Festival challenged perceptions of Canadian theatre
New play development has always been in the DNA of Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) and executive director Vicki Stroich says it still will be long after the final edition of the Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays.
Three of the last four plays being presented during the festival start hitting the stage this week and when the final curtain comes down at the beginning of April it will mark the end of a significant achievement that has resulted in 115 premières and launched several successful plays and playwrights.
The festival was launched in 1987 by ATP’s former producing director Michael Dobbin one year prior to the Calgary Olympics and after the company’s move in 1985 from the Canmore Opera House at Heritage Park into the much larger Martha Cohen Theatre in what is now known as the Epcor Centre.
Stroich says Dobbin was inspired by the company’s history — it was founded in 1972 as a children’s theatre company with a mandate to present new Canadian plays and soon expanded to include work for adults as well featuring playwrights such as W.O. Mitchell Sharon Pollock and John Murrell.
She adds that Dobbin was also impressed by what was happening at the Actors Theatre of Louisville where new American playwrights were getting their start.
“He looked at what they were doing and was really curious about it and saw the need here and in Western Canada for us to have a place where we could start to create some momentum behind new Canadian playwriting and focus everyone’s attention on it because it wasn’t really happening here” says Stroich.
At the time there were a lot of readings and workshops of new plays but the festival gave playwrights a chance to mount full productions.
“The idea behind playRites was to not just give it a reading and see if it works out but to actually put the resources behind it — to create sets to create the costumes to really put it up onstage in front of an audience” says Stroich.
“To do four of them at once was a huge risk and it certainly drew everyone’s attention to Calgary and to the festival and has continued to because it’s always been a unique endeavour — there’s nothing quite like the playRites Festival in Canada.”
As a result a crop of new plays and several playwrights got their start in Calgary and that exposure led to more opportunities.
“We were the first people who really invested in their plays and those playwrights have gone on to great success or those plays to great success in different parts of the world” says Stroich. “It adds value to the Canadian voice.”
One example that stands out is the 1989 playRites première of Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love which continues to be produced today. “It caused a huge uproar” says Stroich adding that it challenged people’s idea of a Canadian play. “It was a boldly contemporary way of looking at the world.”
Stroich has been closely involved in new play development at ATP since she joined the company as a dramaturg for the 2002 playRites Festival following a previous internship with ATP in its 1999-2000 season. She later became artistic associate for the festival prior to being named ATP’s executive director in November 2013.
While she says it’s easy to judge the success of a new plays by the number of subsequent productions or awards it receives the festival has made in impact in less tangible ways as well such as giving theatre artists the rare opportunity to work with others from outside their region.
“What happens in those instances there’s artistic relationships formed that bridge years and miles — kilometres I should say — that persist that continue today” she explains. “That’s something that I think is the real legacy of the playRites Festival… and it’s something that I feel a great responsibility to continue as we move forward.”
Stroich says ATP plans to ensure that cross-pollination of talent continues through its commitment to stage two or three new Canadian plays per year as part of the Enbridge playRites Series of New Canadian Plays starting in 2014-15. In fact she points out ATP has already been presenting new work outside the festival such as The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop in 2011 and last season’s Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story .
Presenting new plays as part of the regular season has its benefits. For one thing more people will also get to see them since they will be performed at least 20 times compared to 10 or 11 times during the festival.
Perhaps more importantly the change will provide more flexibility in the ways the work can be presented so ATP can accommodate the different ways artists are bringing stories to the stage and continue to challenge people’s perceptions about Canadian plays.
“One of the reasons why we’re shifting out of the festival model is so that we can better support not just plays written by playwrights but also these unique sort of leaps that Canadian artists are making that don’t necessarily work in a rep format when you have to change the set over between the matinee and the evening performance” says Stroich.
“We want to be surprising people” she adds. “ATP is still a home for risk.”
A HISTORY OF THE PLAYRITES FESTIVAL WITH HIGHLIGHTS FROM VICKI STROICH
1972 — Alberta Theatre Projects begins presenting new Canadian plays for children in the Canmore Opera House a small log cabin at Heritage Park.
“ATP has always had new plays.”
1985 — ATP moves into the 450-seat Martha Cohen Theatre downtown at the new Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts (now Epcor Centre).
1987 — The first playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays is held starting a legacy that would put new Canadian plays onstage and draw theatre artists and companies from across the country and beyond.
“What it said was new plays can be exciting and there’s an audience for new plays.”
1989 — Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love by Brad Fraser.
This daring darkly funny urban play caught people by surprise launched Fraser’s career and has since been produced all around the world.
“Just when somebody thinks they know what a Canadian play is… something comes along that challenges that notion.”
2001 — The Shape of a Girl by Joan MacLeod
This play inspired by the 1997 murder of Victoria teenager Reena Virk by her peers has since been translated into many languages.
“It’s about bullying and it was very powerful then and it’s very powerful now. It’s another one that’s had a huge impact on audiences of all ages and it started right here.”
2002 — Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte
A timeless story that was quietly well-received at the festival then went on to great success across Canada and on the world stage launching another playwright’s career — Massicotte is still invited to openings.
“Sometimes you never know when you’re sitting and watching something how it’s going to capture people’s imaginations and Mary’s Wedding did well in its original run but you wouldn’t necessarily have thought at the very beginning of the process ‘oh that’s the one that’s going to take off…’”
2007 — Age of Arousal by Linda Griffiths
One of three plays by Griffiths to première at playRites including The Duchess in 1996 and this year’s Games: Who Wants to Play?
A challenging work due to its unique style described as “literary but muscular” with a lot of words it won over local audiences and has since been performed across Canada and in the U.S. and U.K.
“It’s about how the typewriter liberated women and it’s really fascinating…. That play took off to such a degree that we were playing to standing room only by the end of the run.”
2009 — Nix by The Only Animal
This memorable production took place outside at Olympic Plaza in a geodesic dome on a set of snow and ice. The play went on to the 2010 Cultural Olympiad in Whistler.
“There’s also moments like that where we’ve created something on a set that melted that are really unique moments…. Those ones really stick out for me.”
2010 — The Highest Step in the World by David van Belle and Eric Rose
A play that involved aerial choreography and projection design — and a sign of things to come as ATP wants to explore more opportunities to work with artists who are thinking in a broad scope.
“There’s whole other ways that we think about how we tell stories in Canadian theatre that we’re really interested in showcasing.”
2013 — The God That Comes by Hawksley Workman and Christian Barry
This work which premièred at last year’s playRites Festival has already toured Europe and recently sold out its run at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton.