What Gives?

the varscona theatre

photo by pixelens photography

If you have been talking to me about theatre lately you have probably noticed that it has been all yak-yak-yak Stewart Lemoine tra-la-la-la-la. Whether you’re from Ontario or Nova Scotia, or anywhere in between, chances are your reaction has been: “I have never even heard of this guy… why are you so obsessed?” The reason that you have never heard of Stewart Lemoine is that he lives in Edmonton, and he works in Edmonton and his almost eighty plays… well, they’ve mostly all been professionally produced in Edmonton. As well, for some reason, there is this national joke out there that nothing ever happens in Edmonton… so the rest of the country leaves it alone. Besides, isn’t it glacial?
The truth is that I know a secret. Edmonton is magic.
According to Stewart, a casting agent for FOX-TV once visited Edmonton during the Fringe Festival (which is North America’s largest and oldest) and she said that she felt like she had stumbled into the Lost Valley, where people were actually performing for the sake of the work, rather than auditioning for better paying gigs.
Most of these commercial, high paying gigs would threaten to take the actors out of Edmonton, as bright marquee lights have lured talented artists out of small cities for over a century. If you resist the urge, it becomes a bold choice. According to Jocelyn Ahlf, an Edmontonian actress, most of the city’s most talented players choose to stay- many because they want to work with Stewart Lemoine.
Lemoine’s company, Teatro la Quindicina, is deeply rooted in the theatre community where artists grew alongside one another, with strong artistic ties, loyalty and constant overlaps as original Canadian ventures inspired and spawned others. Teatro la Quindicina, for example, can be linked to the nationally acclaimed live improvised soap-opera Die-Nasty which has been running weekly since 1991, Oh Susanna!, a live improvised variety show hosted by Edmontonian actors Mark Meer (as Susanna Patchouli) and Jeff Haslam (as Eros, God of Love), which has been running monthly since 1999, the works of Panties Productions, an all female theatre company who perform and have toured original work throughout the country, Rapid Fire Theatre, Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow whose show Bash’d is opening at the Zipper Theatre in New York on June 12th, as well as various sketch comedy troupes. Not to mention that the Fringe brings in eleven days of over one hundred and fifty acts taking over the Old Strathcona Theatre District, and most of these acts are original Canadian work.
As various Ontarians give me a skeptical look, I sheepishly confront the big question. Does any of this really matter? Does Edmontonian theatre really exist if no one in the rest of the country knows about it?
There is no doubt that for most Canadians who typically think about things like theatre, Toronto generally springs to mind as being the place where everything is happening.
It is “Broadway North” after all, isn’t it? I overhear the subscription members of Neptune Theatre wistfully recalling that time they saw Les Misérables in Toronto. Surely, that was the pinnacle of a theatrical experience. What’s more, we, who study and love theatre, are here, so surely there is some reason we’ve chosen this place to study and work and live and dream.
And yet, Toronto is continually letting us down.
In Toronto We Will Rock You plays for a year and a half, while Sweeney Todd flies by in less than a month. In Toronto the CANADIAN Stage Company diminishes its support and funding for Canadian plays. Can you imagine if in New York, it was decided that a Broadway season was going to be launched entirely devoid of American shows? It’s absolutely absurd. Why should this country remain content to be any less proud of its artists? In Toronto, the Stratford and Shaw festivals dominate everything and everyone else in the community, sucking up funding, audiences and the constant attention of theatre critics who ignore the art that is being created organically- if meagerly- simply trying to survive. In Toronto, theatre critics are paid to fly to New York to write reviews of the Broadway opening of The Little Mermaid while remaining completely oblivious to what is happening elsewhere in Canada. In Toronto, the massive theatre community is hugely divided and polarized as everyone fights tooth-and-nail for the same parts, the same grants, and the same audience members.
Of course, there are aspects of Toronto theatre that are wonderful; some companies are creating beautiful, artful, work, some champion the production of Canadian plays, while others foster the growth of new work with zeal and optimism. This is to be truly cherished. However, even if these companies are not directly pitted against one another, they are not connected to one another in any strong, obvious way either. Each one exists as its own separate entity. Actors, playwrights and directors are often just as isolated, as they wander, shifting throughout the city looking for their next paycheck, or opportunity toward the advancement of their personal career goals and dreams. Many have no ties or loyalty to any particular company and should the right opportunity take them from Toronto, they would flee within a moment.
Toronto does not have the same web of magic connection, loyalty and pride tying it together that I see so strongly present in Edmonton. Of course, Toronto’s theatre community is much larger, extremely varied, and it’s comprised of so many more people- creating a community where “everybody knows your name” seems impossible.
In Edmonton, united they stand, and in doing so, theatre thrives with a gusto and love and care that is distinctly its own. The fact is- it doesn’t matter whether Torontonians believe that Edmonton’s theatre community exists, because artists in Edmonton will continue to thrive despite what Toronto does or doesn’t think, creating work within their city, and in their own way. Stewart Lemoine is a testament to the fact that theatre makers are able to build their lives on their art.
There is an analogy that I once heard regarding world politics, that the United States is unaware of what is going on in other parts of the world in the same way that one would not notice a mouse if there was an elephant in their kitchen.
The United States is the largest player on the world stage right now, but that doesn’t mean they are superior to those who are currently playing smaller- or more discreet- roles. It would be shortsighted for the United States to assume that none of the smaller countries had wisdom, art or beautiful thoughts to share.
The same can be said about Toronto. It is the elephant in the room. Maybe rather than waiting for someone to serve up what’s hot on the theatre scene to them on a silver platter, it would be more productive for Torontonians to go out and explore the rest of their country. It’s possible there is something lovely out there for them to uncover.
A fresh perspective. As Canadian theatre makers we must stand united- to learn from each other and support one another before our art is entirely obliterated by giant forces from beyond, and no amount of clapping will be able to bring it back from the dead.

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