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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Theatre for Thought, March 15, 2011

a paradise lost
“So I put on my show. What happens next?”
joel fishbane

My good friend Paul Van Dyck just flew in from New York and boy, are his arms tired - hardly surprising, since his successful production of Paradise Lost features an extensive use of marionettes which he manipulates throughout the show. This new production was a resurrection of one Montreal saw almost two years ago and its existence is an answer to the eternal question that plagues all Montrealers who develop original theatrical work: “So I put on my show. What happens next?”

Montreal’s stages are a breeding ground for new theatre, but once the initial production is over, it is a constant challenge for artists to help the new work mature. Our stages are filled with the echoes of the innovative:  Penumbra (Rabbit in a Hat),  Johnny Canuck and the Last Burlesque (Mainline Theatre) and  Life is a Dream (Scapegoat Carnivale) are all examples of recent shows which are each a paradise lost: each deserve further development and each will probably have to go somewhere else to get it.

Although independent artists are starting to make the jump to the mainstream our shows are rarely as fortunate.

Paul Van Dyck is not the only artist to have realized this frustration: attention must be paid to Sidemart, Uncalled For, Dance Animal, Ned Cox and yes, even yours truly: all of us developed shows here before taking them into that great and terrible place known as the outside world. Part of this is fueled by the search for fresh audiences, but it is also a result of a glass ceiling our community has erected over our heads. 

Although independent artists are starting to make the jump to the mainstream – Andrew Shaver’s recent stint at Centaur comes to mind – our shows are rarely as fortunate. Although Montreal’s major companies – Centaur, Segal, Infinitheatre, Imago, BTW – all do their part to develop new work, these are always in-house creations. To the best of my recollection, none of them have ever snatched a show out of the independent theatres and helped develop it as part of their mainstage season. Generally speaking, if an indie show hopes for another kick at the can, they have to pray for a slot in the Wildside.

...there is a void in our community which is keeping us from establishing ourselves as a vital part of Canada’s theatrical identity.

Obviously, it would be absurd to suggest that the major companies have a duty to help these shows develop – it would strain their resources and each has a mandate which shows like Paradise Lost simply don’t fulfill. But it cannot be denied that there is a void in our community which is keeping us from establishing ourselves as a vital part of Canada’s theatrical identity. We embrace the innovative but are shirking at the responsibility of helping it mature. Simply put, we are in desperate need of a producing organization who will make sure our independent theatres are not both the birthplace and grave of new theatre.

Our community has made a place in our theatres for the established play; we have made a place for the world premiere by an established playwright. We have made a place for the well-loved classic, the contemporary masterpiece, the zany burlesque and a musical about smoked meat. Surely there is room for one more: surely there is room for professionally developed original work that demonstrate our commitment to not only imagining great theatre but also to bringing it to the light of day.


  1. I see a couple of reasons that make re-mounting and re-working new work into maturity here a bit difficult, barring the inception of a Playwright's centred professional company like Tarragon.

    One is, despite our growing numbers, we still have a rather small audience for Anglo theatre in Montreal, especially if you don't count the crowd of local theatre-makers. To this small group of non-theatre-people, the process whereby a play becomes a fully cooked work is a mystery. The assumption is that if it's in front of an audience, it's a finished work. On the outside, what an audience member would see is the same show that was at Mainline last month, going up in the Bain this month, only to turn up at the Segal a year later. I think the audience reaction would be the same as mine when I see that Romeo & Juliet is being produced for the umpteenth time -- Seriously? Haven't we already seen this? Are they running out of ideas? Isn't there anything else on? I think that "Come check out the New and Improved version of Play X!" would be a hard sell.

    The other is simply a manner of energy & resources. Here's a small-scale example: A few years ago, I wrote, directed and produced a small puppet show at the Centaur's Saturday Morning series called "Play" -- It was well received, and I was cordially invited back to the Centaur the next season to show it again. The extra time and money allowed me to seriously re-work the show, ditch the puppets, cast live actors, and develop the script with the help of PWM. So successful was the second incarnation that I was subsequently asked to re-mount it at several CEGEPS, each presentation offering the chance to tweak the script and improve the show. The ever-extending run, however, led me to have to re-cast and re-rehearse several times over. 3 "tour" stops and 2 years later, I began to turn down opportunities to present again. I ran out of sitzfleish. I still love my little Play, but I got sick of telling the same story for 2 years, and ran out of resources, both financial and intellectual, as well as energy, to give it the attention it deserves. And still, it's not finished, because as we well know, the work is never finished, it is merely abandoned.

  2. Maybe the question is, what is the proper ecology for the development of a show (or a script)? One model would suggest that it would be something like: Fringe Festival to independent venue to local/regional mainstage to national to international. But this kind of rank structure doesn't seem to hold for every kind of show, especially in Canada, where our top mainstage is still doing either Shakespeare or Broadway musicals. This is fine for something like Hamlet (solo), which could very easily fit in at Stratford, but not so good for a new story. And audiences seem to be quite happy with this arrangement, for now, anyway. I'm very curious to see what effect the audience numbers at the WildSide, Brave New Whatver-it-is-this-year, and the Segal Studio have on the programming of Montreal's two English mainstages.

    I don't think this problem is unique to Montreal, either: you can see it happening just about anywhere that isn't Toronto. And even Toronto's mainstages (Tarragon, Factory, CanStage) are pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

    So much depends on what you really want to do with a show or script. Like Nanette, I've been able to do small pieces that have run for a couple of years in various venues; but I've also run into the question, "When are you going to remount Dionysus?" (hm, maybe that was badly phrased) The answer to that last one is, probably never. The resources just aren't out there for a 15-person musical, either externally (money) or internally (time and energy that you and your team need to spend making a living).

    Which isn't to say that creating works that "go nowhere" is a waste of time. I liken it to winning the AHL championship. On the one hand, who cares about anything that isn't the Stanley Cup? On the other, the members of that chump-championship team often (but not always) get a chance to move into bigger leagues. Of course, you often have to physically move to move into a bigger league -- which for us, means Toronto. Which is still not a guarantee of ever getting out of Canada. Assuming that that's what we're all after.

  3. This is an important article, Joel, and I think the problems you raise here need to be reflected on for the ecology of an arts community to evolve and thrive. At the moment, writing this from Australia, I feel I have been given a very different perspective on how the arts can function. What I have noticed about living as an artist in this country is how deeply valued development and the creative process is in the making of work.

    One example of this are the residency programs that exist all over the country. Applications are open nationally and sometimes even internationally, meaning a lot more scope for cross-fertilisation of artists and simply a lot more opportunities. Many of these residency programs are paid and are highly regarded in the community so that they help to open doors to get the work seen. Arts funding bodies and potential producers often attend residency showings which also helps to get the work out there.

    Development, of course, is not enough if there is nowhere to put the work once it is made. There also seems to be an ecology of small to large theatres here. From artist run spaces to mid-range theatres to large scale arts centres, there is a lot to choose from. Of course, I am mostly talking about Sydney and Melbourne, but I have seen it in a lot of the smaller cities here too, this wide range of possibilities for putting work on.

    I also think forms are being explored differently. There is a lot of cross-pollination between different art forms, a lot of theatre that has evolved out of the visual arts, a lot of performance work that takes place in non-theatrical settings, a lot of do-it-yourself work or smaller scale pieces. I think this allows for broader definitions for what theatre is and what a theatre space can be and again opens up opportunities and possibilities.

    Another thing I have noticed is the way that arts centres talk to each other nationally here. There are consortiums of arts centres that help to tour work - places like Performance Space, Arts House, PICA and Brisbane Powerhouse are all communicating with each other and sharing work. These arts organisations are also there to foster long term relationships with artists and to help grow them as artists across their careers.

    I think Montreal English Theatre is very uniquely placed and to simply compare it to what is going on on the other side of the world does not solve the problem. But to learn from other countries and to observe what happens in other places is important. And to reflect on how we can learn from what is happening in the world and allow this to help foster a vivid and thriving ecosystem of the arts, one that grows naturally from the circumstances of a particular place and in the context of the national picture as well, that would be a worthwhile endeavour.


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