinary potential of Cycle is expansive: “spoken text, dance elements, projection design.” He tested a 10-minute excerpt as part of Good Women Dance’s “Creative Incubator” in 2021. Unusually for Thou Art Here, the workshop presentation this spring (directed by Kristi Hansen and choreographed by Ainsley Hillyard) happens in a theatre, Studio B at the ATB Financial Arts Barn. But “I’ll be on a bicycle the whole time.” And since the bicycle is the stage, the relationship with the audience, yet to be finessed, will be unusual. 

playwright Josh Languedoc

With Civil Blood: A Treaty Story, a large-scale 13-actor piece co-created by Josh Languedoc and Neil Kuefler,  Thou Art Here returns, in an oblique way, to its first love, Shakespeare. Inspired jointly by Romeo and Juliet, Treaty 6, and Languedoc’s own supply of traditional Indigenous stories — in English, French, and Nêhiyawêwin (Cree) — Civil Blood is set in 1846, at the signing of the Treaty. The star-cross’d lovers are a Cree and a French settler. 

After workshops at both Nextfest and the Found Festival, the May 28 workshop production, directed by Kuefler at Fort Edmonton, takes us into the fort itself, and divides the audience in half to move and follow different threads of the story. The relevance of the piece is immediate and urgent. “What does it mean to be a Treaty person?” It’s a prime question for our moment in history. The cast is yet to be announced. 

The third part of Thou Art Here’s season, and new identity, is the Write Here Immersive Playwrights Unit initiative, produced by Thou Art Here’s Dicey. “We want to seed new work and send it out to the community,” says Ritchie. The idea is to “support the development of three new immersive plays by Edmonton playwrights,” set in unexpected Edmonton spaces (“I don’t know, the Mindbender before it closes?” he teases). The proposals are gathered by means of a public submission call (deadline Feb. 20). Each playwright receives a $2500 honorarium, with staged readings of the first drafts Nov. 25, and Dec. 2 and 9. 

“I hope we get tons of submissions, and it’s really hard to choose!” says Ritchie. 


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