If, as so many people say, theatre has become irrelevant (and I don’t think it has; I think it’s relevance has gone underground during the tornado of triviality that has swept through the last 25 years) it may be because theatre artists, in the desperate need to simply survive, have lost an awareness of the larger world and their place in it.
In the line-up for Sandra Oh’s Celebrity Speakers appearance at Magnetic North the other week, I bumped into Emma Lancaster, the Festival’s wonderful and hardworking publicist. “Hey Simon”, she says to me while indicating the young lady she was talking to, “you should meet Jessica, you’re both theatre bloggers.” As if on cue, we both whipped out our respective blog-business cards (you call it nerdy, I call it smart business), and with promises to comment on each others’ sites, in we went to hear Sandra hold court about her charmed actressy life. Since that first meeting I saw Jessica pounding away on her laptop in the front row of every Mag North session or forum that I attended. Truly dedicated to the cause is she.
The proprietor of The Ottawa Arts Newsletter, Jessica is also a publicist, arts journalist, photographer, drama coach, director, spoken word performer, and general arts enthusiast. She was kind enough to offer a visitor’s impression on our fair city.
My first impressions of Vancouver
[as told by some girl from Ottawa]
Well, it rains a lot. Oh wait…you wanted to hear about theatre? Fair enough. But I still stand by my opening. Lots of rain means Vancouver people would rather see theatre indoors instead of dealing with the weather outdoors. Or maybe they just embrace the wetness and buy umbrellas. Or maybe they just sit home on their couches instead. Okay, so maybe I don’t know much about the city’s theatre patrons, but I do know that Vancouver companies are producing some of the hippest work I’ve seen in awhile.
I was inspired to visit Vancouver when I heard the Magnetic North Theatre Festival would be taking over Granville Island from June 4-14th. I had attended the festival twice before in Ottawa (where I have lived and worked all my life), and absolutely loved the idea of a national festival celebrating the best of new Canadian theatre. I was also keen on professionally stalking the festival because – prior to two weeks ago – I had never before traveled west of Toronto and Stratford. This seemed like the ideal opportunity to become acquainted with the Vancouver theatre scene and get to know some of the artists involved.
This year’s Magnetic North included two full-length Vancouver productions: Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes, produced by the Playhouse Theatre Company and the Savage Society; and Studio 58’s student production of Townsville. Both productions brought their own unique west-coast edge to the festival, but the most exciting show I experienced during my week-and-a-half visit was a multi-dimensional, site-specific, collective creation, theatre extravaganza featuring 11 independent Vancouver companies. The show was HIVE2, and it was pretty darn awesome.
These theatre companies took over a warehouse on Great Northern Way Compass and were assigned spaces in which to create and perform a 5-15 minute piece of theatre influenced by the space. Site-specific theatre can have very fascinating results because often the script thrives creatively under spatial restrictions, and often it produces a more intrinsically connected final product. Since theatre spaces are so difficult to come across these days, it is becoming increasingly important for theatre artists to be more resourceful when it comes to producing their own work.
Three of the companies that took part in this project also offered an invaluable workshop about creating site-specific theatre in the most creative of outdoor spaces. Kendra Fanconi showed us around the Granville Island docks where she worked on a visually stimulating show from The Only Animal. The Electric Company’s Jonathan Young took us on a tour of the island where a Vancouver historical drama had been produced. Finally Jay Dodge of Boca del Lupo took us on a tram ride to Stanley Park, the site of a theatre extravaganza for family audiences where the company made use of the trails, the trees, and the atmosphere to inspire and form their work.
What I loved especially about HIVE2 and about this workshop was seeing how much these theatre companies respected one another. You could see they were proud of what had been achieved artistically by their fellow artists. That is partly because Vancouver has some major theatrical amalgamation going on. It seems that several of these companies have created shows together, or at the very least, have discussed their creative musings in a group. Last year The Only Animal and The Electric Company co-produced The One That Got Away, a show that took place in a swimming pool. With the two companies’ combined theatre experience and talent, the final product could not help but be truly spectacular. I also heard from a local critic about this subscription pass that you can pick up that includes many of the alternative theatres in Vancouver. An individual company may not have a full season like the Vancouver Playhouse, but since they have all joined together as a collective, there are now enough theatre productions to excite any potential subscriber. It also guarantees audiences a wide variety of shows from a number of diverse companies.
You can see that these companies are vehemently fighting for something new in theatre. They say; let us encourage new voices, new scripts, new ideas, new visuals, new technology, and new ways of surprising our blaze audiences. Let’s make our audiences smarter, keener, and more willing to interact, to make changes, to start thinking for themselves. The scenes I witnessed were not didactic or politically obvious, but rather offered an alternate perspective and left the audience with something to think about on the trip home. So many times I’ve seen theatre that left me feeling a little dry – but with these pieces I felt invigorated, hungry for more, keen on having discussions with friends afterwards. That’s precisely the kind of effect theatre should be having on its audiences. And I definitely think that Vancouver is on exactly the right track.
Performance Arts Enthusiast
Ottawa, ON, Canada
Photo of closing night band by Jessica Ruano
The key to the success of our industry, in my opinion, is dedicated and impassioned arts administrators. Laura has been a soldier in that cause for years now, and I’m thrilled to welcome her to TOGtE.
She has worked with many Vancouver arts orgs, among them See Seven, the Jessie Richardson Awards Society, Pacific Theatre and Down Stage Right Productions. Laura has worked extensively with the Arts Club, for which she held the positions of Annual Campaigns Manager, Marketing Coordinator and Executive Assistant. In July 2006 she moved on from there to become the General Manager of Rumble Productions, “Vancouver’s All-Terrain Theatre Vehicle”.
And if that’s not enough, she’s also put in time as a Stage Manager.
In short, she’s part of the solution.
1. In one word, describe your present condition.
2. In whatever number of words you need, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.
There seems to be a lot of recognition in recent years of Vancouver’s innovation, site-specific theatre and independent theatre. This is being identified nationally, if not internationally. There also seems to be encouraging growth in audiences in certain areas such as Arts Club subscribers and attendees at the PuSh Festival and Bard on the Beach. I think it’s a really vibrant and exciting time for theatre in Vancouver. If only we had more funding…
3. Please give us an overview of your role and responsibilities as the G.M. of Rumble.
The General Manager is responsible for financial and administrative management of the company including marketing, fundraising, grant writing, and general operations. I work closely with Artistic Producer Craig Hall, as well as with our Board of Directors.
4. Why is Rumble “Vancouver’s All-Terrain Theatre Vehicle”?
Our mandate is broad in that it encompasses multidisciplinary works, collaboration (locally, nationally and internationally) and risk-taking. With all of those variables, Rumble has done everything from new play development to radio plays to arts publications to emerging arts festivals. There are endless possibilities.
5. How has Rumble’s vision evolved since its inception in 1990?
The company has clearly grown from a mere idea from founders Norman Armour and Chris Gerrard-Pinker to the well-respected mid-size theatre company it is today.
Rumble has become a proven leader in the development and growth of Vancouver’s independent theatre scene. One initiative that has evolved substantially is the PuSh Festival (originally developed by Rumble and Touchstone Theatre) The original idea of presenting a series of local, national and international works has now become an enormously successful and internationally recognized festival. Also, the idea of Rumble mentoring emerging artists has been growing over the years, and the implementation of TREMORS: Rumble’s Festival of Emerging Arts is a result of the growth of that idea.
6. Resolved: The Stage Manager is the most vital component of the production. Please argue the affirmative.
As an occasional Stage Manager myself, I have to agree! There can be great ideas, amazing talent and immense creativity but if there is no Stage Manager to organize it all, bring it all together and make it happen, there would be no show. For example, rehearsals would be challenging without any actors, if there were no Stage Managers to let them know where they should be and when. Plus, Stage Managers have the power to plummet all performers into total darkness at any given time, so love and respect your SMs!
7. What is theatre’s responsibility to its community?
I think the theatre should be communicating ideas with an attempt to have an audience understand them, whether they are unconventional ideas or not. I think it’s the theatre’s responsibility to recognize that there are different needs that theatre fills, and that they aren’t the same for everyone—some may seek mere entertainment, others may seek healing, challenge, creative outlets or forums for exploring ideas.
8. How do you see Hive evolving in the coming years?
I think the creative minds behind HIVE will come up with some other new collective concept, but I don’t know if we will necessarily see HIVE itself evolving past this year’s incarnation at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. We shall see!
9. Any ideas on how to cultivate a new crop of dynamic arts administrators here?
Good question. Recruit disgruntled government workers (bursting to break through all that red tape) or people from the film industry (who might welcome our “short” working hours)? Offer a lifetime supply of comps for every arts organization in the Lower Mainland to make up for the pay cut they’ll have to endure?
10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?
If I ever manage to find the time to read, I tend to read books that aren’t about theatre!
11. What’s next?
Hopefully, a vacation! Then some plotting for the future—we’ll be developing a number of projects over the next year or two. Then there will be frantic grant writing to make the plotting come to fruition!
And so the (finally) sunny West Coast bids a fond adieu to Mag North (or ‘Canada’s National Festival of Contemporary Canadian Theatre in English’ for long. Canafestconcanatheng? Seriously guys, nothing snappier jumps to mind?). Traditionally with me the close of a run portends a short bout of postpartum, so I suppose I’ll be dealing with something similar now that I’m no longer submerged in the daily tub of theatrical exploration that was these last two weeks. *Sigh.* And so we must turn our gaze back to the future of our stage, both local and national, and start to think ahead.
What do we take from this year’s festival? In what way is its success measured? Perhaps this would be better phrased by asking what it was that you were hoping to take away from it, and did it deliver? Were you entertained? I sure as hell was. Mostly. Did it create new connections between practitioners? Undoubtedly. Did it raise the profile of new theatre here in Vancouver? Somewhat. Nationally? Probably. But for me the big consideration is, and always will be: did our audience grow? And more directly: did we as an emerging theatre city take full advantage of Ottawa’s big, noisy, contemporary theatre road-show while we had it here to seed new ticket buyers?
I wish there was some way of quantifying this. Some kind of Mag North exit poll along the lines of “was this your first play, and did it make you want to see another one?”. I would love to be able to chart the growth of Vancouver as a theatre town as we move forward. But left to conjecture, I would say yeah, a few people here stuck their toe in, from the hype generated by HIVE if nothing else. And isn’t that the great hope from a project that consolidates 11 small companies into one super-company: to promote the component brands and build the bigger buzz? To be able to say hey, if you liked that 15 minutes, you need to see our next full-length? And does this marketing agenda extend to the festival as a whole?
Festivals like this one, the Fringe, Summerworks etc. have an function inherent in their existence to be a giant marketing tool, a sampling plate that convinces newcomers to make theatre a part of their monthly entertainment diet. I see this overshadowed a lot of the time, here in Van anyway, by the convenience of getting some theatre in a conveniently packaged form – because hey, everybody’s doing it right now – only to see it disappear back into the broader unconsciousness when the tent poles come down. The same problem plagues the Jazz Festival here too. You can’t get into the buzzy shows during those two weeks, but how many rooms in the city of Vancouver can you go to see consistent live jazz the rest of the year? Two? Three?
I’m not putting the onus on the Festival organizing committees. God knows they’ve got enough on their plates just keeping the wheels on the tracks. As we move from Mag North towards the Fringe in September it’s us, the artists, that need to be asking ourselves and our companies whether we are using the high profile and marketing muscle of these events to their full advantage for the future of the game, and talking it up enough out there in the outfield. And not just participating theatreists either, but anyone with a vested interest in promoting a sustainable theatre. I’ll lay down a challenge right now. Come September, make it a mission to take two non-theatre people from your social circle, work, the gym etc. to a Fringe play. I’ll pledge to do the same, and I’ll print their impressions on it right here on The Next Stage as ‘civilian reviews’. And I’ll do the same for any of your theatre guests if you’ll send me their reactions.
Sound like a plan?
With Mag North behind us, our festival thoughts turn towards the country’s un-juried festival circuit: the Fringe is on its way. We’ll be taking a look at Canada’s other Fringes in anticipation of our own on in September, and looking for some advance on shows to watch out for.
The Montreal Fringe is in full swing right now, here’s some great little promo video drops grabbed from their website. The first two are cute little animations that do a nice job of encapsulating the Fringe experience, and the third is an ad with a punk aesthetic that I could never imagine seeing here in Vancouver.
What being on stage in a new piece can feel like…
A great take on ‘the show must go on’…
How do you think this would fly in the British Properties?
When we talk about the value of theatre (and we do here in the theatrosphere, a lot), the heart of these conversations usually lands somewhere around the word ‘experience’. As in: what experience does the theatre offer its patrons and practitioners that no other art form can provide? Ask this question of most theatre-makers and you’re likely throwing wide floodgates that can’t be soon shut. What follows then, out here on teh internets, is a cry for brevity from those in its corners that would dispense with florid analysis; just the bullet points please, thank you very much. Then there are they who will respond to the very question with indignation, and righteously pronounce that they do not, will not, defend their chosen art form any longer, nor waste any more precious cyber space on the discussion. The point that these people are missing, however, is that it’s not a discussion about defending theatre – theatre will do that just fine on its own – it’s about composing marketing copy.
Now, there has been the odd occasion where I have found myself mired in a production that makes even me question the value of theatre. I have sat through some…stuff that has made me want to quit theatre altogether. This is the risk inherent in a field with no sense of competition, I suppose. (Again, a compelling argument for the value of theatre criticism.) But then I’ll inevitably go to a different play that clearly and resoundingly reminds me of the incomparable symbiotic experience that stage can be. Because done well, and done confidently, there can be built an exquisite balance of trust between player and witness that knits them together as complicit participators in the work as a whole. This balance is possible because of a silently understood contract between us and them, which may be simply stated as this: if you believe that the conditions of your stage world are real, so will I. There’s power in that.
It’s the work I saw at Mag North Wednesday night that brought that back to me. Toronto’s Volcano Theatre traveled here with their award-winning Michael Redhill play Goodness, and what a perfectly convenient work to take on tour; despite the fact that it takes its five actors from Toronto to Poland to the UK, the entire set consisted merely of a couple of chairs. The lighting was simple yet entirely evocative throughout. And the wonderful soundtrack of harmonized world music? Mostly provided by the actors themselves. Awesome. They slid through multiple roles with no costume changes and relied on the most minimal of props, some merely indicated where possible. And the thing is, I believed every bit of it, so precise was the commitment to character and place. A sound contract fulfilled with open hearts by both parties.
I wonder sometimes when we’re budgeting and looking for expenditures to cut if we don’t put too much weight on set dec and over-thought design when we could be putting more trust in the playwright and the facility of the actors.
Not that I’m suggesting that we become a nation of mimes. (Ew.) If a character is required to bake cookies, they should probably have a stove on stage. But do we have to build the entire kitchen? If we work harder on fulfilling our terms of the contract we shouldn’t have to, and it’s a worthy ambition to be recognized as a country full of theatre artists who need only a script, a stage and an audience to be brilliant.
Anyone else see the value in that?
Theatre is everywhere. Theatre is that weird and wonderful conversation you overhear in a bar, the ugly argument you catch walking by an apartment window, the rope’s-end meltdown you witness on the walk to work.
We give money to theatre artists to see what happens next.