Say Yes

the cast of broadway’s jesus christ superstar

The Tony Awards are a shared story for a lot of people who work in the theatre. Once upon a time we were all little boys and girls in cities far and wide from Manhattan watching the glorious and shining stars of Broadway sing and dance across our television screens. It was something we aspired toward, something of a collective dream.

Ten years ago I graduated from High School in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was seventeen years old. What I expected from these annual awards as a seventeen year old girl was the same thing I anticipated every year before; that I would be given a glimpse of the best theatre in the world: the theatre on Broadway. I waited eagerly to see Bernadette Peters, Carol Burnett, Angela Lansbury, Sutton and Hunter Foster, Mandy Patinkin, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Anthony Rapp, Chita Rivera, Ann Reinking, Bea Arthur, Julie Andrews, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Liza Minnelli, Bebe Neuwirth, Audra McDonald, Jane Krakowski, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Nathan Lane, Harvey Fierstein, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Tim Curry perform. It never occurred to me to ask, “Where are the Canadians?” I had been conditioned, as I believe most of us are, to assume, subconsciously I think, that we were not good enough to be there.

Of course I knew that some Canadian performers got to work on Broadway, as part of an American or British company. Martin Short was in The Goodbye Girl with Bernadette Peters. Louise Pitre was Donna in Mamma Mia. Julie Martell was in Sam Mendes’ production of Gypsy. Later, Bob Martin led a mostly American cast of a Canadian-written musical in an impressive Broadway run. But even as ardently interested and supportive of my regional theatre as I was, I never imagined even the possibility of a Canadian company’s production transferring to Broadway. That wasn’t within the realm of the world of Broadway that I had seen and I didn’t know enough about Canadian theatre to challenge the status quo.

Tonight there are children going to sleep across this great country of ours having seen the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar performing on the Tony Awards. They were waiting eagerly to see Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy and Mark Cassius and Bruce Dow and Marcus Nance and Josh Young. These kids, the theatre performers, directors, designers, writers and audience members of tomorrow, know unequivocally now that they do not need to leave Canadian companies behind to become a Broadway star. They know that the Canadian theatre community is not only good enough to compete, but that we are among some of the best in the world.

One hundred years ago Canadian actors flocked to the United States because the theatres here were overrun with British and American tours and opportunities were scarce for those who wished to make a livelihood. Slowly a system emerged that sought not only to foster the development of a national Canadian theatre movement, as well as a sense of a Canadian theatrical culture and tradition, but also to bring communities across the country world-class theatre productions using indigenous theatre artists. These were called the Regional Theatres. In the same way that the Stratford Cast of Jesus Christ Superstar has successfully burst into an American dominated arena, so too did the early Regional Theatres forge a trail for Canadian artists amidst a market saturated with American talent. Soon most Regional theatres were hiring mostly Canadian artists for their productions and in time the most successful of these theatres, for example The Citadel Theatre in Edmonton and the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, began hiring a large percentage of artists from the community that they wished to serve.

In his article “Time for theatre to get past the first stage of grief: denialThe Globe and Mail Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck asks, “Is the experience of seeing God of Carnage live with Canadian actors putting on Brooklyn accents worth the extra $53 (plus gas, plus parking, plus babysitter, plus rushing through dinner to make curtain time)? What does it contribute to Canadian culture beyond the economic spin-offs that arts-funding defenders drone on about ad nauseum?” I would argue that the same question could be asked of Stratford’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Why should Canadian companies perform any non-Canadian play at all? Why should anyone want to see anything live when it all can be downloaded for free without ever leaving one’s basement? Of course I would rather see something live performed by Canadian actors. That is the ultimate experience for me because I love the Canadian theatre. We can do these plays in Canada and with Canadian talent and we can do them terrifically. Perhaps if our prospective theatre audiences were not continually being conditioned by the media in this country to believe in the national inferiority complex and to prescribe to the idea that theatre is on the brink of collapse, more people would be inclined to attend. There is still a destructive and dangerous tendency here to bring in third rate touring productions of hit Broadway and West End shows, of plays just like God of Carnage, rather than staging them inventively here using Canadian talent. From an artistic point of view, shows like Doubt and Wit and Art offer incredible opportunities for Canadian performers, designers and directors to sink their teeth into a style of theatre that can be quite different from the work that is created here, while offering patrons the opportunity to see first-rate productions of the shows they were either going to go down to New York to see anyway or wished that they could.

Creating an ambiance of panic in the world of the Regional theatre does not make for smarter programming, it makes for safer and more cautious Artistic Directors who throw out the balance between artistry and economics. This makes the seasons at these theatres stale, tepid and weak. If there are independent theatres doing bold and brave, exciting and challenging work in the city, it is no wonder that audiences are flocking there instead. Each regional theatre and every theatre community is different. You cannot sum these issues up in sweeping generalizations. For example, it could be argued that since Matthew Jocelyn has taken tenure at Canadian Stage, Toronto no longer has a regional theatre. Perhaps with the growing and thriving number of strong independent theatre companies in that city it has outgrown its need for one. Yet, in Halifax, Neptune Theatre, the regional theatre, is the only theatre in the city that offers a full season of shows (September-May) and one of a tiny handful with its own venue. Newfoundland does not even have a regional theatre and all the Newfoundland-based artists that I have spoken to on the subject have told me that they think that their province would benefit from having one. So, in this case, something that could be seen as being an archaic model that no longer suits one Canadian city would be a novelty in another.

I grew up in Halifax and in and around Neptune Theatre all my life. I grew up loving seeing Nova Scotian-based actors putting on Brooklyn accents and doing the equivalent of God of Carnage and thinking that I was the luckiest person in the world to be able to live here and witness that. The regional theatre was the only theatre I had. That is the reality in many communities in this country, and an experience that is not reflected at all in Nestruck’s article. Many of the people that I watched at Neptune Theatre, people who began as actors from within the community of Nova Scotia, are now working for companies like Stratford, Soulpepper, Shaw and Mirvish. The regional theatre was their training ground and in many cases, their theatre school. I was in no way shape or form alone in my desire to see the people from my city onstage in my regional theatre. Nova Scotians love to support their own and that is not just a regional experience.

I know what the challenges are that Neptune Theatre faces at the moment and I can tell you that they are not the same challenges that the Vancouver Playhouse faced and not at all the same as the ones Aubrey Dan faced with DanCap. We cannot paint these occurrences with the same brush or ignore the theatres such as The Manitoba Theatre Centre, where the exact same production of God of Carnage that received such a lukewarm response in Vancouver, played to steady and impassioned crowds in Winnipeg. Our focus should not be exclusively intent on dissecting what the theatre executives in this country in financial disaster did wrong, but we should be learning from what the theatre executives in this country in theatres that are thriving are doing right. How has Steven Schipper at RMTC gotten roughly 800 high school aged subscribers– teenagers who are subscribing to the theatre’s season independent of their parents? How did Bob Baker at the Citadel connect the theatre to the growing independent and Fringe theatre scene in Edmonton? What impact did his commitment to hiring Edmontonian actors and staging Edmontonian plays have on the success and the growth of the theatre complex? It is easy to point fingers and blame and to condemn, but it is far more constructive to ask, “How can we improve on this? What lessons can we learn from those who are where we want to be?”

As I have written before, Garth Drabinsky being a crook, the same as Aubrey Dan not being a very savvy theatre producer, have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the Toronto musical theatre community, the quantity of the potential audience or is any reflection of any trends or failings of our community in general. They are two individuals whose emphasis on monetary success led them to make flawed decisions that eventually led to their downfall. We have to stop blaming ourselves for their shortcomings or allowing the press to insinuate that this is somehow proof that we are inferior to the United States, that we don’t have what it takes or that we are somehow doomed to be constant failures when attempting to produce big budget shows with Canadian casts.

Tonight the cast of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar shared the stage with Bernadette Peters, Harvey Fierstein, Mandy Patinkin, Audra McDonald, Judith Light, Andrew and Celia Keenan-Bolger, Alan Menken, Patti LuPone, Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris and Angela Lansbury because that is where they belong. This country is filled with world-class theatre artists who have the talent, the drive and the intelligence to accomplish whatever dream has hatched in their mind. Tonight, Tony Award winner Jordan Roth said in his acceptance speech, “There are those rare people who look at the world and see things the rest of us don’t see until they show us. These are the writers. There are a special few who can take that and turn it back into a world; these are the directors, the designers. There are fearless beings who can live in that world and show us who we are, those are our actors. There are dedicated people who know why that world matters so very much: crew, theatre staff, producers, investors, managers, marketers, and then there are the people who step forward and say, ‘show me this world. Open, change me.’ These are our audiences. And when all of these people come together and say, ‘YES’, there is theatre.”

I encourage you all to say YES. To throw yourself into the theatre in whatever way you want to experience it. To say YES to helping your fellow theatre artists, to say YES to helping to build your theatre community, to say YES to discussing how to make these institutions work for us and to investigate them and our various theatre scenes as unique and complex individual entities. I encourage you to say YES to believing in the Canadian theatre, in its power to change people, to move people, to bring people to tears, to make people laugh and to fill them with pride. I hear voices from the newspapers every day saying No. Maybe it’s their job to do so, but all I see happening is a grinding to a halt. A panicked face full of doubt. What good is this to art? Barrel through the negativity with YES. Try not to let the pettiness of jealousy or self-doubt weigh you down. Let’s work together and be kind. We’ve already proven that dreams come true.

This is only the beginning.  

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