2020: the strange year in Edmonton theatre (what just happened here? part 2)

Robert Benz in The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

2020 was the year that a beaming singer arrived on the Varscona stage, draped herself in a chair centrestage to deliver a torchy number. And the host (Andrew MacDonald-Smith) calmly strode over and threw a sheet over her head.

In Teatro La Quindicina’s live Welcome Home cabaret in November, Chariz Faulmino, one of the year’s brightest new musical theatre talents, just kept right on singing  — Come Rain Or Come Shine, which  might, incidentally, be a musical mantra of sorts for the plucky Edmonton theatre community this season.  Who knew that singing onstage would turn out to be red-alert dangerous, or that theatre would see the rise of the mask joke?

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But then, who knew a lot of things?

Here, then, is an assortment in no particular order of high- medium- and lowlights from a pandemical year in theatre.

Paradox of the year in theatre: “distanced intimacy.” The time-honoured theatrical notion of creating “an intimate experience” live has a lot to do with generating a crowd for a shared experience up close. This idea had to do a punishing back flip (with small theatre having the advantage over the larger houses). The Found Festival was the first here to try a drive-in “private viewing experience” like Chamber Obscura. Each outdoor scene in Workshop West’s Here There Be Night had one actor performing to an audience of one or two

The Free Willies, Billy Brown, Chariz Faulmino, Jameela McNeill. Photo supplied.

“Distanced intimacy” is closely related to “reverse marketing.” The Citadel, for example, had to figure out how not to sell 681 seats (only 100) to A Brimful of Ashes in the Shoctor Theatre. Free Willies, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s new chamber trio of touring players, didn’t promote their  guerrilla appearances, in case too many people actually showed up.

The rise of the monologue. Solo shows, long a Fringe specialty, entered the mainstream, even in online creations, in a new way in these isolating times. In Here There Be Night, Workshop West took monologues outdoors, a series of eight originals, in an adventure tour of Old Strathcona. Northern Light Theatre gave us Edmonton theatre’s most deluxe example of a monologue with We Had A Girl Before You, a complete, elaborately plotted, suspenseful homage to the Gothic romance — for a single actor (Kristin Johnston).

Gordie Lucius in Fringe Revue. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

The shocking moment we knew without a shadow of a doubt … that the pandemic had settled in for the long haul and changed everything: the cancellation in April of the Fringe, Edmonton’s great invention, a life-sustaining and truly international festival that for audiences defines the summer season and for theatre artists a focal point for their dreams, aspirations, and income.

Romeo and Juliet, The Shakespeare Company, Hit + Myth, Theatre Calgary. Screen shot.

On the plus side, in a year with a LOT of negatives: Connectivity and access. In  exile on digital platforms Edmonton theatre got wired, to the country and the big wide world.  Inter-city casting? No problem. I saw an inventive Calgary production of Romeo and Juliet (from Downstage and Theatre Calgary), with a cast divided among Edmonton and Calgary actors, and the characters communicating by text.  Inspired by isolation, The Izmores, a very funny web series about a marriage from hell, was created by Belinda Cornish in Edmonton and Ron Pederson in Toronto.

Ron Pederson and Belinda Cornish as The Izmores. Photo supplied.

If there had been no pandemical challenge to space and time, would I have gotten to watch Deer Woman, a barn-burner about justice from Calgary-based Indigenous playwright Tara Beagan, this year’s Siminovitch Prize winner? Or a beautiful production by Toronto’s Crow Theatre of the Dave Malloy song cycle/ musical Ghost Quartet? Or Natasha Mumba’s remarkable performance in Acts of Faith at Toronto’s Factory Theatre? Or Elena Eli Belyea’s internet comedy The Jubilant, in its premiere at the University of Windsor? Or a hit Fringe festival circuit show, The Unrepentent Necrophile by the Brooklyn troupe The Coldharts?

Hailey Gillis (lighting by Patrick Lavender) in Ghost Quartet: In Concert. Photo: Crows Theatre.

The morphing of the Fringe: Fringe TV (previously a paradox in itself) was born. Chase Padgett’s bright idea of sustaining the life of hit Fringe shows became a web series, Digital Fringe, and you could buy a ticket. Jon Paterson’s Fringe LiveStream brought shows from everywhere directly to you, streamed live. It’s not the same, of course, since the Fringe by  very definition all about live jostle, not to mention the unmistakeable smell of green onion cakes and those heart-clogging mini-donuts. But it kept our imagination, and hopes, alive.

Graduate studies for video majors in the college of pandemical life: Yes, theatre on video did get better, thank god. Way better than the kind of deadening archival video footage that always makes live theatre look so bleak. Video was better edited, too. And multi-screen Zoom application actually got witty and playful (the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol has an amusing example, of carollers getting the boot from Mr. Scrooge). Actors tossed props from screen to screen, or “exited” one screen and “entered” another, which gave  staged readings — Steppenwolf Theatre’s Zoom version of Chekhov’s The Seagull for example — momentum and animation.

EPCOR’s initiative

Sponsorship initiative of the year: Kudos to EPCOR’s invaluable $1.25 million Heart + Soul, big in both. The fund was designed to support Edmonton’s hard-hit arts sector in adapting to video platforms with equipment or reconfiguring the theatre, or covering ruinous expenses, or creating something ingenious and new. We have all been beneficiaries of this enlightened venture.

Distancing as metaphor: In some ways the most successful pandemic productions on the online platform found resonances with themes like alienation, loneliness, isolation, maginalization, family dysfunction. Mac Brock’s Tracks (from the indie Amoris Projects) was one: nine personal stories about the essential loneliness of creating art, for an audience that can’t be seen, starring nine artists tracked to their home habitats where they performed, solo.

Chrysothemis by Meg Braem, at the U of A’s Studio Theatre.

Meg Braem’s Chrysothemis (which premiered at the U of A’s Studio Theatre online), was another. The family that’s spread out so strikingly at the dinner table is the spectacularly dysfunctional House of Atreus (no wonder no one’s passing the gravy).

Northern Light unleashed We Had A Girl Before you in a big dark theatre (the 300-seat Westbury) for an audience of less than 20. We sat alone, far apart, in the eerie black with only a bank of candles to light the stage — just like the solitary heroine up against it. The storied Old Vic in London ran a series of solo and small-cast plays live to an audience of zero; I saw Three Kings, a stunning Stephen Beresford solo play about a father-son estrangement, starring Andrew Scott onstage in the completely dark theatre.

Lucy Darling (aka Carisa Hendrix) at home. Photo supplied.

Most improbable online success: magic. In An Exceptional Night In with Lucy Darling, this glamorous personnage makes magic happen, convincingly across the screen. And in her very sophisticated use of of the Zoom gallery (with its “virtual front row” volunteers) you actually feel you’re part of an audience. Now, that’s magic.

Theatre sound of the year:  as a (poor) replacement for applause or laughter, the ping ping of the chat box for audience responses. At least there’s no coughing.

Pamela Gordon in Keep Calm and Rock On, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

Commercial product of the year in theatre (besides hand sanitizer): Plexiglass. Moved by the proscriptions against singing onstage, musical theatre got ingenious with it. In the Mayfield’s revue Keep Calm and Rock On, a veritable Plexi wonderland, the band was ensconced in a Plexi cube, the characters entered Plexi booths akin to record studio isolation chambers whenever they sang, the tiers of audience tables were separated by tall Plexi panels.

Backstage theatre prop of the year: the tape measure (for stage managers and directors on distancing patrol).

Trigger warning of the year: The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, a gore-splattering production that included beheading, dismemberment, cannibalism, infanticide, and a few other misdemeanours, cautioned that that the production “might include interpretive dance.”

Go short or go home: the rise of the Tik Tok musical (of which Gender? I Hardly Know Them are expert practitioners) is a tip-off. Our attention span for online theatre (possibly online anything) is limited, and shrinking by the minute. Damn, spilled my coffee. Just a sec, I have to deal with a text, where the hell are my reading glasses?….

Two adjectives you will never see in theatre reviews for the foreseeable future: “infectious” and “contagious” (as in laughter, high spirits, vivacity). On caution: “unprecedented” (through sheer relentless overuse).

Slur turned to plaudit: what theatre a year ago would have wanted to be called “safe”?

Did you read 2020: a year like no other in Edmonton theatre (part 1)? It’s here.

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2020: a year like no other in Edmonton theatre (part 1)

Here There Be Night, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

2020: the year the laws of probability bent so far out of shape they snapped. Along with satire, futurist dystopian fantasies ceded pride of place to … reality. Every definition of live theatre was up against it, from every angle.

For live theatre 2020 could hardly have been more devastating. A whole industry was abruptly shut down, here and everywhere, on the weekend of March 13, some shows in mid-run, some in mid-rehearsal. Productions (at least 14 of them at the time) then whole seasons got flung into the outer space of an indeterminate future. Theatre artists lost their jobs, their livelihoods. An art form whose origin story and First Cause and very being are rooted in proximity, the kinetic engagement of real live people sharing a space, took a shattering blow to the solar plexus of its identity. And the phrase “going out to the theatre,” with its anticipatory thrill, was suddenly one of those retro exit lines like “flying to the moon”  (or “exeunt pursued by a bear”).

And yet …

In all the carnage the year has seen, 2020 in theatre has seen a kind of creative validation of the performing arts. It’s made us realize, in a visceral way that’s a bit like homesickness, what we’re missing of course. But there’s something downright awe-inspiring about the ingenious, creative ways theatre artists, in exile from their usual habitat, immediately starting adapting, by experimenting with new forms of storytelling and audience engagement, learning on the fly how to create on unfamiliar platforms, on screens of every configuration. Suddenly theatre was into digital ventures, video streaming, digital-live hybrids, unexpected live locales, theatrical “home deliveries” (and invasions), radio plays, aural channels….

Whole festivals — Nextfest, the Found Festival, and even in a seminal blow the mighty Fringe — went online. Improv, even magic (the magical Lucy Darling), went digital. And they all sucked it up, in different ways, to face head-on what’s maybe the greatest challenge of theatre in exile on screen: how to engage (and be engaged by) the audience. How to make the screen a window, or a door, and not a (fifth) wall. Is it possible? Even harder, how to create a space where the audience interacts with each other. It’s one of the things I’ve missed most, the laughing and gasping together, shoulder to shoulder, the sense of togetherness.

All this learning. All in order to do, under the most daunting circumstances, what theatre artists do: tell stories, challenge sensibilities, capture imaginations. And the experiments got more adventurous, and more dexterous in being expressive on a small scale. Plays were adapted for live performances with actors far apart from each other onstage or tiny audiences scattered here and there (A Brimful of Asha at the Citadel among others) or sitting in their own back yards. Lodestar Theatre offered a menu of on-location options for home delivery (like a five-actor A Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw in the director’s front yard in the summer). The Freewill Shakespeare Festival launched a travelling group of musical players, the Free Willies. New pieces created for the new world actually made the medium the metaphor, or the setting, witness comedy sketches from Girl Brain and Gender? I Hardly Know Them (httpeepee).

Nimet Sanji in A Brimful of Asha, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Janice Saxon.

And in this interminable intermission, theatre has had time in 2020 to reflect on its own power structures. To wonder how to make theatre more accessible to racialized and marginalized talent, and therefore more reflective of (and meaningful to) the world we live in. At Azimuth, which led the way, co-artistic directors Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin, stepped aside last summer “to make room” as they said for new, young, BIPOC talent (Sue Goberdhan and Morgan Yamada). The Citadel enlisted a trio of BIPOC associate artists to choose, cast, and direct cast shows, including A Brimful of Asha and the upcoming Métis version of the Canadian classic Mary’s Wedding (online Tuesday).

In surveying the year in theatre, I’m struck by the way that everything I saw in 2020 in the all-too-brief Before Time, seems in retrospect to take on new colours, and a kind of ominous prescience.

The compelling thought in Catalyst’s stunning new musical play The Invisible – the art of ungentlemanly warfare, that history can be changed by passionate teamwork, seems now to have directly anticipated our moment. The question in Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network), Colleen Murphy’s bouffon version of Shakespeare’s goriest play, of how death and brutality should be avenged, has turned out to be our question, too.

Even in the ultra-door-slammer farce-within-a-farce Noises Off, at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre mid-Feb, the reduction of a production to rubble looks now like a portent of things to come, when not just noises are off, everything is off. And Waving Through A Window, the show-stopper song of Dear Evan Hansen (the 2015 hit which arrived here in February in an excellent Broadway Across Canada touring production) in which the hero sings of feeling outside the world, and his own life, looking in, seems now to have been written directly for all of us, in advance.

Heisenberg, one of the last two productions I saw in a theatre (at Shadow Theatre March 12) before the shutdown lo these many months, takes its prevailing metaphor from the famous Uncertainty Principle. Speaks for itself.

So, a selection of theatre highlights of a year like no other, when even venturing into a theatre felt like an adventure. Some were “plays.” Some were “cabarets.” More were “theatre experiences.”

Here There Be Night: in October, as temperatures dropped,  Workshop West, under new artistic producer Heather Inglis, took us out in the world on a night-time outdoor adventure in unexpected locations in Old Strathcona, an arts district we thought we knew well. Led by a narrative voice on a cellphone app, we had eight one-on-one encounters with actors in original five-minute solo plays (by Edmonton writers) that spoke in very different ways to the weirdness and isolating anxiety of COVID-ian times.  Read the 12thnight review HERE

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Catalyst Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics

The Invisible – agents of ungentlemanly warfare: The stunning new musical play from the Catalyst team of Jonathan Christenson, Bretta Gerecke, Laura Krewski, happens in the secret, encoded, subversive world of World War II espionage. Its all-female team of action heroes of the “here today, gone tonight” persuasion led by the mysterious Romanian-born spymaster (Melissa MacPherson), is borrowed from real-life history. Christenson’s richest score yet, with strikingly lit film noir/ graphic novel imagery by Catalyst designer Gerecke. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside-Out Cabaret, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo supplied.

Scenes From The Sidewalk: an inside out cabaret: In September, the doors of the Varscona opened for the first time since March. We sat, 20 at a time, in the lobby, looking out through the windows at the performers singing and dancing out on the street, looking in at their audience. The Plain Jane Theatre venture, which made real-live Edmonton (including the tent city for the homeless across the street in Gazebo Park) its set was both an ingenious work-around to the restrictions of the moment — singing indoors was verboten — and a witty metaphor for perpetual questions about art and the real world. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Curio Shoppe: With their spooky latest, Catch The Keys Productions, an inventive indie company specializing in immersive and site-specific performance, took their annual all-hallows excursions in the lurid reaches of Edmonton history, home. Our homes, actually. With the lights out. The online story unfolds according to your choices. And then your cellphone rings, and the dead consult you directly. Read about it HERE.

The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius:  In Colleen Murphy’s riotously black comedy, at Theatre Network, a gaggle of eager misfits, tackle Shakespeare’s grisly early revenge tragedy (mainly because it has the most murders of any play in the canon). In retrospect Bradley Moss’s exuberant production in Feb. was everything a COVID era show shouldn’t be — i.e. surrounded by a laughing audience, with the front rows draped in plastic due to the splattering gore. With gusto. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

until the next breath, Catalyst Theatre, Grand Acts of Theatre. Photo by Alan Kellogg.

until the next breath: Catalyst’s dreamy, grand-scale outdoor performance for a distanced audience of 100 in Victoria Park in October was part of the National Arts Centre’s Grand Acts of Theatre: live, outdoors, one-off “events” commissioned from 11 of the country’s most innovative indie companies to “mark the moment.” In an encampment of giant coloured balloons that “breathed” with gust of wind, a cast of 50 actors, dancers, and musicians played with the metaphor of breath — and a sense of a world holding its breath until the moment of exhale. Read about it HERE.

Kristin Johnston in We Had A Girl Before You. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

We Had A Girl Before You: Northern Light Theatre opened its season live (for an audience of 20 in the vast dark space of the Westbury Theatre) with Trevor Schmidt’s witty and atmospheric homage to the Gothic romance, in all its spooky convolutions. And here’s the capper: it’s a solo show for many characters, multiple settings, bizarre encounters. And Kristin Johnston, the star of Schmidt’s clever production, carried off all the complications with dazzling skill and ease. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Nicole St. Martin, Michael Bradley and son Luc in Chamber Obscura, Found Festival 2020. Photo supplied.

Chamber Obscura: At the Found Festival in July, an extravaganza of experimental zest devoted to unexpected encounters between artists and audiences, the most memorable experience was live, ingeniously so. We “found” ourselves in a Depression era gothic folk tale (with music) — by driving down an alley in Strathcona into a tent, watching a theatre family (Michael Bradley, Nicole St. Martin and their son Luc) through the windshield, and hearing them through the car radio. Read about it HERE.

A Christmas Carol: In an homage to a bona fide Yuletide tradition, the Citadel turned film company to re-fashion, under COVID-ian proscriptions, its new $1 million production of A Christmas Carol that premiered in 2019 and moved the celebrated Dickensian ghost story ahead a century to the post-war world. The results (available online through Dec. 31) have a compelling momentum about them that re-creates theatrical magic for a different medium. And you appreciate in a different up-close way the economy and force of the performances (led by Ted Dykstra as the man of the hour). Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Reneltta Arluk, Jenna Rodgers, Lebogang Disele, Makram Ayache, Amena Shehab, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, Tai Amy Grauman, All That Binds Us, Azimuth Theatre. Photo supplied.

All That Binds Us: This Azimuth production (live and live streamed), by a five BIPOC creators for a cast of six BIPOC performers, and directed by Reneltta Arluk, takes apart the multi-cultural multi-ethnic mosaic of Canada into individual personal stories. The characters are a gallery of the marginalized — Indigenous, refugee, queer, black, immigrant, Asian-Canadian — and the accommodations they make for a so-called Canadian identity. And it wonders whether in the end all that binds us isn’t just white supremacy. All that binds the play, theatrically speaking, judging by this premiere outing, could use a re-knotting. But the provocation packs a real punch.  Read the 12thnight review HERE

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‘Light during the longest nights’: the Citadel’s film adaptation of A Christmas Carol. A review.

Filming A Christmas Carol, digital version of the Citadel Theatre production. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Light!” declares the twinkly old man at a piano on the stage of a big dark empty theatre. “Light during the longest nights.” It’s what every ghost wants, he says. And he’s got the ghost story to prove it.

It gets told — or rather revealed magically in bursts of light — in the Citadel’s 90-minute film version of David van Belle’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol that premiered onstage in 2019. And it’s a beautiful, light-filled homage to a venerable Edmonton tradition. In this town, snow schmo. It never begins to look a lot like Christmas until we unwrap the Citadel Christmas Carol. And we’ll be doing that, for the first time and of necessity, from the vantage point of our own couches.

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By any reckoning 2020 has arrived at a strange dark isolating season. Cheerful musical declarations like It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year come with major qualifiers — and wistful ones like I’ll Be Home For Christmas have a kind of melancholy reductive truth to them that hits your heart. Along with Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, and its timely hope that some day soon we all will be together, they’re stellar entries in the secular post-war songbook that weaves through van Belle’s adaptations of A Christmas Carol for stage and now for screen.

They re-locate in time and space Charles Dickens’ indelible 1843 tale of a solitary frozen soul thawed into human connection on Christmas Eve, from the Victorian period in England to 1949 across the pond, and a world of desperate hustle and the ghostly cohabitation of past present, and future. No wonder the centrepiece of director Daryl Cloran’s stage production and his film is a revolving door.

A post-war North American department store, Marley’s, is where we find Mr. Scrooge (Ted Dykstra, reprising his terrific stage performance for the film) in the lucrative Yuletide retail season, stomping through the place, flinging the non-festive lingo of the bottom line at cowed employees, including his in-store Santa. Dec. 25 isn’t an employee holiday at Marley’s. The boss deliberately consigns his personnel manager, sweet Mrs. Cratchit (Alison MacDonald) who’s lost her husband Bob in the war, to a work day under the battle cry “Inventory!”

Ted Dykstra as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (2019). Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

In short, humanity, which is to say “foolish people at a foolish time of year,” rubs Mr. Scrooge the wrong way. He exists in a state of perpetual exasperation; he briskly boots carollers clean out of their multi-screen Zoom Christmas chorale. His Bah Humbugs! are propelled on a stream of acid irony. The Scroogian response to Merry Christmas? “Scram!”

The 90-minute film version, which can be yours for 48 hours of family viewing with a single $40 streaming ticket, isn’t some abbreviated best-of version of last year’s two-hour stage production. It’s been thoughtfully, smartly reimagined and rewritten for film by playwright van Belle and director Cloran.

Patricia Cerra, in rehearsal for the film version of A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

Shot in the Rice Theatre instead of the Maclab mainstage, it retains the look of the show, with Cory Sincennes’ costumes spanning the story’s present and its flashbacks to Scrooge’s blighted past. And the lighting (for the stage by Leigh Ann Vardy), is not only strikingly conceived for a ghost tale, but a palpable dramatic participant in the telling of a story that takes Scrooge on a journey into past and future, getting a salutary dose of his own mantra of “consequences.”

New for the film is the framing by a Narrator (Glen Nelson, a former Scrooge himself, smiling at the piano). It’s a device that is tricky (and often unrewarding) to pull off onstage. It works here, though occasionally the Narrator’s annotations in the course of the show seem unnecessary because the images that displace the narrative in time and locale are so vivid and well-chosen. Characters whirl through the revolving door to arrive in a scene. And the interventions of the three ghosts are, whoosh!, magical, for film in a way that’s reinvented from the theatrical magic of Cloran’s original stagecraft.

Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

This digital version returns the cast of last year to us, led by Dykstra’s memorable Scrooge, speaking the language of another century and another continent. And although, in 90 minutes the story doesn’t linger much on Scrooge’s earlier selves, performances from Braydon Dowler-Coltman as the ever-frostier younger Scrooge and Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks as his sparky fiancée Belle are powerfully focussed. Scenes with Priya Narine as Scrooge’s sister Fanny, and Ben Stevens as his heroically cheerful nephew Fred, recipient of a lifetime of Bah Humbugs, have impact too.

And in the whirl of close-ups, angles, and long shots, you’ll get to see the look in Scrooge’s eye as, unexpectedly stricken, he has a terrible and unwelcome vision of “consequences” chez Cratchit. Or an up-close experience of the late Jacob Marley (Julien Arnold), who emerges, singed from the fiery blast of hell to warn his former business partner of impending moral doom. And the other ghosts have an eerie proximity too, starting with Lilla Solymos who brings a haunting and haunted look and sound to the Ghost of Christmas Past and White Christmas. John Ullyatt is the riotous ’50’s hep-cat Ghost of Christmas Present, and as for the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, my lips are sealed. As in the Tom Wood adaptation of A Christmas Carol that returned annually to the Citadel for 19 years, it’s a surprise with a chill.

What actually works better on film in van Belle’s adaptation of his adaptation is, I think, the music, the familiar Christmas classics of the ‘40s and ’50s. Onstage, the story sometimes lurched for the songs. The more abbreviated film narrative — after all, Scrooge’s heart-warming life-changing journey happens in the course of a single Christmas Eve — gives them more momentum, perhaps. And they just feel more organically embraced here, sometimes shortened, sometimes “performed” by the characters (Chariz Faulmino is a knock-out), sometimes hummed in snippets. Kudos to Steven Greenfield’s extra arrangements, and Mishelle Cutler’s sound design.

I can’t wait for A Christmas Carol to return live to the stage, of course, with the sense of special occasion that attends its annual reappearance. But, with a boost from sponsorships (including EPCOR’s invaluable Heart and Soul Fund), it’s a tribute to the Citadel, and the ingenuity of our theatre artists, that they translated their skills to another medium so we wouldn’t be Carol-less in a far from merry season. They’ve made beautiful work of it.

A Christmas Carol is streamed, via the Citadel website, through Dec. 31.

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Eager-beaver thespians at the manger: two Christmas shows from Dammitammy and Whizgiggling Productions

They Wanted To Do Chekhov, Dammitammy Productions. Photo by Brianne Jang.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Holiday shows come in all shapes and sizes (and degrees of fa-la-la-la-la and levity), as well you know. And since this year you’ll be home decking the  halls (and not your irritating second-cousins, after 3 eggnogs), here are two shows that have fun with characters who are eager-beaver thesps, theatre-loving wannabes jockeying for the limelight in the Nativity story.

One is a new radio musical from the witty brain of Rebecca Merkley: Dammitammy Production’s They Wanted To Do Chekhov. The other is the 11th annual edition, this year online, of Whizgiggling Productions’ funny, heartwarming The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever.

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Her new radio play isn’t the first time the actor/ composer/ singer/ director/ playwright Merkley has succumbed to the theatrical lure of Christmas. Last year’s Yuletide offering from Dammitammy was Merk du Soleil, a blithely unclassifiable holiday comedy cabaret. She directed Calla Wright’s Christmas Play, which imagines the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future in a Zoom call together (it’s back, online, Dec. 17 to 19).

“I did write a Christmas show three years ago,” she laughs, “the Nativity story done by monsters.” That’s on hold. But They Wanted To Do Chekhov has monsters of another kind: die-hard theatrical upstagers with an assortment of aspirations and grievances. “I love that trope,” she says. “I changed the whole scene.”

Dammitammy first made the scene at the 2016 Fringe with Merkley’s The Unsyncables, a very amusing underdog comedy about an ad hoc synchronized swim team up against a slick pro swim “club.” And they followed it up the following summer with Merkley’s delightful, very accomplished 60-minute Rivercity The Musical, which borrows the characters from the Archie comics.

With They Wanted To Do Chekhov, the enterprising Merkley has created an original 30-minute chamber radio play-within-a-radio play — with original music. As Dammitammy’s Halloween production Camp: the radio play warned listeners, “this program may contain scenes that may contain scenes…. Viewer indiscretion is advised.”

At The Northern Alberta Drama society Gary (Gabby Bernard), “the artist-in-residence who’s not getting paid (ed. note: like, when has that ever happened?), is making her directorial debut” — with her own adaptation of the Gospel of St. Luke’s (New Living Translation) Nativity Story.

Davina dela Cruz (Chariz Faulmino) is a gung-ho first-time actor. Glen Von Trappe (possibly his stage name, played by Cameron Chapman) is clearly slumming. After all he was considered for a Cappie for his deeply moving portrayal of Constantin in Chekhov’s The Seagull. “Infuriating, but sad,” says Merkley. “We all know this person!”

Merkley herself is Phyllis Saskatchewan, “amateur puppeteer and foodie,” with Kristina Hunszinger as Joan, the “aloof audio technician.” The pair also do the audio-editing.

And for celeb power, “Jesus makes an appearance as himself,” in order to dispense “words of wisdom” at crucial moments. This is something of a dispensation: “He normally only does A-house gigs, but has decided to support indie theatre because of the global pandemic.”

“We do the commercial breaks, too,” says Merkley, who composed music along with John W. Smith. Lois from Clyde AB, for example, has a compilation album to sell, so we’ll hear samples from such would-be recording artists as the Saskatchewan Family Duo. And, because as musicians Merkley and cast “just couldn’t” bring themselves to do a show without at least some good music as a contrast to the “misguided” content, there’s some legit stuff too. “To cleanse the palate,” she laughs.

With a friend’s recording studio available, all the audio was done there before the lockdown, “masked and spaced.” Says Merkley, “it was fun. Embrace the chaos! I wanted to bring people love and joy…. And the talent! There’s so much talent to work with!”

They Wanted To Do Chekhov is available starting Dec. 15. Tickets at dammitammy.com.

The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever. Photo supplied.

•Whizgiggling Productions, the Edmonton indie theatre named, appealingly, after the Newfoundland lingo for “acting silly or foolish,”  once more takes us behind the scenes on the Rock, the spirited and party-hearty easternmost Canadian province.

For 11 seasons now,  Whizgiggling’s version of The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever, the riotous Nfld. classic (a venerable Yuletide tradition in St. John’s), has been attracting fun-loving YEG audiences, too. This year Whizgiggling has re-worked the production for online viewing (I’m picturing you in your pjs, a screech in hand). “It’s been a wild ride, but we hope to bring some joy into people’s living rooms,” says producer Cheryl Jameson.

The play, adapted from Barbara Robinson’s much-loved novel, takes us into the ever-fraught world of amateur theatricals. When the usual director of the annual Christmas pageant is out of commission (due to an ill-fated encounter with a moose), Mrs. O’Brien has to step up. What should have been a cakewalk takes an unexpected turn when the dread Herdmans, “the worst kids in school,” show up for the auditions, attracted by rumours of free snacks.

The pageant “plot” utterly perplexes them. “Mary ties him up and shoves him in a feedbox? Where’s Child Welfare?” But undeterred, they shove everyone aside to take on the starring roles. What will become of the great tradition? The citizens are, to put it mildly, concerned.

The 2019 cast return for the 2020 edition: Sheldon Elter, Kayla Gorman Natalie Czar Gummer, Cheryl Jameson, Bob Rasko, Lindsey Walker. Catch it at your place Dec. 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 20th at 4:30 p.m. Tickets (starting at $15 per household) are available at fringetheatre.ca. 

 

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The 12 Days of Christmas: a dozen nights of virtual celebration from the St. Albert Children’s Theatre

The 12 Days of Christmas tech team, St. Albert Children’s Theatre. Photo by Amused Images

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If it were just a matter of a partridge in a pear tree, things would be so simple. But Janice Flower never thinks small.

And neither does the 39-year-old St. Albert Children’s Theatre, where full-bodied Broadway and Off-Broadway fare is regularly on the playbill, especially at Christmas time. And where casts of casts of three dozen kids or more, from single-digit ages on up, regularly share the stage.

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Still, The 12 Days Of Christmas, the 12-show “virtual holiday cabaret” that starts Saturday on Culture St. Albert’s YouTube channel and runs nightly through Dec. 23, is epic even by the usual standards of complication that SACT and its long-time artistic director embrace as a matter of course.     

It’s got to be the most intricate and challenging variety show of the season: 12 episodes, a different show online nightly, each with five or six performances, and a cast of 26 current troupe members, over 50 SACT alumni scattered across the continent, and 6 mc’s. “It blew up!” laughs Flower, who’s been with the troupe for 36 years, first as musical director and then since 1995 as artistic director. “Doing a big musical onstage is a thousand times easier than this!” she says cheerfully.

Kate Ryan, in The 12 Days of Christmas, St. Albert Children’s Festival. Photo by Amused Images

No guru has to teach Flower the improv mantra of saying Yes! Let’s! instead of What?! Are you nuts!?. It’s built into her showbiz DNA. “In the summer we knew our usual Christmas show wouldn’t be possible,” she says. “I floated the idea (of an online replacement). And I wasn’t specific at all…. The technology is so advanced right now. People shoot high-quality video on their phones; we’ve all been forced to join that parade.”

“So, what can it hurt to ask?”

The months and months of stage deprivation added up. Flower lit a veritable explosion of multi-faceted creativity. Suddenly two dozen local kids wanted in. And so did 50 SACT alumni, all ages and based everywhere in North America. It was a multi-generational extravaganza. “Some are in university; some have kids of their own!” Some of the kids are are old enough to have grandchildren…. It was an overwhelming response.”

Jenny McKillop in The 12 Days of Christmas, St. Albert Children’s Festival. Photo by Amused Images

Like the cast members themselves, who grow up and take their creative impulses everywhere — as actors, filmmakers, art directors, video editors, writers, recording artists, media personalities, photographers,  theatre technicians, a Unitarian minister — there’s a huge variety in the performances.

Josh Languedoc in The 12 Days of Christmas, St. Albert Children’s Festival. Photo by Amused Images

Musical numbers rule, as you might expect; SATC is famous for its musicals. But there are also monologues and spoken word performances. There’s even an aerial silks routine. Says Flower, “some performers sang to tracks; a lot played their own instruments, mostly piano or guitar. Some got very inventive with their videos; they’re almost like music videos.”

We’ll see musical theatre numbers, free-standing songs, Christmas carols, an impressive complement of original material, including a song penned by Flower herself: Don’t Quit, chosen by Karina Cox, whom Edmonton audiences know from Mayfield shows and the Plain Janes production of Fun Home (she was on tour last year with We Will Rock You).

Jenna Dykes-Busby in The 12 Days of Christmas, St. Albert Children’s Theatre. Photo by Amused Images

Given these pandemical times, most numbers are solos, unsurprisingly. But there are duets. Edmonton’s Luc Tellier who’s been cohorting with fellow actor Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks and her family in Toronto, do one from the musical Baby that they’d sung together years ago in a SACT production at age 17. “Now they’re finally the right age,” Flower laughs. And there are even four “group numbers.” One of the latter is a multi-screen Zoom video, “Brady-bunched together” as Flower puts it, by four “kids,” one in Edmonton, one in Vancouver, one in Toronto and one in Fort Lauderdale.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Oscar- and Tony-winning team (La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen) whose musical A Christmas Story was produced by SACT in 2014, have sent a special introduction to one of the group numbers.

Aerialist Marla Albiston, in The 12 Days of Christmas, St. Albert Children’s Theatre. Photo by Amused Images

Flower’s boss,  St. Albert’s cultural programming manager Andrea Gammon, is herself a SACT alumnus. Her musical number happens against a backdrop of photography by award-winning Cochrane-based photographer Dana Pugh, who grew up doing SACT shows too. The much-travelled film-maker Justin Brunelle, a SACT grad whose video The Six Best Places in Canada, is part of the series, spent four days with a SACT team at the Arden Theatre in early November shooting individual live performances from the local artists, kids and alumni. All the editing has been done by alumni, too.

To browse the cast list with Flower is to realize, yet again, what a debt the professional theatre community here and across the country owes to the inspiration and early training provided by a troupe that’s pushing the big four-oh. It’s a veritable Who’s Who. To sample just a few names Edmonton audiences know well, Jenny McKillop, Plain Janes artistic director Kate Ryan, Josh Languedoc, Emily Dykes-Busby, have SACT credits in their bios. So do Steven Greenfield and Stephanie Wolfe. Stratford-based John Kirkpatrick, a Teatro La Quindicina regular of yore and a former artistic director of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, contributes a number from the Broadway musical The Bronx Tale, in honour of the late COVIC-stricken Broadway star Nick Cordero.

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo by Andree Lanthier.

Former SACT artistic directors Maralyn Ryan and John B. Lowe, Steven Greenfield, make an appearance. Toronto-based actor-playwright Damien Atkins (We Are Not Alone), a bona fide Canadian theatre star (who made his stage debut, age five, as an elf in the very first SACT show The Hobbit), opens The 12 Days of Christmas with a welcome message about the importance of theatre. “The first time I watched it I wept,” says Flower.

“I can’t wait to do what we do again!” says Flower. She heard that from lots of the performers, too, along with this: “It’s cathartic to have a reason to be singing again…. To be in a show in a theatre, it’ll be overwhelming!”

PREVIEW

The 12 Days of Christmas: a virtual holiday cabaret

Theatre: St. Albert Children’s Theatre

Directed by: Janice Flower

Starring: 25 current troupe members and 50-plus alumni

Where:  Culture St. Albert’s YouTube channel, available here. 

Running: Saturday through Dec. 23, nightly at 7:30 p.m.(with a special-cut single episode on Telus Optik TV Dec., 22, on repeat through Jan. 5).

Access: free

 

 

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We need a little Christmas, right this very minute: the Varscona’s first-ever Virtual Holiday Gala

Kendra Connor, producer of the Virtual Holiday Gala. Photo by Adam Kidd.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In a daunting year for live theatre, when the sound of Cheers! has rarely been heard across the land (and the sound of even one hand clapping is now a faint echo in the imagination), the Varscona people are throwing a bash.

Yes, there will be singing and dancing by star musical theatre performers. Yes, there will be an assortment of festive frocks, performers wearing red lipstick, and the making and hoisting of Yule-tide cocktails. And, hey, you’ll get to see other people’s Christmas trees.

But the black tie is optional. The Varscona Theatre, home to a cluster of resident companies and the site of many seasonal specials, is hosting a first-ever Virtual Holiday Gala Dec. 20. It happens, free (with donations really really encouraged), thanks to EPCOR’s invaluable Heart and Soul Fund. And the idea, says actor-turned-producer Kendra Connor, is a holiday gift to the Varscona’s coterie of theatre-lovers.

“The delivery is different, but the people are the same,” says Connor, of the online venture, with its cast of Varscona faves (from Teatro La Quindicina, Shadow Theatre, Die-Nasty, and the Varscona Ensemble of indie companies). “I just wanted to give our patrons something familiar but safe.”

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Connor herself, a Plain Jane and Teatro star, takes us into the empty theatre, turns on the lights, and talks from stage. Other than that, the performances comes to us direct from performers’ living rooms. Mark Meer and Belinda Cornish host (so we get to see their tree). Musical performers include such triple-threat faves as Jason Hardwick, Rachel Bowron, Chariz Faulmino, Andrea House. Connor is gathering messages from an assortment of  “Varscona pals,” like actor/ writer/ Die-Nasty star Stephanie Wolfe.

“Something interactive,” one of Connor’s goals with the Virtual Holiday Gala, has historical precedent at the Varscona. The archive is full of shows, fund-raisers, and special events that include the making and distribution of cocktails. Oh Susannah!, a 14-season monthly variety/interview series starring Meer, included a resident mixologist, and segment devoted to the onstage frying of salty snacks, that were passed around in the audience.

Varscona Theatre, Chantal Fortins set for Cocktails at Pams. Photo by Ryan Parker.

It’s a tricky moment for “interactive,” to be sure. But Connor is having a go at creating the effect. During the gala, Cornish and Matt Hulshof will be making Zoom cocktails, “punch for one,” from their respective abodes. There’s a “charcuterie party, hosted by couples Matt Busby and Jenna Dykes-Busby and Jenny McKillop and Garett Ross. Your participation is invited via the Varscona’s partnership with The Public and Wild Heart Collective (producers of the Edmonton Christmas Market) that will see curated “treat boxes” delivered to the audience on location at home.

“What makes the Varscona stand out as a venue,” thinks Connor, “is the way people gravitate toward the actors; the audience feels more of a relationship with performers.” The latter are the ticket-takers (and more recently, the temperature-takers); they work the box office and the bar; they usher.

That “singing and laughing” are verboten in the current age, “is especially cruel,” says Connor wistfully. “It’s what we DO.”

The anti-wistfulness gala, assembled by Connor (with her partner Adam Kidd a film editor and videgrapher), is another example of theatre’s learning and adaptability curve of 2020: stuck at home, theatre artists, ingenious souls, are adding television and video production to their skill sets. “Everyone has a microphone at home,” says Connor, who hasn’t been on a stage since a cabaret last January. “And iPhones do high-res video.… We’ve all been auditioning for things with ‘self-tapes’.”

EPCOR’s Heart and Soul has allowed the Varscona to think forward to the transitional moment when limited-audience live gatherings are possible. “We’ve been able to get improved sound equipment for live-streaming and video recording.”

The Virtual Holiday Gala happens Decl. 20 (7:30 p.m.) on the Varscona Theatre’s YouTube channel. Tickets are free, but “donations are happily received — it’s a fund-raiser for the theatre,” says Connor. Details on ordering tickets and  treat boxes are at varsconatheatre.com.

   

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Mary’s Wedding: a new Métis version of the Canadian classic at the Citadel (online)

Tai Amy Grauman and Todd Houseman, Mary’s Wedding, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Arthur Mah.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Tonight is just a dream. I ask you to remember that. It begins at the end and ends at the beginning….

Mary’s Wedding, available for streaming to cross-country audiences from the Citadel Dec. 22, takes us into a World War I memory dreamscape where a tale of first love unfolds against the most brutal of backdrops.

We meet Mary and Charlie, two mis-matched prairie lovers whose romantic story criss-crosses all the usual boundaries of time and space, sleeping and waking, the might-have-beens and the should-have-beens. 

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Stephen Massicotte’s two-hander, a bona fide Canadian theatre classic, began life as a staged reading at Workshop West’s 2001 Springboards Festival, premiered in Calgary at Alberta Theatre Projects’ PlayRites Festival a year later, and has travelled the country and the world ever since. A brand new adaptation by the Métis, Cree and Haudenosaunee actor/playwright Tai Amy Grauman was to have been the second in the Citadel’s Horizon Live! series on the Shoctor stage. Mere days from opening night at the end of November, new Alberta COVID restrictions nixed that live run (until the new year; the set remains standing). Meanwhile the theatre stepped up with a filmed version of the production, available for streaming through Jan. 30.    

Todd Houseman and Tai Amy Grauman in Mary’s Wedding, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Arthur Mah

In her adaptation, which stars Grauman herself opposite the Cree actor/playwright/ improviser/ filmmaker Todd Houseman, Mary’s Wedding is a Métis love story, with Métis characters poised on a particularly Métis divide. On the phone, Grauman, who thinks and talks at top speed with exclamation point punctation, explains that her attraction to Massicotte’s play goes way back. “I’ve always wanted to play Mary. Plus I love love stories….”

“I grew up in Ardrossan (her folks have a farm there), where all my best friends marry their high school sweethearts, and I’m the dumpy sister!” Grauman laughs. “So I do have this sense of small-town girl love that’s written into my fabric.” Moreover, there’s this: “my big thing is Métis love stories!”

It’s a driving force in Grauman’s own writing, she says. Her Name Is Marie, a commission from Toronto’s Nightswimming Theatre, is a Métis love story. Her kids’ play commission from Vancouver’s Axis Theatre is a Métis love story. Her MFA thesis project at the U of A is an exploration of Métis love stories.

Grauman, who’s moved back to Edmonton mid-pandemic from Vancouver (where she graduated from UBC theatre school), explains. “The women in my family weren’t documented in any way shape or form. The men in my family were heroes, Métis heroes.” So “the journey began” with Grauman tearing into the Alberta archives, looking for family stories of the Callihoos, who have a long history in Métis resistance. “I could find information on the husbands and when they were baptized and what-not, and no information on the women!”

“Even though from a colonialist perspective, the western settler concept of history, men looked like they were leading, women actually ran our systems of governance and the households.… My journey as a playwright has been piecing stories together about (them).”

“Métis women,” declares Grauman, “love hard. They give everything to their men and children…. Actually Métis people in general are big, and love hard, and celebrate and dance and sing and love and joke….”

“And that’s why I’m telling love stories,” she says. “And also because our men can’t really see us any more. It’s a bit ballsy to say but I’m going to say it anyway: I’m writing these love stories because I want our men to remember how we used to live.… I love them and I want them to come back to us, to the way we used to love each other!” The patriarchy of the last 100 years has taken its toll, she thinks, on “the feminine presence.”

Another facet of her attraction to Mary’s Wedding and its transmutation into a Métis story is, Grauman says, “fate and partnerships written in the stars” (an idea of Cree provenance). Mary and Charlie are fated to be soul-mates. It’s their choices that inhibit that from happening. And it makes me really sad….”

Todd Houseman and Tai Amy Grauman in Mary’s Wedding, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Arthur Mah.

The cultural divide between Mary and Charlie in Massicotte’s original is that she’s from a Brit immigrant family and he’s a prairie farm boy. In Grauman’s adaptation Charlie is from “a road allowance community,” Métis people “stuck in the margins between First Nations reserves and white settlements,” validated in neither. And Mary is from “a scrip family, “a system of farm land vouchers for Métis in hopes they would assimilate and become ‘Canadian farmers’.”

Love overcomes complications (as we know from all kinds of sources, including that business in Verona with the Capulets and Montagues). “She doesn’t speak Cree; he speaks Michif (a French/Cree hybrid). She goes to school; he doesn’t…. He teaches her Cree, and learns to read and write in the trenches in order to write to her. And that makes it that much more impactful and important.”

Like the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran, playwright Massicotte was struck by the easy way the concept slid into the original. “I’m so fortunate!” declares Grauman. “In a pandemic, I had an idea, and within two months (a production) was announced!” And she reports that her co-star Houseman, a playwright himself (Whiteface, Folk Lordz), contributed ideas too.

“There aren’t a lot of changes in the text itself,” says Grauman. “But our bodies, Todd’s and mine, and the ways we react to certain lines, make them read differently.”

“We both have hair down to our butts,” she says. “I was told I would never be a romantic lead — I’m size 10 and have dark hair. I was always told I’d be the funny best friend.”

Grauman’s groove is creating original work in order to perform it.  “Since I was 18, that’s how I rolled,” she says of such outings as Walterdale Theatre’s One-Act Play Festival. As a kid, “I grew up dancing, and I went to the (Citadel’s) Foote Theatre School.” And in Ardrossan “I did Country Kid Drama,” she laughs. “I was Dorothy in The Wizard or Oz.”

Mary’s Wedding brings a real Métis presence to a period in which it is very often ignored. “The story of Métis veterans (in World War I) is seriously under-told,” she says. “And I think people need the joy of love stories,” she says. “At a time when we can’t shake strangers’ hands, how radical to see two Indigenous people fall in love onstage…. It’s not all trauma. I want to share love and joy.”

PREVIEW

Mary’s Wedding

Theatre: Citadel Theatre

Written by: Stephen Massicotte

Adapted by: Tai Amy Grauman

Directed by: Jenna Rodgers

Starring: Tai Amy Grauman, Todd Houseman

Available for streaming: Dec. 22 from 5 p.m. to Jan. 30

Tickets: citadeltheatre.com

  

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Mieko Ouchi: meet the Citadel’s new associate artistic director

MIeko Ouchi, the new TD associate artistic director at the Citadel Theatre

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Stepping down and stepping up … on the same day.” That’s how Mieko Ouchi describes the double-sided moment in late November when Concrete Theatre announced her departure and the Citadel announced her arrival. It was dramatic news for both companies. And it re-defined bittersweet for a theatre artist of strikingly multi-faceted experience and credentials.

After 31 years at Concrete, artistic director Ouchi is leaving the theatre-for-young-audiences company she co-founded, in order to take up the position of ‘TD associate artistic director’ at Edmonton’s largest theatre, the Citadel. “It was a hard decision to make,” says the award-winning actor/ playwright/ director/ dramaturg/ producer/ filmmaker/ community advocate. “My entire adult life — since I was 19! — has been spent at Concrete,” she says.

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It may seem particularly unsettling (“OK, bizarre,” she says) timing in the middle of a pandemic. “But with touring (one of Concrete’s raisons d’être) suspended everywhere and the lack of fall productions happening, in a way it’s not a bad time to be making a momentous decision.… A huge challenge for me personally, and a chance for me to transfer all the new-play development skills I (learned) at Concrete, as well as my own work as a playwright, dramaturg, and director of plays for adults.” And for Concrete, Ouchi thinks, “it’s a chance to welcome the next generation of leadership … and give them time to situate themselves, and get settled.”   

During the transition period, she and fellow Concrete co-founder and oft-times co-artistic director Caroline Howarth remain at the company as “associate artists.” For one thing, “we still have projects that are ongoing,” says Ouchi. Projects like the national tour of Dave Clarke’s Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, a remarkable chamber opera for deaf and hearing performers and, says Ouchi, “a milestone for the company and inclusivity.” Until the Canada Council marketing initiative evaporated in the COVID miasma, Ouchi was supposed to fly to Rotterdam to pitch the show to European opera companies.

She brings a formidable artistic skill set to a position left vacant with the departure of Rachel Peake for Vancouver’s Arts Club. At the Citadel, where her own musical play The Silver Arrow: The Untold Told Story of Robin Hood made her, in 2018, the first woman in Citadel history to have a play commissioned and then actually produced on the mainstage, she’ll be overseeing new play development, commissions, artist mentorship and training.

For Ouchi, there’s a natural career continuity in that fit. From the start Concrete specialized in creating, nurturing, and then premiering, new work, and taking it to kids in their natural habitat, schools. Since the pandemic cancelled touring, “we’ve been putting our energy into development, residencies, commissions,” she says.

Her own body of work as a playwright in the adult theatre first came into national prominence withThe Red Priest (Eight Ways To Say Goodbye), which premiered at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects in 2003 before productions across the country. The Blue Light, which explored the controversial Third Reich filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and Blue Nisei, about the marginalization of Japanese-Canadians, also had ATP premieres.

It was in film, though, that she’d landed right out of U of A theatre school. “The prevailing wisdom in theatre was if you wanted to be an actor you had to leave everything else, like writing and directing, behind. There was no such thing as a multi-hypenate at that point!”  Ouchi was already accumulating hyphens. Shepherds Pie and Sushi, her filmmaking debut, was a National Film Board documentary that explored her bi-cultural family. Before it was a wrap, she starred in Anne Wheeler’s film The War Between Us, about the Japanese internment. Ouchi’s last film Minor Keys, for the TV program The Nature of Things in 2004, “followed two young violin prodigies through an 18-month period in every aspect of their lives.”

“Film was a great teacher,” Ouchi says. “But producing? I just got tired of spending so much time raising money. And I really think my bigger gifts are as a writer and director….It was really challenging as a young woman, and a person of colour, trying to break into to a male-dominated field. Things are finally changing everywhere — thank goodness.”

Mieko Ouchi. Photo supplied.

The Red Priest marked Ouchi’s return to the world of theatre “Once you’ve seen your film with audience, it’s a complete object and you can’t ever change it. Whereas with theatre, I always feel that the relationship (remains) alive, dynamic…. You’re always improving, and learning from the audience. And I love the porousness of that process. It’s what’s kept me hooked!”

Ouchi’s acting career, which happened alongside directing, filmmaking, writing, and running Concrete Theatre, had its challenges, too, for a BIPOC artist. “So I worked in a lot of cities,” says Ouchi. She and Sandra Oh, who’d graduated from the National Theatre School the same year as Ouchi from the U of A, “were among the very view Asian artists working in Canada as actors. Such a tiny pool…. We’d be flown from city to city.”

So, who was the 19-year-old Ouchi? A natural collaborator by temperament, Ouchi conjures her younger self, who’d joined her U of A drama classmates on a three-year project to use theatre to “work with young people transitioning from the street into mainstream society.” Named “because it was about the street, urban storytelling!” Concrete was the inspiration of a quintet of U of A students and instructions — Ouchi, Caroline Howarth, Elinor Holt, Kazimea Sokil, Jan Selman. “We were bright shiny-faced students who wanted to use theatre to help people tell stories about their lives,” she laughs, and pauses. “I never dreamed in a million years that Caroline and I would still be best friends, still involved in leadership roles with the company!”

Artists came and went from Concrete, many of them recruited by Ouchi and Howarth for the company’s annual Sprouts Festival from a wide variety of ethnic and professional backgrounds — novelists, journalists, playwrights who’d only written for adults, actors, designers, improvisers — to write for kids. The Sprouts idea was to expand the provenance and cultural diversity of the overwhelmingly white bread kids’ theatre repertoire.

Concrete was all about new work, at first often collectively created or  community-devised, then commissioned. “They used to call us Baby Catalyst,” Ouchi says of early days when Catalyst, under Selman, was a company of the social-action stripe, very different from its later incarnations. “It was a chance for us to build our skills….” Concrete was unusually alert to ethnic diversity. And Ouchi’s own contributions mined stories (in Triptych and Rice, for example) about her own mixed-race mixed-culture family, Scottish/ Irish/ German on her mom’s side, Japanese on her father’s.

By the late ‘90s Concrete was finding its groove in kids’ theatre, a subset that had emptied in a single year when the Citadel shut down its theatre-for-young-people programming, one prominent kids’ theatre in town went out of business, and Azimuth shed its original mandate. Concrete had found its niche. And, says Ouchi, “we were over-run by requests” for shows to explore topics like teen sexuality, racism, drug abuse, family violence,” hot-button subjects that made teachers nervous to even think about.

Commissioned by a quartet of social service agencies, Concrete premiered Ouchi’s first play Decisions Decision (about making good choices) in 1994. Jane Heather’s 1998 Are We There Yet?, which addressed the inflammable subject of teen sexuality, was so popular it became de facto sex education in Alberta schools for 15 years. “We did 16 productions over that time; I directed it nine times,” says Ouchi. Generations of actors were in the show. Richard Lee Hsi saw it in Grade 9, then performed in it when he got out of theatre school. Emily Vespi, Concrete’s board chair, was in Grade 9 when she saw it; now she’s a sexual health educator.

Ouchi’s own play Consent tackled tricky questions of gender equality and respect. Haroun’s Under Cover took on racism and Islamophobia. Collin Doyle’s much-produced solo play Routes, about family violence, “had a huge impact…. We toured it three times, including a national tour; it won a Dora (in Toronto), it’s been published by a U.S. press.”

“In any given year, Concrete plays are seen by 12,000 to 22,000 kids,” Ouchi reports. “Most adult theatres would be very happy with that. The power of TYA!”

Diversity and inclusivity, both on and off the stage, is a focus that Ouchi shares with the Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran. “How do we bring people of different abilities (and backgrounds) onstage and celebrate their stories?” Diverse participation backstage has been especially scanty. Ouchi, whose Citadel production of A Brimful of Asha remains online through Jan. 10,  will oversee a new RBC program that will see the year-long mentorships of four young BIPOC artists at the Citadel: Makram Ayache and Patricia Cerra in directing and artistic leadership, Deviani Bonilla in choreography, Daniela Fernandez in sound design. New play development is under Ouchi, too, as well as assistant directorships.

“It’s a matter of taking a deep-dive into the community, with support going forward,” Ouchi thinks. “Our two largest A-houses (theatres with the largest stages and seating capacities, the Shoctor and the Maclab) are at the Citadel. And it really is our responsibility to support writers in (creating) plays for that size of stage,” says Ouchi, who’s grateful for  Cloran’s attentiveness to that kind of artist development.

The Silver Arrow, she says, wasan opportunity that has opened doors for me,” says the playwright, whose latest, Burning Mom (about her widowed mom’s trip to Burning Man,) was slated to premiere on the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre MainStage in the spring, with Ouchi directing.

The well-connected artist brings to the Citadel a wealth of first-hand knowledge about mentorships, workshops, residencies, writers’ retreats — at the Banff Playwrights Lab, at the Stratford Festival, across the border at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island in Washington, among others.

It’s a time for what-if’s, says Ouchi. “The sky’s the limit right now. I’m so excited to enter a period where I get to dream a little, to brainstorm with Daryl. What do we want to build? What kinds of plays and playwrights do we hope to encourage, nurture, sustain?”

  

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A Christmas Carol for our time: the Citadel brings its production to you, at home

Filming A Christmas Carol at the Citadel Theatre. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Some day soon we all will be together/ If the fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow….

If there ever was a Christmas carol for 2020, it’s got to be Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Eighty years old and sounding freshly minted, it weaves its way through the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol, speaking to our isolating moment.

Of the dozen Christmas songs in David van Belle’s adaptation — which propels Dickens’ evergreen 1843 ghost story out of the Victorian period forward a century into the late 1940s — “it’s the most poignant to us right now,” says artistic director Daryl Cloran. The playwright echoes the thought. “It’s the carol for now,” says van Belle. A close second? I’ll Be Home For Christmas.

The lavish 30-plus performer production, a $1 million affair which premiered on the Citadel’s Maclab stage last year after 19 seasons of the Tom Wood adaptation, is back. And this time there’s home delivery: it comes to you, Dec. 15 to 31, in a 90-minute $250,000 film version of the two-hour production, made possible by indispensable infusions from EPCOR’s Heart and Soul fund ($100,000)  and the Edmonton Community Foundation ($50,000).

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Even last March, at the moment live theatre shut down, with devastating abruptness for a whole industry, the Citadel knew in its heart that Edmonton couldn’t be denied its annual Christmas tradition. Not this year of all years. “When we started postponing and cancelling shows, from the beginning it was the show we knew we had to find a way to save,” says Cloran of A Christmas Carol, a venerable civic institution.

“The ever-evolving pandemic restrictions” meant continual reassessment of possibilities. An audio version perhaps? “At one point last summer we thought we might be able to re-stage the whole play (onstage) and film it,” Cloran says. But among all the logistical mind-benders of such a large gathering of artists in these COVID-ian times, 34 onstage and a crew of 20 in the crowded backstage, there was the biggest obstacle of all: live singing.

Filming A Christmas Carol, digital version of the Citadel Theatre production. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

The Christmas Carol we’ll see from home is “a re-imagining for film …  a sort of hybrid of theatre production and live TV shoot,” as Cloran puts it. The Rice, the smallest of the Citadel’s theatres, became a TV studio, with a film team of five (local cinematographer Raoul Bhatt, video and sound editing by Alpacalypse Productions).

The band pre-recorded their tracks. The actors lip-synched. Rehearsals happened over a few days in in five or six different rooms at the theatre — “in one people re-learned the music, in another the choreography…” — according to “a giant complicated daily schedule,” says Cloran. And in a crazily short eight-day shoot, with three cameras, “we did it scene by scene, four a day, so we were bringing in people in small groups.”

“A bit of a sprint,” laughs van Belle, who had a scant two weeks to write his adaptation of his adaptation. Condensing a two-hour play to 90 minutes has its share of heartbreak for a playwright, of course, “and I can’t wait to get some of the stuff back next year.” But the time constraints were “kind of a good thing; I didn’t have a chance to get too wistful.”

Ted Dykstra in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre stage production 2019. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Phorography

In the songbook of Christmas classics largely culled from the indelible World War II and postwar repertoire, there might be a chorus or two less in, say, White Christmas or It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. But, don’t fret: Scrooge doesn’t meet up with two ghosts instead of the full complement. Jacob Marley (Julien Arnold) et al are present and accounted for. And so is Cory Sincennes’ handsome design for a 1949 department store, Marley’s, along with his costumes of that post-war period and the decades before, when  Scrooge travels back through his blighted past in the company of his ossifying younger selves and the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“We’ve cut a few numbers, Christmas candy that don’t move the plot forward,” van Belle says cheerfully. “We’ve tightened some scenes and eliminated a few peripheral characters (in some of the smaller scenes),” he says. “But the main story is absolutely there! If  people were going to see it as some form of replacement for their holiday tradition, it couldn’t be a greatest hits version!”

Rehearsing the film version of A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

What made the tight schedule possible, both Cloran and van Belle think, is that the cast is, save only two exceptions, exactly the same as last year, again led by the fine Canadian actor Ted Dykstra (originally from these parts) as the frozen-hearted old skinflint whose journey toward human connectedness is at the heart of the enterprise. Corie Ryan, who played Martha, the oldest Cratchit kid, is away at university, so that character isn’t in the show. And the bass player Jeff Gladstone recorded his tracks from Vancouver. Luckily, the dozen or so young performers in the cast didn’t grow too much in 2020; they still fit their costumes. But “one young man showed up for rehearsal and his voice had dropped an octave,” says Cloran.

Patricia Cerra, in rehearsal for the film version of A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

The “big group scenes” are assisted materially by theatre’s increasing dexterity with Zoom-box multiple screen technology, says van Belle. “Instead of trying to fight the form, we found a way to embrace some of those video conventions…. I think you’ll see that.” And sometimes, it’s a matter of optics. “Instead of 30 people, the Fezziwig Christmas party scene is 10 people in a smaller space,” says Cloran.

The sense of liveness, that special lustre of live theatre, is rare and hard-won in film. But a plus is that acting for film, with its zooms and angles and close-ups,  affords a “different kind of intimacy” than you experience sitting in Row R in the Maclab. “I’m really appreciating it,” says van Belle. “And we’re lucky that so many of the actors have film and television experience.” Dykstra is one. Says Cloran, “a great actor like Ted, who has a lot of film experience, has a sense of how to scale his emotion with a look, how to let us in on the the character’s thought with the kind of intimate detail that wouldn’t translate as well in a 680-seat house….”

“We’ve included a narrator and some surprises for people familiar with the show,” says van Belle. And the setting will speak eloquently, he thinks, to audiences in this strangest of years. “In the post-war period there was optimism for sure, but it was also a time of spiritual reckoning, of (grief for) that had been lost…. It’s during the war years that so many of the songs in the show were written.” Van Belle reports that one of the Citadel lighting techs was convinced that he’d re-written the lyrics for Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas especially for 2020: “some day soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”   

“I love the way meanings get shaped by the context in which the play is presented,” van Belle says. The uncertainties of this fraught year with its enforced solitude “adds so many layers.”

“There’s a real, palpable hope for change now. And A Christmas Carol is all about change,” says van Belle of “the call for all of us this year to ask ourselves to change, to move away from selfishness and turn toward each other, toward human values.… We are all Scrooge this year.”   

“My hope is that we can all hold ourselves accountable and treat with each other with more kindness and compassion….. One of the beauties of the theatre is what an audience brings to the art work that’s a vital part of the work itself.”

“There’s a lot of grief in the theatre community; it’s been hit so hard by this,” Van Belle sighs. “A very big part of this project for me is putting all these people to work for a time. A big percentage of the money went into the pockets of artists and theatre workers. I feel really good about that.”

PREVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel

Adapted by: David van Belle from the Charles Dickens novella

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Ted Dykstra and a cast of 32

Running: online, available at citadeltheatre.com Dec. 15 to 31.

Tickets: $40 per household, good for 48 hours.

  

  

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Three days from opening, Mary’s Wedding is on hold at the Citadel

Tai Amy Grauman in Marys Wedding: A Métis Love Story. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

After a day of investigating the implications of the Alberta government’s perplexing new restrictions announced Tuesday afternoon, the Citadel Theatre has decided to postpone its upcoming live production of Mary’s Wedding: A Metis Love Story, which was to have opened Saturday.

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Citing “the safety of our patrons, staff and artists,” the decision delays Tai Amy Grauman’s new adaptation of the Canadian classic by Stephen Massicotte, starring actor/playwright Grauman and Todd Houseman, which was slated to run through Dec. 20 on the Citadel’s Shoctor stage for audiences of 100, masked and distanced in the 681-seat house.

Theatre-goers will have noticed that live theatre, a leading Edmonton arts industry, is nowhere even mentioned in the “enhanced public measures document” that accompanied the Kenney administration announcement of a response to the COVID spike. Further clarification from the government, sought by Citadel, indicated that the theatre would fall under “auditoria and concert venues,” a category it apparently shares, oddly enough, with “banquet halls, conference centres, trade shows, non-approved/licensed markets and community centres” on the government website.

To further the confusion, the other possibility, the category of “some entertainment and event services” which can remain open subject to 25 per cent occupancy, would have included the Citadel alongside movie theatres, museums and galleries, libraries, casinos, fitness centres and “indoor entertainment centres.” This was deemed by the government less applicable to the Citadel Theatre than “auditoria and concert venues,” which must be closed for at least three weeks.

The loss in ticket revenue for the run of Mary’s Wedding is “considerable,” says Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran. Since it’s built, rehearsed, and ready to go on the Shoctor stage, the production will be filmed and available for streaming to audiences across the country Dec. 22. And “hopefully…” (Cloran’s new mantra) it will return to live performance for a run in January.

Which means that there are completely built sets prepped and ready for live action on stages in two of the city’s largest theatre venues, the Shoctor and the Maclab, both at the Citadel. The Garneau Block, which was shut down on March 12 after its final dress rehearsal, awaits a live run, too. The financial repercussions are, to say the least, dramatic.

Meanwhile, the Citadel production of A Brimful of Asha, which ran live to limited, distanced audiences in the Shoctor at the end of October, continues to be available in streamed form to Alberta audiences through Jan. 10. And the Citadel’s Christmas tradition will still be happening — but onscreen. A reimagined filmed version of David van Belle’s lavish adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which premiered last year, is available Dec. 15 to 31.

Tickets and further information for ticket-holders: citadeltheatre.com. 

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