The NAC & Canadian Theatre Classics


julie andrews in the iconic sound of music film

In Ottawa yesterday Jillian Keiley revealed her inaugural season as Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre English Theatre and it is an exciting one, featuring a wide array of incredible Canadian artists and telling stories from across the country.

The Season includes a show brought to life at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto- Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience– Annabel Soutar’s Seeds from Porte Parole in Montreal featuring the incomparable Eric Peterson and Artistic Fraud’s Oil and Water written by Robert Chafe and directed by Keiley. The Studio Series includes Raoul Bhaneja’s TWISI Award winning HAMLET (Solo), ENRON by Lucy Prebble and directed by Ron Jenkins and Cliff Cardinal’s “journey into a First Nation heart of darkness” in huff directed by Karin Randoja. There are also productions for young people by Roseneath Theatre (Toronto) and Presentation House Theatre (Vancouver). The ten member NAC acting ensemble will also bring two “classics” to life this season, a re-imagined Tartuffe set on Newfoundland and featuring Andy Jones and a Sing-Along production of The Sound of Music. In all, it is an eclectic mixture of artists and perspectives, from Moliere to Rodgers and Hammerstein, swathed in new Canadian work that is immediate, political and relevant- which is what our National Theatre should be. I am going to be longing for Ottawa in 2013-2014. I want to see everything!

The one choice of Keiley’s that struck me most ardently was The Sound of Music, not because I am adverse to staging a production of The Sound of Music at Christmastime, especially one directed by former Artistic Director of Catalyst Theatre Joey Tremblay with musical direction by Allen Cole, which is likely to be unique and interesting and all the things that I think re-stagings of The Sound of Music should be. Yet, it does strike me that when one seeks to offer her audience a “classic” of the English-speaking theatre the production is very rarely Canadian.

I think it can be argued that Canada does have at least one counterpart for The Sound of Music, but every theatre in the country cannot just remount Anne of Green Gables every season in vain attempt to keep their classics Canadian. But it does beg the question: why don’t more Canadian productions, of both plays and musicals, become the theatrical landmarks and traditions for their audience members like so many of their American counterparts? Once again I find myself coming back to the need for Canada to invest smarter and more ardently in our culture rather than relying on the United States to feed us with theirs.

One important aspect for allowing a work of art to become a “classic” is to provide ample opportunity for the show to be revived and remounted. This is one way that the National Arts Centre, in bringing productions from across Canada to new audiences in Ottawa, as well as developing Co-Productions which assists with touring, helps to ensure that Canadian written work has a life beyond one run in one city. The publishers who publish Canadian plays (and the stores that sell them) are also instrumental in disseminating these works to artists who can bring them to new life and new audiences. In my experience, however, it seems common for a Canadian production to be mounted and re-mounted and to tour, especially within the festival circuit, for 1-5 years after its initial Opening Night, or for a play like Daniel MacIvor’s Here Lies Henry to get a special (and often One Night Only!) performance years later, but it is far rarer to see professional re-imaginings of Canadian plays that were written a decade or more ago. How many times has A Streetcar Named Desire been given a fresh professional production? It is much more novel to see Soulpepper do Doc for example.

It is important that we create new work, yes. I can feel the country churning on the playwriting treadmill- all simultaneously huffing, “we must feed the Canadian theatre cannon- not enough plays- not enough plays”- but if the plays are continually being shelved once they close, never to be seen again- we are missing an important aspect of the building of that cannon. How much have Shakespeare’s works grown and changed simply because they have been molded and shaped by so many imaginations and by the radical shifts in time itself? His plays have endured because people have kept staging them.

It is not just in the theatre where the concept of “classic Canadian works” seems more subjective than in other countries. Also, in the creation of classic works of theatre, often the Arts are all interconnected. For example many “classic” American musicals are based on classic American books or comic strips or classic American films. Is there a Canadian equivalent to The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life? Why not? Is there a Canadian equivalent to Batman or Little Orphan Annie? Why not? It is certainly not for lack of our talent. Yet, when our televisions are dominated by American programming, our movie theatres are filled with American cinema and our newspapers feature exclusively American comic strips, how does Canadian art stand a chance of finding the same scope of audience needed to attain popularity enough to become heralded as a “classic.”? Indeed, under these conditions our art doesn’t really stand a chance.

 How do we change this? How do we eradicate this deeply entrenched National Inferiority Complex narrative that we have all been fed in seemingly innocuous ways since our childhoods? Perhaps we should focus on the success stories instead. How did Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables become a classic? How have Babar and Sharon, Lois and Bram and Robert Munsch and Mr. Dress Up become iconic to Canadian children across the generations? Why does Canadian programming aimed at children often reach both national and international acclaim and notoriety more often than other Canadian programs? Is this the same in literature?

I would argue that part of what gives Robert Munsch and Sharon, Lois and Bram an advantage is that their audience (the children) is primarily focused on the quality and the caliber of the product they are given. Children are open and receptive in a way many adults are not, because inherently they want to love and to engage with the art that is given to them. They aren’t interested in dissecting it because it happens to be Canadian and must, therefore, inherently be inferior to something made in the USA. Young children don’t yet believe in Canada’s inferiority because it is not something they have been taught yet. Why would they think ill of Canadian-made art when Canada is their home? It is absurd. The result is that the product that is allowed to be created and invested in here is able to become world class and, because its audience is dedicated and supportive of it, a show like Mr. Dress Up goes on to delight the children of its initial audiences and then their grandchildren and it becomes a classic.

What does any of this have to do with our National Theatre? Well, primarily it shows how imperative it is that we understand how interconnected all the Arts are in this country. A thriving film industry, strong Canadian television, an investment in Canadian literature and in the music industry and all the Performing Arts contributes to the success of the Canadian Theatre. It helps to spawn new ideas for interdisciplinary adaptations and exciting new work. It feeds audiences that are passionate and engaged in Canadian Arts and culture. Mainstream theatre audiences, in general, often respond positively to seeing beloved, familiar stories on stage. This is why so many regional theatres (and others) program productions like The Sound of Music, especially during the holidays- and there is nothing wrong with that. Yet, wouldn’t it be lovely if Artistic Directors had a myriad of Canadian options- along with the slew of American and British ones- when looking for this type of show for their season?

A classic isn’t born over night, it is something that absolutely needs marinating over time, but I think it is something that we, as the Canadian theatre community, should be conscious about helping to foster and establish- not just in the theatre but in all forms of Canadian art. I also believe vehemently that we should all be actively fighting against American cultural hegemony and the myth of Canadian Inferiority in our everyday lives. Our stories and Our artists deserve it.

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