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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ford's Focus: Diane Brown

(Photo: Tim Matheson)

Active Acting Activist
by Barbara Ford

Brown as baby, Mom on piano, Dad on bottle
Close your eyes.  Relax … take a few deep breaths. Picture your childhood living room. Now picture an eighteen-piece big band rehearsing in it! No wonder Ruby Slippers Theatre’s Artistic Director Diane Brown ended up on stage, electrified weekly by live, literally ‘in-house’, performances before she was on solid food! 

Talking with Brown in the Centaur lounge before she went backstage to prepare for her performance in Daniel MacIvor’s two-hander, A Beautiful View, what struck me the most was her enduring commitment not only to the company she co-founded more than twenty years ago, but also to (for want of a better term) ‘theatre activism’.  Shedding light on important socio-political issues, providing opportunities for the community, exploring new avenues … these are the highest expressions of a vital, connected theatre company.   

Brown grew up on Vancouver Island around Victoria but when her family split, she also got to spend a fair amount of time in Southern California. She acquired her professional training in the four-year Fine and Performing Arts program at Simon Fraser University, graduating in 1987. The diverse curriculum (the reason she chose this university over others), offered theatre, dance, and most interestingly, arts in context (a strong factor in her future aesthetic).

With her handy-dandy green card, she was able to free-lance as an actor on both sides of the border and among other short-term acting gigs, spent a few summers in upstate New York working with the Actors Shakespeare Company. She also did her fair share of odd jobs working in bowling allies, bars and restaurants.  

In 1989, Brown and an impressive group of multi-discipline female artists co-founded the Ruby Slippers co-operative.  Their mission? … what else but to change the world!  She and her fellow artists explored charged issues - political corruption, social injustice, gender inequality - innovatively combining photography, visual arts, dance and theatre to provoke and challenge audiences. Irene Fornes’ Mud: A Theatre Installation and Blackout: Six Short Pieces By Samuel Beckett were Ruby Slippers’ first two endeavours.  Incidentally, Blackout followed Centaur Artistic Director Roy Surette’s (then with Touchstone Theatre) production of Where Is Kabuki? in the Firehall Arts Centre. After Roy’s audience vacated the premises, the Ruby gang draped black cloth over the fragile Asian set, made entirely of delicate wood frames and paper, to present their piece for late night theatre-goers.  Some years later, Surette also directed Brown in the 1997 Touchstone Theatre production of Judith Thompson’s Sled.

The company made multiple splashes three years in a row at the Vancouver Fringe, with Eric Bogosian’s Men Inside in 1990 (performed with an all-female cast) and two plays by Quebec playwright Dominic Champagne: The Rehearsal (‘91) and The Queens (‘92). The latter caused Ruby Slippers to return to Quebecois playwrights time and again because “what they [Quebec playwrights] were writing about seemed more relevant than what the English playwrights were writing at the time. They seemed to embrace the ideas that we did. Their focus on family, making the personal political, micro inside the macro. ”  

The company’s interest in Francophone theatre is ongoing, treating Vancouver audiences to the first English reading of Jean Marc Dalpé's Trick Or Treat (commissioned by Ruby Slippers, translated by  Robert Dickson, 1999), the English premiere of Down Dangerous Passes Road (by Michel Marc Bouchard, translated by Linda Gaboriau, 2002), Le Noirceur by Robert Lepage protégé Marie Brassard (2003-04), Life Savers by Serge Boucher (2009), and two François Archambault plays: The Winners and The Leisure Society, the latter winning the Jessie Richardson award for Outstanding Production in 2006. 

But I digress, leaving out the good bits.  As with every new company starting out, funding was the biggest challenge and the group soon discovered that a collective incorporating several disciplines targeting a wide range of issues was a hard sell when it came to securing corporate and government support. As a result, in 1992, they incorporated Ruby Slippers as a theatre company with Katrina Dunn and Diane Brown as co-Artistic Directors.  

Ruby Slippers was raising the profile of Quebec playwrights completely unknown in British Columbia, smoothly broaching the two solitudes clear across the country.

Le Noirceur
In 1994 Acts of Passion, a week long annual reading series of Quebecois plays, co-produced with Pink Ink Theatre (now Pi Theatre) and Theatre La Seizieme, made its first appearance, further exposing Vancouver audiences to the unique Quebec voice. Guest artists such as Normand Chaurette, Abla Faroud, Michel Marc Bouchard, translators Shelley Tepperman and Linda Gaboriau, French Canadian theatre expert Paul LeFebvre and internationally acclaimed writer/performer Pol Pelletier were flown out west for workshops and lectures. Ruby Slippers was raising the profile of Quebec playwrights completely unknown in British Columbia, smoothly broaching the two solitudes clear across the country. “It was a love fest,” beamed Brown, but unfortunately the great distance between the two provinces, generating huge air fare expenses, made it difficult to continue the initiative and it was eventually abandoned. While it lasted though, it was a thrill for Quebec writers to see their work thrive in new and fertile soil.

In those first few years under the new standard, they were able to secure one, two, and then a third project grant and eventually operating grants, but it wasn’t easy street from there on. In 2009, as the company celebrated its twentieth anniversary, Brown was informed by e-mail that the annual forty thousand dollars for a three-year period allotted to Ruby Slippers by the provincial government, would not be forthcoming, cutting the yearly budget by a quarter and essentially creating a deficit for the upcoming season while it was still only a glint in everyone’s eye. After enduring for twenty years, there are still no guarantees but whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and Brown lobbies for better policies regarding arts funding through various platforms, choosing to remain positive rather than become mired in self-pity. 

To date the company has created six new full-length plays, toured nationally three times, and in the last seven years alone has received thirty-one theatrical nominations and twelve awards.

In addition to exploring a wide range of English and French Canadian, as well as international, playwrights, Ruby Slippers has introduced numerous new works to Vancouver audiences and the Canadian canon. In 1994 the company commissioned female writers to create an evening of theatrical erotica. Herotica was first presented at Vancouver’s Women in View Festival and subsequently toured to Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille. Herotica 2 did just as well in ’95, also touring, but this time to One Yellow Rabbit's High Performance Rodeo, a national festival of Canada's best experimental theatre. In 1996 world premiere of Karim Alrawi’s highly political Patagonia won the Jessie Richardson Award for Andreas Kahre’s original sound score. To date the company has created six new full-length plays, toured nationally three times, and in the last seven years alone has received thirty-one theatrical nominations and twelve awards.   

Ruby Slippers' Sucker Falls
1994 was an active year with the birth of the bi-annual Brecht in the Park (BITP) event, which began as Courage in the Park with a Public Dreams co-pro of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. The Threepenny Opera and John Lazarus’ adaptation of The Good Person of Setzuan followed suit. Sucker Falls: The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany, written by native playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, inspired by the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht dynamic duo, was the 2001 offering.  The world premiere chronicled the topical rise and fall of a native casino, with a live quartet playing the original soundscape and cabaret songs.  

Between ’98 and 2000, using an outside facilitator, the company underwent a slow transition. Brown became the sole Artistic Director of the company and her first act was to redefine the mandate, as the heretofore association with the feminist movement had become increasingly hard to define.  “It was exhausting to explain … there were so many definitions floating around by now.”  The company now concerns itself with the growth and development of socially relevant theatre, which they define as ‘theatre that questions status quo assumptions, illuminating social ills and hypocrisies through theatrical innovation.’ “We broadened our mandate to adopt a more humanist approach, provide alternative perspectives.  We are still proud of our feminist roots- I still call myself a feminist- and our work includes but is not limited to gender issues and sexual politics.”   

1998 marked the end of an era, heralding Ruby Slippers’ new and exciting direction of ‘smart, social satire that is infectiously entertaining.’ At the 1998 Women In View Festival the controversial dance/theatre piece, Life During Wartime, took an unflinching look at misogyny.  Later the same season Ruby Slippers presented The Ruby Cabaret, featuring the jazz quartet Talking Pictures with fourteen original songs and thirty biting vignettes.  “We started each rehearsal by reading the newspaper, choosing material from the hot and not-so-hot stories of the day.” The Ruby Cabaret played to thunderous applause and a cavalcade of letters to the editors. Brown couldn’t have wished for a better reaction, saying it was “just what a successful cabaret should do!”  

Ruby Slippers and edgy, social satire were synonymous; even today, the company has no permanent home.

Denise Clarke in
Fabulous Disaster
RubyCAB 2000 was a second helping of social and political lampooning that was also a critical and box office success.  

After working at it for ten years, Brown was now finally able to give herself a salary… about time. She could also rejoice in the loyal following the company had built over the years. Ruby Slippers and edgy, social satire were synonymous and though, even today, the company has no permanent home, they boast a membership of two thousand plus that follows them wherever they go. That’s at least a third of the subscriber base of each of Montreal’s two leading Anglo theatres, both of which have their own venue.  Making a concerted effort to address issues that resonate with its audience, the company has developed a following that feels included; valued.  There’s no passive viewing or shortage of controversy and debate at Ruby Slippers shows.  “We want to ignite independent, critical thought.  Our audience is smart and they want that.”  

The 2001/02 season saw a full production of the previously workshopped Love Bites, written and performed by Mercedes Bains.  The musical storytelling of different female characters coping with love and lust in a complex world, fused live jazz (Brown’s musical penchant once again emerging) with poetry and live theatre and was fittingly presented in various Vancouver bars and nightclubs. 

Tracy Powers in Living Shadows:
A Story of Mary Pickford
2004 saw the premiere of A Fabulous Disaster, created by and starring Denise Clarke.  2006 put the world premiere of bANGER: the power hour on stage, written and performed by Ruby Slippers Artist-in-Residence, Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.  The following autumn, as part of the new Femmes Fatales Series, a showcase of the work of what Brown calls “the courageous heroines who create and perform in the arts”, Ruby Slippers presented Living Shadows: A Story of Mary Pickford, written and performed by Tracey Power.  The  company’s mainstage production that year, a co-pro with Theatre la Seizieme, was the English world premiere of Playwright-in-Residence James Long’s The View From Above.  

The 2008-09 season marked the twentieth anniversary, and Ruby celebrated in style with the English language world premiere of Boucher’s Life Savers and another Femmes Fatales Series that delivered a weekend of theatrical misbehaviour, because ‘no woman ever made history by behaving’, led by Governor General's Award winning playwright Colleen Murphy.  

This past year, the big topic was diversity in the arts: its absence and how to remedy that. Most glaring was the lack of women in the established regional theatres. 

The annual Making a Scene Conference, under the umbrella of the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance, is an activity that Brown loves to attend. She explained, “It’s like a do-it-yourself conference. An open space concept where anything you’re passionate about, pissed off about or need help with is up for discussion. Nothing is off limits! This past year, the big topic was diversity in the arts: its absence and how to remedy that. Most glaring was the lack of women in the established regional theatres.  When you read Rena Fraticelli’s 1978 statistical report about women in theatre today, it’s alarming to see that the numbers haven’t changed all that much in the intervening years.”  As a result of that last conference, Ruby Slippers is collaborating with the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance, Urban Ink and the Dance Centre to create a special event around diversity in the arts for the 2012 International Women’s Day.  

One-off lip service to a cause is not Brown’s style, as you’ve no doubt noticed by now. She is a volunteer member of the Professional Associations of Canadian Theatres (PACT) advocacy committee and through Ruby Slippers web site, started the Flying Monkey blog, a platform to discuss various arts-related issues and another forum to continue the fight to free arts funding policies from the clutches of party politics.  

One of the blog’s greatest achievements to date is the innovative Five Minute Challenge to highlight the issue of government  cuts in funding to the arts in the weeks leading up to the federal election. Week one asked artists to call the Minister of Finance, Kevin Falcon, to thank him if you or a company you worked with had received a grant, providing the coordinates online to make the task as user-friendly as possible.  Week two was a suggestion from PACT (whose president congratulated Brown’s ingenious initiative): invite your MP or MLA to an arts event. Include them, get them to speak at the event and the blog provided a link to quickly locate any MP or MLA across Canada. Week three urged readers to call Ida Chong, the BC Minister of Community Sport and Cultural Development, to voice a one-sentence goal for her office.  Week four … you get the picture.  Brown and Ruby Slippers are not just talking the talk but are fully committed to walking the walk.

A Beautiful View
More than a decade ago Ruby Slippers was one of the pioneer members of the brilliant marketing strategy, See Seven, a handful of indie theatre companies pooling their resources to market a global pass to see independent theatre.  These days up to thirteen companies participate in the incentive and Brown is once again the volunteer president.  

Brown is also on the advisory committee for Studio 58, the only conservatory-style theatre training program in Western Canada, part of Vancouver’s Langara College.  She is a committee member of Theatre Cares Vancouver, an organization that raises awareness and funds for people living with HIV/AIDS. Camp Moomba a camp for kids facing social difficulties is just one worthy organization that receives support from the organization that in 2010 raised more than thirty-two thousand dollars.

When Brown was finally able to connect with MacIvor to make her pitch, she was ecstatic when he agreed.

A Beautiful View was a landmark production for Brown and Ruby Slippers. The dream was to have the play’s author, Daniel MacIvor, direct her and co-star Colleen Wheeler in the production. When Brown was finally able to connect with MacIvor to make her pitch, she was ecstatic when he agreed. Roy Surette buying the production to wrap up Centaur’s 2010-11 season sweetened the deal. “The play’s got legs,” admitted Brown, who is still in negotiations to take the production to one or two other Canadian cities. To be continued…

Ruby Slippers' Leisure Society
Up next is a co-pro with Vancouver Playhouse for Timothy Taylor’s The Herzog Webster Project. Photographer Fred Herzog produced a substantial body of work depicting Vancouver’s urban life in the 1950’s.  Hard hitting journalist Jack Webster, working for the Vancouver Sun at the time, had a reputation as a champion for the little guy, seeking out and exposing corruption.  “The city was a hard-nosed, adolescent at the time, full of characters, a rough and tumble logging town.  It was quite literally the end of the line, as far west as you could go.  It’s not that long ago yet we seem to have forgotten where we came from.”  Max [Reimer, Artistic Director of Playhouse] and Brown wanted to do something about these two men at this time in Vancouver’s history but what?  Brown felt that Taylor was the perfect writer for the project and August 2011 will give Vancouverites the first free sneak peak of the work in progress.  “We’re calling it an R&D show-and-tell.”  

Wheeler, Brown and MacIvor
Also on the horizon, part of the Ruby Slippers mentorship program, is the world premiere of Drew McCreadie’s Hotel Bethlehem.  This isn’t the first time that Brown and McCreadie have crossed paths.  His play The Cat Who Ate Her Husband was first performed by Ruby Slippers and won two Jessie Richardson Awards for best new script and best play.  Brown commissioned this new play for a Christmas 2011 production, pairing a dozen senior students from various theatre programs in the city with an equal amount of professional actors, to tell the story of what really happened at the inn. “All we’ve accomplished is futile if we don’t get the next generation plugged in.  We have to get them involved or it all disappears.”  

With everything on her plate plus a husband and five-year-old son, the busy Brown has no time to contemplate the ripple effect that Ruby Slippers has had on the local and national theatre landscape.  Always searching for new ways to integrate with the community’s social and artistic movements, exhibiting a steadfast commitment to produce relevant, potent work, it’s no wonder the membership continues to grow.  Courage, commitment and collaboration are the backbone of Ruby Slippers’ success and the smart, discerning audiences that come back year after year always get a solid return on their investment … a rarity in today’s economy.

A Beautiful View continues at Centaur Theatre until May 22.  For info and tickets call (514) 288 – 3161.

Next week in Ford’s Focus, Heather Markgraf.

See CharPo’s review of A Beautiful View written by Amy Barratt here
For the CKUT Upstage interview with Daniel MacIvor on CharPo, click here

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