Brave move for Alberta Theatre Projects

Company drops playRites festival but not new Canadian plays

The initial response to Alberta Theatre Project’s announcement on November 7 that it would be dropping its annual Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays after 2014 was mixed but the people behind the decision expected that. They have already run the gamut of emotions that surrounded that decision as they debated it over the preceding months from feelings of sadness and nostalgia for its loss to optimism for what comes next.

“When we started talking about this it was very mixed feelings because we put so much into this…. It’s the biggest single output of energy that we do in a year” says Vicki Stroich the artistic associate for the festival who has just been named ATP’s executive director as of November 15. “We would never take a decision like this lightly.”

Stroich who started with the festival as a dramaturg working with playwrights on new plays calls the decision a “brave move” that will allow ATP to focus and deepen its relationship to new Canadian plays. She says the festival model is no longer serving the plays and what they could achieve so ATP had to let go of it. “It’s always difficult when something comes to an end… but the spirit of it the focus of it is continuing” she says.

Now Stroich and artistic director Vanessa Porteous say they are ready to carry its legacy into the future with a continued commitment to the development of new Canadian works.

“I think it’s something good I really do. I’m really excited about what the possibilities are for new plays at ATP” says Porteous adding that she herself was “raised by the festival” as an assistant dramaturg in 1998. “I think we can declare victory and move on.”

The victory Porteous is referring to is the increase in the number of new plays that are now being produced across Canada something she says was not the case when the first playRites festival took place in 1987. Over almost 30 years the festival has developed and premièred 115 new Canadian plays that have gone on to over 250 subsequent productions around the world including works by Brad Fraser Meiko Ouchi Joan Macleod Stephen Massicotte Eugene Stickland and Linda Griffiths among others. Now Porteous says other theatre companies across the country are developing new works and the festival is no longer needed.

“We noticed that there was such a change in the environment. It’s transformed” she says. “The commitment to new Canadian plays is forever but the way we do them can change.”

That change will be implemented in the 2014-15 season when ATP will no longer offer four Canadian premiéres in the repertory festival format as well as four plays in the regular season and instead increase the number of plays in the regular season to six including at least two world premières by Canadian playwrights — one in the fall and one in the spring. Porteous says running six plays consecutively will allow ATP more time to develop them and more flexibility in staging them In comparison the festival was limited to one type of stage and a set that could be torn down and replaced in one day. The new format will also enable ATP to take on more partnerships with other theatre companies and to present different sizes of projects with different run times from grand in scope to small.

Porteous cites Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story as a good example of the creative possibilities that exist outside the festival format — the new Canadian play had an “ice rink” for a stage and the lobby was transformed into a concession with popcorn. “We wouldn’t have been able to do that within the festival” she says.

She also acknowledges that reduced government funding “opened doors to a new way of thinking to become better and more efficient.”

Aside from the plays the festival included the popular Blitz Weekend and the Emerging Artists Assembly (Raucous Caucus) which will also be changing. Stroich says the Blitz Weekend will be held in the fall when decisions are being made for the following season and Raucous Caucus will be held in the spring when students and emerging artists are making decision about their future.

Porteous says the Blitz Weekend which was traditionally an opportunity for artistic decision makers from around the globe to view the new works onstage and take part in discussions had already evolved into “more of a gathering than a shopping spree” because theatre companies had already chosen plays for the season. In the fall of 2014 it will open up to the public as a “theatre 101 immersion weekend.”

“I would argue I could be wrong but I would argue that the role of Blitz Weekend was really diminished” she says. “It’s just a symptom of how times have changed.”

Prior to last week’s announcement ATP informed its stakeholders subscribers and artists about the decision to end the festival. Although Stroich says their reaction was also mixed ATP received a lot of positive response. She adds that Enbridge — the name sponsor of the festival — is still on board with ATP and has committed to three years at the same level as name sponsors of the new series and the creation lab.

Stroich says the end of the festival is bittersweet but wants people to remember it’s not over yet — the final playRites festival runs from March 5 to April 6 with four plays on the bill: You Will Remember Me by François Archambault; Legend Has It by Rebecca Northan; Games by Linda Griffiths and Same Same But Different by Anita Majumdar.

The public will also find out what the 2014-15 season will look like without the festival when it is revealed in February 2014.